Reliving My Childhood at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Because I spent my childhood in Plano, Texas, going to my hometown’s balloon festival year after year, Albuquerque’s own festival that rivals Plano’s has long been on my bucket list. Even after moving to the Southwest, though, I wasn’t sure how I would plan a trip to experience this celebration of ballooning—after all, Phoenix is still six hours away from Albuquerque, New Mexico, by car.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the world’s largest, with well over 500 registered balloonists. On any day of the weeklong fiesta, you can expect to bump into crowds of 100,000 people as you explore the balloon take-off fields.

Rainbow-colored hot-air balloons at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Close-up of colorful balloons

With numbers like that, it might seem nigh on impossible to ever visit the fiesta. Enter one late September weeknight of grabbing drinks with friends. While sipping on some Phoenix brews, I got to talking with my friend Dolores, who’s originally from New Mexico. She happened to mention in passing that the following weekend she’d be visiting her brother in Albuquerque for the balloon fiesta.

I, of course, said I was so jealous and everything—but then she said I was welcome to split the cost of gas and hop along for the ride! Not only that, but there was an extra guest room at her brother’s house.

Red-and-purple balloon with fins at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Red-and-purple balloon with fins

Now, I’m not a spontaneous person by any means, especially when it comes to traveling. This Type-A kind of guy likes to plan out daily activities, make reservations, look up the best coffee shops and restaurants, and just generally daydream about a trip weeks, if not months, in advance. But my schedule was wide open, and I had this huge opportunity staring me in my face, so we clinked our glasses to seal the deal.

The following weekend, Dolores, my friend Michael, and I were well on our way to New Mexico. We traversed the steep cliff walls of the Mogollon Rim that stand between the Phoenix valley and the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, stopping right inside the Arizona–New Mexico border to stroll through Gallup’s Saturday flea market and enjoy mutton stew, Navajo fry bread, and traditional blue corn mush. One solid day’s drive later, and we had reached the edges of suburban Albuquerque.

Growing up in a balloon(ing) suburb

When I was a kid, Plano, Texas, fit neatly into your stereotype of a Sun Belt suburb. Cookie-cutter subdivisions of single-family detached homes, corporate headquarters on cheap land, and an excellent public school system had all sprung up on what were once farmlands a half-hour north of Dallas. It was a safe, middle-class community—if rather bland.

Today, Plano is reinventing itself as the sprawl machine bulldozes toward Oklahoma. You can now find a historic downtown that’s come back to life, superb restaurants that serve Asian immigrant communities, and (some) walkable, urban spaces built around public transit.

One thing that’s stayed the same about Plano for what will be four decades this year is the annual Balloon Festival. Every September, a vast lawn butting up against a wooded greenbelt is the stage for around 50 hot-air balloons operated mostly by Texas balloonists. Local vendors representing nonprofits, political parties, and businesses set up shop in the parking lot, offering freebies and samples, while carnival rides entice kiddos and deep-fried everything tempts all.

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As a hot Friday night grows on, you lay out your picnic blanket on the poky, freshly mowed brush, dodge grasshoppers while setting up your collapsible chairs, and get your phone camera ready for the main event: the Twinkle Burn, when balloonists flash their burners on and off, creating a dazzling blinking effect that takes over the entire field.

Saturday morning, you roll out of bed, nibble on cinnamon rolls, and catch a glimpse of striking red-white-and-blue balloons filling the sky through the patio window. It’s a magical way to wake up, and it was a magical tradition for me to grow up with and carry into adulthood.

Taking in the wonder of Albuquerque’s fiesta

Decades of accommodating 100,000 daily tourists has made Albuquerque into a logistics expert: free bus shuttles from park-and-ride lots across the city are included in your admission ticket. But if you want to experience the morning liftoff, you’ve got to show up before dark.

Person photographing balloons on their smartphone at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
So meta

When my iPhone’s alarm clock started going off at four in the morning, my forehead, my shoulders, my stomach all had that awful, piercing ache you get from sleep deprivation. I stumbled into the kitchen to retrieve my bottle of kombucha and hope against hope that this carbonated elixir would power me through the day.

The next hour was a blur—riding from the house to a mall parking lot, waiting in line for the bus shuttle, riding on the bus from the park-and-ride lot to the balloon field, and waiting in line to get in to the event.

The sun shining over the mountains and on a white half-inflated balloon at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
The sun finally came up

Once we made it through the gauntlet, we were greeted with the dazzling lights of funnel cake, hot dog, and lemonade stands. But you can get those anywhere! My friend Dolores and her brother showed me the New Mexican ropes by dragging my groggy self over to the Blake’s Lotaburger tent. This Albuquerque burger chain was new to this Arizona-based Texan, but it quickly won me over with a green-chile bacon-and-egg burrito.

The Hatch green chile was hot, but not unbearable. Together with a cup of nutty Piñon Coffee, the burrito kept me warm during the frigid pre-dawn hours as I waited with friends for the sun to come up.

People dressed in Star Wars character costumes at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Cue the Imperial March

Apropos of nothing—perhaps the Darth Vader helmet balloon—a troupe of Star Wars cosplayers showed up and processed down the field. Jawas, Stormtroopers, Imperial Guards, and even Boushh (a.k.a. Princess Leia, Bounty Hunter) were all characters I recognized from watching the original trilogy as a nerdy fifth-grader.

Unlike in Plano, Albuquerque lets attendees mingle with the balloons—and help them get set up. This was a really cool learning experience as police officers always cordoned the field off far from the spectators in Plano.

A family helps unroll the fabric of a balloon envelope at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
This would be a big no-no in Plano

The day that we visited, they didn’t allow the balloons to take off because it was too windy. It had rained the day before and it would end up snowing not long after my friend Michael and I returned to Phoenix. So I wasn’t able to get those dramatic photos of balloons lifting off and floating into the sky. Instead, we got to experience a veritable forest of inflated balloons crowded up against each other, floating above a sea of tens of thousands of attendees and nearly that many DSLRs.

The usual suspects made appearances here: a Canon balloon, a RE/MAX balloon, even a Colorado state flag balloon, all in your standard teardrop balloon shape.

Darth Vader helmet balloon at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Darth Vader as a balloon

But there were also some unique, more complex balloons: a Darth Vader head, a dairy cow (complete with udders), and a Wells Fargo stagecoach. Watching the convoluted forms of these balloons get laid out and come to life in slow motion was mesmerizing and made me feel like a kid seeing balloons inflate for the very first time.

Once we returned home, I tried to stay awake, hang out, and play with the dogs, but I just couldn’t handle being a human on half a night’s sleep. The guest bed had a Star Wars-like tractor-beam effect on me that I just couldn’t resist, and the resulting three-hour nap rivaled any I had as a kid.

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