I'll say this much: It's easy to arrive at Balloon Fiesta Park cranky. My pre-dawn hour's drive from Santa Fe terminated in what seemed like an endless series of queues — the traffic turning into the parking lot, the line to get onto the bus, the crowd pushing its way into the venue.
And given the event's 6:00 a.m. start time, I could tell I wasn't alone in my crabbiness. Nearly everyone looked bleary and cold, rubbing their eyes and huddling under scarves and sweaters. I've lived in northern New Mexico for several months now, and should have known better. But I'd underestimated the sunless chill at altitude, showing up with only a light hoodie. By the time I got back to my car around 10 a.m., my fingers hadn't worked for an hour.
Sitting on the park-and-ride bus, waiting through even more fiesta-bound traffic, I began to wonder if the 3:30 a.m. wakeup was worth it. People around me either dozed or chattered relentlessly, asking inane non-questions of their exhausted, uninterested children.
But then, the jam-up finally broke. The bus started moving and we rounded a corner — and I got my first glimpse of the balloons lined up, waiting to ascend.
Suffice to say that, yes, I'm glad I heeded my crazy-early alarm.
The famed Mass Ascension is... not, really, to be honest. Given their size and sheer number, all the balloons can't go up at the same time.
But it doesn't matter. The scope and splendor of the sight against soft daybreak over the Sandias, how they light up those vast, clear, only-in-New-Mexico skies — it could tear your heart out.
We wandered through the slowly-lightening darkness, necks craned, watching balloons slowly inflate, lift, and launch. As the black of night gave slow way to gold-tinged blue, the crowd clustered around the gondolas — as much to soak up the warmth of their propane flames as to interrogate the pilots. The balloonists themselves were surrounded by crewmembers who clung to the baskets, holding them to the earth with their weight. They'd flicker their lanterns on and off, heating the air to the Goldilocks temperature that kept their bags inflated, yet grounded.
And then, more suddenly than you'd think, the balloons were up and away, leaving in their wake a sea of snapping cell phone cameras.
Of course, more serious photographers were also in attendance — the Fiesta is famously known as "the most photographed event in the world." The spectacle draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from as far afield as Sweden; almost everybody I spoke to during my visit was from out of state by over a thousand miles. (In other words, most people have to put in way more effort than setting a painfully early alarm.)
Along with the sight of balloons against the New Mexican sky, which already approaches transcendence, visitors come for live entertainment, competitive launches and a student film festival — and that's just what's available on site. The Land of Enchantment also offers beautiful high desert hiking options, especially in early fall. Plus, of course, there's the food... which is hard to forget in October, thanks to the ever-present scent of freshly-roasted Hatch green chiles.
Some brave visitors even charter their own balloon rides, taking to the skies themselves. (This author's a little skeptical of riding so close to an open flame in a wicker basket.)
But even if you do nothing more than watch them fill the sky, seeing the International Balloon Fiesta is well worth the effort, no matter how little sleep you get.
International Balloon Festival Tips
Ready to take your own flight of fancy? Here are our best tips for maximizing your time and enjoyment.
Although the Fiesta goes on for a whole week, tickets are sold for much shorter segments, called "sessions," which last a single morning or evening. Each session offers different specific events and entertainment options, so be sure to give the schedule a close look before you decide which one(s) you'll attend. The Special Shape Rodeo, or "Glowdeo," is an especially popular option, especially if you're traveling with kids.
Commit to getting up early.
Even with my 3:30 a.m. wake-up, I got to the property just in time to see the Dawn Patrol. The traffic surrounding this event is no joke, so arriving early is non-optional. If the idea of getting out of bed that early sounds literally impossible to you, no problem: just attend one of the evening sessions instead.
Park and ride is worth it.
Although you'll likely still be stuck in traffic even on the bus, it's a much better option than trying to wrangle a parking spot onsite. The tickets are only marginally more expensive, and there are four different convenient satellite lots to choose from.
Don't make my mistake! Carrying around a shedded jacket once the sun is up is way better than shivering under a paltry layer in the darkness. Although daytime temperatures can breach 70 degrees in an Albuquerque October, it's not unheard of to see snowfall... so be prepared for all eventualities.
Have fun getting carried away!
All content provided in this blog is supplied by Jamie Cattanach and is for informational purposes only. Barclays takes no position as to the views, and makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the blog or found by following any link within this blog.
Image credit: Jamie Cattanach
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