What it’s like to go to the largest hot air balloon festival in the world

2 out of 5 hot mess tinis

2 hmtimis

Fiesta-ing and hot air ballooning in Albuquerque

I’ve been putting off writing about my experience at last year’s Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, not because it wasn’t a great experience, but because it was just so...so.... wholesome. Writing about it feels “off brand.”

Even though I hot-messed hard for my first trip to Albuquerque losing the rental car key immediately after arriving, it was - in the end - such a fun experience. I guarantee you’ll love the fiesta it if you’re a child in the body of a pasty, chubby adult like me.

Here is the event description from the official website -

“The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has grown to become the largest balloon event in the world. Held each year during the first week in October, the Balloon Fiesta now attracts almost 600 balloons and 1000 pilots.”

No word on what those 400 extra pilots do all day.

This fiesta takes place every year in Albuquerque during the second week of October.

Without further ado, here are the three experiences that I had at the fiesta, all of which I highly recommend if you are headed there this October!

#1 Glowing

Fire lighting up hot air balloon at night
LOOK AT THAT GLOW! Don't you just kind of HAVE to stare? That bright ass fire against the dark sky, I mean damn. This event officially starts at 5:45 a.m. but you WILL wait in traffic on the way in so get there early.

If you’re able to pry your eyelids open and get your butt out the door at 3:30 a.m., you’ll be lucky enough to experience the morning “glow” of balloons. I’m referring to this event as glow because it’s when the fire from a few select hot air balloons lights up the night sky. These early rising balloons have a dual purpose. The primary reason they head up for a float is in order to test conditions for the rest of the morning, but fiesta makes an event out of this since it’s pretty. The whole glow-show is choreographed to music.

Note: The fiesta officially calls this event “dawn patrol” but I called it glow when I was there and frankly that’s a better name.

Oh yeah and did I mention, a shit ton of people show up for this.

#2 Ascending

You can't be angry about anything with all of these balloons floating around you, you just can't.

Mass Ascension is when all of the 600 or so balloons “take off” at once. It is the prettiest thing to see and it feels almost like you can reach out and touch all of them. See? I told you this post would be wholesome as shit.

Before and during the ascension you can walk around to the different balloons and This starts at 7:00 a.m. but the entire fiesta is a fluid process so you won’t be bored if you get there early and stay until 10:30 a.m. or so when the balloon portion of the festival wraps for the day, more or less.

Guy flame throwing into a hot air balloon
I call the process of blowing up the balloons "fire penis" and I hope this guy does too.

The balloons are all different colors and some are for good causes or charities. Some are special shapes (like a lighthouse, a frog or a whale) and some are more standard. It is cool to walk around the field while they’re being inflated and to see them all float up together. The balloons take off in two waves.

Screen shot of Nat Geo Travel's instagram error
Bonus! Now you know more than Nat Geo Travel who didn’t read the event website very closely and described "mass ascension" as "dawn patrol" mixing up their events! I wouldn’t have shamed them but they didn’t correct themselves after I commented so I feel entitled to do so. Also, I acknowledge that I'm an idiot and cut off their caption so you can't really verify that for yourself. Take my word for it.

Also, if you do run into Jesus Christ anywhere, you ended up at a different mass ascension.

#3 Floating

The view of the festival, I imagine, is even better from the sky! These few balloons were just with our little balloon crew.

After all the foreplay of seeing 600 balloons float up into the world and feeling the security of them all staying afloat, you may have the feeling “I want to be in the floaty basket with fire power!”

I know I did.

The third experience was actually climbing in one of these puppies and giving it a shot. Here's what happens when you sign up for a hot air balloon ride:

Arriving

The parking lot where our balloons blew up.

We booked our group hot air balloon ride months before our trip to Albuquerque and had everything mapped out to go to on our own floating excursion. When the morning came the first thing I did was drive the crew bright and early to the site where we were told to meet.

The site was a vacant, overgrown parking lot next to a old diner. It sounds sketchy, but we were pretty sure the people were legit because they had massive baskets on their trucks.

The reason we arrived early AF is because you can’t fly a ‘loon midday when it’s hot out, so we were told to be there when it was still dark.

Still, a vacant, overgrown parking lot, in the middle of the night sounds really sketchy in hindsight. And then we got into a windowless van so.

More balloons from the festival.

The van took us to another vacant parking lot. Again, still sketchy, but don't worry because from there they unrolled the balloons and we climbed in the basket within 20 minutes. Our basket fit 12 people (13 if you include the balloonist) but there were other balloons with us that held just a few people.

Looning

And so it began!

It is a very odd sensation seeing the world float away from you. If you’re terrified of heights like I am, having only a wicker basket between you and certain death is about as unsettling a feeling as I have ever experienced.

My stomach turning into a rock after noticing that when I shifted my body weight I could feel the wicker adjust below my feet. I know looning is a low risk activity and yet I really wanted a harness or in general to be strapped to something.

More Balloons from the festival (and lots of faces in awe!).

Bumping Loonies

After a while the belly rock faded and floating became nice and peaceful. There were a few other balloons in our little crew and one of them bumped us (I did NOT like that - "get your own air space balloon bitch!" I screamed shaking my fist in my mind). It was OK though. The balloonist laughed and not in a nervous way so I feel that happens occasionally and is OK. I wasn’t OK with it, but he was, so that’s probably what matters. Still, I was having visions of their wicker basket catching our balloon and ripping one long hole the entire way up and us falling, as I tend to envision, to our deaths. But that didn’t happen.

Anyway, it was fine.

These might be my favorite travel pictures of all time because they're just so peaceful.

As someone who is gets physically sick a good amount, mainly from being on any sort of transportation, whether trains or planes or outside of the window of cars and also from exertion if I push my heart rate beyond, say 120, the hot air balloon was completely fine. I had not one moment of motion sickness.

What do you do while once you're up there?

Once you settle in you have a moment where you realize "I'm really close to a lot of people without many options of getting away from them. Therefore, you talk because there is nothing else to do really besides float.

Our balloonist answered a bunch of questions about people proposing to their girlfriends in his balloon and such. I personally think that'd be super awkward because obviously after you get engaged you're trying to make out for several hours and whatnot so it seems weird to share that moment THAT CLOSE to a total stranger. Also, the prospect of dropping the ring gives me heart failure. Then again, maybe this is just a me thing.

He had all of the insight as to the history of hot air balloons, too. The first was invented and it freaked people out because it was basically flew down to the next village and people there were like WHAT the. fuck... is that. And they beat it with brooms when it landed because they thought it was the devil. No I have not fact-checked any of this.

I had a bunch of questions but too many people were competing for his attention so I didn't get to ask them. They were: Have you ever had an emergency landing? What’s the worst thing you’ve dropped and where did it land? Has anyone ever dropped something from this balloon that landed on somebody’s head and if so how did that play out? What do you do if you suspect someone has lied about their weight and you are over capacity? Have you ever hot air ballooned somewhere because you were late and there was a lot of traffic and the wind direction was right?

If you go on a hot air balloon ride feel free to ask those questions. I'm especially curious about three and five.

Between conversatoins everyone just kind of zoned out and enjoyed the floating.

Ahh the floating.

After an hour of flying over neighborhoods and judging people’s back yards and barking dogs, it was sadly time to land.

Landing

You might imagine a hot air balloon lands gently. You’d be incorrect. The only way to land is to crash land.

We grabbed onto the sides, put our booties in the proper location per directions from the balloonist guy and crash landed, which was pretty fun. It was not that intense, actually. I was just thinking we'd gently glide back to earth and but there was a bit more to it than that.

Alive

After being so high in the air in just a basket attached to a balloon (I mean how ridiculous does that sound) I felt surprised and also kind of pumped to be alive when it was over.

When we landed, our balloonist guy was like “time to pop bottles!” And long story short, it was like 10 a.m. and he bought like six bottles of champagne for 12 people. If it ever doesn't work out with my and my boyfriend I'm going to find this guy  because I cherish his priorities.

As someone who was celebrating my new lease on life, I downed like four or five glasses of champagne in like 20 minutes. We were snapping pictures, sippin’ champagne, and forgetting all of our problems on that fine, breezy morning. What a world we live in.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until we climbed back in the van that I realized I had driven to the meetup area earlier that morning!!! My drunk ass was responsible for getting people home soberly and safely and I had failed at that. I told everyone “guys I screwed up. I had like a million glasses of champagne because I totally forgot I had driven to this thing.” (I mean can you blame me it had been like four hours and it had felt like a lifetime. Yes, you can blame me. OK got it.)

Luckily, a more responsible friend who didn’t get wasted at 10 in the morning stepped in to drive the car back to our hotel.

This is a picture of my dog. It has nothing to do with this post but gosh he is a cute dog is he not.

Hot Mess Tips

Save money on your hot air balloon ride by going on one outside of the festival, like we did. We saved $150/pp this way. It’s also cheaper to book a ride during the week rather than on a weekend. (We went on a Monday, so actually I was drunk at 10 AM on a Monday morning which somehow seems even worse)

Don’t do the thing where you’re like “I’ll go grab breakfast and get to the festival when I get there” - the balloons can’t stay in the air all day so you will miss them if you don’t drag yourself out of bed bright and early.

If you're looking for a place to stay, we stayed at Hotel Parq Central and we liked it.

On the morning that we went on our balloon ride, the balloons from the fiesta actually didn’t take off. The wind was too strong and in the wrong direction so the balloons would have landed on a Native American reservation, and the festival didn’t have special permission to do so. We could only go on our ride because we booked outside of the festival and were taking off from a different location. The point is, hot air ballooning, like many outdoor activities is weather dependant. If you travel to the festival, understand the risk that the weather could prevent the festival (or your balloon ride) from happening. If you can, plan to spend more than one morning there to increase your chances of experiencing it!

"Loon/looning," "Glow," and "Balloonist" are not actual words or things the way I used them in this blog post, so be prepared for that if you use them in conversation.

The Hot Mess behind HMT

In my natural habitat.

ABOUT ME

There is a picture of me as a toddler somewhere zoned out with a chicken nugget in my mouth. My mom says she lost it but if I had to guess she's just hugely embarrassed. CLICK HERE to learn how I went from sloppy baby to the featured hot mess of the world's worst-best travel blog.

1 thought on “What it’s like to go to the largest hot air balloon festival in the world”

Leave a Reply