Each fall, pilots, crews and spectators from all over the world come to the Albuquerque balloon festival, known as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta®, the world’s largest hot air ballooning event. For nine days during the first full week of October, hundreds of colorful balloons float above the city each morning as dawn breaks over the Sandia Mountains. It’s no wonder this visual feast is said to be the world’s most photographed event.
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.
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.
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’s Yi Peng Sky Lantern Festival.