The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air ballooning event in the world, attracts pilots, crews, and spectators from all over the globe every fall. Each morning when dawn breaks over the Sandia Mountains for nine days during the first full week of October, hundreds of vibrant balloons float above the city. It makes sense that this visual feast would rank as the most photographed event in history.
Picture a connect-the-dots rainbow of mammoth balloons filling the sky, from the horizon to the stratosphere, while thousands of tiny-as-ants onlookers pepper the flats below. This is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which takes place each year at the southern end of the fabled Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just east of Navajo country and an hour from 400-year-old Santa Fe. From the early sunrise Dawn Patrol to the evening’s “Glowdeo” parade, balloon races, and much more, this event is a spectacle of wonder for all ages. The festival is book-ended by two weekends in October with balloon die-hards holed up in Albuquerque for the entire event.
With just 13 balloons, the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta debuted in 1972. For 20,000 onlookers, this was set up in the Coronado Shopping Mall as a roadrunner vs. coyote chase, with one balloon acting as the lead roadrunner and the rest as coyotes. The fiesta’s scope and scale grew after the World Hot Air Balloon Championships were merged with it in 1975. The fiesta grew steadily every year until 2000, when more than a thousand competitors led organizers to set a limit of 750 balloons for the race. This restriction highlighted a quality-over-quantity aesthetic that has raised the bar for balloon design every year, producing only extravagant and vibrant balloons for what has grown to be the largest balloon conference in the world. Both the more typical fire-warmed hot-air balloons, whose glowing side effect is used in the night flights, and the European-style balloons filled with precious helium gas appear.
Every year, the event, which takes place in the enormous 78-acre Balloon Fiesta Park, draws some 100,000 spectators who take advantage of the “Albuquerque Box,” a window of ideal weather for hot air balloon rides. Watching the sky fill with balloons from the ground is truly an awe-inspiring, borderline spiritual sight.
Get up early and be there at 5:45 to see the Dawn Patrol. Balloon pilots started doing this dawn ride ritual after the technology for balloon illumination was reliable enough for night rides. It is a serene and lovely sight to witness dozens of giant glowing lanterns floating up into the night sky and touching down just as the sun is rising. It also performs a useful function by forecasting the day’s remaining wind direction and speed. This morning’s event is comparable to a scaled-up version of Thailand’s Yi Peng Sky Lantern Festival or Taiwan’s Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival.