Our morning started about two hours before sunrise. After layering up and grabbing the camera, we ventured out into the chilly dark morning and drove north. By the time we made it to the parking lot, any sleepiness or grumpiness had been completely replaced with sheer excitement. We quietly boarded our (school bus) shuttle with another 40 early risers. Our destination: the International Balloon Fiesta.
This year marks the 42nd annual Balloon Fiesta, with balloonists from 18 countries and 35 US states represented. Why Albuquerque? Turns out this high desert city is perfectly suited for hot air balloons, thanks to its unique early-morning weather patterns in the fall. There are two alternating winds that exist at different altitudes: closer to the ground, the wind blows south; higher up, the winds blow north. This so-called "box" effect gives balloonists the chance to turn back and land near their launch points simply by changing their altitude. The catch: as the temperature rises, the effect lessens...thus, the early morning wakeup.
Upon arriving, we joined a sea of people craning their necks, cameras, and iPads to capture glimpses of twenty or so hot air balloons floating quietly overhead. They were barely visible in the dark morning sky until a voice counted down to coordinate a “flicker” and then “full glow”, which lit up the balloons for a spectacular effect. It was only 2 minutes into our first Balloon Fiesta, but we were already captivated.
After that, we bought some hot coffees and considered breakfast, but the food vendors left something to be desired. There were even some repeat vendors from big chain businesses. Albuquerque, if you're listening, the Fiesta is a great opportunity for food trucks! This city has some fantastic food options, so why not showcase some local small businesses that offer greater variety than breakfast burritos or funnel cakes? I understand that the attention should remain on the balloons, but the event could represent the best and most unique vendors that the city has to offer, and I'd argue that the local Satellite Coffee would be far more memorable than Dunkin Donuts any day.
Leaving the vendor tents behind, we walked out onto the field, guided only by the mass of balloons that were prepping for the big event. We followed a path to a pair of almost-filled balloons that were flashing their gas fires and illuminating their colorful nylon envelopes (that's apparently what they're called).
The crowd was electric with anticipation as lines of balloons began to take shape all around us. With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, we relished in the bursts of heat that accompanied the firelight.
As dawn broke, the loud speakers played the National Anthem while thousands of people sang along, and the first balloon to lift off fittingly displayed the flag. Mass Ascension had begun.
Within minutes, scores of balloons were ascending, displaying their brilliant colors to the wild cheers of their surrounding audience. We threaded our way through balloons in all stages of preparation - rolling out, filling up, standing up, and lifting off.
Over 500 balloons drifted into the sky during Mass Ascension, offering up a huge variety of colors and shapes that slowly flew into the distance.
Even after much of the crowd had dispersed and only a few balloons were launching, Loren and I were laughing and pointing to standout shapes. Smiles were glued to our faces as we squinted into the bright blue sky.
By the end, we'd taken hundreds of photos. I overheard that Balloon Fiesta is the most photographed event in the world, and while that may be debatable, it certainly generated enough data traffic to cripple the cell networks. Here are a few of our favorite balloons:
The overwhelming happiness, wonder, and excitement I felt around the balloons transported me to my childhood. The Balloon Fiesta is amazing in the truest sense of the word.
If You Go:
Use the Park and Ride. It's cheaper, and you don't have to battle traffic getting to the grounds. Choose one of the parking sites further from the highways to avoid the lines.
Layer up. It's cold in the morning, but as soon as the sun rises, temps begin to climb quickly. We wore hats and winter jackets, but gloves would've helped.
Bring sunglasses. The desert sun is bright, and you'll be looking up a lot. Enough said.
Pack something to sit on. The morning events last a good 4 hours, and seats were hard to come by. A good option would be a blanket or some lightweight camping chairs.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual week-long festival that takes place in early October.
Update: Check out a video of our Balloon Fiesta experience!