The country of New Mexico at altitude
By Courtney Drake-McDonough
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (running through Oct. 14, 2012) is the epitome of the state’s license plate: the “land of enchantment.” Albuquerque mixes a long, rich history that is honored to this day, with the sleekness of a modern city, all in a dessert landscape. Besides the scenery, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has gained the reputation among balloonists world-wide as having unique wind conditions ideal for flying and showing off balloons.
The “Albuquerque Box” is a wind pattern that occurs under stable conditions during the fall season. The box is a combination of wind temperatures and patterns that takes balloons up, over, down and back again (as though they are travelling inside a box). Pilots simply change their elevation to fly back along their original course, ideally back to where they started. The effect makes for an amazing sight with hundreds of balloons taking off in stages, en mass, like a flock of colorful birds moving together. The scene can be seen from all over the city but nothing compares to being close to the action.
Part of the appeal of the hot air balloons is the unpredictability of things. The early morning ascension might or might not happen if the winds are even a touch too strong. The evening Balloon Glows in which the tethered balloons flash their flames to illuminate the balloons from within, aren’t always lit in unison. It’s more like really huge flickering lights which is a cool sight in itself. Another unpredictable aspect is that, despite the best intentions of the pilot and the help of the Albuquerque Box, pilots aren’t in complete control of where they land. Balloons can come down next to the highway, on river banks, in fields and even back yards. The people of Albuquerque take it all in stride because the Fiesta is so well-loved. Photo caption: Balloons flying at dawn can land just about anywhere. Photo courtesy CDM Communications.
The energy all over the city is palpable, especially during the morning ascensions. Imagine, looking out your window or driving to work in the morning and seeing hundreds of colorful dots sailing across the sky. It is truly magical.
While the balloons are the main attraction during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta there’s plenty going on in Fiesta Park, all day long. There are vendors selling everything from festive hot air balloon hats to commemorative pins to turquoise jewelry. The food vendors offer a wide variety such as New Mexican cuisine, funnel cakes, international food, frog legs(!) and hot dogs. Take a spin on amusement park rides, watch the amazing wood sculptures take place using chainsaws as tools, hear live concerts and walk amongst the balloons and their crews.
Nowhere else can you get this close to the hot air balloons themselves, watching the crews unload yard after yard of colorful fabric, lay it out, hook it to the basket and start to inflate it. Seeing the flat balloons start to poof out and arise is like seeing a giant wake up – beautiful, colorful giants, some in the traditional shape, some in crazy shapes like stage coach wagons and animals. They are works of art. Many proudly carry the logo of their corporate sponsor which is kind of amusing.
When the balloons come down, it’s interesting to see the different ways they deflate. Some get tipped on their side to be deflated while others come down from the top giving the illusion that they are getting sucked into the earth. It’s a cool sight no matter how it happens.
All of the fun and wonder of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta happens on a budget both for time and money. Admission is only $8, with kids 12 and under, free plus a $10 parking fee. There are also 5-pack discount tickets and combo Park and Ride tickets. Note that the admission price is per session with a morning session that includes the ascension and the evening session that includes the glow and a fantastic fireworks show. Tickets can be purchased at the gate or in advance.
You can stay all day from one session to the next, visiting the various vendors, demonstrations, a car show and the Balloon Discovery Center where you can learn about the history and sport of ballooning. Or, leave the grounds for a while and explore Albuquerque, being sure to stop at Historic Old Town , one of the many museums including Explora for younger kids, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Sciences,
American International Rattlesnake Museum or National Atomic Museum, to name just a few. Block out a good chunk of time (maybe a whole day) for the ABQ BioPark, a brilliant idea that combines the Albuquerque Aquarium and Rio Grande Botanic Gardens, Rio Grande Zoo and Tingley Beach, all connected by a fun train ride. You can buy tickets for each individual venue or purchase a combo ticket that gets you into each venue and includes a train ride too. Be sure to ask the venues about possible reciprocal relationships with your local zoos and museums for discounts or free admission.
Albuquerque has a wide variety of lodging options for every budget. Although it can be difficult to find lodging during the Balloon Fiesta, we were lucky enough to get a room at the Courtyard Albuquerque Airport, a stylish, recently upgraded hotel with beautiful rooms. There are also restaurants galore from steak houses, to brew pubs, elegant cafes to fun like the popular Sadie’s of New Mexico for authentic New Mexican cuisine. While at the BioPark, stop into the Aquarium’s Shark Tank restaurant for a view of the turtles, stingrays and sharks in a giant tank. It’ll have you wondering who’s really watching whom.
5 Quick Facts about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta:
1. The first Balloon Fiesta was in 1972 with just 13 balloons.
2. This year’s theme, Blaze A Trail, comes from the idea of burners blazing and illumination the New Mexico sky. It’s also a nod to the Old West’s influence that has led to New Mexico’s centennial this year.
3. There are 19 countries represented in this year’s Fiesta including the Netherlands, Brazil and Thailand.
4. The grassy Fiesta Park launch field is the size of 58 football fields.
5. Hot air balloons go as fast or slow as the wind carries them since they don’t have a forward propulsion system.