Earlier this month, Jen and I embarked upon an adventure of a lifetime to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. It now ranks #1 on my list of most incredible life experiences, and I'm sure it'll take marriage or children to bump it down a few notches. I'm at a loss for words when I try to describe it to others, other than saying it's the coolest thing I've ever seen, and that the pictures don't do it justice. The Fiesta has been held for over 40 years, and is considered the largest balloon event in the world. This year, over 600 balloons gathered on a 365 acre field for eight days of festivities, and I'm so glad to have been a part of it.
We flew out on a Friday to get settled for the very early events on Saturday morning. On the plane, we sat next to a delightful gentleman who gave us some tips to make the most of our Fiesta experience. He emphasized dressing warm with wool socks and boots, getting to the Fiesta Park no later than 4:30 am, and to be prepared to walk A LOT. In other words, the launch field is the size of 54 football fields, and that doesn't include the rest of the park with the food vendors and bathrooms. He also threatened to charge $1 to let us look out the plane's window, but I got him back with a $3 charge to use the bathroom.
Once arriving in sunny New Mexico, we set off for Santa Fe, about an hour outside of Albuquerque, in a shiny blue Yaris. In case you're in the market for a car, the Yaris doesn't have much oomph, and took us chanting "Go Yaris Go!" reminiscent of The Little Engine That Could to get up to speed with the rest of the cars on the freeway. It became great entertainment when there were slim pickings on the radio, and the view out the window looked like this, and didn't change...
After battling some traffic, we got into Santa Fe in the early afternoon and the city seemed pretty quiet. We meandered through the streets dense with shops, restaurants, and museum gift shops. The flowers in bloom were gorgeous.
Based on a recommendation from Jen and Patrick's friend we ate at La Boca, and were not disappointed. We feasted on:
We also sampled the pincho de pollo, harissa chicken skewer with avocado, cucumber, and tomato salad, not pictured due to hunger. Each dish was delicious, and truly hit the spot after a long day of traveling. We were lucky to drop in and find seating at the bar, but reservations are highly recommended. The drive back to Albuquerque on Highway 25 was timed perfectly with this gorgeous sunset. We passed the time belting out the greatest hits from the 80s ( the only radio station with reception).
We stayed at Hotel Parq Central, a former hospital and psychiatric facility that's been beautifully renovated. There have been reports of the hotel being haunted, but luckily we did not experience any uninvited guests or strange occurrences. Our room was cozy, comfortable, modern, and even included fluffy, white bathrobes. We wish we would have had more time to enjoy the rocking chairs positioned throughout the peaceful grounds, 24 hour hot tub, Apothecary Lounge, and multiple common rooms full of gigantic comfy chairs, old-fashioned game tables, and books. I would stay here again in a heartbeat.
Waiting in Line...
Saturday morning, our alarms blared at 3:30 am (2:30 PST). I'll admit, it was painful to get up, but once we were vertical we felt like 5 year olds on the way to Disneyland. Based on the many recommendations of experienced fiesta attendees, we brought lots of clothes (sweatshirts, scarves, gloves, hats), a flashlight, sunscreen, and sunglasses. To get to the Balloon Fiesta, you can either drive directly to the fiesta grounds, or take the Fiesta Express Park and Ride. The parking lot has been described as a nightmare, with people reporting that they missed the events waiting for a spot. Per our hotel's recommendation, we opted for the Park and Ride.
There are five Park and Ride locations within the city, all within a 15-25 minute drive to the Balloon Fiesta grounds. From the Park and Ride, you are shuttled on school buses, driven by local school bus drivers. They work on tips and had a variety of clever tip jars, many decorated like the balloons at the Fiesta. We parked at Coronado Mall. Be warned - make sure you have clear instructions of where to park at your designated location because there isn't signage, and there is no one to ask at 4:00 am.
We arrived around 4:30 am, tickets in hand, to an hour wait for the bus, and 25 minute drive to the Fiesta grounds. The first event, Dawn Patrol, started at 5:45 and we desperately wanted to make it in time. During the Fiesta, Dawn Patrol is held on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays. A select group of experienced balloonists gather before 6:00 am and take off before sunrise. The sight of their brightly lit balloons against the black sky is indescribable. After Dawn Patrol is Mass Ascension where all the balloons take off into the sunrise. The park calms down for the afternoon, then gets going again at sunset for the Balloon Glows.
At 4:30 am on a Saturday, we were expecting a nice, peaceful, uneventful ride to the park. Boy were we wrong. The buses leave in groups of 6, and we were the last bus in our group. A lovely fellow rider stood up as we were pulling out of the parking lot, and asked our bus driver to wait for "Michael." Our driver generously agreed, while we longingly watched the other buses drive away and kissed our chance at seeing Dawn Patrol goodbye. Michael took his sweet time walking to our bus. Strike one -- we're late. Next, the same rider who delayed us started a Journey sing-along. Strike two -- singing before 5:00 am. Finally, this lovely rider who had by then become our favorite person had a screaming conversation with Michael, who was sitting in the back of the bus, while intermittently yelling "Make it rain, bus driver" each time we passed a strip club. Strike three -- really obnoxious busmate. Our bus driver said we were worse than the evening session (Twinkle Twinkle Glow) groups after multiple cocktails. We kept smiling any way.
By some miracle, we pulled in just as Dawn Patrol started. We were SO happy. We literally went gallivanting through the park towards the balloons as the burners were igniting against the dark morning sky. After visiting the Balloon Museum (more to come in Jen's post), I learned one of the purposes of Dawn Patrol is for the more experienced balloonists to test the conditions before Mass Ascension. It's quite chilly before the sun comes up, so you can really feel the heat from the burners. It's like warming up next to the fireplace! The balloons are choreographed to ignite and take off in a pattern, and the effect is breathtaking.
As the sun starts to rise up over the Sandia Mountains, Dawn Patrol gradually turns into Mass Ascension, and lasts about three hours. The incredible thing about the Balloon Fiesta is that you can get right up next to the balloons and be part of the action. Jen got some incredible shots inside the balloons as they were inflating. Don't bother with the Gondola Club or Chaser's Club tickets unless you want to be far away from the balloons. These are the more expensive ticket options that market guaranteed seating, buffet meals, special parking, and dedicated bathrooms.
Jen and I joked that we wished we could simultaneously be a spider and octopus to have eight arms and eight eyes and be able to see and take pictures in a 360 degree span. I was overwhelmed and awe-struck and didn't know where to look. We kept glancing at each other in disbelief. On the ground you become surrounded by brilliantly colored balloons inflating and launching into the sunrise, while hundreds of other balloonists drift through the sky right above you in every direction. I loved that the crowd cheers in support as each balloon takes off. Standing on the ground with the other spectators, you can sense this collective feeling of joy as you watch these gentle giants float silently through the sunlight. It's extraordinary.
Walking out of Mass Ascension, we had the biggest smiles on our faces. We decided to head up to Sandia Crest for the afternoon to see the Aspens changing colors and for outstanding views of the city. It's about a 40 minute drive from Albuquerque, and the last 20 minutes are full of switch-backs.
On our way back to Albuquerque we stopped at the Greenside Cafe for some lunch. The meal was wonderful, and Jen and I really appreciated the staff's sense of humor...
I loved my Balloon Fiesta experience, and cannot wait to go back next year, hopefully for the full week. Stop by next week for Jen's account of our sister adventure - Balloon Fiesta Part 2!