Mass Happiness in Albuquerque

National Geographic Digital Media staffer Jo Dickison was in Albuquerque last week to watch the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.  She shares a few tips for travelers planning to make the trip.

Mass Happiness has begun. The 2009 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta kicked off on Saturday with the spectacular mass ascension of 600-plus hot air balloons, dancing a delicate rainbow ballet in the air. The “mass happiness” theme is apt – it’s hard not to smile at the sight of these balloons gently lifting into the sky. The annual Fiesta, which runs through October 11, includes a full roster of activities, but here are a few of the highlights.

Each day of the festival begins with the Dawn Patrol, where 12 balloons ascend to test the wind speed and direction for the mass lift-off at dawn. Saturday’s Mass Ascension came off beautifully, with hundreds of balloons participating and excellent weather. Aside from the some 500 regular hot air balloons this year, there are an additional 80 or so “special shape” balloons of cartoon characters that are perennial favorites with kids. Look out for a flying pink pig, a floating Pepsi can and the Two Bees, which turns up every year. In the evenings there is usually a Glow Show at dusk when the balloons on the field are inflated and lit with burners, creating a lovely glow across the field. The glows are followed by a fireworks display, bringing the day’s festivities to a close around 9 p.m. each night.

The Albuquerque festival is billed as the largest balloon festival in the world, and is unique in that visitors on the field can watch every step in the process as the crews prepare, inflate and launch the balloons. Festival Launch Directors, known as Zebras for the black-and-white shirts they wear, are in charge of air traffic control and launch procedures.

Aside from the main event of watching balloons lift off, the festival offers many other attractions for visitors. You can take a balloon ride yourself or explore the perimeter of Fiesta Park, which is lined with entertainers, arts and crafts stands, food vendors and kiddie carnival rides. This is an ideal place to get your funnel cake/breakfast burrito/corndog fix. There is also a Balloon Museum on one corner of the park and an interactive Balloon Discovery Center with a very cool flight simulator for children, which lets them step inside a gondola and try to learn how to control a balloon. And there is the ECHO Chainsaw Carving Competition and various raffles and technical competitions for the balloon pilots.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the festival:

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  • Plan ahead – The festival is a very large event with huge crowds, so purchase tickets online in advance and plan for the traffic and parking problems near the park. Have a Plan B in case weather cancels a balloon event.
  • Start early – The Mass Ascensions are at 7 a.m. but crowds arrive at 5:30 or 6 to get the best views.
  • Dress in layers – It can be chilly in New Mexico in October, particularly before dawn and after sunset. A small flashlight is also a handy item to have on hand.
  • Bring a big appetite – The festival is a smorgasbord of tempting items, from Southwestern BBQ to all sorts of deliciously greasy fair food.
  • Pack a camera – To get the best photos, try to catch the early morning Dawn Patrol and evening Balloon Glows.

For more information about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, visit www.balloonfiesta.com.

Photos: Jo Dickison

For more information about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, visit www.balloonfiesta.com.

Photos: Jo Dickison

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