Before October, there were few things higher on my bucket list than attending the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The largest hot air balloon festival in the world, who wouldn’t want to watch balloons flying thousands of feet over your head? Henry and I grew up and lived in the state next door for more than 20 years and never made it to Albuquerque, let alone during the magical balloon fiesta week. So when planning what our travel would look like in 2016, Albuquerque was one of the first trips we booked.
I could fill this entire post with pictures, but there are actually quite a few tips to having a successful trip. Here are some of the things we learned after our first experience at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta:
Book as early as possible. Albuquerque’s fiesta is attended by thousands of people every year. It’s not unusual for there to be 80,000+ people wandering among the balloons during any mass ascension. So booking early to get the hotel, car, and rates we wanted was crucial to making this trip work. When checking out at the car rental counter, we overheard another couple that ended up spending almost four times what we did for our car! The event happens at the beginning of October every year and the dates are posted as far out as 2020. We love a good southwest resort and stayed at the Tamaya Resort just north of the festival grounds.
Take advantage of alternative transportation to the event. While you’ll want a car to explore Albuquerque during the day, driving all the way to the fiesta is a nightmare. Instead, take a shuttle from one of several parking lots around the city. They run regularly, give you a throw back to your days riding the school bus, help you avoid stressful traffic, and give you an opportunity to get some extra zzz in (believe me, you’ll need it).
Get to the park early. Not only do you want to give yourself extra time to commute to the park and claim a spot to see the event start to unfold, it’s hard to resist exploring the tents filled with local art, fair food, and souvenirs. For mass ascension, get to the commuter lot by 5:00 a.m. For Balloon Glow, arrive in the commuter lot by 5:00 p.m.
Pack snacks if you don’t want fried food or $10 cups of coffee. Yep, you read that right. I purchased the most expensive cup of coffee EVER. Guests are allowed to bring food and beverage into the park, so just do it. Stop at Starbucks, bring a cup from your hotel room, pack some instant in your bag. Don’t be dumb like us. It’s just not worth it to spend $20 on two cups of mediocre coffee. Food in the park is your standard fair food meaning corn dogs, fry bread, doughnuts, and, because it’s New Mexico, burritos.
Attend a balloon glow BEFORE seeing mass ascension. There are events in the morning and at night. Most of the pictures we see are for mass ascension, which is when 500+ balloons are launched into the air over the course of about 1.5 hours in the morning. Balloon glow takes a variety of forms throughout the fiesta, but it always occurs at night and involves filling and lighting the balloons without them actually taking off. Both events are spectacular, but balloon glow is a great introduction to the festival. You can walk among the balloons, talk to the crews, and learn how the balloons are operated from start to end. Everything just moves slower during the glow – you can watch the balloons unfold and slowly fill in a way that seems to get lost amongst the chaos of mass ascension. But also, once you’ve actually watched the ascension, balloon glow seems pretty anticlimactic when in reality it’s a quite beautiful and enlightening event.
Bring your camera, lenses, extra batteries, and backup cameras. You are NOT going to want to miss capturing this event. Mass ascension was the most magical three hours of the year. We spent our time admiring the beauty and wonder of the event. It’s something that you will work all morning to capture and never really feel like you’ve done enough to show how amazing and surreal it is to be surrounded by massive balloons launching into the air.
Move away from the crowds and seek higher ground. The key to capturing really great pictures of the event is to move around. Start with the crowds and where the first balloons are being filled, then start moving toward the edges of the park to get different vantage points. Our favorite spot was on the southwest end of the park. We found small hills and a few random ponds where you can escape the crowds and get some great shots of the balloons. But remember – the best vantage point changes depending on which direction the balloons are moving!
For more information on the event, visit the official website which is filled with TONS of useful information: http://www.balloonfiesta.com/.