Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta:
Once a year, for nine days, the skies over Albuquerque are filled with hot air balloons. Not just a dozen or two. Several hundred. It's a show unlike anything you've ever seen before.
In fact, I'd like to use a lot of cheesy descriptive words to describe Balloon Fiesta: amazing, incredible, stunning, awe-inspiring, and unbelievable, among others. It sounds over-the-top, but I'm telling you, this is one of the coolest events I've ever seen. I'll try to keep my enthusiasm in check, but before we go any further, you simply need to know this: it's worth it to schedule your vacation days around the first week of October, then buy your tickets, rent a car, hit the road, and go there.
Let's begin, as they say, at the beginning -- which unfortunately comes...
... in the middle of the night. Since wind conditions are ideal for liftoff at dawn, that's when the hot air balloons take flight. If weather conditions permit, there are several Mass Ascensions during the 9-day Balloon Fiesta -- usually on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
I arrived in Albuquerque late Saturday night, October 1, 2011, which meant I had missed the first day of Balloon Fiesta festivities. It also meant I had just a couple of hours to sleep, before getting up around 4 a.m. The Mass Ascension began at 7 a.m., but I knew I would need plenty of time to drive to Balloon Fiesta Park, find a parking spot, and walk to the field. If you're going, you should leave your hotel or home by 5 a.m., then prepare for some massive traffic jams.
Balloon Fiesta Park is on the north side of town, west of Interstate 25. Take exit 233 and head west on Alameda Boulevard (or follow the traffic -- some roads may be shut down or reversed to allow for the inflow of vehicles). Parking is $10 per car, and admission is $8 per person (as of 2011). Check the Balloon Fiesta website for package deals and other specials.
I made it down to the field before sunrise, around the time when there was just enough light to see what was going on. A few balloons were inflating, including this "special shape" balloon. You'll soon learn that the special shapes are a very big deal.
For the first few minutes, I was thinking, "what's the big deal?" Only a few balloons were inflated..
... with a few more rolled out on the field. When balloons are uninflated, they're pretty small. But an amazing thing happens when they start to fill with air:
Suddenly, the balloons are huge! And they're everywhere! This was, I think, one of the most amazing moments at Balloon Fiesta: to be surrounded by nothing, then moments later, feel like you're drowning in a sea of swirling colors and hot air.
So what do you... well... do? The answer is amazingly simple. You just walk around. You can go almost anywhere you want, on a grassy expanse that's the size of 54 football fields. You can walk right up to ballooners and talk to them, hop over ropes, feel the blast of heat from a burner, or stand directly underneath a balloon that lifted off moments earlier.
If you're in the wrong place, a zebra will tell you to move. These are the guys and gals who coordinate the liftoff of some 600 balloons, all at once. They get a lot of exercise.
Of course, I thought the best thing to do was take pictures. I've arranged some of my best shots in a photo gallery from Balloon Fiesta.
Taking pictures here is an overwhelming task. Sure, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. But everything was so jumbled up, and happening so quickly, that I was running from one place to another non-stop for a couple of hours.
Notice the bride and groom, taking off as they took the plunge. You don't have to have an excuse like a wedding to go for a flight during Balloon Fiesta, but you will need $395 (the price, per person, of a ride during the 2011 Balloon Fiesta).
Rainbow Ryders is the only balloon ride concessionaire authorized to lift off from Balloon Fiesta Park during the event. I, however, was incredibly blessed with the opportunity to ride for free, as a member of the media, on the following day. I'll tell you about that experience on this page.
Remember how quickly those balloons popped up and surrounded me? Just as quickly, they started taking off. Before I knew it, the sky was full of balloons...
... with some flying directly overhead. How cool.
And then the sun came up over the Sandia Mountains. How cool.
The balloons that get the most attention during Balloon Fiesta are the special shapes. There's Darth Vader...
... the Creamland Dairy cow...
... and Pepé Le Pew (drifting above 1/3 of the See No, Speak No, Hear No Evil balloon).
But the most popular special shapes of all are the twin bees. Huge crowds swarm around the bee balloons as they fill with air...
... and slowly stand up.
Then, slowly and gracefully, the bees take flight...
... floating and spinning around, as if they're dancing with each other. The crowd cheers and applauds. How cool.
I can't possibly share all the photos on this page, so be sure to check out the photo gallery from Balloon Fiesta.
Among the other special shapes that are a big hit: the shark and the scarecrow...
... the butterfly...
... and new in 2011, Spider Pig! This one confused anyone who didn't see the Simpsons Movie. Admittedly, it's a more literal interpretation of the one Homer sang that annoying song about. Yeah, that song. It's stuck in your head now, isn't it. You're welcome.
After hours of running around and taking pictures (603 photos in 2 hours), it was time for breakfast, and in New Mexico, that means green chile (yes, even at 8 in the morning). I had the Hatch Chile Relleno Burrito, and it was amazing. There are many other choices for food and souvenirs, in the dozens of tents that line the eastern edge of the launch field.
Mass Ascension is just one spectacular part of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. You'll also want to attend a Glowdeo: at dusk, balloons are filled and fired up, but they stay on the ground, purely for the viewing pleasure of the public. I'll cover Glowdeo on the next page.
Balloon Fiesta is about more than just launching balloons that look pretty in the air. Many of those pilots participate in contests throughout the week. When I returned on the next day (Monday)...
... some of those contests were underway. Look closely, and you can see the people on this balloon trying to slip a ring around a tall pole.
Another contest required balloonists to fly low, and try to toss a bean-bag into a speed boat (on the right). Get the most bean bags in the boat, and you win the boat!
And if your balloon touches the ground, you're disqualified.
So, if balloons just float wherever the wind takes them, how are they able to make repeated passes over the same field, in order to drop rings or beanbags? It's due to a unique feature called the "Albuquerque Box". At Balloon Fiesta Park, ground-level winds blow one direction, but higher up, they blow in the opposite direction. Balloon pilots can fire up the burner and ascend into the high-level winds, travel north, then descend into the low-level winds, and be pushed south.
The first Balloon Fiesta was held in 1972, with just 13 balloons that launched from a shopping mall parking lot. In 2011, 563 balloons participated, with an attendance estimated at 737,466 people.
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