by Sheila Gaspers

Rising before the crack of dawn is no easy task for me. But the anticipation of seeing hundreds of colorful balloons dance amidst the clouds against the spectacular backdrop of New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains was a motivating force that could not be ignored.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is a world class event that should be on everyone’s bucket list. For general visitors, pilots, crew and balloon enthusiasts, the fiesta is more of a religious pilgrimage. For 39 years, the Balloon Fiesta has entertained and educated the masses on the “Art of Ballooning”, a magical sport celebrating flight in its earliest form.

Fun Fact: the first manned balloon flight was in 1783 in the small village of Annonay, France.

The lyrics of the 1967 pop hit recorded by the 5th Dimension replayed each day in my head as crowds gathered on the launch field. “Up, Up and Away in my beautiful Balloon.” The words now have more meaning after my achievement of flying 2000 feet or more above the park. Nothing can really prepare you for the sensation of floating at such heights. I can only tell you it was a smooth and surreal ride. Even the acoustics are enhanced. The balloon somehow acts as a microphone. It is so quiet that you can hear sounds hundreds of feet below without any real distortion. It is totally wild!

The Balloon Fiesta schedule spans over nine days in October. The park, northwest of the city, is expansive covering 72 acres, so be prepared to walk. Kick off ceremonies include a Dawn Patrol Show, where experts prep the pilots and audience for the mass ascension by checking winds and weather conditions. The Morning Glow extravaganza follows. Balloons tether together and pilots sequentially release the launch fire. In short, simply imagine a field of flickering enormous light bulbs and you will fully understand the uniqueness of the visual performance.

The Balloon Fiesta has set hours. Arrive no later than 6 a.m. to find a good parking spot. The park shuts down for morning siesta by 11 a.m. So schedule some nap time from 12-3 p.m. For those who don’t need the extra sleep, the afternoon is a good time to explore Albuquerque. Return to the park by 5:30 p.m. for the evening festivities which include a Sunset Glow performance and an elaborate fireworks show.

Experienced visitors and participants know the routine and are happy to share festival survival tips.

Dress for the changing weather. Wear layers. Temps fluctuate as much as the balloons.
Bring extra camera batteries and storage cards. It is not unusual to take 500 photos in an hour. The photo opportunities are endless
Wear comfortable walking shoes. There are courtesy shuttles (manned golf carts) but long lines. You may need to walk nearly a mile to get to and from the parking lots.
Check the weather and the Fiesta website daily for changes to the schedule.
For VIP treatment, secure special Gondola Club tickets. Admission includes parking, preferred seating, and a lavish food buffet with open bar.

Life exists beyond the Balloon Fiesta.

Albuquerque has so much to offer. My four day visit was simply not long enough to explore all the attractions, activities and shopping.

Accommodations are as diverse and eclectic as the city. Options range from limited service hotels to luxury resorts. You can also find unique lodging just outside the city limits.

I enjoyed my stay in the fashionable Uptown area of Albuquerque. My hotel, the Hyatt Place Uptown is adjacent to a pedestrian friendly outdoor shopping mall. I loved the location’s easy access to the freeway and the hotel amenities. Rooms include a casual entertainment area complete with a comfy couch, big screen TV and desk. But my personal perk was the discovery of a Trader’s Joe’s market just around the corner. It doesn’t get any better than that for me!

Special Note: QVC fans will want to visit Southwest Jewelry Designer, Carolyn Pollack’s store in the mall. This is one of only two store locations in the country. During Balloon Fiesta week, she offers special private tours of her manufacturing facility not far from the park grounds.

Los Poblanos Inn, a beautiful historic ranch surrounded by gardens and agricultural fields, dates back to early 1930s. This 25 acre property is located in the Rio Grande Valley community of Los Ranchos, just north of Old Town Albuquerque The Inn and its adjacent Cultural Center is home to New Mexico’s first in-ground swimming pool and an active organic farm. The Inn is also known for its fresh “farm to table” catering and guest breakfast menus. With only 20 rooms, you will need to book early for the annual Balloon Fiesta and the Lavender in the Village Festival which is hosted at the farm in mid-summer.

Corrales is an artistic agriculture community not far from Los Ranchos.
The town is best known for its wineries, dining, art galleries and fresh food markets.

For those who desire privacy in an authentic southwest home setting, check out Chocolate Turtle B&B. Innkeepers, Dallas and Nancy Renner, offer four tastefully decorated rooms, a hearty breakfast, wireless internet and beautiful vistas from an outdoor patio garden. There is even a resident road runner who pops in frequently to entertain guests.

A visit to Wagner’s Market is a must. Locals line up early during harvest time to stock up on green and red chilies and fresh tomatoes. The Oasis, another local favorite, is a funky coffee/wine bar that offers Chef Signature dinner events most weekends. Before leaving Corrales, spend a lazy afternoon wine tasting. The picturesque landscape of Corrales Winery is the perfect setting to enjoy the winery’s custom red blend, Rojo Blendido.

North of Balloon Park near the town of Bernalillo, you will find true luxury. Set on more than 500 protected acres along the Rio Grande river at the base of the Sandia Mountains is the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa. With 350 rooms, extensive walking trails, a golf course, full spa, tennis courts, riding stables, three pools and several full service restaurants, you may not want to leave. During Balloon Fiesta this resort offers a complete stress free experience with daily shuttle service to the event.

But be sure to save a few days to explore Albuquerque’s Old Town and the Nob Hill Shopping District. Both areas offer delightful distractions ranging from history to some of the best food and shopping in the Southwest.

Nob Hill

Flying Star has become an institution in Albuquerque since its inception in 1987 on old Route 66 in Historic Nob Hill. This one time ice cream shop has blossomed into nine locations. Good food with a focus on organic healthy ingredients and a creative menu keep customers coming back for more. Its sister company, Satellite Coffee rivals Starbucks… and its cool terrestrial logo wins hands down. For a nice cold brew with a view, visit Kellys Brew Pub. This popular microbrewery will even let you create your very own beer. For a special Tango Diva tour, ask for the Brew Mistress, Shannon Dawney.

There are approximately two dozen microbreweries in New Mexico. I am a wine snob… but a beer from Turtle Mountain in Rio Rancho, Marble Brewery, and Chama River Brewery in Albuquerque could easily change my ways.

After lunch, is a great time for power shopping.

First stop is Ziggy and Zoe’s on Central Avenue just behind Kellys. Part furniture, jewelry and accessories, this store ranks as my top find. I love their locally made jewelry collections. Don’t expect silver and turquoise. Think L.A. or NYC groovy with a touch of Santa Fe.

Revolver, a new/vintage clothing store and Beeps, a fun gift boutique will also not disappoint.

Old Town

The Old Town plaza is always sizzling with music, local flavor and activity. The Albuquerque Museum of History and Art is the best place to start exploring. Museum docents offer walking tours of historic Old Town Tuesday through Sunday at 11 a.m. (seasonal schedule). Around every corner you will find a shop or restaurant. Vintage Cowgirl caught my eye. This boutique store offers a huge selection of boots and showcases several regional designers.

If you are in search of original beaded and silver jewelry, abi.k Boutique, tucked in a small patio area near the church, is well known for unique pieces at fair prices. But for the best deals in authentic designs, bargaining with artisan vendors under the portal near the plaza is highly recommended. Foodies should not miss The Chile Casa. This colorful store sells New Mexico salsas, jams, chile ristras and more.

If you are short on time a trolley tour is a great idea. The one hour tour covers 18 miles of the city and departs daily from the Old Town Plaza. Buy your tickets online and save.

For a lasting memory and the ultimate farewell, ride the Sandia Peak Tram, the world’s longest aerial tramway. You will climb over 10,000 feet for a spectacular panoramic view of the city and surrounding area.

Wherever your interests may lead you during your visit, be sure to take some time to reflect and immerse yourself in the beauty and unparalleled diversity of this charming Southwest destination.

It is truly the Land of Enchantment!

For trip planning assistance, contact the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Day Trip Suggestions:

Santa Fe, New Mexico, (check out new train service from Albuquerque)

Acoma, New Mexico, Sky City Cultural Center

Turquoise Trail Scenic Historic Byway

About the Author:
Sheila Gaspers is a freelance writer who crosses countries and continents to connect with the people and places that inspire and reignite one’s passion for living. True to her gypsy heart, Sheila reinvents herself daily and follows her dreams. Storyteller, historian, entertainer and true soul sister – this travel diva can’t wait for her next gig. Did someone say “TV Talk Show Host” or perhaps “Cruise Director”? Sheila’s successful media career spans 30 years and her published work continues to engage and enlighten readers around the world.