'When dreams take flight'...

January 14, 2016

..was the theme of last year's Ballooner's Paradise in New Mexico, a.k.a the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2015.

Albuquerque takes pride in hosting the worlds largest balloon festival with hundreds of balloonists (17 countries participated in 2015) and thousands of tourists flying in from all over the world to take in the spectacle. What apparently started as a small event in 1972 with only 13 hot air balloons in the parking lot of a shopping mall has now become a long standing tradition of 44 years, with over 500 brightly colored balloons adorning the clear blue skies on a crisp fall October morning. Seems it wasn't until 1975 that the event got the name 'Fiesta'.  The festival is held every year for nine days during the first week of October, and we finally got to be at the Ballooners paradise last year!! 

As is typical of me, I like to know what each US state is famous for so we can time/plan our vacation to that state accordingly. So, about 3 years ago, on a boring work day, as I was trying to inspire myself to get back to work, by inspire I mean browsing through travel websites (dont judge me, different people draw inspiration from different things, what can I say ;)). I was intrigued as I found out that Albuquerque in New Mexico hosts the largest balloon festival in the world. I was like, WHY New Mexico? Pardon my ignorance (and I absolutely have nothing against New Mexico), it's just that up until then it wasn't one of the states that had made the faintest of appearances on my US travel list, but it was soon to change as I read more about the Balloon Fiesta - it soon joined my elite club of bucket list items. And after 3 years, we made the dates work for us and finally experienced another one of my/our bucket list items, YAY!!!

What sets a perfect stage in terms of weather in Albuquerque for the balloon festival is what's called the "Albuquerque box"; a unique pattern created by clear skies, low humidity, and the right elevation, thus making it a balloon capital. 

Fun facts aside, a quick brief about our trip...
Unlike our usual trips, this was a last minute plan as there were too many things happening in life last summer and fall - our move, setting up the place, parents visiting us, and hubby's crazy work schedule. Despite all odds, I was thrilled (its still an understatement) that we made it happen! As expected, flights were expensive due to last minute plans, but I was able to score a sweet deal using points on my credit card, we didn't have to pay a penny! (thats right, free flight tickets, yes please #glee). 

After reaching the city past midnight and barely getting enough sleep before the alarm went off at 3AM (snoozing was not an option; you snooze you lose - my mantra that works ONLY during vacation :p), we both knew that the next day was going to be a looong day. Thank god we were mentally prepared, and just the sight of those colorful balloons made it all worth it!

We had decided to go the "Park and Ride" way - meaning, we could park our car at a designated parking lot and get on one of the school bus shuttles used for the festival that would drop us off at the fiesta park. Not having to go through the hassle of bumper-to-bumper traffic for 2 hours and fighting tooth and nail to find a parking spot, hell yes, we will take it. Having given into the alarm, we made to the parking lot by 4:30AM and got onto the very next bus waiting to drop off the eager spectators. Reached the park about 5ish and my oh my, even at that time of the day you just couldnt beat the enthusiastic crowd at the festival - all lined up in long queues to get their morning doze of caffeine, and fuel their bodies for a long day ahead of them. While its advised to dress in layers, I choose to go with a jacket and ditch the layers (less things to carry around the better), and I was even happily walking around in my most comfy platform sandals. It was strange though - as it got brighter, it got chillier and my feet got colder (note to self, woman, wear shoes next time :-/ ).

We strolled around for a bit checking out souvenir stores and food stalls. The whole park was bustling with energy, adults chatting with one another while sipping their coffee and kids running around holding onto plastic replicas of hot air balloons. And my expectations about the event were increasing by the minute.  Then, from the middle of nowhere, a sudden burst of pumping music with laser lights froze us for a moment, and before we even realized we were shaking our legs to the tunes. And the half curved moon at a distance seemed like the icing on top of the cake. A perfect beginning to a more than perfect day!

At the crack of dawn (around 6:30AM), we walked closer to where all the action seemed to be – the pilots all geared up and ready for lift off. This marked the first event of the day, 'Dawn Patrol' - a choreographed inflation and launch of about a dozen balloons, set to music. The Dawn Patrol pilots took off in the dark carefully monitoring the wind speed and directions at different altitudes. The first time we saw a balloon glow in the dark, it was magical, we got goose bumps, and the crowd cheered on and on!! Following which more balloons started to glow, all at the same time, and that was the 'Krispy Kreme Morning Glow'. Then, in a matter of minutes, the first balloon took off, followed by the second, and then the third, and plenty more until the entire sky was filled with colorful glowing dots, thus setting a perfect stage for yet another breathtaking day full of events at the Balloon Fiesta! 

And as the suns rays began to fall on the park, we realized that plenty of balloons were laying low on the ground, waiting to be blown up, and waiting to take off on that clear morning. We were pretty excited to walk among the plethora of balloons and witness each and every activity from the moment the pilots drove their vehicles into the park until take off and beyond. Apparently, this is the only balloon festival where people can walk among the balloons in the launch field and take in all the action, up close and center.

The pilots were preparing for 'Mass Ascension', when about 500+ balloons were launched from the field. Each balloon was better than the other and we couldn't help but click pictures after pictures (telling ourselves, promising even, that this would be the last one, a few dozen times, but only to realize we suck at keeping such promises :p). Well, can you blame us? We were awe-struck as an indefinite number of cartoons came to life as special balloons (angry birds, buzzy bee, uncle Sam, pirate, planet Earth, etc, etc.). They all went up one after the other, and Darth Vader among them got the loudest cheer from the roaring crowd.

As the day progressed, we checked out several artisan stalls, tasted some of the best dips, and bought some antique jewelry. And then headed straight to the hotel to catch up on some much needed zzz and recharge our batteries for the evening session.

We were in luck that evening too, reached the park at 5PM and took a rather leisurely walk around the park – just taking in all the energy, gazing at the setting sun that set the sky ablaze with hues of pink, orange and purple.

With the setting sun as the background, amidst all the spectators who had taken to the ground to relax, the balloonists started to line up in several rows and blow up the balloons and put on a dramatic show. In no time, hundreds of balloons started to bring out their magic, and anticipation coursed through the park as the crowd began their count down – 3, 2, 1, all glowwww. No wonder its called the 'Night Magic Glow'! The park exploded with the glow of all the balloons, the crowd was exhilarated and cheered with jubilation. It was the perfect time for a panoramic shot. We took in every second of it while enjoying some tasty falafel and hummus from one of the stalls.

After several rounds of 'all glow' and 'flicker' of the balloons, it was time to draw curtains on another dazzling day at the Balloon Fiesta. Oh but not before some more thumping music, another laser show, and impressive fireworks – a perfect end to a magical day (and night).

To us, it was a one of a kind experience, and we floated back to the hotel (well not literally, though I wish) as jubilant kids! 

If the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta was not on your travel list until now, I sure hope this post compels you to give it a thought. I promise, you wont be disappointed! :)

What's on YOUR travel list for 2016?

‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away…’

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