Floating 3,500 feet in the air, with only a wicker basket separating me from the ground below, I experienced the most exhilarating but peaceful feeling of my life. Last April, during Albuquerque's ongoing Tricentennial celebrations, which included a mass ascension of about 200 balloons, I took flight myself.
After a festive day watching hundreds of balloons fill the sky in a kaleidoscope of color, I felt confident and ready for my ride. The next day, however, I watched my rainbow-colored balloon inflate with the same trepidation someone would have trying to feed a hungry lion. I asked every safety question imaginable and gripped the side of the basket for dear life, but what I wasn't prepared for was how gentle the ride would be. Once in flight, I began to relax as my balloon calmly drifted over the city below and dipped into the Rio Grande River. Thanks to the Albuquerque Box effect, my pilot was able to land in the exact same spot we launched from, a feat almost unheard of. We touched down just beside a table of champagne and breakfast pastries. It was the epitome of luxury and class.
In case you missed the April balloon event, there's still time to have a similar experience to mine, but in a much bigger fashion. For 35 years, Albuquerque has celebrated one of the largest international balloon festivals in the world, and this year's Balloon Fiesta is no different. From October 6 through 15, visitors can participate in several different activities. On Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday mornings, more than 700 balloons will take flight in a mass ascension. Visitors can also watch as hundreds of tethered balloons ignite and light up the evening sky on certain nights throughout the 10 days. Admission for each half-day event, morning or evening, is $6, which includes entrance to the Balloon Fiesta Park. Tickets can be purchased at the park or for discounted prices online.
The fiesta also includes fireworks, a car show, a wine festival ($10 separate admission charge), the Special Shape Rodeo, and several other competitions. On October 6, the closing ceremonies of the Albuquerque Tricentennial will also take place, ending an 18-month celebration with music and fireworks. Park entrance fees are waived for the opening evening's events.
Although Albuquerque is an affordable city year-round, hotel prices may be a bit higher during the festival. For visitors in need of lodging and/or transportation, cost-effective packages are available through the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), and start as low as $289 for a two-night stay and one ticket to the park. The CVB also offers a "Take Flight" package for $768, which includes a three-night hotel stay, one event admission, and one balloon ride during one of the mass ascensions.
If you want to experience a balloon ride without paying for the package, Rainbow Ryders is the official hot air balloon company for the fiesta, and offers rides during the festival for $295 per person. The pilots are friendly and knowledgeable, and the flight is celebrated upon landing with a certificate and a champagne ceremony.
For those who prefer staying close to the ground, several arts and crafts shows will take place throughout the city during the 10-day fiesta, including the 18th Annual Rio Grande Arts & Crafts Festival, the 18th Annual Fine Arts Show, and the Tender Loving Arts and Crafts Festival.
October is a special month for Albuquerque, not only for the fiesta and many festivals, but also because the weather starts to cool down and the leaves change color. It's also time to roast green chilies, which are used in almost all aspects of regional cooking, including desserts like apple pie, which I highly recommend for a spicy twist on an old favorite.
As for hot air ballooning in Albuquerque, it really is the ride of a lifetime. I discovered the joy of letting the world float away, literally. Visit the fiesta this year and discover for yourself why having your head in the clouds is a more than just a metaphor.