The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has been around as long as I have and is something I have heard a lot about. Albuquerque is a city I have spent a bit of time in, but I have never been to the Balloon Fiesta, until this year.
I had no intention of actually attending the Balloon Fiesta in 2015. I was planning on being in the Pacific Northwest while it was going on. Then it was announced that the fiesta would be the site of the first Xscapers convergence and some of my friends would be there, so I made the decision to attend. See some friends and finally get to see the ABQ Balloon Fiesta – can’t go wrong!
The whole Balloon Fiesta experience was beyond incredible! Words and pictures don’t do it justice. There are over 500 hot air balloons from all over the world. As a spectator, you can go anywhere you want on the field, which apparently is VERY rare at balloon events. You literally are right in the action as balloon inflate and take flight. It’s truly an incredible experience.
The Xscapers reserved 20 spots in the standard RV lot at the Balloon Fiesta. It was dry camping but the location was great without having to pay the crazy prices for a closer-in site. It was about a mile to walk to get to where the balloons launched, but that beat the hell out of driving. To put it mildly, traffic getting to the balloon field was crazy every morning.
The standard RV lot was due south of the balloon field and is nothing more than a huge gravel lot. We were located on the north end of the lot, so pretty much as close as you could get to the balloon field and still be in the “cheap seats”. There were what seemed like thousand of rigs in this lot alone. I stayed for 11 nights which was the entire 9 days of the Balloon Fiesta, plus a couple of days before.
As it turns out, we had a perfect location to observe the balloons without having to walk to the field. For the couple of mornings that I didn’t make the hike north to the balloon field, I was treated to a spectacular show as the morning mass ascension would pass right overhead. Some balloons would land in the RV lot, which got a little exciting.
Action in the Xscapers sites:
The whole Balloon Fiesta event was nonstop socializing with a bit of work intermixed. I met old friends and made a bunch of new ones. Nina, of Wheelinit, wrote a 4-part series on this years Balloon Fiesta. In part IV she included a list of bloggers that were in the Xscapers group. Rather than repeat, I will let you go over there and see who was in attendance, should you desire.
Every night something was going on. Whether a group of us went down to the balloon field to watch the nighttime balloon glow and fireworks, or we were hanging around the tiki hut that was setup in our area, there was plenty to keep me busy.
Several nights we got together for a meal of some sort and the Xscapers had a couple of afternoon get-togethers where knowledge was shared.
The Balloon Fiesta went on for 9 days, with events starting at 6am and going until after 8pm some nights. Midweek was only a half day, as was the last Sunday. I either walked down to the balloon field or watched activities from the campsite every day. 9 days of balloon goodness!
I attended morning sessions that started with the dawn patrol, then a morning glow, followed by the mass ascension. I attended evening sessions where the balloons would inflate at dusk and do a glow session where they lit their burners without lifting off. This was followed by some of the best fireworks I have ever experienced.
The crowds at the Balloon Fiesta are incredible, especially on the weekends. It was literally a sea of people, especially in the east area by the vendors. As you went west on the balloon field the crowds thinned, but this definitely isn’t a place for the claustrophobic.
Thursday and Friday were special shapes day, where all the balloons that weren’t the traditional balloon shape would inflate. There were flying pigs, birds, Smokey the Bear, a scarecrow, and many, many other very cool special shapes. If you were into normal hot air balloons, there were definitely plenty of those, but the special shapes were the true crowd pleasers.
There was a Belgian balloon group that had a Darth Vadar and a Yoda balloon. They even had a whole cast of characters dressed up in costumes. This group had a prime location on the main flightline and was definitely a crowd favorite.
One of my favorite shapes was the Piranha, which was new to the fiesta in 2015. Then there was the turtle…
John and Becky, who were part of the Xscapers group and who I met for the first time at the fiesta, talked me into crewing Tuesday morning. OK, maybe there wasn’t much talking involved as it was something I was very interested in.
Every hot air balloon requires a crew of at least a half a dozen people to help with inflation and deflation. Getting the balloon ready to take off, and packing it away when the flight was done. Many of the balloons are from out of the country and don’t have local crews, so they rely on people volunteering to help. Volunteers get to have a lot of fun, thought it is hard work, and they also get a free pass to the balloon field for every session (normally $8 for a morning and $8 for an evening session, so $16 a day).
Very early Tuesday morning John, Becky and I headed to the volunteer area on the field, signed our lives away, and were quickly approached by someone looking for help. Turns out we were recruited to crew for Mister Bup, the only turtle balloon at Albuquerque. Quite frankly, we lucked out to not only get to crew a unique balloon, but also to crew for incredible owners. It’s also super easy to keep track of a flying turtle when there are hundreds of balloons in the air. If we were on a normal shaped balloon, tracking would have been interesting!
The three of us helped lay out the balloon, get it inflated and then launch it. We would then hop into the back of the chase truck and drive around Albuquerque until it landed. Through both radio contact and visual sightings, we would track it and hopefully be at the landing site when it touched down (didn’t always work this way). The crew then deflated the balloon, rolled it up and packed it away.
We crewed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings and showed up to help Thursday night (there were no night activities Tuesday and Wednesday), but due to winds we didn’t inflate. We had to “quit” our crewing job Thursday night as we were beat. Working, crewing and socializing was doing us in, so something had to give. If I were to attend the Balloon Fiesta again, I would take the week off of work and just enjoy the ballooning.
One of the benefits of crewing is that you stand a very good chance to be invited to go flying. Thursday was my lucky day. I was working the crown line during the morning inflation when I was approached by Lenny, the owner. He asked if I wanted to go up. Hell yes! So once the balloon was inflated, I hopped into the basket and we took off.
Let me say this about that – I have a fear of heights. Being suspended via some cables below a balloon in a wicker basket wasn’t the best place for a person like me. I had a moment of panic as the ground fell away. I quickly had a conversation with myself and said it’s too late to do anything about it. You are committed, so you best enjoy the flight. So I did. I had a great time and didn’t feel too uncomfortable for the rest of the 45 or so minute flight.
Unfortunately neither John or Becky got to fly. Apparently their turn was coming up, but we had to stop crewing before they got their time to soar.
It wasn’t all balloons for our group. One morning a small group of us went for a hike in the Sandia Mountains that are immediately east of Albuquerque. Another day a larger group went for a 20 or so mile round trip bike ride which had a midway point stop at a cool coffee bar/cafe on a farm.