When we made plans to attend the 2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, we knew we wanted to share the experience with a group of fellow RVing friends. As the largest hot air balloon event in the world and a ‘bucket list’ item for millions of people, we’d heard and read about the Balloon Fiesta for several years and expected it to be something special. And it truly was. It’s one of those events that really lived up to – and actually exceeded – our expectations. In fact, we’d even go so far to say it’s one of those events that everyone should try and experience at least once in their lifetime. And we don’t say that lightly.

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Photo credit: Erik McCauley

We packed an incredible amount into our 9 day stay and took an INSANE amount of photographs and video. Narrowing down which ones to share has been an adventure in itself, but hopefully you’ll find our selection paints enough of a picture to inspire you to start making your own plans to get to Albuquerque. Are you ready? Let’s go!

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Photo credit: Erik McCauley

What is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?

First off, for those of you who may not really understand the magnitude of this event and why we are raving about it from the first paragraph, allow us to enlighten you. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual festival of hot air balloons that takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA during early October. The Balloon Fiesta is a nine-day event, attracting over 500 balloons and pilots from more than 20 countries each year. Since it’s humble beginnings in 1972 when 13 balloons were launched from a local parking lot as part of a radio promotion, the event has evolved to become what is now the largest hot air balloon festival in the world. The Balloon Fiesta draws crowds of over three quarters of a million people who travel from all around the world – it was estimated that over 800,000 people attended the recent event!

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Why Albuquerque?

There are certain weather patterns required for ideal hot air ballooning conditions and Albuquerque just happens to have them! The winds and currents of Albuquerque combined with the early October weather – gorgeous sunny days and cool morning and evening temps – are just right for a balloon launch. The city also has a phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque Box,” a set of predictable wind patterns and geography that gives balloonists greater control over navigating their balloons. For example, low elevations the winds tend to be from the north but at higher elevations they tend to come from the south. When conditions are optimal, balloon pilots use these winds to navigate in a vertical box shape – they ascend slightly from the launch park, move south, ascend further, move north, descend, and repeat the box or land back in the launch park, in a field, park or nearby. All of this makes Albuquerque a great place to launch not one, but hundreds of balloons!

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Why is the Balloon Fiesta such a big deal?

Aside from the sheer vastness, beauty and magic of witnessing hundreds of beautiful, colorful and crazy shaped balloons all together in one place, the Fiesta can take a bow to some pretty amazing achievements, specifically:

  • It is the largest ballooning event on the earth
  • It is the most photographed event on the planet (I can personally testify to this! LOL)
  • It is the largest annual international event held in the United States

As a non profit organization, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is supported by over 1,000 volunteers who help make the event happen, by taking tickets, judging events, acting as balloon chase crew and much more. I imagine that’s how they are able to keep the event so affordable – with RV dry camping at just $35 a night and session ticket prices at $10 a pop, you really do get a lot of bang for your buck!

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Why is it so magical?

It’s hard to describe the feeling of actually being there, but there is definitely something magical and other worldly about it! The Balloon Fiesta is sensory overload in the very best way, with so many colors, sights, sounds and smells exploding all around you. Imagine hundreds of thousands of upturned, smiling faces, awestruck by the spectacular beauty of hot air balloons filling the big blue New Mexico sky. Watching the crowds milling about and kids playing, the orchestral teamwork of balloon crews preparing to launch. Hearing the loud whirring sound of huge fans inflating the enormous, colorful balloon envelopes as pilots shout instructions to their crew. Feeling the warmth of the propane burners blasting during the final stages of balloon inflation. Hearing the field marshall’s whistle blow, giving the OK for the pilot to throw off the ropes and start their ascent as onlookers cheer on. You look up and suddenly, you’re witnessing hundreds of balloons floating over you simultaneously – graceful, peaceful, majestic. It looks like confetti exploded in the sky. It’s such a special and moving experience that it can be quite emotional and even overwhelming.

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Photo credit: Erik McCauley

Then at night, you hear the thrilling roar of hundreds of burners igniting simultaneously, transforming the park into a festive sea of colorful lightbulb-like balloons. The happiness and joy are palpable, sending tingles down your spine, and feeling such giddy excitement just to be there. Yes, it’s really that awesome.

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What are the event highlights?

Fiesta event days are made up of two sessions – morning and evening – with several events within those sessions. And because hot air balloons can only inflate and fly safely under certain weather conditions, the events only happen when weather is permitting. In fact, one of the reasons we’re so glad we stayed the entire 9 days as it enabled us to maximize our experience of the event, as some were canceled on a couple of mornings and evening glows were either canceled or cut short on a couple of evenings due to the weather. But the schedule is pretty standard from year to year and includes the following:

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Dawn Patrol Show and Morning Glow

Around 5.45am on Mass Ascension days, 10-12 hot air balloons begin to inflate – choreographed to music – and launch at 6am right before sunrise. While on the ground and when up in the air, pilots fire off a “glow valve” lighting up their balloon envelope like a lightbulb, creating a morning glow – then flying until it is light enough to see landing sites. Aside from it being a beautiful early morning sight for spectators, the Dawn Patrol is also useful for other balloonists as they can watch the balloons and get an early idea of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.

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Mass Ascension

One of the biggest events of the Fiesta, the Mass Ascension is where all participating balloons launch in two waves starting at 7am and filling the sky with hundreds of balloons simultaneously. Launch directors – also known as “zebras” because of their black-and-white-striped outfits – serve as “traffic cops” coordinating the launch so the balloons leave the field in a safe, organized manner. Balloons are spread out along the 78 acre launch field – that’s 54 football fields all put together! And because the event has an excellent safety record, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is one of the only balloon events in the world where attendees can walk around the launch field and be part of the action, seeing the balloons up close and meeting the pilots while watching the inflation and launch. It can take up to two hours to launch all of the balloons on the field, and no, it never gets old.

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Photo credit: Erik McCauley

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Photo credit: Erik McCauley

Special Shapes Rodeo

At the same time, many non-traditional, uniquely shaped balloons are also launched. The special shape balloons are one of the big draws of the fiesta and it seems creativity knows no bounds! Some of the shapes we saw included a milk cow, the Wells Fargo wagon coach, a big pink and purple dragon, a fire hydrant, a big green alligator, a pink elephant, a flying pig – there was even a Darth Vader and Yoda balloon! Fun Fact: The Darth Vader balloon envelope alone cost around $90,000 to make!

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Evening Glow

This is one of the most popular and loved events of the Fiesta. Nighttime (weather permitting) sees hundreds of balloons inflated then illuminated by their propane burners. They don’t launch during the evening glow events – they’re simply on display for spectators who can walk around and admire them, getting up close, watching and hearing the burners flare up and lighting the balloons and the sky.

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As you walk around you’ll occasionally hear a loudspeaker announcement “3-2-1…ALL BURN” which is the signal for all the balloons to fire their burners and light up at the same time – creating one of the most spectacular moments in all of Balloon Fiesta. On Thursday and Friday night, they host a Special Shape “Glowdeo” a night glow especially for the special shapes balloons, bringing joy to kids of all ages!

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Photo credit: Erik McCauley

After Glow Fireworks

After the glow comes a fireworks show to wrap up the evening. We were lucky enough to be able to watch the fireworks from our RVs and avoid the crowds most of the time. It was actually a pretty good show, but the one time we wandered across to watch it from the balloon field, we got sidetracked by buying an Alpaca poncho to stay warm so saw only about 1% of the show, but caught 100% of the crowds leaving to return home! That’s when we decided it would make more sense to walk back instead of waiting in the long line for the shuttle bus.

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Other Events and Competitions

While there are other special events as part of the balloon fiesta, such as America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race, where special long-distance gas balloons are inflated and then launched to see who can travel the farthest – historically, some balloons have gone as far as Canada and the US East Coast! There’s also Flight of the Nations ascensions, competition flying, chainsaw carving demonstrations and more – but we didn’t get to see any of those.

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Bonus Highlight #1: Balloon Launch and Chase Volunteer Crew

YES! You can crew, launch and chase a balloon and we highly recommend it!  While the Balloon Fiesta offers a “Volunteer Crew” signup station inside the event, one of the benefits of camping with the Xscapers group was the opportunity to sign up as “balloon launch and retrieve” crew for a specific pilot Fred Dinkler, who doesn’t mind having a ‘changing crew’ throughout the event. Fred is a highly experienced fixed wing, helicopter and hot air balloon pilot and his balloon “Thursday’s Child” was sponsored by Mexico Tourism Board. On the Thursday evening before the Fiesta began, about a dozen of us met Fred for a training session on the balloon launch field to learn the ropes. We had to move FAST due to an approaching storm and just narrowly managed to pack the balloon away in time to avoid getting it wet.

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It’s free to crew a balloon (you don’t get paid either) but it does require getting up VERY early in the morning – about 5am – to be on the Fiesta field by 6am to help launch the balloon. Don’t worry, even if you’re not a morning person (like me) it’s totally worth it! But it does get tiring and taxing especially after a few days in a row, and even moreso if you’re trying to juggle this work thing as well, like Marc had to do. So do keep that in mind.

It also helps if you’re reasonably fit, healthy and have some physical strength when volunteering as balloon crew. It’s not something we would recommend for those who are not physically able as some jobs are harder than others ie. holding the mouth of the envelope (balloon) open during inflation and holding the crown line (rope at the very top of the balloon) – it’s definitely a good workout. And above all it’s FUN! Crewing was actually one of our favorite parts of the fiesta, so if you get the chance, DO IT!

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It’s also a great team building exercise for everyone working together and bonding as we got the balloon inflated and launched. It’s so exciting seeing it take off into the blue sky, waving to the crew on board – which included the sponsors that first weekend – and knowing you were part of making it happen. It truly makes you FEEL like an integral part of the event, because you ARE!

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But our work wasn’t done! Next, we had to pack all the gear into the Balloon Chase Vehicle and start chasing the balloon, using GPS and visuals to keep track of it’s whereabouts and meet them upon landing, so we could help pack it down again and transport them back safely. This part of the crew duty was an absolute BLAST!  We all piled into Fred’s truck and began the chase through the back streets of Albuquerque, until we found them landed in a field. It definitely is the kind of job where many hands make light work, and so having a crew of 6 or more on any given day made it a lot easier for everyone, in particular Fred and his apprentice pilot Michelle.

The best way to get a real feel for the crewing experience is by watching our “Launch & Chase” video, which (if I say so myself) is one of the best videos I’ve ever created. I hope you enjoy it as much as I loved making it!

If you volunteer, will you get to fly?

That is entirely at the discretion of the pilot and to be honest, we would not count on it. The basket is not exactly roomy and can comfortably hold 3, maybe 4 people at a time. On the first weekend, Fred and Michelle took their sponsors up for a flight and on other days, Fred was focused on giving Michelle one-on-one flying tuition. However, three of our volunteer crew (out of about a dozen people) DID get to fly, and we believe it was largely because of the number of times we’d shown up to crew – on average 3-4 times each. And while that isn’t a guarantee, it’s simple math – the more often you show up as crew, the more likely you MAY be invited to fly. Just don’t count on showing up to crew once or twice and thinking you’ll get to go.

If you REALLY want to be guaranteed a balloon flight, you will need to book your ticket direct with the Balloon Fiesta. There are several balloons flown by Rainbow Ryders – the only company authorized to take the public up for a flight – and at $300-400 per person, tickets aren’t cheap. But if it’s in your budget, we can’t imagine a more exciting and fun place to go up for a hot air balloon ride!

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Photo credit: Stacey Calkins Quimby

Bonus Highlight: Yes, Julie got to fly!

I was lucky. I showed up to crew on Friday morning (day 7 of the event) while Marc stayed at the RV working. Just before throwing the ropes off to launch, Pilot Fred invited me to join he and Michelle to fly. It was an absolutely gorgeous morning with spectacular flying conditions and being “special shapes day” the sky was filled with hundreds of colorful, crazy shaped balloons.

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We enjoyed a full hour’s flight before descending to an uneventful landing on a gravel road in between houses and horse barns, right as our chase crew pulled up beside us. It was incredible to gain a bird’s eye perspective of the Balloon Fiesta from so high up in the air, watching the other balloons around us and simply enjoying our peaceful and serene floating… with no sounds other than the occasional propane blast into the balloon.

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The only things that could have made it better is if Marc had been able to join me, but alas, he was back at the coach working 🙁

Marc and I both experienced our first ever hot air balloon flight in May 2011 when we got engaged in a hot air balloon over Boulder, CO. Naturally, this was an exciting and emotional experience and a wonderful flight, but it was a slightly more eventful landing when a strong wind gust tipped over our basket as we got close to the ground. The basket dragged along the ground for about 50 feet, with all 4 passengers and the pilot falling on top of each other – laughing and screaming (in fun) with dirt pouring into the basket as we catapulted sideways along the field. It was definitely a memorable and exciting way to end a memorable and romantic flight! And while we jokingly call it a ‘crash landing’, it’s actually not at all uncommon for a balloon to have a sideways landing when the wind gusts are higher on the ground. No-one was injured and we all walked away with a great story and fabulous memories.

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A few more handy tips

OK, we’ve covered a LOT of info in this post and we hope you’ve found it useful and it inspires you to get the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta on your calendar sooner rather than later. Here are a final few tips and links that will help you hit the ground running and enjoy every moment!

  • Download the Balloon Fiesta App on your smart phone for easy access and updates on each day’s events or access the event schedule online (see 2016 schedule as an example).
  • You don’t need to buy tickets in advance for morning and afternoon launch field sessions as they never sell out of general admission. You can buy tickets at the gate or as a 5-pack for a slight discount.
  • The food choices at the Balloon Launch field are your typical ‘fair’ type food ie. unhealthy, greasy and fattening such as corn dogs, funnel cakes and donuts, but there’s also Mexican fare like burritos, tacos, coffee and a few other vendors. Given the crowds, you’ll almost always have to wait in line. If you value your health at all and/or want to save money, you may want to consider eating before heading to the balloon field sessions or take your own food and snacks.
  • There’s live music and plenty of vendors selling balloon souvenirs, hats, decor and a large corner tent that sells Alpaca ponchos, sweaters and blankets to keep you warm.
  • The Albuquerque International Balloon Museum is also located near the launch field entrance and focuses on the last three decades of the festival, as well as the history of ballooning. We didn’t make it but hope to get there next time.
  • Finally, keep in mind that the Balloon Fiesta is a high energy, action packed even with a lot of early morning starts, so in the interest of self care, try to keep your schedule light for at least a week after the event to recover from the intensity and stimulation.

Useful Links and Resources

See our blog post and video with our Top Tips for RVing at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Learn more about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Learn more about the 2015 Balloon Fiesta and crewing from Technomadia and Wheeling It

Have you been to a Balloon Fiesta? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

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