When you think about popular global events, Oktoberfest, Carnival, and Mardi Gras likely jump to mind. But the most photogenic events in fact, are none of these celebrations of revelry. The most photographed is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, in which organizers claim 25 million photographs are taken during the nine-day festival. If you’re planning on making the pilgrimage to New Mexico for the largest hot air balloon festival in the world, here’s everything you need to know about this bucket list worthy event.
Things I Wish I Knew Before Attending Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta:
The Early Bird Gets the Worm – If you come during the week, it’s a morning only event – and a really early event at that. Having not checked the schedule, I showed up to the field at 10:30 a.m. and the entire production was already shutdown for the day. The website suggests arriving at 3:45 a.m. because the line to park is so long. It may seem silly to arrive hours before sunrise and the first launch, but you do want to scope out the best spot. The reason for the early mornings is that the conditions are supposedly better for ballooning and the weather is milder. The weekend has a few nighttime events and concerts so plan your visit accordingly.
Dress Like You’re Going Camping– You’re essentially arriving in the middle of the night and New Mexico gets way colder than I ever expected. Read: there may even be frost on your windshield. It was a balmy 45 degrees for me. Earlier in the week it was 30. Pack layers, gloves, and warm socks you can add or shed as necessary.
Plan to Be Waiting Around Awhile – The first flight takes off at 6 a.m. for the morning glow, but the balloons don’t stay lit the entire time (it would be very expensive and waste fuel) so while it’s beautiful, it’s a little anticlimactic. It’s a surprise when they twinkle in the darkness, flashing their presence and hiding in the shadow of the night. When the mass ascension happens at 7 a.m., it happens so fast you won’t even know where to look (partially because you’re not fully awake yet). Your eyes will be pulled in an array of directions as hundreds of colorful giants take to the skies. Keep your eyes peeled for the special shapes, as they’re really the standouts.
The Hot Air Balloon Festival Arena is Huge – The event evolved from a parking lot to a custom-designed 365-acre park. If you can visualize it, that’s 54 football fields in length. It’s so big there are courtesy golf carts to take you from side to side. There’s more fair food than you could possibly imagine or want before noon. Deep-fried everything is available, but most patrons stick to donuts, breakfast burritos and coffee, which are plentiful in supply.
Save Time to Explore Albuquerque – With the events only taking place in the morning, you have basically the entire afternoon to explore Albuquerque. It’s important to get your bearings and understand that the downtown core by Central and First Streets is not the same as Old Town. If you’re looking for the cute walkable artsy pedestrian area, head to the historic center. Accordions, guitarists, and flutists set the tone as you explore floral and chile pepper lined alleys and patios strung up in colored flags and lights that sway to the tune. Take a food, culture, or Breaking Bad tour.
The History of Hot Air Ballooning is Hilarious – Invented in France, the sport was first tested on animals, sending them flying up into the skies. The next test was prisoners, who survived the flight but then were bludgeoned to death by terrified villagers who thought demons were descending from the sky. It’s now tradition to arrive with a bottle of champagne as a peace offering to anyone in proximity, which is a tradition I can get behind.
There’s Competitive Hot Air Ballooning – It’s challenging enough to navigate around obstacles like power lines, phone lines, and trees, but if you want an added element of competition, there are also accuracy contests to drop different items on designated targets for points.
Riding in a Hot Air Balloon at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta:
To be honest, I knew nothing about hot air balloons before Balloon Fiesta beyond that they’re highly photogenic. If you want to go for a ride at the festival, unlike other activities where you can simply signup and pay, ballooning is less straightforward. It’s a puzzle based on the combined weight of the passengers. Some baskets can carry 2-4 passengers, while bigger commercial hot air balloon operations can hold 12-14 people. It simply depends on your timing and a bit of luck. In fact, you may have better luck seeing Albuquerque from the sky on a random non-festival weekend.
The feeling is most similar to sailing. There’s no way to actually steer a balloon left or right. You simply use the wind to guide you and the amount of fuel to control your ascent and descent. Finding a landing spot is particularly challenging, and you may very well end up in someone’s backyard (hopefully not one with dogs and horses). The ride is super smooth. There are no bumps or real wind gusts. The only minor concern was my hair, which felt like it was going to burn off when we turned up the fuel.
Photography Tips for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta:
Sponsored by Canon, the Balloon Fiesta has a set of handy tips for professional photographers interested in capturing the spectacle, but here are a few of my own tips for the iPhone photographer in all of us:
When the mass ascension happens, it happens fast. It’s easy to feel like sensory overload. Balloons are flying in all directions and your head can’t focus on any one target. Before any takeoff, identify a few of your favorite colored balloons that can be in the foreground and follow their progression with your eyes.
Use the scenery to frame the shot. The sunrise glow, the Sandia Mountains in the background, and the river are all glorious natural elements that add to the ambiance. Wait until a few of the balloons fly over these landscapes for some added flair. Don’t forget the rule of thirds when you’re framing the shot.
Make it a scavenger hunt to find the special shapes. I spotted a pink elephant, Yoda, a bunny, a frog, Sonic the hedgehog, and my favorite, a western armadillo with guns a blazing. These quirky balloons will give your photos a bit of character and personality.
Shoot the people on the ground as much as the hot air balloons in the sky. The crews helping with the lighting and chasing are the ones that show the real heart and passion. You can also look out for the refs who generally have rather creative costumes (some with tails).
It’s okay to take a million photos and delete them later. The balloons are moving fast so it’s impossible to setup each individual shot. Don’t worry about framing the perfect photograph, just snap away and see which naturally crop the best once you get home.
Have fun, it’s a once in a lifetime event!
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay in Albuquerque
*Special thanks to High Plains Drifter out of Montana for taking me to the skies.
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