This 9-day event fills the sky with colorful, fanciful figures and puts RVers right in the heart of the action
Some days it pays to get up early. Last October we rolled out of bed, donned our warmest jackets, and left our Class B Sprinter motorhome in the dark. The worldâ€™s largest ballooning event â€” the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta â€” was about to get underway a few hundred yards from where we had slept.
Would the balloons fly? The day before, my husband, Bob, had driven us through a dust storm and 60 mph wind gusts that had blown shipping containers off a moving freight train. We had checked into the RV lot in a downpour and our first anticipated evening event had been canceled.
But now, less than 12 hours later, we watched Dawn Patrol pilots ascend to test wind speeds and directions at different altitudes. We walked from balloon to balloon as pilots and crew prepared to launch. At sunrise, two balloons took the American flag aloft and a gathering crowd sang the Star Spangled Banner. Amazing shapes and colors rose into a brilliant autumn sky one by one for two hours. It was a â€œbucket listâ€ day that weâ€™ll never forget.
Lesson learned: Weather in Albuquerque, New Mexico, can be fickle. If you plan to attend the Fiesta, itâ€™s a factor worth considering, along with when to arrive, how long to stay and where to park the motorhome.
At first glance, planning a night or two to see a few major events during the nine-day Fiesta might sound feasible. But we learned that the Balloonmeister (thatâ€™s a real title) will postpone or cancel flights for safety, sometimes at the last minute, due to rain, visibility less than 3 miles, clouds below 1,500 feet or winds faster than 10 knots.
Pilots also may decide to cancel when winds seem too light. Like Goldilocksâ€™ porridge, conditions have to be just right. So itâ€™s a good idea to plan on coming for at least half, if not all, of the Fiesta.
The fun kicks off on an early October Saturday and wraps up nine days later on Sunday, with the busiest schedules on the two weekends. Sessions start early in the morning or around sunset, and very little takes place midday.
Traffic and parking are major issues when 100,000 people converge anywhere. Lucky RVers can skip the hassles by booking the Balloon Fiesta Parkâ€™s sites. Reservations open online almost a year in advance, and a downloadable map on the website shows the facilityâ€™s layout. Youâ€™ll have four site choices, all rally-style:
â€œStandardâ€ ($30 per night, dry camping on a dirt field) and â€œPremiumâ€ ($65, 30-amp electricity and water provided) have free shuttles to the launch-field entrance. Event admission is not included ($8 per person, 12 and younger free, two tickets needed daily if you attend morning and evening sessions).
â€œVIPâ€ ($85 per night) is dry camping on a paved lot adjacent to the launch field, with a three-night minimum stay and convenient entry passes included. Generator fumes filled the air and our site needed a lot of leveling, but we would choose this option again. From the West VIP lot, we could walk to events in minutes.
The â€œPresidentâ€™s Compoundâ€ ($150 per night) provides city water pressure and 30-amp electricity on a bluff overlooking the launch field. These sites, with a three-night minimum stay and four entry passes included, sell out very quickly.
Wherever you stay, there are no dump stations, showers or restrooms other than portable toilets. (A pump-out wagon or water truck will visit you for $25.) Sites are 19 feet wide by 50 feet deep, assigned when you arrive. On check-in, youâ€™ll receive window cards, including a parking permit for your dinghy vehicle. (Avoid driving during event arrival and departure times.)
If you belong to an RV club or ownersâ€™ organization, you may want to investigate whether a Fiesta rally is scheduled with a block of reserved sites. Commercial caravan companies also include the Fiesta in their itineraries.
Can you just show up? â€œAn RV can arrive without a reservation for a Standard site, what we call our drive-ins,â€ advised Jennifer Garcia, who handles reservations. â€œThe price is still the same, but this allows for the RV traveler who is either traveling through town or has arrived earlier than expected to come and enjoy the festivities.â€
If you stay elsewhere, be prepared for Fiesta-inflated pricing and stiff cancellation penalties, and ask about availability of shuttle services. If you drive your car, youâ€™ll pay $10 each time you park on-site (Park & Ride locations are also available around Albuquerque). Arrive between 4:30 and 5 a.m. for weekend morning sessions, and by 4 p.m. for evening events.
UP, UP, BUT NOT ALWAYS AWAY
Youâ€™ll hear people refer to the Albuquerque Box, a morning ballooning phenomenon caused by wind patterns in the Rio Grande Valley beside the Sandia Mountains. Pilots launch into cold surface winds from the north and ascend into winds from the south that can reverse their direction when the box effect is occurring.
However, with light morning winds during our stay, campers were sometimes treated to the sight of dozens of balloons hovering over and landing in the RV lot near the launch field (perhaps not much of a treat for passengers who had an abbreviated flight). Pilots can control altitude but balloons tend to go where the available wind takes them.
A lot of the fun is on the ground. Unlike most aviation shows, the Fiesta allows attendees to roam freely on the launch field among the balloons instead of confining them behind barricades in viewing stands. Youâ€™ll get a chance to see how pilots inflate their balloons with propane burners, and watch crew members at work close up. Dress warmly since temperatures in the 30s are common on the 78-acre grass field.
The big crowd pleaser is a mass ascension at dawn when 550 or more hot-air balloons rise into the air in two waves, surely one of the happiest events on the planet. Five of these are scheduled, weather permitting; a Flight of the Nations before the midweek ascension features international pilots who display their countryâ€™s flag. In 2013, 18 nations were represented including the United States.
You, too, can climb into a rattan basket and head for the sky during a mass ascension. Schedule your ballooning through Rainbow Ryders, the official ride concession for the Fiesta.
In addition to classic teardrop-shaped balloons, almost 100 â€œspecial shapesâ€ participate annually, including a cow, pig, daisy, stagecoach and Darth Vader. People wait, cameras poised, to see their favorites in action, such as Brazilâ€™s bee balloons that sometimes â€œkissâ€ as they rise with a little help from their pilots. Snow White (from England), Angry Bird (from the U.S.) and eight others were newcomers in 2013.
â€œZebrasâ€ (launch directors in black-and-white striped shirts) keep the activities well organized, along with the Albuquerque Police Departmentâ€™s Open Space & Horse Mounted Unit team. Riding high on draft breed horses, these officers survey the scene 360 degrees and perform the impressive task of moving the crowds quickly when balloons need to land.
Pilots have several opportunities to compete for accuracy during the Fiesta by flying to designated targets, dropping weighted markers on targets, attempting to navigate to tall poles with prizes attached, and so on. Speed matters only in the long-distance Americaâ€™s Challenge Gas Balloon Race. Teams flying hydrogen balloons depart on the first Saturday, and the one that travels the longest distance wins.
HOW WILL YOU KNOW IF ITâ€™S A GO?
While youâ€™re sipping coffee in your coach before dawn, Albuquerqueâ€™s NBC-TV station, KOB channel 4, is a great source of up-to-the minute launch information from an on-site team. We had no problem picking up local channels at the Fiesta RV park using our over-the-air antenna.
In 2013, Fiesta officials came up with a low-tech system to let visitors already milling around the launch field know whatâ€™s happening. A flagpole by the stage in the Main Street vendor area displayed a colored flag for event status: green meant on schedule; yellow, a delay or pending decision; and red, cancelled for the session.
MORE THINGS TO DO
If you enjoy volunteering, sign up online in the spring or summer, or ask around after you arrive. The Fiesta relies on 900 to 1,000 volunteers each year, plus another 2,000 who sign up to be part of a chase crew. Around 25 percent of the volunteers come from out of state.
Shoppers will find Fiesta pins and other merchandise in the vendor area on Main Street alongside the launch field. People line up to buy about 60,000 collectible pins each year and attend pin-trading sessions on both weekends.
You can also buy food and beverages on Main Street, including the Fiestaâ€™s traditional breakfast burritos topped with green chile. (Culinary alert: Itâ€™s spelled chile, not chili, and locals donâ€™t refer to it as â€œsauce.â€)
The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum just south of the launch field has balloon-shaped glass walls and is well worth a visit. Exhibits explain the history of ballooning and trace the Fiestaâ€™s progress from its 1972 start in a parking lot with 13 balloons.
MOMENTS OF MAGIC
Even after developing â€œballoon neckâ€ from tilted heads, we couldnâ€™t get enough of the colorful array in Albuquerqueâ€™s skies each morning. Delightful days ended with Afterglow fireworks we could watch from the comfort of our motorhomeâ€™s front window.
Just before dusk on our final evening, we walked back to the launch field to see crew members fire up their propane burners one last time and hear the â€œwhooshâ€ as pilots inflated balloons, tethered to glow instead of go. We couldnâ€™t help noticing pure joy on the four upturned faces of a young family standing next to us as they watched and pointed at the flashing lights. For all of us, young and old, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta had delivered yet another magical moment.
If You Go
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
888-422-7277 | www.balloonfiesta.com
GPS address: 5000 Balloon Fiesta Pkwy NE, Albuquerque, NM
Mailing address: 4401 Alameda NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113
Reservation forms are online or call Jennifer Garcia 505-821-1000 ext. 107. Leashed pets are allowed in the RV lots, but not on the launch field.
Application forms are online or contact event coordinator Sandy Wylie [email protected]
Future Fiesta dates
October 4-12, 2014
October 3-11, 2015
October 1-9, 2016
800-725-2477 | www.rainbowryders.com
Albuquerque Balloon Museum
Open 5 a.m.-5 p.m. during the Fiesta