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New Mexico: The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Valerie Schneider

Adventures in Color

The vast, blue New Mexico sky is transformed into a kaleidoscope of color the first full week of every October as the International Balloon Fiesta takes to the sky. If you have never seen a hot air balloon in flight, you'll be astounded at the explosion of more than 700 balloons ascending towards the heavens. This annual event is the world's largest balloon rally, held here in the ballooning capital of the world, attracting balloon pilots from all over the globe.

The city will be jam-packed with visitors, but if you are able to visit during this time it is a spectacular sight to behold. You can come out to the Balloon Fiesta park and walk among the inflating balloons, watching the full process of getting one of these "gentle giants" laid out, inflated, and finally airborne.

Mass Ascension, photo by Valerie

The airflow in the Rio Grande Valley, coupled with cool, clear mornings give Albuquerque nearly ideal flying conditions. A phenomenon known as the "Albuquerque Box" means pilots can ascend, float southward, ascend further to catch a northerly airflow and float northward, and then land nearly at the spot from which they ascended.

Throughout the week, pilots compete in flying events for prizes, such as a key grab, where they try to navigate to a pole on which a car key is placed - winner keeps the car. They also enjoy a game called "splash and dash", in which they descend to the Rio Grande, dip the gondola in the water and burn the propane madly to ascend again, water splashing off the bottom of the basket.

But, the most popular spectator events are the weekend morning mass ascensions, completed in waves with hundreds of balloons lifting off over the course of 2 hours; and the evening Balloon Glows, where hundreds of pilots light up the balloon envelopes with the burners, making them glow like giant luminarias.

Balloon Glow, photo by Valerie

The mother of all events, drawing massive traffic snarls and crowds, and the delight of everyone, is the Special Shapes Rodeo, in which the myriad of giant specially-shaped balloons, from Noah's Ark and a giant flying Harley-Davidson to a La-Z-Boy recliner and a huge red chile ristra, and so many more, float upward like a newly-opened giant toy box that has dispensed it's goods into space.

Enjoying the Fiesta

The following tips will help you to enjoy your visit to the Fiesta.

  • Cardinal Rule Number One: NEVER smoke on the field. Propane tanks and lighting up definitely do not mix!
  • Watch your feet. Balloonists are thrilled to have you watching, or even helping, as they inflate their balloons, but your shoes on the delicate fabric of the envelope can easily cause damage.
  • Arrive early. Veeery early. This is an early morning sport. The Dawn Patrol goes up at 6:30 a.m. By this time, you'll see the twinkling lights of traffic lined up on the freeways and all other entry roads. It is not unreasonable to leave your hotel at 5:30 a.m. Arrive very early for the Balloon Glow and Special Shapes Rodeos as well. Leaving for the field two hours before the scheduled event is recommended.
  • It is often easier arriving from the West Side of Albuquerque, along Alameda Boulevard. There is generally less traffic and it tends to flow a bit faster from this direction.
  • Take the bus. If you don't want to deal with traffic, the city bus system, SunTran, offers park-and-ride services from several locations. On the East Side, it's at Coronado Mall, Hoffmantown Church and Winrock Center Mall. On the West Side, it's at Cottonwood Mall. The fee includes your entrance into the park. Services are offered for all the major ballooning events.
  • Caffeinate! There are numerous sources of caffeine for the bleary-eyed arriving at such horrendous hours in the morning, from the food vendor booths lining the east side of the field to the traveling coffee vendors with the treasured beverage in massive thermal backpacks dispensing it on the spot into your desperately out-stretched cup.
  • Dress in layers. The mornings are crisp, sometimes even cold, but once the sun comes up, the dry air begins to heat quickly and you'll be glad to be able to peel off a jacket or a sweatshirt.
  • Don't forget your sunglasses. When you're heading to the field at 5:30 a.m. it's easy to leave them behind, but once the sun rises, you'll be missing them if they're in your hotel room. Sunscreen is also a good idea.
  • Listen to the zebras. The balloon officials, decked out like zebras in black and white, are all over the field directing the balloonists and keeping the different sections inflating and ascending in proper timing. If they yell at you to move, move! They ensure the ascension goes smoothly and safely.
  • Jump into the action. Many balloonists need extra hands during the inflation process. If you want to help, speak up! They'll put you to work holding the envelope or weighting the gondola before lift off. (If you plan on helping, bring a pair of gloves!)
  • Work for a ride. If you find a balloonist who is need of crew, you can usually gain yourself a free ride by becoming a chase crew member for a few days.
  • If you aren't inclined to work, buy yourself a ride. It is of course more expensive to lift off from the Fiesta field, but the experience will be worth the price. It is like nothing else on earth to ascend cocooned within the kaleidoscope of hundreds of balloons.
  • Bring lots of film. This is said to be the world's most photographed annual event, and you'll quickly discover why!
  • Follow your morning up as many of the balloonists do, with a breakfast burrito. Whether you obtain yours on the balloon field or at one of the local haunts, you just can't beat this wrapped-up New Mexican breakfast tradition. The many concession stands are open long after the balloons have landed, and there is entertainment lined up throughout the day. Stick around the field, and you may be able to join into one of the many balloonists' tail-gate parties.
  • If you prefer to avoid the crowd on the field, or just want to see a different view of the mass of balloons framed against the Sandia Mountains, drive out to Albuquerque's West Mesa and find a spot to park and watch the balloons ascend in all their glory. A few good choices include the intersections of Coors and Montano or Coors and La Orilla; the parking area at Cottonwood Mall; and the escarpment above the Petroglyph National Monument.
  • Return to your hotel for a nap. After the early morning rising, you'll need it to face the rest of the day! Events will be held throughout the city, from arts and crafts fairs to artist signings in Old Town, museum events, and just general sightseeing.

Hotels

It's never too early to start planning your excursion into the bountiful colors of balloons. The hotels closest to the Balloon Fiesta Park fill up early, some balloon pilots making reservations for the following year as they depart the current Fiesta. There are no hotels directly next to or in the immediate vicinity of the Balloon Park, but there are a couple down Alameda Boulevard. The list below is in order, closest hotels listed first.

Hotels Closest to Balloon Fiesta Park

Holiday Inn Express on Alameda
Ramada Limited North
Comfort Inn and Suites North
Motel 6 North
Courtyard by Marriott Journal Center
Marriott Pyramid
Hampton Inn North
Amberly Suites Hotel
Wyndham Garden Inn
Drury Inn and Suites North

There are many hotels throughout the city. These are just the ones that are in the closer vicinity to the Balloon Park.

Hotels - To Arrive From the West Side

If you are in town for Fiesta and want to arrive early, coming straight down Alameda Boulevard and avoiding the long lines of backed-up traffic on the interstate, you may want to look into these hotels and inns. You won't be in the center of the city's activity here, though there are restaurants, a large mall and some other shops around the west side and Corrales areas.

There are many B&B's in Corrales and the North Valley if your prefer a small and charming inn (see resources below).

Wellesley Suites, Rio Rancho
Hilton Garden Inn, Rio Rancho
Super 8 Motel, Rio Rancho

Restaurants

See my Albuquerque Restaurant List, Dining in the Duke City.

Resources

B&B's - Corrales and Albuquerque area

www.bbonline.com/nm/corrales.html
www.abqbandb.com/inns.htm

Hotels

www.albuquerque.com/hotels/: Albuquerque hotels
www.tripadvisor.com: Comments at Trip Advisor for Albuquerque hotels
www.abqcvb.org: Albuquerque Convention and Visitor's Bureau
www.newmexico.org: New Mexico information
www.aibf.org: Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta


Valerie Schneider (Valerie) is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read about her Italian adventures in her monthly Slow Travel column, Living Slow in Italy, and on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2005

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