About This Festival
A Sky Full of Color
Over the course of nine crisp, autumn days in the agrarian oasis of New Mexico, the azure skies above the verdant Rio Grande Valley become a surreal canvas of color during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Picture a connect-the-dots rainbow of mammoth balloons filling the sky, from the horizon to the stratosphere, while thousands of tiny-as-ants onlookers pepper the flats below. This is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which takes place each year at the southern end of the fabled Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just east of Navajo country and an hour from 400-year-old Santa Fe. From the early sunrise Dawn Patrol to the evening’s “Glowdeo” parade, balloon races, and much more, this event is a spectacle of wonder for all ages. The festival is book-ended by two weekends in October with balloon die-hards holed up in Albuquerque for the entire event.
From Humble Beginnings to Epic Proportions
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta began in 1972 with a mere 13 balloons. This was set up at the Coronado Shopping Mall for 20,000 spectators in a roadrunner vs. coyote-style chase—one balloon in the lead as the roadrunner, while the others play the role of coyote. In 1975, the World Hot Air Balloon Championships merged with the fiesta, causing its reach and size to expand. The fiesta grew steadily in size every year until 2000, when over a thousand entrants forced officials to cap the official number of balloons participating in the race at 750. This limitation emphasized a quality-over-quantity aesthetic that has upped the ante for balloon design each year, yielding exclusively elaborate and colorful balloons for what has become the biggest balloon convention in the world. Both European-style balloons filled with precious helium gas and the more common fire-warmed hot-air balloons, whose glowing side effect is utilized in the night flights, make appearances.
A connect-the-dots rainbow of mammoth balloons fills the sky, from the horizon to the stratosphere, while thousands of tiny-as-ants onlookers pepper the flats below. This is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which takes place each year at the southern end of the fabled Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just east of Navajo country and an hour from 400-year-old Santa Fe.
Taking place every year at the vast 78-acre Balloon Fiesta Park, the site fills every autumn with something in the area of 100,000 spectators taking advantage of the perfect pocket of balloon -riding weather known as the “Albuquerque Box.” Watching the sky fill with balloons from the ground is truly an awe-inspiring, borderline spiritual sight.
Rise early and arrive at 5:45 am to witness the Dawn Patrol. Once balloon illumination technology became sufficiently reliable for night riding, balloon pilots began this pre-dawn ride ritual. The sensation of watching dozens of enormous glowing lanterns float up into the dark night sky, touching down shortly after the sun rises, is a peaceful and beautiful sight. It also serves a practical purpose, predicting wind speeds and directions for the remainder of the day. This morning session is reminiscent of a large-scale version of Taiwan’s Pingxi or Thailand’sYi Peng Sky Lantern Festival.
Traffic-Controlling Zebras and Glowing Balloons
At about 7:15 am, the Mass Ascension begins, in which every balloon on the site takes off in a display of awesome aerial artistry. During mass ascensions, balloons launch in two waves. Launch directors, also known as “Zebras” because of their black-and-white-striped outfits, serve as traffic controllers, coordinating the launch so balloons leave the field in a safe and organized manner. Weather permitting, balloons begin to launch at about 7:15 am on mass ascension days, led by a balloon flying the American flag to the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s a moving sight, both literally and figuratively.
These events are the pillars of the Morning Session, but the Evening Session is, in our opinion, even better. The Evening Sessions center around the AfterGlow fireworks events, which officially start around 5:45 pm with the Balloon Glow. This occurs when all the balloons fire their burners and light up at the same time. It’s perhaps the most spectacular single moment in all of Balloon Fiesta, so don't forget to take pictures. The Balloon Glow is followed at 8 pm by New Mexico's most impressive fireworks display.
Getting Up Close and Personal
Due to the layout of the event and its rigorous safety standards, there’s virtually no division between spectator and spectacle. With tickets, you can walk up to balloons moments before they take off, truly a privilege you’ll come to appreciate when you see one take off up close for the first time. If you want to get closer still, there’s also the Rainbow Ryders, the Balloon Fiesta’s official balloon riding service, offering all patrons a chance to go on their very own hot air balloon ride – in the midst of the fiesta! Make your reservations early, and pinch your pennies; rides don’t come cheap and they’re in high demand.
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta's creative and visual celebration of flight is not to be missed, and offers just as much wonder for spectator as participant. It’s a fitting tribute to humankind’s fascination with flight, which took its maiden voyage in France with the Montgolfier brothers pioneering balloon flight in 1783, preceding the Wright Brothers by well over a hundred years! Human imagination is just not meant to be bound to the earth, so free your mind and reach for the skies.