If you’ve never been to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, this is definitely one to put on the bucket list! Words and photos can only go so far in conveying just how awesome this event is. To truly experience the balloon magic you have to see it for yourself.
If you are planning to attend one of these years (and have an RV) I would highly recommend joining an RV group so you can camp near the field. The traffic getting in and out of the balloon park is rumored to be horrific at peak hours, and we witnessed some ridiculously long lines for the shuttle buses, making us very happy that our house was only a few minutes walk from all the action. There are numerous RV groups who attend the event, or you can go out on your own and pay $85/night to park where we were in the VIP RV section, or $30/night across the street near the landing field.
We joined the Airstream group and paid a total of $340 for four nights of camping in an ultra premium location (the Airstreams in the front row had a view of the field), plus two Fiesta passes good for 4 days. The break down was $70/night for camping and $64 worth of tickets. A few people have asked how we joined up with the Airstream group, so I thought I would give a quick run down. We knew some folks who attended last year and heard that to get in you needed to reserve early, so last winter Tim started watching the Balloon Fiesta thread on the Airforums, and when the time came we requested a sign up form. The Airstream gathering is put on by the Four Corners region of the WBCCI (The official Airstream club), but it’s open for non-members as well. We’re not members, but we do enjoy the Airstream community, and above and beyond seeing all the balloons were excited to attend a large gathering of our fellow aluminum lovers. They only have space for 200 trailers, so if you want to join be sure to get your form and deposit in early!
The official start of the Balloon Fiesta was on Saturday, but for us the fun started Friday morning when we met up with the Airstream group at Camping World. Instead of allowing all 200 Airstreams to arrive at the Balloon Park by themselves, creating a dis-organized cluster of trailers all trying to park at once, we were instructed to meet at Camping World between 7 and noon on Friday morning. From there they lined us up and we caravanned over to the balloon field in groups of 10. We coordinated with the two couples that we met last week in Santa Fe so we could be in the same caravan and park next to each other at the Fiesta. We also added another vacationing couple from Wisconsin, John & Terri, to our group.
We were told that it didn’t matter what time you got to Camping World because all the spots in the VIP RV parking section were equally good. I think that might be stretching it a bit, because even though it was just a large parking lot, some spots are most definitely better than others. We know because we got one of the worst. Even though we pulled into CW at 9:00 we were one of the last groups to be parked, and consequently ended up in the last spot in the very last row of Airstreams next to the parking lot for the Balloon Museum. Behind us was another parking lot that filled with cars everyday for the early morning and evening festivities. To a certain extent it was fun to be on the end because lots of people stopped to talk to us about Airstreams while we were sitting outside.
The annoying part was that all those people who parked in the lot behind us used our front yard as a walkway. This was most aggravating at 5 am when people started arriving to see the early morning balloons. To be fair, most people probably didn’t consider that there were real people sleeping inside those trailers only steps away from where they were talking VERY loudly, slamming their car doors, locking and re-locking their cars while making those high pitched beeping noises, and shuffling their feet on the pavement past our bedroom windows. We can’t complain too much though, because we did end up parking with our group of friends who all have solar panels, so at least our section was free of loud generator noise. And it is a parking lot, so I guess we shouldn’t have expected much in the way of a peaceful night’s sleep.
There were no balloon events on Friday, so after settling in we spent the remainder of the afternoon checking out all the Airstreams and getting to know some of our fellow streamers. In our travels we tend to meet mostly full-time Airstreamers who gravitate toward the newer Airstreams, with the 27′ FB model being the most popular. While this is a great choice for full-timing with a roomy layout and a modern interior, they all pretty much look the same. So we enjoyed the opportunity to see some other models- especially the older, highly polished ones.
At four o’clock we wandered over to the central gathering place in the middle of the Airstreams to check in and receive our tickets. Check-in was followed by a catered New Mexican dinner with lots of announcements about what to expect over the next few days. We met some new people at dinner, including a younger couple from Florida, Sarah & Frank, who are on a two week vacation in their super cute, super tiny, 16′ Airstream Bambi.
After dinner the gathering broke up and we headed back to our section of the parking area with our new friends in tow. We also hooked up with film maker Eric Bricker who we spotted earlier when we pulled into the Balloon Park. We first met Eric last November when he came out to Lake Mead to film us and some other Airstreamers for the documentary he’s making all about Airstreams and Airstream culture. It was great to see him again, and I can’t wait to see the film when it comes out!
Everyone retired fairly early on Friday night in anticipation of an early start on Saturday. Sure enough, the day started bright and early. Well…not really bright since it was still dark when we were awoken by the previously mentioned hordes of elephants, I mean people, walking past our bedroom window. It was only 5 am, and we hadn’t intended to get up until 6 and then wander down to the field for the Dawn Patrol balloons that were set to fly at 6:30. Not sure why all those people arrived so early, but the noise of their feet and voices, combined the many helicopters hovering overhead (they go up early to test the wind speeds), meant we were up for good. So we dressed in warm layers and headed down to the field. Just as predicted the first balloons went up around 6:30, and since we had plenty of time to walk down there, we ended up in the perfect position to watch them inflate and rise.
After the Dawn Patrol we wandered around the field, weaving our way through hordes of people and balloons in all stages of inflation. One of the coolest things about the fiesta is that us spectators are allowed to walk around the field amongst the balloons. It was totally thrilling to stand next to these giants as they inflated and rose into the sky. At 7 am the national anthem was sung and the Mass Ascension began. This event is exactly what it sounds like. A mass amount of balloons ascending into the sky in waves. The first wave to go up were the balloons for hire that people paid big bucks to ride in. I would love, love, love to ride in a hot air balloon one day, but I don’t think this is the place to do it. For one, the price is far more than what you would pay on a normal day, and for two, the scenery around Albuquerque is…well, let’s just say not too scenic. So we’ll save that adventure for another time. This week we were more than happy to simply watch from the ground.
As the balloons rose into the morning sun, we slowly made our way through the crowd to met up with fellow RVers, Brenda & Hector. We first met them last winter and were very happy to learn they would be at the Fiesta. They are also staying onsite not too far from us with one of the Escapees RV groups. In addition to snagging a great parking spot right next to the landing field, they also volunteered to be part of the balloon crew who helps launch the balloons. Which is where we caught up with them. Hector, of course, was multi-tasking by taking what are sure to be spectacular photos while helping with the balloon launch.
The mass ascension was well under way at this point with hundreds and hundreds of balloons floating up into the air. The crowd on the field was was dense, and with nearly every person pointing a camera or cell phone at the sky, your really had to watch out you didn’t get bumped or knocked over. It was also really, really easy to lose your friends in a crowd like this. At one point Tim wandered off, and I decided to simply stand in one place, hoping he would find me again.
Some of our favorite balloons were the special shapes and funny faces.
Many of the special shapes never made it off the ground. We heard there’s a window of time they have to take off by, and obviously they didn’t all make it. We still enjoyed seeing them inflated on the field.
By 10 am the mass accession had come to an end, the crowds were thinning out, and we wandered home for some much needed relaxation in anticipation of the busy evening ahead. After a day of rest and napping we hosted a small gathering at our place before the evening activities began. All the same characters from the night before joined us with the addition of Kate’s mom & boyfriend who were visiting from the UK, and Brenda & Hector.
The evening event was called the Twinkle, Twinkle Glow. What was supposed to happen was an impressive show of tethered balloons all lighting up at once giving us a twinkling show of lights. In reality, the wind had picked up and only a few balloons were able to inflate and light up. We walked around with Brenda & Hector for a bit oohing and awing at the few balloons that did manage to inflate.
After the glow we somehow managed to find the rest of our group in time for the fireworks. It was a pretty good show, but the flood lights on the field were kind of distracting and made it hard to take photos. I managed to get only one good one.
After the show we wandered home and tried to rally for a final gathering. It was obvious that everyone was exhausted from the early morning wake up, and no one lasted much past ten. Since we planned to get up and do it all over again the next day, an early bed time was probably a good idea.
I’ll have another post chronicling the next two days of the Fiesta up by the end of the week, after I finish going through another batch of nearly 1000 photos :)