Every year in early October, thousands of people and RVs congregate in central New Mexico for a chance to see the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. I’ve wanted to attend the event since I learned about it from a friend during college, but the timing never worked out. Fifty years after the event launched (pun intended), my wish came true, thanks to a perfect storm.
Attending the fiesta can be costly and requires advance reservations to park your RV within walking distance of the launch field. Having planned to be in Arizona during the event, we hadn’t done that. But fellow full-time RVer family members Tom and Molly had. They met us prior to the fiesta to camp at a casino 20 minutes north of Albuquerque and offered for us to join them at the balloon event.
Bob had flexibility as to when he needed to be in Arizona to help with annual aircraft maintenance at the Commemorative Air Force, so that meant we only had to move some doctor appointments. We did have one appointment we couldn’t move: the last show of “Lucky Stiff,” a live musical in which our daughter-in-law had a leading role. So, we booked a round-trip flight to Phoenix to ensure we didn’t miss it. And we’re glad we did.
Up Close and Personal
Back in Albuquerque, we loaded up our belongings and headed to Balloon Fiesta Park to spend a night in Tom and Molly’s class A motorhome. After waking at 4:30 a.m., dressing in layers, and grabbing some coffee and breakfast, we headed to a shuttle to take us to the launch field.
The smell of fried food assaulted our senses as we approached, taking us back to state and county fairs. Trucks and vans pulling trailers got into position to unload their precious balloon cargo in anticipation of the chance to ascend.
Two unique characteristics draw visitors to Albuquerque every year:
The Albuquerque Box refers to the wind patterns that flow from the south at low elevations and from the north at higher elevations. Because of this phenomenon, balloons are able to launch and float north. Then, by ascending to a higher elevation, they can be carried back to the south, making it easier to predict landings. In fact, we saw a few balloons land in about the same area they left from.
Our first morning on the field, we set up our chairs in the middle of parked balloon-hauling vehicles in the dark and waited for the launch. Windy weather prevented that, but as the sun peered over Sandia Peak, rising more than 10,000 feet above sea level, balloons were given the green light to fill with air for static displays and photo opportunities.
We found ourselves in the middle of the excitement. Flames lit the sky, making a roaring noise as balloons came to life and the scent of propane wafted through the air. People milled, snapping photos and asking balloon crews for cards.
As it turns out, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta has the title of the world’s most photographed event. We certainly did our part in keeping that title alive.
Fortunately for us, the balloon fiesta spans nine days, not one, as I originally thought. Hot air balloons launch every morning, weather permitting. After seeing the static display, we returned a few days later with hopes of viewing the special shape rodeo, an event within the fiesta that began in 1989. Today, it’s the most popular event there and includes 120 balloons in various shapes, in addition to hundreds of regular balloons.
We arrived on the field in time for the balloon glow. A dozen or so balloons filled at the same time and coordinated firing into their envelopes to create a glowing effect against the dark sky. Then they lifted off, before dawn, to test the winds.
After those Dawn Patrol balloons launched and confirmed the working Albuquerque Box, balloon pilots were given a green flag, indicating clearance for liftoff. Balloons inflated all around us, but they couldn’t officially launch until receiving a go-ahead from a zebra. People dressed in black and white stripes like referees, aka zebras, wander the field and direct balloon launches.
Balloons inflated everywhere we looked. Rainbow Ryder balloons with baskets that could hold up to 14 people launched with paying passengers for the thrill of a lifetime. Balloons in various shapes followed: a pig, cat, jack-o-lantern, witch, UFO, bear, monster, beaver, sloth, frog, Humpty Dumpty, Yoda, and more. Other balloons inflated but stayed tethered, including the kissing bees, a cow, a snowman, and a sun with shades.
We tried to take in all we could, amazed at how close we could get to balloons — and even touch them. We were asked to move out of the way a couple of times so other balloon crews could inflate their envelopes.
Although the weather canceled the special shape glowdeo that evening, we did see some celebratory fireworks, bringing a welcome culmination to an amazing, worthwhile experience.
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This is the travel blog of Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong. We live on the road full time, enjoying all the adventures that come our way.