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Live it up at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

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Savor the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, perhaps the most spectacular human-made event in North America. Since 1973, this southwestern, multicultural city has hosted the largest gathering of hot-air balloons in the world. See the website for exact dates and times. And most important, make reservations NOW for next year's fiesta, held in early October, as tourists and balloon aficionados from all over the world will be attending and accommodations fill up fast.

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Schedule your visit around the events planned for each day. There are the Dawn Patrol, “Roadrunner-Coyote Race,” special-shapes launch, the glows, flying events, gas-balloon-race launch and many others, including the fabulous, colorful mass ascensions. These are scheduled for five different mornings, including on Sunday of the final weekend of the Fiesta.

To watch a mass ascension, as soon as you reach Balloon Fiesta Park in the early morning, you'll want to head straight for the balloon launch field. Be sure to bring your camera for beautiful photos, which you will long cherish. The Fiesta is the most-photographed event in the world, and with digital technology, your opportunities are unlimited. (Be sure to look at the slide show attached to this article.) Several years ago, 1,019 balloons participated in the mass ascension, but for safety reasons, a limit of 600 has now been set. When you reach the field, a few balloons may already be aloft. The Dawn Patrol, up to 12 balloons equipped with special lighting systems, rise in the dark of the early-morning sky, to check weather conditions, signaling to pilots on the ground the likely direction of air currents and possible drift at different altitudes. On mass-ascension mornings the Dawn Patrol Show is held, with those balloons conducting a choreographed inflation and launch, set to music.

Balloons from around the globe will be spread out on the grass in rows or starting to fill and rise to a vertical position as their crews prepare them for the day. “Zebras,” officials clothed in black-and-white stripes, help coordinate the launch. As spectators, you are allowed to walk among the balloons. You’ll watch a crew attach the gondola or basket to each envelope, the body of the balloon, and aim a huge electric fan into the opening at the bottom, the open end of the envelope, forcing air into it. Soon the roar of propane gushing out of the valves at the top of the gondola announces the lighting of the burners, which heat the air in the envelope, causing it to rise in preparation for launch. Each balloon has a crew of 4 to 10 people who hold the ropes, which are attached to the envelope, keeping the gondola on the ground and in position, as the envelope starts to rise. The highly trained pilot, who is often the balloon owner, and the guests fortunate to be chosen for the day's flight, climb aboard. The pilot intensifies the burn, and as the slight breeze catches the huge balloon, it starts to drift upward. The crew members release their holds on the ropes just as they start to pull those crewmen off the ground. All around, balloons ascend and start to drift overhead, to the cheers of crews and nearby bystanders.

Because of the number of balloons and in the interest of safety, they don't all take off at once, but are assigned to two "waves," which have about 300 craft each, all near one another on the ground, with those in a wave taking off simultaneously or nearly so. Standing in the midst of that colorful array feels like being in the middle of a magical Easter basket of brilliantly colored eggs. When one thrilling wave has cleared the area, the PA announcer will signal the members of the second wave to prepare for takeoff. The announcer frequently mentions individual balloons and their pilots, giving special recognition to those who have won accolades for events in previous years. As the sun comes over 10,378-foot Sandia Peak, the focal point on the eastern side of Albuquerque, striking the extravagantly colored creations of various shapes, cries of joy from the crowd transmit their approval. In less than two hours, all balloons have been launched.

Of course, the scene is dependent on weather. It seldom rains in Albuquerque, and the skies are typically a vivid blue, with few clouds. So the usual variables are temperature and wind. It's normally between twenty degrees and the mid-forties early in the morning, so dress warmly in several layers, and wear comfortable shoes or boots to allow hiking through the huge site. Winds are generally quite light, though on occasion a front may pass through, even conceivably postponing one morning's scheduled activity to another day. So if possible, plan your schedule to allow for a second day's visit, to preclude disappointment.

One reason Albuquerque has become the premier hot-air-ballooning capital of the world is the frequent existence of "the box." Between Sandia Peak on the east and the Rio Grande, the river, about ten miles to the west, at the bottom of the valley, the usual air flow is toward the south, carrying the balloons above ground level on the launch field. Then as the balloons use their propane burners and soar to higher altitude, the currents push the craft toward the north over the communities of Corrales and Rio Rancho. The balloons then can drift downward, catching the current moving southward, back toward the launch site. So balloons, using their burners, can fly in a box-like pattern, covering several miles of Albuquerque's clear skies, visible from almost all over the city. As the air warms later in the morning, the balloons have less lift, and they gradually descend, with their chase crews following, to land in parks, school yards and parking lots, causing much excitement in many parts of the city, as well as, ideally, back on the launch field.

After the festivities of the launch, you’ll enjoy watching your favorite balloons navigating the airways and noticing the myriad designs, colors and even countries of origin, as shown by their nations' flags flying. Next, it's time for a tasty breakfast. Aromas from the colorful stalls along the paved walkways stimulate taste buds. A wide selection is provided, from authentic Navajo fry bread with honey and cinnamon, accompanied by hot chocolate, to piping hot gourmet coffee and an egg burrito with sausage and various condiments. Other stands sell disposable cameras and mementos of the Fiesta, such as mobiles, wind chimes, sun catchers, socks, scarves, t-shirts, jackets and caps with Fiesta logos and even rides in hot-air balloons. Musical groups entertain from a stage on Main Street of the launch site. Chainsaw competitions may be viewed, and many years a classic car show is held in conjunction with the Fiesta, featuring a variety of vehicles, perhaps ranging from antique military vehicles, shiny European sports cars and muscle cars to elegant, classic luxury cars.

The Special Shape Rodeo presents an exciting event for young viewers, with the opportunity to watch and photograph the whimsical balloons including a flying pig, a stage coach, a chicken, bees, a clown, a giant cow, a witch, kangaroos and many even-more bizarre shapes. Each year, many long-time favorites return and new creations appear, as frequent attendees lament the passing of a beloved shape from previous years.

Two evenings, usually the first Sunday and the second Saturday nights, just before sundown, balloon glows are held. In these events, crews line up the balloons in their assigned positions, inflate the envelopes, attach the gondolas, and, as darkness descends, fire up the burners, creating glowing envelopes which then look like a huge collection of night lights or jack-o-lanterns, adorning the launch field. They don't go aloft, as landing at night would be dangerous, but visitors roam the area, looking at the illuminated balloons, sipping hot cider or eating ice-cream bars, visiting with crews, listening to music, watching the fireworks afterward and just enjoying the festivities. Five evenings of fireworks and five morning glows, which are part of the preparations for mass ascensions, are usually planned. With so many diverse activities planned, attendance increases almost every year.

Albuquerque has a population of over half a million people, and the metropolitan area includes more than 900,000, with 16,000 hotel rooms and multiple campgrounds and RV parks with perhaps 1,000 campsites, providing lodging for many, but not all, of those who will want to attend. Tourists are drawn to Albuquerque for many attractions besides the balloon festival, adding to the crowded accommodations. For example, many of the tastiest restaurants in the Southwest are in Albuquerque, especially renowned for New Mexican food featuring green chilis. Cultural museums abound, as hiking and biking trails beckon. And Indian arts and crafts, jewelry, handmade furniture, and other handcrafted goods lure shoppers. (Click here to find other enticing activities in Albuquerque.) So if you want to stay in Albuquerque during their busiest time of year, make reservations now. (Click here for booking info.)

Balloon Fiesta Park, consisting of over 360 acres, is located in north Albuquerque and now boasts the largest hot-air-balloon launch site in the world, more than 80 acres, along with the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum and the Balloon Discovery Center. The Balloon Fiesta lasts 8 days, usually beginning on a Saturday morning, running for a week, through the next weekend, with the finale on Sunday morning a week later.

Vehicle parking for spectators is provided at both the north and south ends of the launch field. Parking was a major problem for many years, but for several years now, the city has provided convenient Park & Ride bus service on the busiest days to the site from five different locations around the city. (Click here for details.) Buses run frequently. The advance-purchase, round-trip fare is $12 per person, less for seniors and children, including admission to the session, and you'll be dropped off right at the gate to the Fiesta. The last full-service bus runs back to the parking areas at about 9:30 p.m., so if you stay for a glow or other evening festivities, be sure to watch your time, so you can return to your vehicle.

If you don’t use the bus service, the charge to enter the grounds of the Fiesta is $8 per person, with kids under 12 free, a great price for a session, either morning or evening, of fun. One popular schedule is to arrive at the Fiesta grounds about 5:00 a.m., in time to watch preparations and then a mass ascension, just as the sun rises over spectacular Sandia Peak.

Once you've been to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, you'll never look at a hot-air balloon the same. You'll know the tasks of the crew, the equipment required, the preparations needed for crew and the exhilaration of fans. And you'll be counting the days until the next year's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta!

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