It’s said to be the most-photographed event in the world. And when you stop to consider that attending the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a lot like wandering around inside a giant kaleidoscope, you’ll begin to understand why.
This ever-changing assemblage of colors and shapes is most over-the-top on the mornings of the Fiesta’s mass ascensions, when as many as 550 jewel-toned hot-air balloons inflate and lift off into New Mexico’s impossibly blue skies. Though the whole process lasts only a couple of hours, it’s a spectacle we believe that everyone ought to witness at least once in their lives.
Viewed from that perspective, it should come as no surprise that more than 750,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta each October (scheduled for October 6–14 in 2018), making this the world’s largest hot-air ballooning event. If you’d like to be among them, here’s what you need to know to get the most out of your visit.
Let’s be honest: The best parts of the event start before sunup. So to beat the crowds, plan on arriving at Albuquerque’s 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park somewhere between 4 and 4:30 a.m.
Mass ascensions happen all four weekend days and once during the week. These are preceded by the Dawn Patrol, when balloons equipped with special aircraft-style lighting take off before sunrise. Besides being a show in itself, the Dawn Patrol offers mass-ascension pilots invaluable information on wind speed and direction.
Those who just can’t drag themselves out of bed in the morning will appreciate evening sessions, including Balloon Glows during which tethered balloons are lit from within via flames from their roaring propane burners. Nighttime skies are often filled with laser light shows and fireworks displays.
The Balloon Fiesta is also unique in that it lets crowds walk among the balloons as they’re setting up, giving you the chance to talk to the remarkably friendly pilots and ground crew members.
For the ultimate way to experience the Balloon Fiesta, take flight in one of the event’s mass ascensions with balloon ride concessionaire Rainbow Ryders (rainbowryders.com).
For another unique experience, you can volunteer to be part of a chase crew in which you’ll help inflate a balloon, follow it to its landing spot and help pack everything back up under the watchful eye of the crew chief. To find out more, enter “Volunteering FAQ” in the search box of the Balloon Fiesta’s website, balloonfiesta.com.
Albuquerque offers more than 16,000 hotel/motel rooms. RV owners will find camping spots, ranging from deluxe to low bucks, right on the grounds of Balloon Fiesta Park. No matter which way you go, be sure to book early to avoid being shut out.
As for how to get to Balloon Fiesta Park, you have several options. If you brought a bike, there’s a bicycle path that leads to the park and a Bike Valet service that will look after your wheels once you arrive. You can drive yourself (on-site parking: $15 per session), but traffic can be a hassle. You can avoid it with shuttle-bus services that pick up from area hotels or outlying commuter parking lots and whisk you along roads that are closed to the public, making for a quick trip to the event. Or, don’t worry about the logistics: ask your AAA travel agent about guided vacations built around the Balloon Fiesta with inclusions such as a private viewing area for balloon watching (see below).
Wear comfortable walking shoes and a jacket, and dress in layers. Pack a flashlight, water bottle, hat, sunscreen and sunglasses. You’ll also want some cash for the Fiesta’s 100-plus food and tchotchke vendors. And do not forget your camera.