Festivals are one of the activities we enjoy as we travel along in our RV. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta held every October is one of the largest balloon gatherings in the world. It had been on our Bucket List for a long time. Finally we were here. They do have RV sites in a field adjacent to the Fiesta but they are rather close together. If you’ve read our blog before then you know being crammed in is not our style. We chose to stay about 30 minutes north at Cochiti Lake in the electric and water loop. The park is located on land owned by the Cochiti Pueblo and the lake is a Corps of Engineers project. It was a very easy commute to the Fiesta Park down I-25.
The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is one of the few balloon festivals that allow spectators to mingle with participants on the field throughout the event. This allows you to watch and ask questions. We talked with pilots, crews and chase teams and learned from them. Most hot air balloons are made in Brazil. The simplest balloons cost $25,000-50,000 while the special shape balloons are well over $100,000. Each balloon team is assigned a spot on the field marked with a letter and number. The field is huge. Steve paced it off and we estimated it was four football fields wide by twelve football field long. The reason the festival is held here at this time of year is the appearance of favorable winds which allow them to fly “the box”. They generally launch and fly south at one altitude then with a blast of the burner increase altitude and fly north back to the starting area where they come back to the original altitude. Repeating this cycle allows them to stay aloft for a long time. Each balloon waits for directions from the “Zebra” overseeing their launch. These are the launch directors wearing black and white shirts. They are responsible for keeping the balloons safely separated in the air. Not an easy task when you have over 300 balloons aloft! Hot air balloons must have an inside temperature one hundred degrees higher than the outside temperature to launch. That’s one reason they fly early in the day or towards evening. The chase teams follow the balloons when they begin final decent. Pilots try not to fly too far north of the field as this could cause them to land on an Indian Reservation. Chase teams are not allowed to enter reservation property without a native guide. Waiting for a guide when a balloon does come down on a reservation can add hours to the recovery time. The entire festival is dependent on volunteers and is so well organized that you are unaware of the complexity involved.
A few things we learned from our first visit to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta are:
1) Plan on attending for the entire festival as cancellations due to high winds or inclement weather mean on average 6 out of 10 events will go as planned. We came for 5 days and both evening glow and farewell mass ascension events were cancelled. Not that we need an excuse to return but when we come back….
2) If you can arrive for morning events by 5am and afternoon events by 4pm then there is ample parking ($10) at Fiesta Park. Otherwise plan on using free satellite parking and the shuttle.
3) The online ticket purchasing site is a bit confusing for first time users. We had purchased specific tickets but with hindsight if you are attending multiple events the package of 5 general admission tickets would work better. Also in the future we will plan on one event each day as there is little going on mid day.
The Balloon Fiesta Museum is well worth a visit and is open year round. The festival also provides free activities for kids (of all ages), the Woodcarvers Championships, an information tent run by NASA and a variety of street performers. As we were leaving one day we stopped at a ventriloquist. He (the puppet) started talking to me. As I stepped up to have my picture taken he “jumped” and screamed as if I’d “goosed” him which, of course, made me laugh just as Steve snapped the picture!
4) Plan to dress in layers including hats, gloves etc. as it is quite cold both early and late in the day but warms quickly so you’ll be shedding and lugging the extra clothes. Wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be walking miles by the time you finish wandering from place to place. You won’t care though as you’ll feel like a kid in a candy store.
5) Bring your own food if possible. There are numerous food outlets but the cost is very high for what you get and in our opinion not all that great. There are tons of souvenir booths too but again we felt $35 for a T-shirt was a bit much.
There is no way we could give you the true experience of being here. We’ll try our best via a 16 minute video. This is one festival you need to see.