Since moving to Arizona in 2008, I have wanted to attend the New Mexico Hot Air Balloon Festival. Living so close in Phoenix, I felt like I was just a hop, skip and a jump from what I have heard is “the most photographed event in the world.”
For years, I had envisioned myself driving to New Mexico late in the night, arriving right at sunrise and a group of balloonists would take me aboard and we would fly across the desert landscape. I definitely had my head in the clouds but I was dying to make my vision a reality. Or at least part of it anyway! And unlike previous years, where my hot air balloon weekend daydream was always occupied with exams or homework, this year was the year! And I had my favorite travel partner by my side.
Our trip started by flying into Albuquerque late on Friday with an early 4am wake up call for the next day. While we did anticipate an extra groggy morning, we didn’t predict the pre-dawn traffic! With coffee in hand, we navigated down the dark roads from our hotel to the highway, with not a person in sight.
Once we hit the freeway, only a few miles from the balloon launch field, we approached the glow of stopped taillights. It seemed like thousands of cars had appeared out of nowhere and were gridlocked all on the same exit ramp and surrounding side streets. What we thought would be a quick drive to the event took 2 hours in stopped traffic, causing us to miss the morning glow ascent. Big bummer but we still arrived with plenty of balloons launching and hundreds already in the sky. It was such a beautiful sight! We decided to spend the rest of the morning at the festival and try our luck again tomorrow.
We walked between the balloons as they spontaneously rose into the sky. Looking up, there were balloons everywhere with crazy colors, funny logos, and yes, even a Darth Vader hot air balloon. The most amazing part of the festival was that the crowd could walk amongst the balloons, getting a front row view, as they prepared for launch. The balloons were carefully unpacked and inflated. Once the balloons were full, the baskets were loaded and the balloons were ready for launch. It was so incredible to see up close!
After checking out the balloons, we grabbed some breakfast burritos (with green chili), coffee, and ogled over the glazed doughnuts. The crazy festival food was pretty unique. We even spotted a breakfast burger where doughnuts were the top and bottom bun!
After checking out the gift shop, we headed back to the car for the rest of the day’s adventure before returning back to the festival (in time) to see the next day’s Morning Glow ascent.
The following day, waking up at 3am for the 6am show seemed a bit crazy but it was well worth it! We beat the traffic jam, froze our butts off and sipped on hot chocolate on the launch lawn till the show started. Then the show began and magic happened.
The first balloon rose from the line, with the rest following right behind, almost like a torch leading the others into the darkness.
Balloons continued to inflate as the sun kept rising. The balloon launches were perfectly orchestrated with the glowing flames illuminating the balloon colors, complimenting the amazing sun rise.
We stood around one balloon and watched it inflate from start to finish. The pilot held the mouth of the balloon open while an industrial sized fan filled it with air. Bit by bit, the balloon inflated enough for launch and away it went!
The balloon launches are organized by ‘zebras’ who are lift off coordinators, of course wearing the official black and white stripes. Zebras make sure the grounds are clear before lift off and give the all clear for take off. Without the zebras the balloons don’t go up and their piercing whistles make sure all of the crowds clear before any balloon launch.
We had such an awesome time and the balloon festival was everything I had pictured it to be! We hung around till the full sunrise, grabbed the doughnuts that teased us the day before and headed to the airport.
Leaving the Hot Air Balloon Festival, I felt like a kid again. Walking among the hundreds of balloons gave me such a sense of wonder and excitement. The experience was one I will never forget and I would be delighted to go back again.