Everything you need to know to enjoy the annual fall festival that sets spirits soaring.
It was pitch dark at four o’clock in the morning as we drove toward northern Albuquerque, sleepy eyed, with the assumption that the sublime Sandia mountains were looming restfully to our right. The closer we inched along interstate 25, the more it began to dawn on me that a dream of mine would be fulfilled by daybreak: Although I have been fortunate enough to have hang-glided in Brazil, snorkeled in Palau, camped in the Australian Outback, zip-lined around Central America, and hiked on glaciers in Iceland, I had never ridden a hot air balloon (no less in the sacred New Mexican skies).
Get There Early
Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta Park opens at 4:30am for the ambitious, and I highly recommend commuting by a carshare service like Lyft instead of navigating a parking situation across 360 acres and 800,000 people on a few hours of sleep. By six o’clock, the Dawn Patrol, a set of balloon pilots in charge of assessing the morning wind’s direction and speed, ascend gracefully as they brightly dot the black sky like the first few lightning bugs of summer. When the green flag is raised, deeming it safe to fly, the hundreds of balloon crews and dedicated spectators cheer rapturously and jump to get ready for another majestic sunrise flight.
An International Crowd
The annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta summons pilots from all over the world around late September and early October. Fourteen countries were represented in 2018, even Catalonia made it, and 567 balloons freckled the sky over the nine-day event. Some ballooning enthusiasts claim this is the largest hot air balloon festival on Earth, and I can attest it also feels like the most photographed.
What It’s Like to Take to the Sky
I was most amused by the hundred or so “special shape” balloons ranging from Yoda to Smokey the Bear to a self-portrait of Van Gogh. I had my eye on “Off The Wall,” which looked like an upside-down Humpty Dumpty and, as luck would have it, was the balloon I was appointed to for my bucket list ride. The only way this assignment could get better was if a dog could ride with us, and spoiler alert, he did. While pets are technically not allowed on the 80 acres of ballooning grounds, Bandit, pilot Jeff’s therapy dog, hopped in and enjoyed his view out the custom square cut into the wicker basket, perfect for his nose and eyes. Jeff and his crew were focused, preparing us for a safe and sensational ride, but my eyes darted around, taking in the colors of our neighboring balloons as my skin felt the new heat of the fire propelling our balloon’s ascent. Our altitude changed as our pilot adjusted the temperature inside the balloon, and I almost forgot I was on assignment as we lifted off, my eyes growing wider as we climbed higher. The Sandia Mountains were awake at their stunning best, as was the sun, and in between the loud gusts of the propane tank I found peace through this thrilling change in perspective.
Book a Balloon Ride
Rainbow Ryders is the company to book a balloon ride, a float of a lifetime amongst hundreds of radiant balloons for around 45-60 minutes of bliss. Spots start at $395 for group rides during the popular festival, and on a clear day you will soar through Albuquerque Valley seeing the Petroglyph Volcanoes and Rio Grande River from thousands of feet up. Witnessing mass ballooning from the ground, though, among inflatables up to seven stories high, is arguably just as fascinating as seeing such an event from a bird’s-eye view, and that opportunity only costs $10 per session.
The 48th annual 2019 tickets are on sale now for October 5-13. See you there!