It’s the world’s largest gathering of hot air balloons, and you literally stand amongst them all in a field, blowing up, flying into the sky (as well as ride ‘em) day after day after day. The Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, October.
Albuquerque, New Mexico has an aerodynamic phenomenon called “the box” — a balloonist’s dream when the weather is right. Rising hot air, cooler air above, a flat terrain surrounded by mountains creates a traffic flow for balloons to go up to a certain altitude, travel in one direction, lower to another altitude and travel right back to the starting point. Doesn’t always happen that way, and it didn’t while we were there, but it was still magical.
I learned a new term, too. “Bucket Listers” – people who travel to destinations on their bucket lists. They used to be Empty Nesters or Retirees. But neither of those really apply to Larry and me – we are definitely Bucket Listers.
If attending the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta (not “festival,” I learned) is on your bucket list, there are plenty of websites out there to help you plan. Let me tell you my Dont’s, from our experience (what, no Do’s?? Just do the opposite of the don’ts):
- Don’t expect a cheap experience. Sure, you can drive your own car, or stay in a camper, only pay the $8 gate pass, bring your own picnics. That’s how locals do it. Or you bite the bullet and have a flight, hotel, rental car or cabs, restaurant meals, balloon rides.
- Don’t hesitate to book your hotel. They sell out.
- Don’t stick your nose up at the idea of a package tour. The mailer from Trojan Travel hit Larry’s desk just at the right time and we bit. Pricier by a long shot, but we received VIP treatment and some bennies of meals, special clubs, bus rides. There are lots of tours out there.
- Don’t wait too long to book a balloon ride – do it in advance. Those also sell out. There is only one vendor, Rainbow Ryders. They have a TON of balloons, but still more people want to ride. $395 per person for about an hour. Schedule it for your FIRST day at the fiesta, because you may have to change it due to cancellation.
- Don’t get pissed if your balloon ride is canceled. Weather rules here. Just hustle you rear over to the Rainbow Ryders’ tent and rebook before the crowd gets there.
- Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can’t get hurt. Check your travel insurance. Hot air balloons can have VERY hard landing (someone broke their leg on the first day this year). Our landing was what I would peg as Mildly Rough. We had to take the crash position in the basket, I hung my camera around my neck and secured it to my arm, then shot this footage out the foot hole. No idea where exactly we were going to land, you will see the outcome.
- Don’t take Alameda as the exit off the freeway to the fiesta. Everyone else does and the backup on the freeway can be an hour. We lucked out with a cab driver who knew this and went just one offramp further, turned under the freeway and got into the short line in.
- Don’t forget your sunscreen, sun hat and warm hat. And many layers of clothes. If you do the early morning thing, you are up by 4 AM to arrive at the fiesta before the sun rises, VERY COLD. Yet, the sun then warms everything up and by early afternoon, you start to sweat and fry. Then the sun sets and you freeze again.
- Don’t bother with binoculars unless you are really a nut about long-distance viewing. We dragged ours along both days and pretty much never used them.
- Don’t forget to bring toilet paper in your pocket. The porta potties sometimes run out of TP.
- Don’t overlook other activities around Albuquerque while there. The fiesta is 10 days long, we went to the balloons the first weekend, twice daily (5 AM and 5 PM) to catch everything visual available to us – early liftoffs, the huge wave of balloons, then more in the afternoon, sunset, the “glow” and the most fabulous fireworks ever. But still… check out the Breaking Bad Experience tour.