Albuquerque’s unique wind patterns and usually mild weather make for perfect flying conditions, so every October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta welcomes more than 550 hot air balloons from around the world. The festival has earned international appeal, with roughly 850,000 people attending balloon fiesta events each year. It is so renowned, in fact, Albuquerque has come to be known as the "Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World."
The first Balloon Fiesta was put together in 1972 to mark a local radio station's 50th anniversary. Organized in part by Albuquerque balloon pilot Sid Cutter, 13 balloons were gathered in a local mall parking lot. By 1978, the event was drawing pilots from surrounding states, and it had become the largest balloon event in the world. The fiesta also became the most photographed event in the world.
In 2005, the City of Albuquerque opened the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum, which chronicles ballooning history around the world as well as the history of the fiesta. Several record-setting gondolas—including those from local pilots—are part of the collection.
What to See and Do
The fiesta occurs over nine days during the first full week of October each year. The most popular events during the fiesta are the morning mass ascensions. Held on weekend mornings, the ascensions feature two waves of hot air balloons, launched just after sunrise. With more than 550 balloons in the air, it’s a spectacular sight.
Held on weekend evenings, Balloon Glows are nighttime events. The balloons remain tethered to the ground, but their burners are simultaneously lit to create a “glow” over the launch field. A fireworks display follows the synchronous burn. The glow tradition began in 1979 when local pilots gathered on Christmas Eve night, inflated their balloons, and fired their burners to thank local residents.
Started in 1989, the Special Shape Rodeos are among the most popular events during balloon fiesta. During these events, balloons with unusual shapes—including a cow jumping over a moon and Darth Vader—gather to fly together. There is even a Special Shape Glowdeo.
The pilots don’t just come to the fiesta for recreational flying: They also compete. Pilots show off their navigational prowess in events where they maneuver to drop an object on a target or land on a mark.
The America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race (which involves gas balloons as opposed to hot air balloons) is one of the two top distance races for gas balloons in the world. It launches from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. After take-off, teams compete to travel the furthest distance.
Check the schedule on the balloon fiesta’s website for dates and times for events.
How to Get Tickets
Tickets for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta go on sale in April prior to the event. Advance general admission is $10 per person. Tickets are non-refundable. On occasion, balloon fiesta events will be cancelled due to weather, such as rain or too-strong wind gusts.
There are also several options for special on-field arrangements. The Gondola Club offers ticket-holders a private viewing area away from the crowds, breakfast, and courtesy shuttles to the location. Tickets are $50 and up. The Chasers' Club offers similar arrangements.
How to Get There and Where to Park
The festival takes place in Balloon Fiesta Park, located in the north side of Albuquerque. Moving hundreds of thousands of people to and from the park each morning and evening is a feat. If you’re planning to travel to the park via car, plan extra time—up to two hours—to get there. You’ll need to consult the fiesta’s website ahead of time for designated arrival routes and parking areas. Plan $15 per vehicle for parking fees.
The fiesta also offers a park-and-ride. Guests can park their vehicles at one of several lots around the city and take school buses to the park. This is often faster than driving because the buses have dedicated arrival lanes. Park-and-ride tickets are $15 a person in advance, and $22 a person at the bus. Plan to arrive early at the pick-up spot.
Balloon Fiesta park provides a bike valet as well. With a bit of pre-dawn exercise, you can bypass vehicle traffic.
Stay at the Balloon Fiesta
In 2018, the fiesta debuted glamping, which allows guests to stay at the park. Book a three-night (minimum) stay in a safari or bell tent in a field adjacent to the field. Guests can see the balloons launching from their tents, and the field is just a short walk away. These accommodations have a $1,500 price tag.
- Dress in layers. October mornings will dip into the 40s, but by 10 a.m. the temperatures may have risen into the 60s. Jackets, hats, and gloves will suit the morning temps, but by the time you’re leaving the park, you’ll be peeling off those warm layers.
- Eat breakfast at the field. Eating a breakfast burrito and a cup of coffee (or hot chocolate) is a time-honored tradition on the field.
- Listen to the zebras. Field referees guide visitors and balloons to ensure the balloons are able to inflate and take off safely. They are dressed in black and white referee uniforms and have whistles to signal attendees. They’re lovingly called “zebras.” They direct traffic, so be sure to listen to their instructions to ensure everyone stays safe on the field.
- Volunteer on a chase crew. Every balloon has a chase crew, a team of people that follow the balloon in a car and help it land safely. Not every pilot who attends balloon fiesta comes with a crew, so the fiesta seeks out volunteers to fill these roles. Visit the fiesta’s website to learn how to volunteer.