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Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
5000 Balloon Fiesta Parkway NE, Albuquerque NM 87113; Tel. 888.422.7277
For nine days straight at the beginning of October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta dominates the scene in this high-desert city along the Rio Grande, drawing some 700 balloonists and more than 100,000 spectators.
Every morning, hundreds of brightly colored hot-air balloons lift off into the sky just as the first golden rays of sunlight spill over the purple peaks of the Sandia Mountains. Mariachi musicians greet spectators of all ages, who stare up at the sky as they warm their hands on a cup of hot cocoa or savor a breakfast burrito laced with New Mexico’s signature roasted red or green chiles.
What began in 1972 with 13 balloons taking off from a shopping mall parking lot has grown into the world's largest hot-air balloon event—and one of the most widely photographed events on the globe. The festival is held at the custom-designed 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park, where visitors can browse the booths of food vendors, retailers and artists. In 2000, a record-breaking total of 1,000 balloons went aloft, though since then the number has been capped at 750.
A combination of geography and climate makes Albuquerque the ideal spot for ballooning. The winds in the Rio Grande Valley vary in direction according to altitude, creating a phenomenon called the "Albuquerque box," which allows pilots to more easily return to their starting positions.
During the city-sponsored Balloon Fiesta, spectators can walk freely through the 78-acre launch field to get up-close views of the hot-air balloons and gas balloons. Mass ascensions take place in the mornings and are worth getting up well before dawn to see. At the evening Balloon Glow, the balloonists let their burners roar simultaneously, lighting up the clear night like gigantic lanterns.
Another festival favorite is the Special Shapes Rodeo, showcasing balloons shaped like animals, cartoon characters, stagecoaches and other forms. Spectators also can watch flying competitions and fireworks, listen to live music, and book their own balloon rides through a private vendor.
During the rest of the year Balloon Fiesta Park is open for varied recreational uses, including balloon rides, golf and softball. It's also home to the 60,000-square-foot Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, where visitors can learn about the history of hot-air ballooning through hands-on exhibits.