Albuquerque: The Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World

Take to the skies! It's what hundreds of hot air balloons do every fall during Albuquerque's Balloon Fiesta.

For nine days each October, all eyes turn skyward in Albuquerque for the city’s International Balloon Fiesta.

Somewhere between 700 and 1,000 hot air balloons glide over the city as part of an event that draws visitors -- both balloonists and gawkers -- from all over the globe, doubling the metro area’s size for two weeks every fall. The International Balloon Fiesta has made Albuquerque the hot air ballooning capital of the world.

The event had humble beginnings. In 1972 in the parking lot of an Albuquerque mall, two men gathered 13 balloon pilots together for a flight. Nearly four decades later, the fiesta has grown into the biggest hot air balloon event in the world. It’s headquartered at Balloon Fiesta Park just north of the city. In 2005, a hot air balloon museum chronicling the history of ballooning opened at the site. The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum contains an impressive collection of artifacts and memorabilia.

Why Albuquerque?

Wind currents and air temperature are key to the successful flying of hot air balloons, and Albuquerque has the perfect combination of these elements.

The “Albuquerque Box” is a set of predictable wind patterns that make navigating a balloon fairly simple. At lower elevations in the Rio Grande Valley, where the city sits, the winds are southerly. At higher elevations, the winds are northerly. So balloon pilots can launch their craft from Balloon Fiesta Park, drift down the Valley, catch another wind current and drift back north and land near the place they started. The city’s cool morning temperatures also make it easier to fly a balloon; the balloons rise faster in cool air. According to the National Weather Service, Albuquerque’s wind pattern and temperatures are balloon-perfect in October.

Fiesta events

During the fiesta, balloons are aloft daily between 7 and 10 a.m. At dusk, the 360-acre Balloon Fiesta Park becomes a sea of people again when tourists and locals gather for the balloon glow. Officially called the Balloon Glowdeo (rhymes with rodeo), this is when balloon crew unfold and inflate the nylon balloon while it’s tethered to the ground. When the sky is dark enough, the balloons glow and flicker, illuminated by the gas flames that normally act as their engines. It’s quite a sight.

Of balloons, pins and hats

Balloon enthusiasts are a broad demographic. Most are not balloon pilots and many have never set foot in a gondola (the basket where the people ride in a hot air balloon). The closest most spectators get to riding in a balloon is collecting the hat pins and trading cards issued for balloons in the Fiesta. Nearly every balloon that flies at the event has a limited-edition special pin and trading card with its picture or logo. These items are sold in vendor booths that line the park grounds during the event. Some of the most collectible are pins of uniquely shaped balloons -- hot-air craft made to look like Darth Vader, a castle, Noah’s ark, farm animals, a pair of handholding bumblebees or Jesus on a cloud.

If you want a more hands-on balloon experience, several companies offer balloon rides during the Fiesta. These include the champagne “dunk” ritual at the end of the ride. Balloonists traditionally end their ride by popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly. Never let it be said balloon pilots and their crews don’t know how to celebrate life.

For more information, contact the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (www.balloonfiesta.com), 4401 Alameda Blvd. N.E., Albuquerque 87113, (505) 821-1000 or (888) 422-7277.

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