I've just returned from spending the weekend at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which runs through October 14. Now in its 36th year and touted as the "world's most photographed event," the fiesta is expected to draw some 100,000 people per day this year.
My cab driver was not exaggerating when he warned us that traffic would be heinous. Even though our hotel was only 10 miles from the launch site, it took us nearly two hours to reach the balloon field. As we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Saturday, we could see the first balloons lift off at 6:45 a.m., glowing and flickering like Christmas lights.
By the time we actually made it onto the field just before 7:30 a.m., the sky was already dotted with dozens of hot air balloons.
Each time a balloon inflated, the crowd cheered as if it were the first of the day. Darth Vader—one of this year's new balloons—drew some of the biggest applause, although my favorite was the pink elephant. (The flying pig was a close second.)
Due to the high winds on Saturday, only about 350 of the 700 balloons ended up flying during the mass ascension.
[On Monday, after I had left for home, one of the balloons in flight tipped after snagging a utility line, sending a woman plummeting to her death, according to this AP story. An investigation to the crash has begun. As the article points out, accidents are rare. The last fatality at the Fiesta was in 1998. Before that was in 1993. In all three cases, power lines and unexpected wind played roles.]
As it turns out, my friends and I chose not to ride in a balloon this time around. Instead, we hopped on the Sandia Peak Tramway ($17.50 a ticket), which offers panoramic views of the city from the comfort of a glass-enclosed gondola.
For a schedule of Balloon Festival events and a list of Park & Ride locations, visit balloonfiesta.com ($6 adults, $10 parking).
If you want to try a balloon ride at another time of year, know that non-Fiesta rates start at about $170 per person with the balloon operator Rainbow Ryders.