Hot air balloons are part and parcel of the Albuquerque experience, almost year-round. They commonly dot the city’s dawn sky, as crisp mornings, ideal for safe lift off, are common from spring through late autumn. Hobbyists and professional balloonists alike watch local newscasts and their barometers closely for any fleeting chance at flight on good weather days, and Albuquerque may be the only city on earth where a morning commute without a balloon sighting or two can seem oddly incomplete.
Like clockwork, their numbers begin to crescendo steadily from late summer until, with the start of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October, the sky erupts at once in vivid colour. The annual Albuquerque Balloon Festival, which was started in the early 1970s by a local AM radio station, has grown into the largest hot air balloon gathering in the world. Today, the event draws an international crowd of visitors and participants and has become a definitive icon of both the city and of New Mexico.
It is also thanks to opportune geography that the festival has done so well in Albuquerque. A phenomenon which has come to be known as the ‘Albuquerque Box’ is a predictable middle-altitude wind pattern that runs between the Sandia mountain range to the east of the city and the flat plateau to the west—it generally makes for an ideal closed circuit, wherein balloons can take off, enjoy extended flight, and land safely within the confines of the city.
The festival itself is truly a spectacle to behold, and something that must be experienced first-hand. Balloon Fiesta Park is effectively a large open field (flanked by amenities and food stands) from which participating balloons take off. Each balloon has its own dedicated, quick-moving team which performs the myriad essential tasks needed to get the massive crafts off the ground. It is dazzling to watch the hundreds of square feet of fabric that make up a balloon transform from giant forlorn bed sheet to swollen, soaring propulsion device. Buzz and excitement is tangible all around, with the whoosh whoosh of flames intermittently emanating from the fuel tanks of each balloon, shouts of joy from dangling gondolas after a stubborn launch, and applause every time a balloon leaves the ground. All is best enjoyed over a mug of hot cocoa or a cup of piñon coffee.
Without doubt, the Albuquerque balloon festival’s biggest showstoppers are its Mass Ascensions, in which dozens upon dozens of balloons take off from the festival grounds over the course of a couple of hours on either side of dawn. Get to the park well before sunrise to catch the full extent of the action. By mid-morning, all the balloons are up in the air, and for a few fleeting hours, the city skies are peppered with giant confetti. The experience is rather surreal and otherworldly, and is an opportune occasion for snapshots. In fact, the festival is so photogenic it was actually underwritten by Kodak, and was officially the Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for many years.
Another major attraction is the specially shaped balloons that make an appearance each year. While they’re mostly branding exercises—giant floating logos and anthropomorphised mascots—they’re nonetheless delightful to see, and it’s almost bewildering that many are able to fly at all. Some longstanding stalwarts include the local commercial dairy’s friendly cow logo—whose four massive legs actually hang below the passenger gondola in flight—as well as SpongeBob, Darth Vader, the Old Woman’s Shoe and dozens of others. Catch them during the evening “Glodeo” event to see them spectacularly illuminated.
Since hot air balloons aren’t exactly possessed of fighter jet precision in their navigation, comical and serendipitous landings on residential streets, in backyards, or even on top of houses are to be expected. While these have become less frequent since the city’s government limited the number of participating balloons to around 700, (from a peak of more than 1,000 in the early 2000s), they nonetheless remain a feature of the festival. Balloons have even landed right on busy area freeways, causing minor sensations and making for rather festive traffic jams.
Area hotels are generally booked to capacity several weeks ahead of the festival—it is the peak of the city’s tourist calendar—so be sure to reserve early.
When choosing a hotel for the event, you may want to consider getting a room with a view. Albuquerque is a mostly low-rise, sprawling city with wide-open skies; so airborne balloons are generally visible from every quadrant of the city once in flight. However, there are several properties that can offer particularly good views if you’d rather watch the action from the comfort of a bathrobe.
The Sandia Resort Hotelsits on high ground near the base of the Sandia Mountains above Balloon Fiesta Park, and so most west-facing rooms offer a good vantage. Many of the downtown high rises, particularly the Hyatt Regency and the Hilton DoubleTree, have good sight lines north towards the park; Hotel Parq Central has an excellent roof terrace and bar. The Nativo Lodge is a solid choice near the park with good vistas from its many balcony rooms. Still, it may be the charmingly shabby Plaza Inn at the edge of the city’s university district, with its hilltop location and airy balconies, which might offer the best panorama of Albuquerque.
Sadie’s, Duran’s, Barelas Coffee Shop and El Pinto are generally informal, family-style restaurants and most do not take reservations. Call ahead or try to visit at non-peak dining times to avoid a wait.
Early mornings in the high desert can be very cold. Dress in layers and bring along a pair of light gloves. Rain is relatively uncommon during festival time, but not unheard of. Events are highly contingent upon ideal weather, and so unexpected morning wind gusts can derail the schedule.
Header Image © Paulde Berjeois/www.balloonfiesta.com
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Written by Tag Christof
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About the author: TagTag Christof
Tag Christof is a native New Mexican and graduate of Central Saint Martins in London. He has lived in four countries, but has recently taken up residence out on the American road with a classic car, a bag full of cameras and few hundred rolls of film.