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The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

October 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Every autumn, Albuquerque plays host to the International Balloon Fiesta: a gathering of hundreds of hot air balloonists (and their balloons) from around the world.  People come from as far away as New Zealand to participate in the gathering.   It's quite common at this time of year to look up and see the sky filled with dozens if not hundreds of hot air balloons.

Autumn in New Mexico is particularly attractive for hot air balloonists owing to something known as the "Albuquerque Box", a strange but fortuitious wind pattern well-suited to the endeavors of those who seek to emulate the brothers Montgolfier.  I don't know if the box persists all day long, but it starts early in the day, perhaps even before sunrise.  Which means that if you go to the Fiesta, there will be thousands of people watching the first wave of balloons getting inflated well before sunrise.  And there's hot chocolate and music and vendors and funnel cakes.  It's like the State Fair, but at 5:30 in the morning so nobody is fewer people are drunk.

And there are balloons.  Lots and lots of balloons.

Today I made my second visit to the Balloon Fiesta since I've lived in New Mexico.  I forgot how much I enjoyed it the first time.  I don't know why I waited so long to return.  I'm so glad I went to the effort of waking up at o'dark thirty this morning.

The cool thing about the fiesta is that all the balloon crews line up in long rows, like a big checkerboard pattern, on a large field.  But it's not fenced off—you can walk around the field and watch the crews unloading the gondolas, unfurling the balloons, inflating them, taking off...  It's great fun.  Once in a while somebody dressed as a referee will warn you to get out of the way so that you don't get rammed by a gondola sweeping across the field 4' above the ground.  And sometimes, in the case of oddly-shaped balloons, you might have to dodge the occasional hoof as the envelope unfolds:

A cow-shaped hot air balloon, with a gondola udder.

It's fun to get there while it's still dark.  (Even more fun once you've made it through the traffic jam and have had a cup of coffee.)  The field is soft and peaceful (ignoring the PA system and the carnival barkers down the way), with the darkness and (relative) quiet punctuated by the random whooooosh of a propane burner inflating a balloon.  The burners shoot impressive gouts of flame not unlike something from The Princess Bride, and when they do, the balloons glow like light bulbs.

A blurry photo of three balloons alighting in darkness.  One glows.

(It's also a little tricky to get a good photo of this phenomenon, if you're a crap photographer like I am.  The problem is that I'll get ready to take a low-light shot, but as soon as I've got it focused, the burner will fire off a bright gout of flame, and the camera tries to reset for the new light conditions.  And as soon as it does, the burner stops, and we're plunged back into darkness.  Also, I'm a cruddy photographer.  My friend EE Giorgi did a much better job of capturing the balloon glow.  In fact, just go look at those photos instead.)

But once the sun rises, and more and more envelopes get inflated, you realize you're standing in the midst of a bizarre forest.

A forest of hot air balloons.

A forest of hot air balloons.

A forest of hot air balloons.

They launch in wave after wave.  Soon the sky is full of hot air balloons:

A sky full of balloons.

My favorite balloon of the morning was this one:

A pig-shaped hot air balloon in a red and blue spiderman design

That's right: Spider-Pig.

So that was my morning.  Then I went home and flew a kite.


Steve Halter October 3, 2011 at 7:46 am
That looks like a lot of fun. It must have been a very nice day with all of the balloons going up. We used to go to Indianola (IA) for the National Balloon Classic in late July. We would visit my uncle and have a nice picnic. Unfortunately, we seemed good at picking windy days and so I only ever got to see scattered takeoffs--nothing like the mass balloon forest in you shots. Neat! There are a few balloonists here in Rochester and our house must lie under their route as every now and then we'll here the whoosh of the burner going overhead. I always go out to watch the balloon sailing overhead--it seems quite magically suspended rolling through the waves of the sky.
EEGiorgi October 3, 2011 at 8:18 pm
Oooohhhh.... you were brave, you went at dawn! See, I did wake up very early on Sunday, but only because I had to catch a plane. However, I did enjoy the launch from the airport terminal -- it was pretty cool (though I was kind of nervous the airplane might run into a balloon during take off). As for the pictures, I had a tripod with me. I could've killed a bunch of kids since the place was packed and there was no way to see where I was jabbing the thing, but luckily no major incident occurred. Except me getting lost, but that's another story. ;-) Those are really great pictures, now I'm thinking I should try and get up early next week-end...
Sara G. October 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm
Wow, that looks amazing! There are very few things I would consider worth getting up at o'dark thirty for but that looks like it would be one of them. Who do you have to know in order to get to be IN one of the balloons?
Ian October 5, 2011 at 9:47 am
No kidding, Steve? I've never heard about the Indianola balloon gathering. If I had known about it when I lived in MN I would have cajoled some friends into driving down with me. How cool to see random hot air balloons showing up over your house! Elena, you must have had some great views from the airport. I wondered about that, in fact, because the wind was blowing from the north and so the "lower level" of the box pushed the balloons toward downtown ABQ, and I wondered what happened if they went off course near the airport and the Air Force base. Sara, it is totally worth getting up at o'dark thirty for the Mass Ascension. It's surreal and beautiful and then by 9am you've had a full day's worth of fun and the whole day is still ahead of you! I ran into some acquaintances in the pre-dawn dark, not expecting to see them there, and discovered to my delight they were there because they were part of a balloon crew. So I got to watch up close as they set up and launched their balloon. There are balloon rides available (the cow balloon had an extra large gondola, iirc), but I decided (and was warned by a balloon crew-member) that balloon rides can be incompatible with a fear of heights.
meredith July 26, 2013 at 7:00 pm

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