From skipping traffic to enjoying breakfast with a view, these tried-and-tested tips will help you make the most of your experience at Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta.
“Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon,” says Winnie-the-Pooh. He’s not wrong. No matter culture, creed, or religion, the uplifting (excuse the pun) symbolism surrounding balloons is universal. Letting go. Achieving your dreams. Hope. Rising above it all. Celebration. Freedom. Levity. Joy.
Now, imagine all that positive association multiplied by 1000 when you witness a sea of giant hot air balloons ascending into the sky. Get your Kleenex out, folks; the experience is that powerful. It’s no wonder nearly a million people from around the world flock to New Mexico’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta every October.
Over nine days, nearly 600 hot air and gas-filled balloons are launched by pilots from six countries. “Mass ascensions don’t happen anywhere in the world but here. Ascension and the Special Shape Rodeo are the two events you must see,” explains Scott Appelman, owner of Rainbow Ryders, the largest balloon ride company in the country. In addition, there’s lots of family fun at the Balloon Fiesta Park with booths and concession stands. To maximize your experience, we’re sharing 10 insider secrets for finessing this incredible festival.
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Join the Balloon Launch Crew
You, too, can be part of an actual balloon launch crew—no experience required. Get in on the action firsthand by assisting pilots and crew chiefs in inflating, support, and landing balloons. As many former crew volunteers attest, being a regular ol’ spectator won’t do once you try crew!
Some duties include: transporting the basket on and off the chase vehicle, crowd control during inflation, holding the crown line to ensure the balloon doesn’t topple over, and when it lands, actually chasing the balloon down (don’t worry, no running necessary—you’ll be in a chase vehicle).
Afterward, your hard work is rewarded with a post-landing champagne toast. Although online registration has closed (sign-up is required by July or August), you can still sign-up onsite at the Chase Crew Headquarters before each morning and afternoon session.
Ask for the Christmas Burrito
Like Dole Whip is to Disneyland and cotton candy is to carnivals, the breakfast burrito is the official sustenance of Albuquerque’s balloon festival. Available from many vendors at the park, burritos come slathered in your choice of green or red chile sauce. In fact, it’s said that the Breakfast Burrito Byway (yes, there’s a bonafide burrito trail in New Mexico) spawned from the abundance of burrito dealers at the fest.
INSIDER TIPAct like a local and boldly ask for a Christmas version of the burrito, with red chile on one half and green chile on the other. One way to ensure you don’t look like a local? Ask whether the green or red sauce is hotter. Most will tell you it depends on the peppers in a specific batch.
Skip the Crowds With These VIP Views
Not only is the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum an eye-opening education in hot air balloon aviation, but it also offers “Elevated Viewing” events during the festival. Located at the edge of the fairgrounds, the Balloon Museum offers three different ticketed views: the Hilltop, the Vista Greens, and the Topflight Atrium. Each level of access also includes food, heated lounge or tent spaces, and other perks. Our pick is the Atrium with its top floor and balcony access, a gourmet buffet, and a cash bar.
Prepare for Weather Cancellations
Hundreds of thousands of humans organize Albuquerque’s balloon celebration every year, but Mother Nature is the real head honcho. Since primo weather conditions are essential for balloon safety, and New Mexico’s weather can be famously temperamental, be prepared for event cancellations.
Plan your stay to include at least two mass ascensions, which are the festival’s best highlight. That way, if one ascension gets nixed due to stormy skies, there’s a good chance you’ll see the next one.
INSIDER TIPOn the topic of weather, it can be frigid during those early morning launches, so bring mittens, beanies, scarves, warm beverages, and loads of layers to peel off as the sun rises.
Breakfast With a View
For those in the know, certain rooftops and restaurants around Albuquerque offer insane balloon-watching vistas sans crowds. For example, Hotel Chaco’s rooftop restaurant, Level 5, provides a daily balloon-themed breakfast during the festival.
Another local secret for early morning viewing is Michael Thomas Coffee inside the food hall, Tin Can Alley. Located near Albuquerque’s Balloon Park, you can enjoy a cup of third-wave joe and a croissant on the patio while the colorful hot air balloons float by in the sky.
INSIDER TIPGuests at Hotel Chaco can make reservations for the rooftop, while non-guests are sat on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Where to Camp (or Glamp) in View of the Balloons
Like Burning Man, this festival draws outdoor enthusiasts. Have a Volkswagen bus or camper van? There’s a “Buses and Balloons” campsite ($5 per day) just for you at Alameda Little League Field. Watch the balloons overhead without ever leaving your campsite, or take a short stroll on a dedicated path to the Balloon Fiesta Park.
If you prefer a side of glamour with your camping, glamping tents are available for rent onsite. Balloon Fiesta glamping amenities during the minimum three-night stay include premium parking, a queen or two twin beds, heater, linens, admission to the festival, and the best part—access to restrooms and hot showers.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to reserve your tent extremely early as they sell out quickly.
Skip the Traffic
There’s nothing like sitting in congested festival traffic to ruin your merry mood. Avoid the traffic buzzkill by purchasing park and ride tickets (in advance and online only) for the event shuttles. Available at three locations around the city, you’ll be at the balloon park in no time and, more importantly, back at your car quickly when you’ve had your fill of hot air balloon watching.
INSIDER TIPPark and Ride tickets are not available on Mondays through Wednesdays. Another option is to swap four-wheel transport for two. The Balloon Fiesta offers a complimentary bike valet service where you can ride in and enjoy the Fiesta.
Pack a Picnic
Pack up your bourbon-laced hot chocolate or a bottle of award-winning New Mexico bubbly, your Christmas burritos, and a blanket for a balloon-peeping picnic at a local park. For spotting balloons flying overhead, North Domingo Baca Park is the best. For idyllic landing views, head to Vista Del Norte Park, typically an official Balloon Fiesta landing site.
Balloon watching is a pretty chill activity, but it doesn’t have to be with these outdoor activities. Combine some epic sky-sighting with a workout. Take an exhilarating bike ride or hike on the 16-mile Paseo del Bosque trail along the Rio Grande. You can access the trail from many spots throughout the city. For something different, take in the Balloon Fiesta from the river with an early morning MST Adventures SUP (stand-up paddle) tour.