- New Mexico
Gazing up at hundreds of brightly colored hot-air balloons as they rise into clear blue skies, you will understand why Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been called the "Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World."
For nine days every October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes to the skies with around 600 balloons and crews from all over the globe. Since the first rally in 1972, the Balloon Fiesta has grown so popular that it claims to be the USA's largest annual international event and one of the most photographed events worldwide. Nightly, beautiful sunsets light the incredible scenery the southwest state is known for, from the rugged Sandia Mountains to the flat mesa stretching to the far west, which only add to the photographic appeal.
Planning Guide to Balloon Activities
With nearly 1 million people flocking to the launch field during the festival, you will want to plan carefully. Each day varies, so there is plenty to see and do: Morning mass ascensions, balloon contest stunts, chainsaw carving, a car show, evening balloon "glows," fireworks and plenty of other entertainment.
Each magical morning, spectators stroll around the 32-hectare launch field, chatting with balloon pilots and their teams and maybe even helping out with a launch. Plan to dress warmly in layers – it can be chilly early on, but it usually warms up by noon. You can keep your hands warm with a foil-wrapped breakfast burrito spiced with green chile, a local delicacy.
Excitement builds as whistle-blowing officials – called "Zebras" due to their bold black- and white-striped shirts – clear the balloons for liftoff. It takes up to two hours for all the balloons to launch, and spectators try to follow their favorite with their eyes as the balloons drift across the Rio Grande Valley.
Fantasy world unfolding with hot-air balloons
Stunts and Races Filling the Days
Fiesta events continue throughout day, and include contests for flying accuracy, like the Key Grab (pilots jostle to snatch a set of car keys from the top of a 9-meter pole), Blackjack (they drop markers on large playing cards spread on the ground) and Hula Hoops (they try to throw hoops from their balloon over six-meter-tall bottles). Meanwhile, children can learn about the history and science of ballooning at the Balloon Discovery Center.
Competitors race to see who can fly the farthest distance from Albuquerque before landing. They often stay in the air for three nights and fly more than 300 kilometers.
Evening sessions feature balloon glows, creating a wonderland of light. The pilots fire up the burners, but the balloons stay tethered to the ground, so they glow in the dusk. Live music and fireworks round off a festive day.
Roar of burners as balloons take off for the morning ascension
No time for a balloon ride? You can still get panoramic views on the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, zipping up some 3,000 meters to gaze out over nearly 260 hectares of New Mexico. Enjoy a meal or snack at Sandiago's at the base of the peak.
Want to get even closer to the action? Anyone can volunteer for the chase crews to help set up and launch balloons and follow them to their landing spots. About 10 percent of festival volunteers come from outside the USA, and no experience is needed. To sign up, visit the festival's website.
As the balloonists' prayer says: "May the winds welcome you with softness. May the sun bless you with its warm hands."
Glow of the balloons as dusk sets in at the festival grounds