The annual Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta has been on my bucket list since 2016 when John and I drove through Albuquerque on our way to the Grand Canyon from Carlsbad Caverns (which you can read about here!)
Attending this festival seemed out of reach while living in the south, but when I moved to Colorado I put it on my calendar right away.
John and I attended the 2019 fiesta’s second and last weekend, October 11th-13th. The annual festival runs for nine days around the first week of October and is one of the world’s largest hot air balloon displays. This year, over 550 pilots brought their balloons, baskets, and crews to show off their prized possessions.
Every day of the festival features a sunrise balloon flight, the weekends include daytime music acts, and some nights have “glows” where pilots use their balloons’ burners to light up the darkness. Before I share our experience, I want to give some advice on a few things we learned from the festival’s website before our arrival:
If you want to see our balloon adventure (and some of our other videos) check out our youtube channel HERE!
John and I arrived in Albuquerque late Friday night after the nearly eight hour drive from Denver. We weren’t able to make any of the festival events, so we went straight to our reserved site at the Turquoise Trail Campground and crawled into the back of my car to rest our heads on the car camper.
Due to the late arrival, we didn’t wake up in time to see the sunrise ascension on Saturday morning. We knew that by the time we got there, the session would be over, but we thought we’d head over to see if we could get in and check out the festival.
We arrived at the Balloon Fiesta Park around 10:30 AM, and absolutely nothing was going on at the festival. So little was happening that there weren’t even workers collecting money for parking or for tickets! We parked next to the entrance gates and strolled right in for free!
Between the sessions, several of the vendors had zipped up their tents and turned off their cooktops, but we still were able to stop into a few and walk around the grounds. There were some people lingering and hanging out, and we assumed that most of them were balloon crews and festival workers.
There are all sorts of trinkets and festival memorabilia for sale at the fiesta. We saw things ranging from precious metal jewelry, chilies and spices, wood carvings, and musical instruments. Pin trading and collecting is a very popular hobby, and almost every stand had unique pins for sale. One day, the fiesta featured a pin trading event!
While we were walking around the outskirts of the grounds, we stumbled upon a line of people leading into a pavilion and asked what was going on. We were informed that it was a luncheon and were handed two tickets to enter! We enjoyed a great lunch of friend chicken, pork chops, and mashed potatoes with several of the pilots and other balloon crew members.
After the delicious meal, the concert was just beginning to start, so we made our way to the other end of the fair grounds to check it out. We found that we’d have to buy tickets to get inside a fence surrounding the concert stage, but we could hear and see everything from just outside the fence.
Several of the balloon crews set up tailgates with tents, food, and games which made listening to the music even more fun. We met lots of nice people while we enjoyed three different acts.
We eventually meandered back to the beer garden to purchase a few very expensive beers. A lovely couple invited us to join them at a table, and we talked for almost an hour as the beer garden filled up with people leaving the concert stage.
Every person we met at the festival was unbelievably friendly and welcoming. We met people from all over the world. Germany, France, and at least a dozen states were represented. It was incredible to see how this event brought so many different people together.
When the sun started to set, skydivers dropped from the sky carrying an American flag, blowing smoke, and shooting fireworks from their chutes. It was the beginning of the evening session and balloons soon started to inflate when the divers reached the ground.
We didn’t know what to expect as far as the number of balloons and people that would be attending the evening session.
At first, only a few balloons started to expand, but before we knew it, there were dozens of balloons full of air and thousands of people admiring their designs.
The sun set behind a grouping of balloons that John and I were viewing, and it cast a beautiful reddish-orange hue onto the swarms of people and colorful balloons.
When the sun set, the balloons took on a different look. They were only lit from their burners creating a lightbulb-like effect and a more blue hue. The propane flames would fire up in synchronicity or alternate and flicker to put on a show for the audience.
There are well defined paths between each row of baskets, and we wandered in and out of them staring up at the unique pieces. Each one had a different pattern of colors, some had artistic designs, and some were even shaped like characters!
We were absolutely enamored by some of the balloons’ coloring and patterns. Balloons like the Fractal Project were some of our favorites!
The balloon baskets never leave the ground during the night glow, so we were able to get up close and personal with the crews and see inside of the balloons.
After about an hour of showing off, the balloons finally deflated and a fireworks show began. John and I decided to head out and watch the explosions through our windshield. It was a great showcase that lasted roughly 30 minutes and had us leaning forward in our seats in awe.
When we made it through the lines of cars, cones, and cops, we were starving. We made a quick stop off Route 66 at Frontier Restaurant for some delicious and inexpensive Mexican platters. When we had our fill of tacos and enchiladas, we drove into Cibola National Forest and found a place to park for the night. It was only around 9 PM, but we hopped in our car camping setup to get a good night's sleep and prepare for the early morning wakeup call.
Our first alarm went off around 3:30 AM, and we were fully dressed and leaving our parking spot by 4:30. Even with our early start, we were greeted by a line of cars outside of the festival waiting to get in.
When we did get in, we couldn’t believe how many people were in attendance this early in the morning. It was such a spectacle to see thousands of people huddled and snuggling with one another in the cold, dark morning air.
John and I bought hot chocolates and breakfast burritos right away to warm ourselves up. We enjoyed these from our tapestry on a nice, open grassy patch as we waited for the show to begin. When the balloons started to inflate, we instantly finished what we had left and hopped up off the ground.
The first line of balloons to go up is the “Dawn Patrol”. They check the weather conditions and report back to be sure it is safe for other pilots. About ten balloons were blown up first and everyone gathered around their baskets to watch and warm up.
They alternated taking off, and each one received a big round of applause from the audience. One basket had an American flag attached and was playing the national anthem! It was a great start to what would be an incredible morning.
Once they were all up and floating away, more balloons started to pop up. At first, there weren’t many balloons, and John and I both worried that some balloons had packed up and left the festival early. Within a half an hour of the last Dawn Patrol’s takeoff, we were proven wrong.
The sun started to peep out from behind the nearby Sandia Mountains and as it rose, so did the balloons. It was such an exhibition to see hundreds of balloons slowly lifting off into the purple tinted sky.
What started as just a dozen or so balloons turned into fifty, then hundreds of balloons waiting to take off. They used fans then flames to blow up their balloons illuminating the pre-dawn sky.
We walked among and around these brightly colored behemoths with our eyes and mouths wide open in wonderment. It was truly unlike anything I had ever seen.
There were so many more balloons than we had seen the night before, and more balloons were fun-shaped. There was a Smurf, Smokey the Bear, and even a carousel!
It took roughly two hours for all 560 balloons to blow up and take flight, and for that entire two hours, hundreds of thousands of people clamored, took pictures, cheered, oohed, and ahhed at every piece.
When they were all out of reach, we decided to take off ourselves putting the balloons and all the fun we had shared behind us. Neither one of us could believe how magical the festival had been. It was unlike anything we expected, and we cannot wait to return next year with friends to share how spectacular it was!
When we come back, we will keep these few ideas in the back of our minds. Some are lessons learned and others are things we found afterwards on social media:
Talkin' 'bout Tacos:
I'm Taylor, aka Tacos! I am sharing my journeys and experiences from across the world hoping to inspire travel and adventure in all who read.