I had lived in Albuquerque for just a year before I experienced the wonder that is the International Balloon Fiesta. And now that I have seen it, this event adds a whole new level of charm to Albuquerque that I was completely unaware of before. In anticipation of the fiesta starting this Saturday, here is a giant guide on how to do it right, based on my first experience.
What is it?
Held at Balloon Fiesta Park (go figure), this massive gathering of hot air balloons has been happening since 1972. It started with 13 balloons in a mall parking lot and over the last 47 fiestas, has morphed into the largest balloon festival in the world, with nearly 1 million attendees and about 600 balloons.
Balloon fiesta kicks off on the first Friday morning of the nine day experience with Albuquerque Aloft. At elementary schools throughout the city, students are able to gather to watch a balloonist inflate and launch their balloon, weather permitting. This tradition began 14 years ago and marks the first flying event of the fiesta. As an elementary teacher, I was ecstatic to be a part of this event.
But now let’s get to the actual fiesta. There are three main events you want to make sure not to miss: dawn patrol, mass ascension, and the balloon glowdeo.
Held each morning of the fiesta, this is a line of about 10 balloons that inflate early in order to test the weather conditions. If conditions permit, the first balloon ascends, along with the cheers of the crowd and the playing of the National Anthem.
Assuming the pilots have the green light to go ahead, this is where the magic happens. Over the course of the next two hours, enjoy watching hundreds of massive balloons inflate and launch in a spectacle unlike anything you have ever seen. Patrolled by “zebras,” or officials decked out in black and white ref uniforms (along with some of their own extra flair), the balloons are systematically cleared for take off while the spectators mill about in wonder. One of my favorite things about the fiesta is how close you can be to the action. We stood close enough to several baskets that you can feel the warmth of the fire as it fills the balloon, and witness the teamwork of the whole balloon crew as they work together to achieve liftoff.
During the mass ascension, it seems like balloons are inflating as far as the eye can see. The massive field (measuring 80 acres, or 54 football fields put together) is full of these shapes breathing into life. Sometimes your vision is completely obscured by an entire line of balloons inflating at the same time, and you get caught up in how large each balloon is on its own. But then you turn around to see that the whole expanse of the field behind you is covered with even more balloons, and you realize you have no perception of scale anymore. The sky starts to fill with hundreds of orbs, the sun begins to peek over the mountains, and suddenly you can’t figure out what your favorite balloon is, and for the next two hours you must frantically alternate between snapping pictures that just keep getting better as the sunrise lights up the clouds, and stopping to take it all in. You are not alone in your compulsive desire to snap pictures; the balloon fiesta is the most photographed event in the world, and once you are there, you can see why.
(Side note: Once all the balloons have taken off, or you are just too freezing and need to warm up, I recommend concluding your morning with a delicious green chile breakfast burrito from Blake’s. Be prepared for a line, but you won’t regret it. You can also call ahead to order.)
If the mass ascension in the morning gave you balloon fever, you can get a second fix at the evening events. At night, the pilots do not take off, so there is no mass ascension, but the festivities are just as worth it. The balloons inflate, but stay tethered, so they form a giant, colorful, nylon ceiling, swaying gently against their ropes and occasionally bumping into each other. Once they are all inflated, the pilots do a coordinated burn, so all the balloons are illuminated at once. The roar of the burners fills your ears, you can feel the fire, and the whole field looks like a sea of radiant globes and shapes. The nightly glow is followed by a laser and fireworks show on the first weekend, and then Thursday -Saturday the second weekend.
While the mass ascension does not take place every day, there are various events throughout the week to keep you entertained. There are at least two days set aside for the Special Shapes Glowdeo, where balloonists inflate unique balloons from a gigantic cow, Vincent Van Gogh (whom everyone initially thought was Walter White), or a Hunter rain boot, to the famous trio of bees, Yoda and Darth Vader. Do not miss this event! It was one of my favorites.
During the day, you can also check out various booths that have hands on activities for kids about the science and history of ballooning, enjoy some chainsaw carving, or shop for your latest balloon fiesta pin or ornament. Some of the days have competition flying as well and on the last Saturday, there is usually a closing concert before the final Glowdeo.
Tips and Tricks
This official and comprehensive guide covers pretty much everything you need to know.
Be prepared for a long line to get into the park. Go early!
Consider the park and ride, but be aware that you could wait a long time for a shuttle back to your lot.
Parking costs can be a hefty. Fees were $15 just to park.
Admission to the fiesta for adults is $10 and is not included in the price of parking.
Check the itinerary; not all events happen every day.
If you have any friends who are law enforcement, go with them. They have a whole separate entrance around the back, with special passes that get you in free. Don’t try to cheat though; they check badges at the gate. Plus, that is low. You are better than that.
Dress warmly. You are going to be standing outside on the grass for about three hours if you attend the dawn glow and stay for the mass ascension, assuming the weather cooperates. Temperatures dip when the sun goes down, and it is chilly before the sun comes up. I recommend gloves, a hat, a warm jacket, and warm shoes/boots.
They have plenty of vendors selling breakfast or hot coffee; I recommend just bringing your own thermos. You can also bring in chairs and blankets to wait for the show, which might be ideal if you have young children. I personally think it gets too cold to stay still too long.
Check the weather first. Balloons can’t launch if there is too much wind, so it is all about waiting for that green flag that says conditions are clear. If it is raining or too windy, the mass ascension will be a no-go, and you might just want to stay home, or find a spot to watch in your car. (I had a perfectly lovely experience just watching from the roof of my house one morning). Local news is all over it, so tune in to get the latest.
The market area
It is fun to spend at least one morning wandering the strip of pop-up shops, where you can buy your Balloon Fiesta Signature Pin, (quite the collector’s item apparently). Check out the archive here or the story of one dedicated local man here.
If you want even more history or information on the science of it all, you can attend the Albuquerque Ballooning Museum. Admission is $6 for adults, and $3 for kids. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9-5pm, it offers a variety of exhibits, a “sky lounge” where you can enjoy a sack lunch, and a 4D theater. The first Friday of every month is free as well, a nice tip for locals who might just want to get out of the house. You can also check out this website, which helps explain each component of the balloon and how it works.
Last but not least, check out the official website for the most up to date information on admission, events, and logistics.
So there you go folks, my comprehensive guide on how to do Balloon Fiesta in good ol’ Albuquerque. It is an experience unlike anything I have ever seen, and I highly recommend it!