Dragons, Elvis, Darth Vader, and zebras soar above the dramatic landscape of New Mexico every October during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest annual gathering of hot-air balloons. Nearly one hundred shaped balloons, ranging from animals to aliens, sail through the azure, southwestern skies among more than 550 traditional hot-air balloons, representing 22 nations during mass ascensions throughout the week. Albuquerque’s wide-open spaces, sunny skies, favorable wind currents, and 5,000-foot elevation make it a premiere ballooning destination.
New to the event in 2017 is the Candlestick Burn, when hundreds of balloons flare their burners in the predawn darkness in a stunning sight before attaching their envelopes for mass ascensions. The 78-acre launch field becomes a forest of billowing color as field officials—called zebras for their customized black-and-white referee uniforms—direct launches by blowing their whistles to the roaring cheers of thousands. Most evenings close with tethered balloons glowing and firework shows lighting up the darkness.
“What makes Fiesta so special, beyond being the largest in the world, is that people can walk on the field while they’re launching and even help,” says Amanda Molina, one of the fiesta staffers. “People from all over the world all come together wide-eyed at the sight. Everyone’s a kid that week.”
Guests can closely join the fun by signing up to be part of a chase crew, helping to set up the balloons and following them to help land. Free bicycle storage is available for those wanting to beat the traffic and to cruise around under the spectacular sight above.
The event heats up during the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race one evening, when eight teams from the around the world vie to win the honor of the longest distance traveled in a helium-filled balloon. Meanwhile musicial performances like country star Billy Currington set the soundtrack on Saturday.
Starting as a modest event in 1972 with just 13 balloons, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta quickly grew to attract hundreds of balloonists from around the globe today. And bonus? The city's rich Native American and Spanish cultural heritage, Southwestern art galleries inside ancient adobe dwellings, and thriving food scene make for a great trip any time of the year.
Writer Steve Larese, based in Albuquerque, is a frequent contributor for National Geographic Travel. Follow him on Twitter.