Photo by Neala

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The 2010Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place October 2 - 10, 2010.

It's shortly after dawn and the Albuquerque sky is gradually turning into its customary vibrant clear blue. People walk amidst hundreds of colorful hot air balloons as they fill with heated air, expanding slowly like behemoths stretching after a long sleep. The balloons cover the huge field with color and form. And then, in waves, they slowly, majestically, silently lift off the ground, floating up into the sky. There they pause, hanging like ornaments decorating the blue sky.
It's called a mass ascension and it surely is. Not only are there the customary tear drop shaped balloons, there are special shapes -- a huge lighthouse, a turtle, a stagecoach, even two bees holding hands as they float away. They fill the sky with fantasy and whimsy, and color.

The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta began in 1972, with 13 intrepid balloonists. The goal of the original founders Sid Cutter and Tom Rutherford was to break the record of 19 balloons assembled together in a rally, so they had aimed for 21. Unfortunately, bad weather held up several from arriving. Today literally hundreds and hundreds of balloonists from all over the world come to participate in one of the country's unique and popular events.

Photo by Neala Originally conceived as a competition, with the balloonists performing challenges and being rated on their success, today the emphasis is on fun and good times. This has proved to be a winning combination, and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest hot air balloon rally in the world that is held in the United States, with as many as 1000 balloons participating in the 10-day festival. They take off from Balloon Fiesta Park -- a 78 acre launch site where spectators and participants mix and chat.

Balloon Glows in the Evening and Dawn Patrols to Greet the Sun

In addition to the wildly popular mass ascensions, there is the eerily beautiful balloon glow evening events. As the light fades, these colorful and fragile colossi fill, lit from within by the blasts of flame. The balloons are tethered in place, and people walk through the glowing fantasy forest, some pulling out chairs and simply enjoying the spectacle. There's also the Special Shape Glowdeo where these whimsical balloons are part of the party.

Photo by Neala As we watched, the balloons randomly popped with light as the pilots decide to give them a blast of fire. But the highlight is the coordination of all the balloons glowing simultaneously. The announcer counts down and suddenly hundreds of balloons light up. People sit on chairs, on the ground, but all smile in wonder dwarfed by the spectacle.

Photo by Neala Dawn patrol, starting at 5:45am, has itself become an event. A cross between balloon glow and an ascension, the pilots create a choreographed show of glowing balloons lit by the blasts of fire. Then they launch into the dark sky. The pilots watching from the ground appreciate not only the beauty, but the information provided on wind speed and direction, helpful for their later mass ascension.

And in between the dawn patrol and the day's events is the national anthem. I'm standing in the field filled with people watching the slowly lightening sky, huddled in jackets against the early chill. The dawn patrol has just finished their glow-in-the-dark show and the balloonists are setting up for their flights. In the middle of the hustle and the noise we become aware of the strains of the American national anthem. Gradually, all activity and talking stops. Thousands of people are either silent or softly singing "... the land of the free and the home of the brave." The last note fades, the moment slowly passes, and the activity of being a balloon rally resumes.

America's Challenge Gas Balloon Competition

Photo by Neala It's not only a hot air balloon rally. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta also features giant gas balloons in the America's Challenge -- a long distance competition to see who can go the furthest.

Started in 1995, it's modeled after the Gordon Bennet, one of the world's most prestigious gas ballooning events, but the Balloon Fiesta version allows entry to all countries with no limit on the number of entries per country. The real challenge of the competition is the need to carry everything necessary for several days aloft in the tiny basket. Landfall means the race is over.

Their inflation and evening launch is another highlight. Unlike the hot air balloon events which happen en masse, the gas balloons are launched one at a time from a special stage. Each team is introduced, and cheered on its way.

In between the morning and the evening activities many people go home for a siesta, but there are often other activities. It might be a car show, wine-tastings (extra charge) The chain saw wood carving competition is popular, fascinating and filled with vroom of power tools...creating art. Photo by Neala

In a state known for its consistent and beautiful climate, there is one treacherous weather condition capable of stopping festivities in its inflatable tracks -- wind. Balloons have no steering, they drift on currents. The only control a pilot can exert is whether to go up or down. So, high winds and gusts create danger and unnecessary risk. Events might be delayed, or even canceled.

The best advice is to get up early and turn on the television for the balloon report. If they talk about bad weather likely to cancel the morning ascension, it's probably safe to go back to bed. The website is another good source of information. It's updated around the clock.

For a terrific source of information on everything Balloon Fiesta visit the official website,

If You Go
Albuquerque's International Balloon Fiesta takes place in early October when the weather is generally cool and crisp. Weekends are the most crowded and the lines for parking and entrance to the park can be extensive. Weekdays may be a better choice. Also try to allow several days for your trip so bad weather won't stop you from attending the events. Albuquerque has much to see and you can easily fill a couple of days of windy weather with other activities.

Remember most of the fun takes place in the morning or the evening. It can be quite cool in the early morning and late evening so bring a jacket. There's plenty of food available but you can certainly bring your own as well. If it's your first time, you may want to do a dry run during the day. It can be a bit confusing following the signs in the early morning darkness.

Here's more Insider Tips for the Balloon Fiesta

Read about more of New Mexico's Fiestas and Yearly Events