Balloon Fiesta Guide

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Albuquerque’s annual celebration of hot air is really cool. Every October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta fills the sky with hundreds of hot-air balloons, all rising above the desert at once. There really is no good way to describe it — it must be seen to be fully appreciated.

Balloon Fiesta is an amazing display of hot-air balloons. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And you don’t just get to watch them take off, you get to walk amongst the balloons as they are inflated. You may even be asked by a balloon crew to grab a rope and help out!

Balloon Fiesta takes place each year during the first full week of October. It consists of two weekends — which is when the major events are held. During the week, there are some smaller events, including some contests, where balloonists compete for cash and prizes.

Mass Ascensions

The coolest event at Balloon Fiesta has to be the Mass Ascension.  It’s normally held on Saturday and Sunday mornings during Balloon Fiesta.

You’ll need to get up early.  Balloons start inflating and launching before sunrise.  I’d suggest leaving your hotel 3 hours before sunrise.  It will take you at least an hour — probably 90 minutes — to drive to the park, fight the traffic, get a parking space, and walk into the park.  Then, spend an hour shopping at the vendor booths and eating green chile breakfast burritos.

Mass Ascension starts slow, but then happens very quickly.  One moment, you’ll be looking around, wondering what the big deal is, and then the balloons start to inflate.  In an instant, you’re surrounded by dozens — maybe hundreds — of towering hot-air balloons.  The burners fire, bringing warmth to a chilly morning.  The balloons are launched one-by-one, in rapid succession, and the air is filled.

 

The Mass Ascension goes on for an hour or two. All the while, you’re free to run around and see the balloons up-close, talk to the crews (many of which give away trading cards and pins), and take pictures.  The most popular balloons are the Special Shapes — and yes…

… you may even find yourself under an udder.  Every year, Balloon Fiesta features new special shapes — everything from a dairy cow to Darth Vader, an Angry Bird to a smiling bumblebee.

Landings

You know what they say — what goes up must come down.  And that’s how it is with hot-air balloons.  Hundreds of them take off, drift for a while, and then it’s time for the trickiest part of the flight — the landing.  Sometimes, balloons come down in neighborhoods…

… and sometimes they land in the middle of traffic.  It all depends on the wind.  Balloons can’t be steered, although the pilot can sometimes control the direction by changing altitude.

In 2014, a traffic snarl kept me from getting into Balloon Fiesta Park.  I was bummed out, until I decided to find the spot where the balloons were landing.

I ended up on New Mexico Highway 313, between Albuquerque and Bernalillo.   Dozens of balloons were landing along the road and in the nearby field.  The Rio Grande is also nearby, and some balloons were splashing down in the water.

After touching down, balloon pilots fired their burners, and walked their balloons over to the highway, where their chase teams could pick them up.

The whole area quickly became congested with balloons, chase teams, and plenty of spectators.  Eventually the local police rolled through and ordered everyone back to their cars.  Some side-roads were closed to anyone who wasn’t on a chase team.  Be respectful of the police, and when they tell you to go, you go.

Also, remember to make a mental note of where you parked your car.  I had to wander around for a while, looking for mine.  Luckily, just as a police officer was yelling at me, I found it.

Evening Glows – Glowdeos

Nothing complements the glow of a New Mexico sunset as well as the glow of a hot-air balloon.  On several days during Balloon Fiesta (usually on weekends, and Thursday and Friday night), balloonists are invited to unpack their balloons, inflate them, and fire them up — but not fly.  The balloons stay tethered to the ground, and even though nobody takes off, it’s still a very cool experience.

Once again, everyone is allowed to wander onto the launch field, and gather around their favorite balloons.  Special Shapes, like the Little Bee and the Butterfly, always draw a lot of attention.  And, when the burners fire, the balloons glow brightly in the night!

The real magic begins when the pilots coordinate, and fire their burners at the same time, glowing all of the balloons at once!

The evening glow, sometimes called a Glowdeo, is usually followed by a fireworks show.  Every time I’ve been there, I decide to skip the fireworks, but I always end up stuck in the parking lot, and I see it anyway.  It’s a nice show.

Contests

There aren’t as many events scheduled during the week — especially on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  However, you will find balloon teams competing during the weekdays.  Balloonists use the phenomenon called the “Albuquerque Box” to make repeated passes over Balloon Fiesta Park.  The “box” is a unique phenomenon where winds move in one direction at one altitude, and the opposite direction at a different altitude.  Pilots can fly higher or lower, and change their direction.  With great care and skill, they can make repeated passes over a target on the field, and attempt to drop a marker and hit the bull’s-eye.

Going for a Flight

In 2011, I was blessed to be able to enjoy this view of Albuquerque, aboard a hot-air balloon.  It was a remarkable experience, and not at all as scary as I expected it to be.  I was also expecting to experience motion sickness, but that didn’t happen either.

Pilot Daniel Turcotte and the Montgolfieres team gave me an unforgettable ride.  We lifted off from Balloon Fiesta Park and floated south, towards downtown Albuquerque.  This photo looks north, and you can see other balloons lifting off from the park.

Once in the air, I asked Turcotte, “What’s our goal?” — expecting to hear that we’d travel a certain distance, or reach a certain altitude.  His answer surprised me: “To land.”

That really is the most important thing about a balloon ride.  As soon as we were airborne, Turcotte began searching for appropriate landing spots, away from highways and power lines, and hopefully not on someone’s roof.

We found a small dirt lot, next to a subdivision.  It was only a couple of miles away from where we had started, as the crow and the balloon flies.  Our landing (not pictured above) was relatively gentle and safe.  Other balloonists aimed for the same area.  Before long, balloons were landing all around us.

Taking a balloon flight at Balloon Fiesta can be expensive.  Expect to pay $300 or more, per person, during Fiesta.  You can fly at other times during the year for about half that price.  Balloons are always flying above Albuquerque — you can see them almost every morning (just not as many as during Balloon Fiesta!).

Weather

Weather can drastically affect your Balloon Fiesta experience.  First, be prepared for very cold weather, especially when attending a Mass Ascension.  It is October, and this is the desert.  Pre-dawn temperatures can get quite chilly.  Wear several layers, and shed them as the sun comes up.

There’s a good chance that wind or rain will cause at least one event to be canceled every year.   This is why you should plan to attend at least two glows and two Mass Ascensions.  If it rains, you’ll have nowhere to hide on the launch field.  If it’s windy, the balloons cannot safely launch.

Keep an eye on the flagpole at the center of the field, near the vendors.  Green means the event is a GO, yellow means the pilots are meeting to discuss the forecast and their options, and red means you should pack it up and go home.

In 2014, I attended two evening glows.  One of them was canceled by an approaching storm (which soaked everyone on the field), the other wasn’t canceled, but pilots were told to use their discretion, and most did not inflate.

I also attended two Mass Ascensions.  On the first day, I got caught in a traffic mess and never made it into the park.  The second day, I arrived earlier, but windy conditions caused lengthy delays, and in the end, no one launched, and only a few inflated.

If weather causes an event to be canceled, you can save your ticket and use it at a later event.  You will not receive a refund for parking.

Food

It may seem off-topic, but your Balloon Fiesta meals are just as important as any other part of your New Mexico visit.  New Mexico cuisine is similar, but not identical to, Mexican food.  Most dishes involve red or green chiles (or both, if you order your dinner “Christmas style”).  The chiles grown in New Mexico have a specific taste — they’re spicy and hot, but not overpowering, and they have a rich, deep flavor that’s very satisfying.

You’ll probably have a great dinner at any restaurant in Albuquerque.  I’d suggest Sadie’s, for an authentic experience.  Sadie’s has been serving up New Mexican food since the 1950’s, and their salsa is available in local grocery stores.  Above, you can see my meal of choice.  Somewhere under all that chile and beans are a couple of chicken enchiladas.  You’ll never be able to finish the whole plate.

Also serving good food: Garduno’s, a restaurant made famous by an appearance on Breaking Bad — you remember that tense meeting between Walt, Skyler, Hank, and Marie, right?  You’ll find details on that location, and at least a dozen other Breaking Bad filming locations, in my Breaking Bad Tour.

Smile, you’re ready for Balloon Fiesta!

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