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Put a thousand giant, brightly colored hot air balloons in the same place on a perfect October morning, have them rise all at once into New Mexico's impossibly blue sky, and you have one of the man-made wonders of the world. This is why, at some point in your life, you have to get to Albuquerque's Balloon Fiesta.
The annual nine-day event has come a long way since the first Fiesta in 1972, when a guy named Sid Cutter helped organize a balloon festival to celebrate local radio station KOB-AM's 50 years on the air. About a dozen balloons showed up and were launched from a shopping mall parking lot in town. The next year 138 balloons were entered, representing 13 countries, and in 1978, Albuquerque played host to the world's largest ballooning event with 273 participants. At this year's Fiesta, which runs October 7 to 15, organizers expect an even thousand.
Here's what to do if you join the party: The first morning you're there, show up before 5:30 a.m. If the weather is right, and it usually is, a half-dozen balloons will ascend in the dark at 5:45. The balloons' propane burners light up the envelopes, and the pilots are in contact with each other, so they glow all at once, blinking slowly like synchronized, groggy fireflies.
Then wander out among the still-awakening balloons, laid out flat on giant tarps. When the propane starts pumping into hundreds of them at once, the sound is deafening—an additional thrill for kids. Their baskets, made of wicker or aluminum, drag along the ground until the hot air takes over and they join a sky littered with balloons of every possible color and shape—Humpty Dumpty, a string of chili peppers, shoes, a can of Pepsi, even Jesus Christ.
In the afternoon, take to the sky: Arrange your own balloon ascent through Rainbow Ryders or enjoy a ride on the world's longest tramway, which soars to the top of Sandia Ridge. The ridge offers a dizzying geological explanation of why the Fiesta is the world's largest. The Rio Grande Valley and the surrounding Sandia Mountains create a unique wind pattern known as the Albuquerque Box. The mountains both protect balloon ascents from overzealous winds and cause breezes to simultaneously blow in different directions at various altitudes, enabling pilots to "steer" their balloons by rising or descending. Some skilled pilots can even maneuver right back to where they started—a feat that almost makes the contraptions look like practical transportation.
In the evening, if your balloonacy is not yet deflated, you can return to the fairgrounds for special races and balloon glows, when the light from 300 to 500 tethered balloons fills the night sky. At the special shape mass ascension, themed balloons, such as a polar bear, reclining chair, and stagecoach, gather. The balloons maneuver and occasionally bump, a phenomenon that balloonists call "kissing" and that makes the wide-eyed groundlings who stare up at the speckled sky the most fortunate of voyeurs.
Photography by Randy Wells and Adina Tovy Amsel/Photo 20/20
This article was first published in September 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
More than 750,000 people are expected to attend this year's Balloon Fiesta. If you wish to be among the many, you can book flights through the AAA Travel Agency by calling (800) 272-2155. For lodging ideas, pick up a copy of AAA's Arizona/New Mexico TourBook. AAA also offers an Albuquerque/Santa Fe CitiMap.
Tickets to the Balloon Fiesta cost $4 at the gate; the event is free for children 12 and under. Five-event ticket packs are available for $15 through mid-September by calling (888) 422-7277. These tickets can be used for all Balloon Fiesta 2000 events and can be shared.
Rainbow Ryders offers balloon rides for $175 to $210 per person. Rides cost $142 per person the rest of the year. (800) 725-2477.