It’s a bucket list event for sure. Imagine flying amidst more than 600 colorful hot air balloons over the beautiful Rio Grande Valley of Albuquerque. For nine days each October the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta creates an enchanted world of special shape balloon rodeos, twilight balloon glows, and vibrant balloon-filled morning skies. It’s an exciting event and I had the experience of riding one of the balloons during the opening day mass ascension.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—Skilled Pilots and Crew
Part of joining a balloon crew and pilot early in the morning during preparations for taking off is the work of unloading, unfurling the balloon and inflating it. But even before that, the real expertise kicks in while the crew goes over and over the weather reports, checks wind patterns and decides where exactly to take off to ensure the balloon flight is both safe and takes advantage of The Albuquerque Box, a predictable wind pattern that helps navigate the balloons.
Riding in the balloon’s chase vehicle in hot pursuit of the best place to take off, we headed down country roads, through neighborhoods and into a restaurant parking lot. We finally settled on a dusty open area where other balloonists were setting up.
We piled out of the van, helped unroll the heavy balloon and watched as the experienced handlers turned on the burners to fill the balloon with heated air. One by one, the balloons in the area filled and the passengers jumped in the baskets.
The Albuquerque Balloon Flight
Our turn came and, as crew held the tether to keep the balloon on the ground, we clambered into the basket, the pilot in the middle, gloved handle on the burner.
I have to admit I was a little nervous and held onto the side of the balloon basket tightly. I was hardly aware that we had taken off when I looked down and saw we were moving away from the ground.
As we rose, the whoosh of the burner was all we heard and then, we were high enough that we drifted quietly.
It was the lack of sound as we drifted along that was calming. I relaxed a bit and picked up my camera to begin shooting the beautiful balloons surrounding us. There were so many… close-by and in the distance.
All the while the pilot kept in radio contact with the chase vehicle, because it was the van that would come find us once we landed. And, we weren’t sure where the winds would be taking us. The pilot can control going up and down but going sideways was up to the winds.
We had some good flying and The Albuquerque Box winds took us to the other side of the valley. It was time to land and so the pilot started looking for an open place, away from power lines.
As the hot air balloon lowered toward the ground, I tensed up again and gripped the basket. We were low enough I could hear dogs barking in the backyards of the suburban neighborhood we were passing over. If we got too low and couldn’t find a place to land or access for the van, the pilot pulled the handle and flames shot up in the air into the balloon to lift us. After several maneuvers like this, the pilot found a field. Other balloonists were also jockeying for landing positions.
I winced as we headed down toward the hard desert earth, but the pilot kept the balloon just high enough so that the crew on the ground could grab the tethers and bring us down slowly. The basket dragged a little, and then we settled and stopped. They helped me out. I think I was a little weak in the knees after my first balloon ride over Albuquerque.
A young girl and her mother came up to us and asked the pilot for a balloon card. It’s a popular hobby for Albuquerque kids during the balloon fiesta and all pilots carry them. Our crew and balloon were from the Sonoma Valley of California. Some were from other countries. I could see that card collecting would be fun.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Events
Not everyone goes aloft during the balloon festival but everyone has a great time and goes home with fantastic photographs. I was invited to fly as a member of the press. Others volunteer to help out as part of the chase crew and sometimes that involves being invited to fly. Rainbow Ryders offered flights from Balloon Fiesta Park during the fiesta. So there are multiple ways to experience a hot air balloon flight.
But, equally thrilling, is to attend the events at Balloon Fiesta Park, see the balloons up close and personal during the tethered events like the Special Shape Glowdeo™ where the fun and fanciful balloon shapes are right on the ground and the burners keep them filled and full of light.
Much of the balloon activity takes place in the early morning and in the evening, but there’s plenty going on at Balloon Fiesta Park during the day, too. The area takes on a carnival feel, with food vendors and events such as the AIBF Chainsaw Carving Invitational. Evenings offer thrilling laser light shows and an AfterGlow™ Fireworks Show.
Serious balloonists will be following the ballooning competitions and the gas balloon races and competitions. The America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race features gas balloonists from all over the world competing to see who can fly the farthest.
Tips for Attending the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Plan Ahead. First of all, it’s important to know that this is a major international event and planning ahead is the way to go. Hotels fill up, ticketed events sell out and it gets crowded. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta website has all you need to know to start your planning. The Albuquerque Visitors website is a must-read as well. Things start filling up a year or more in advance.
Traffic. Getting around Albuquerque near Balloon Fiesta Park can be tricky during the events. If you are attending the fiesta, check out the Park and Ride program. There are several Fiesta Express remote locations to choose from.
Try Something Different. Want to avoid the crowds for a morning? There are many things to do in Albuquerque during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Consider doing something different one morning, such as joining “Float The Fiesta” with Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures.
AAA New Mexico provides this enticing word picture:
“A heavy mist envelops the Rio Grande, just as the sun reveals its first rays of the day. Beavers busily swim by, while birds soar gracefully overhead. As you paddle your canoe or kayak through the water, you look up to spot a colorful balloon floating silently through the sky, looking as though it belongs there just as naturally as the clouds. Then you see another, and another, until they’re dotting the landscape like whimsically colored apples sprouting across an orchard . . .”
The trips start early with participants arriving at 5:30 a.m.
Or book an all-inclusive Balloon Fiesta bike tour from the lovely Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm.
When You Go to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
No matter where you are in the Albuquerque area during Balloon Fiesta time, you’ll probably encounter the beauty of hot air balloons floating through the skies, especially in the early morning.
Any time of year, it’s fun to visit the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum right at Balloon Fiesta Park. The museum is dedicated to the worldwide history, science, and art of all types of ballooning and lighter-than-air flight. There are hands on exhibits for kids.
In 2018 the festival dates are: October 6 – 14.
Future dates are:
October 5-13, 2019
October 3-11, 2020
October 2-10, 2021
October 1-9, 2022
Albuquerque is beautiful in the fall. A visit to the thrilling Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta will be an experience you’ll never forget. Be sure to check Wander for more on what to do when you visit New Mexico.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with entry to the event, flight and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.