When we started this epic cross country retirement trip in 2018 we made our way to New Mexico to for our first major bucket list item, the Albuquerque NM International Balloon Fiesta. While we have been developing and changing this list along the way, this has always been something we wanted to see first hand. It was, in a word, amazing!
We wanted to spend the week up in Santa Fe, so we based there at one of the properties included in our timeshare, the Villas de Santa Fe. The Villas are located about 45 minutes from the Ballon Fiesta at Balloon Fiesta Park, 4401 Alameda Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM. I was excited and wanted to get a good vantage point, so we were up early (can you say zero dark early) and left for the festival at about 3:45 AM. The gates open at 4:30 AM and we wanted to beat the traffic. Since we planned to do the morning and evening sessions all in one day, it cost us $20 each for the 2 sessions and $15 to park for the day (yes we left and came back). We were lucky as each session went off without a hitch with no weather issues. If you do go, dress warmly especially for the morning session. At 4:30 AM it was about 42 degrees. In that dry climate at 5000 feet elevation, 42 feels a lot colder. If you’re there driving like us, bring your lawn chairs.
The people manning the gate are super friendly and will help you with any questions. The person who we talked to (I think her name was Donna) not only told us where to go for the best vantage point for the mass accession, she also gave us a collectible pin because this was our first time there. They give them a very limited few of these pins to give out so I felt honored to get one. At her suggestion, we took a right immediately inside the gate and set up on a hill overlooking the 80 acres of field. It was a great overall view of the 550 + balloons that launched that day. If I were to do it again though, I would trek to the hill at the other side of the 80 acre lot. It would be closer to the dawn patrol balloons and the mini glow they do (see below for more info on the Fiesta).
After setting up, we headed down to the food trucks for hot coffee (hot yes, coffee, questionable) and breakfast burritos. These were very good and hit the spot. All the ones I saw started with eggs and cheese and either red or green salsa (I’ve been told the green salsa is hotter, I got the red). You can get all kinds of fillings from veggies to meat. They were much better than the coffee. Bring a thermos of your own if you want decent coffee. At 6:00 AM the Dawn patrol started inflating. Since it was still dark, it’s a great sight because they light up the night like huge candles. You can follow them along their path easily as the launch and test the winds for the other balloons. By 7:00 AM, the rest of the field comes alive with action. Balloons of all kinds come to life while some crews are still coming in and setting up in the assigned areas. As they inflate, crews struggle with the ropes to keep the balloons in place and not encroach on the other balloons next to them. It seems like a losing battle since they are so close, some balloons are touching each other as they grow larger and larger. Then, you see the first one launch! Applause starts as people notice. Then another and another until they are launching all over. People are applauding, some jumping and shouting. A small group starts singing the Fith Dimension’s Up Up and Away. Chaser trucks start moving and heading for the exits to follow their respective balloons for eventual pick up. Watching these balloons fill up and start launching just sends chills of excitement through your body (OK it was in the 40’s so maybe it was the cold….no, it was the excitement mostly LOL). I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole 2 hours. And they go in all directions. Many of them flew right over our vantage point. I took hundreds of pictures. If you want to see more of my pics, you can view them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/glenn.montigny/media_set?set=a.10215576385259561&type=1
A bit about the Balloon Fiesta. It all started in 1972 and hosted 13 balloons. It has now grown to more than 600 balloons and nearly 1000 balloon operators. It’s held starting the first full week in October every year for 9 days. To give you an idea of how big the park is, the grassy are is over 80 acres! The entire property is approx 360 acres! Every morning, weather permitting of course, there’s the Dawn Patrol at 6:00 AM (yes that’s in the morning). A small group of balloons put on a mini balloon glow and launch in the predawn light. It’s an important grouping since they not only provide entertainment for the people attending, but they are also reporting conditions back to the next batch to go up in the Mass Ascension. This tells the other pilots what to expect for wind speed, direction and sheer. It gives the “chasers” an idea where to head for the pickup (what goes up must come down). At 7:00 AM is the awesome Mass Ascension. It takes approx. 2 hours to launch over 600 balloons and they go in 2 waves! There are balloons of every shape and color. There are special shape balloons like Darth Vader, Yoda, cartoons, etc. If you’ve seen the pictures, it is nothing like being there. You can roam the field during these launches, talk to operators and take up close pictures. Thursdays through Sunday they have the Balloon Glows. These are tethered balloons that light up at night. Some sessions are a limited number of balloons (like the Glowdeo of special shape balloons) and others are all of the balloons that want to participate. It’s like fireworks on the ground without the noise. Do you want a balloon ride? Well there is a group called The Rainbow Ryders that will provide these for a price. There are live bands on site (for an extra fee if you want to sit closer) and plenty of food trucks to fit every taste.
Tickets for the current year go on sale sometime in April. General admission is $10 Each Session (12 and under are free). Parking is $15 each day. So if you want to attend the Dawn Patrol and Mass Ascension in the morning, it will cost you $10. If you want to attend the evening Balloon Glow sessions, it will cost you another $10. So if you are attending all events for the 9 days, figure $20 per person over 12 per day plus $15 for parking for each day, but if your a group of 5, you can get a $45 package per session. If a session is cancelled due to weather, you can get a rain check for another session. If you want a more comfortable experience, there’s the Gondola Club and Chasers club. They are more expensive, but provide reserve parking, seating and food. For more information, you can go to this website https://balloonfiesta.com/ . If you are going, General admission tickets can be purchased closer to the event. Specialty tickets like balloon rides, the Gondola Club and Chasers Club sell out early….like months in advance! I strongly suggest you get tickets early for those.