The annual October Albuquerque balloon event is the largest of its kind in the world.
It is as much a spectacle to see the myriad balloons hovering over the city sky on its crisp, calm mid-October mornings as it is to marvel at the level of organization needed to produce this event. It entertains hundreds of thousands of spectators from all over the US and world, nothwithstanding up to 1,000 participating balloons.
The popularity of the fiesta this year was enhanced by the coincidental occurrence of the 2023 Annular Eclipse which brought thousands of additional visitors to Albuquerque for that October 14, 2023 astronomical event. The center of the path of the moon’s shadow fell within a mile southwest of Balloon Fiesta Park, a grassy field shaped like a horse racing track on steroids, about 80 acres in size and surrounded by twice that area in parking lots.
The organizers of the fiesta provide extensive on-line information about what they’re up to each year, in additon to daily simulcasts of the live events going on over its the week-long run (look for some of these on Youtube). The event really deserves to be understood as a major international attraction and as such you can count on quality preparations that will help you plan an efficient visit. Links to the fiesta details, including the all-important instructions for driving or shuttling to the event, are found at the detailed fiesta website provided by the organizers. Practically anything you could possibly need to know about the yearly event is contained in the website.
Spectators in winter wear shuffle around the field at dawn, surrounding balloons to watch them being carefully unfurled and inflated with what are essentially giant blow torches affixed to the baskets in which the pilots ride. The pilots are applauded and cheered, not unlike the Wizard who departed from the Emerald City, the balloons soon climbing above the chilly shadows of the nearby mountains to reach the warming rays of the sun.
The dollars spent to buy, own, operate and maintain hot air balloons is, well, up there. We jest to say that one pilot was overheard joking that the “bottom line” of his sport is greatly affected by inflation— with propane, transport, insurance and the highly uncertain nature of the weather all contributing to ballooning expenses. The balloons themselves can cost as much as 50K, which some would quip is pricey for a basket, a cigarette lighter and a piece of cloth but this can quadruple for a giant cartoon figure or to carry a big gondola.
Like sailboats and yachts, hot air balloons take on personalities. They are entered into the fiesta roster with given names like “Ultramagic Tramuntana” from Spain, “Mario the Race Car” from Kentucky, “Hyla the Frog” from United Kingdom, “Airabelle, the Creamland Cow” from British Columbia, Canada, “Black Hole Sun” from Texas, “Beagle Maximus” from New Mexico, and “Flying Bus” from Brazil. A list of balloon names with their respective pilots for the 2023 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta can be found here. The bulk of the entrants are US-based.
The more fanciful balloons, like the clock, the vampire, the hen house and the pumpkin, seem to linger a bit less before seeking to descend again to the grass—no doubt this is preferred for their expensive fabrics. They navigate uisng only one degree of freedom, vertically, seeking desired wind directions at different altitudes. The maneuvers require considerable experience to navigate correctly back to the start. Meanwhile, many traditionally-shaped balloons head out somewhat freely over the city, where they will eventually see their chase vehicles catch up to them in parking lots, grassy fields and open terrain.
On the morning of our visit, October 13, 2023, some of the balloons inflated for liftoff did not launch for one reason or another, such as the giant Armadillo Sheriff. Granted, the participating balloonists in each case certainly face a number of logistical problems, like wind dynamics and the chilly morning air of mile-high Albuquerque, but the crowds can jam-pack the already tight assembly of balloons trying to line up for their ascents and more or less get in the way of progress.
The coordination of this event is beyond remarkable, including not only orchestrating those 1,000 balloons, but finding ways to accomodate those hundred thousand visitors. Parking for high numbers of cars, trucks and RVs is no simple logistic, either, but the organizers manage this, too; a higher ticket price should be expected. To ameliorate the parking nightmare, bus shuttles from four key locations throughout the city can make travel to the site way easier—with additional breaks on ticket prices compared to driving yourself in. Shuttles don’t run every morning, but being an early riser (as early as 4 AM for the earliest bus boardings, and provided you are not adverse to a packed shool bus) you should arrive at the fiesta site with a happy busful in efficient order. Buses return to the shuttle lots later in the morning, starting around 8 AM, and can even accomodate stragglers who may stay nearly the full morning at the balloon park. Food offerings on the grounds are typical of what you’d see at a county fair and priced likewise for such convenience. Those who can find a table and chairs certainly seem a bit more comfortable here and there. For some, the port-a-potties may seem a bit farther away from the action to be handy.
The annular eclipse on Saturday, October 14, 2023, brought its own visitors from around the world but this was not a wrinkle for Albuquerque hospitality. Fiesta attendees come yearly from many nations and many states in the US and are familiar with Albuquerque’s welcoming carpets and accomodating attitude. The most competive of international ballooning culture happily meets here, with contests and shows running throughout morning and evening sessions at actual professional events.
Since the fiesta’s inception in 1972, when there were only 13 balloons featured, the 20,000 spectators attending that first year began knowing pilots on a name basis, many who are now stars in the balloon circuit and known among fans as would the best baseball players, footballers, soccer legends and the like.
Albuquerque is a sprawling city of nearing some 800,000 residents in its metro area, which includes one hundred thousand folks who live in northerly neighboring Rio Rancho. That city could become another major ballooning venue in the years to come.
Finally, one can spend at least several days visiting the most accessible attractions in the vast basin containing metro Albuquerque, such as the Petroglyphs National Monument, including its best feature, the beautiful Rio Grande River which runs peacfully though the heart of the city.
(Photos above: Nikon Powershot SX740HS).
SLIDESHOW BELOW: SOME FAVORITES FROM THE FIESTA
Click on any thumbnail to advance the slide—OR—click on the small arrow ⇒ button lower right for enhanced slides of the photos. Photos by Barbara Swanson. (Nikon D800E, Nikon 200-500 mm lens)
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