When we planned our October trip to New Mexico, the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta had no bearing on the trip. In fact, I didn’t even remember it existed when finalizing our plans. Our dates were set because of our son’s fall break. So to say we were fortunate our week came during the 42nd annual fiesta is an understatement. Turns out this New Mexico afterthought was one of the highlights of our trip.
This won’t be a “how to” post. I’m not sure I know how to properly visit the Balloon Fiesta, even after spending parts of two days there. But I do have enough experience to say with certainty not to underestimate the potential heartache that can come on Interstate 25. But more on that in a moment.
We visited on the last weekend of the nine-day event. Our Balloon Fiesta experience included the Friday night Special Shape Glowdeo …
followed by a fireworks show …
and culminated with the Saturday morning Mass Ascension.
When planning a trip to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta, prepare far in advance or be prepared to spend more time searching for lodging, not to mention paying extra for rental cars.
The Friday night glow event was really cool. There are a couple of these every year. The first sees the regular balloons fire up, while the second one includes all the special characters, ranging from Big Red of Angry Birds fame to Uncle Sam.
The balloons all begin making their way from being packed into the bed of pickup trucks to glowing.
Renting a car to get to Balloon Fiesta Park — about 10 miles north of downtown — isn’t necessary; from our experience, Albuquerque has a great public transportation system. But the bus line doesn’t run to Balloon Fiesta Park on the weekend. So if you don’t have a car, the only other option is to find your way to a park-and-ride shuttle. Our hotel, Hotel Cascada, provided a shuttle to a park-and-ride lot, and I hear many hotels do the same. But we had a rental car and already had a parking pass, so I took my chances driving.
On Friday night, that wasn’t really a problem. It took almost an hour to drive the nearly 10 miles to Balloon Fiesta Park, but we left with enough time to make it to the Glow event before the balloons started inflating. Saturday, though, well, Saturday was an adventure.
We were told that if we left our hotel by 5:15 a.m. we’d have enough time to get to the park before the start of the Mass Ascension at 7 a.m. Everything was fine until we were about half a mile from our exit on I-25. Then we sat in traffic. And continued sitting. And an hour later, after finally making it to the verge of exiting, we still had about a mile and a half to go and 30 minutes to do it. And I began seeing a few people here and there walking down the interstate exit, making their way to Balloon Fiesta while leaving a partner behind in the car. So I made the same move, having my wife move into the driver’s seat while I put our son on my shoulders and began running to the park.
Yes, I ran with a 6-year-old boy on my shoulders. My shins are still sore days later. But I didn’t come this far and promise my son that he’d see balloons fly and have him watch it all from the car. So as the first balloon launched, I limped into the park with a happy kid on my shoulders. Luckily, Stacey made it in about 20 minutes later, only missing the first handful of balloons lifting off.
So my advice? Leave early. You can sleep tomorrow, but you’ll regret those extra 30 minutes of sleep if you miss the start of the ascension, especially if you travel a long ways to get there like we did.
My only other advice is be amazed. Be amazed at the crowds of observers around each balloon as the crews work their magic to get them inflated, gondolas tipped upright and crew of sometimes a dozen passengers on board before the field referees give the signal for liftoff.
Be amazed at the warmth that comes off the balloons as the sun rises over Sandia Peak to the east.
And be amazed at the sky as it fills with balloons as far as the eye can see.
And after all the fun, be sure to head over to Old Town where the city welcomes balloonists and visitors to the historic Plaza.
The most important thing about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta? Take lots of pictures and be prepared to have a lot of fun.