As a curious person who loves to travel, I'm always asking 'locals' about their favorite places and events in the area. Although not in Texas, the Balloon Fiesta held in Albuquerque, New Mexico was a frequent response - so when the opportunity to apply as a media representative popped up, I threw my hat into the ring with little expectation. To my surprise, they approved me as a media attendee with this blog back in July, and we were able to attend the first weekend of the 49th Annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta!
30 Rainbow Rd NE
Albuquerque, NM 87113
Green Fees: $78 pp, includes range balls + cart
We drove to Albuquerque on the first Saturday of the fiesta and took the opportunity to play golf our first night there. This was actually a last minute plan, and we were so happy we made this decision. We played about 12 holes at the Sandia Golf Club before we lost light; the pro shop was generous enough to give us a discounted 9 hole rate.
Early views of the Sandia Golf Club leading to and at Hole #1 in Albuquerque, NM
The course is 7,755 yards, par 72, designed by Scott Miller and surrounded by the Sandia Mountains. When I returned to work and told my coworker we had played there, she informed me that "Sandia" translates to watermelon - which is accurately descriptive of the colored sunsets they have there.
Even in October the course was in great shape with lush green grass. We are dying to get back here for a full round!
Views of the "Sandia", or watermelon mountains, at sunset from the Sandia Golf Club in Albuquerque, NM
After a nice sleep, we grabbed some breakfast to go and drove toward the Balloon Fiesta Park + launch field, where the media tent was located. I'm not sure where we missed the memo, but we went too far down the highway and were unable to make a U-turn onto the access road. After taking the long way around, we finally arrived at the parking lot, where no one knew where to find said media tent. Long story short, we were in the wrong parking lot, but finally found the tent.
Another thing I didn't know is that main events take place early in the morning and at night - so afternoon is a dead time at the venue. After picking up my media credentials, we opted to kill some time at the zoo.
903 10th St SW, Albuquerque, NM, 87102
Admission: Youth (3-12): $6, Adults (13-64): $14.50, Seniors (65+): $7.50
We actually had been the to this zoo before, but our visit got cut short due to sleet that day. This time, we had lovely weather in the 70s F. To be honest, nothing in the zoo particularly blew me away, but our daughter really loved it; my favorite was the polar bear. At this time, they are not mandating masks outdoors if you are vaccinated, but are requiring them if you enter indoor exhibits.
Also part of the Albuquerque BioPark is a botanical garden and aquarium (which we didn't have time to see) located at 2601 Central Ave NW, Albuquerque, NM 87104.
Our favorites were the polar bear and the carousel at the Albuquerque Zoo!
After the zoo, we worked up an appetite and found a winery nearby (of course!). Although there are several wineries in the area, this looked to be the best in terms of serving both wine and food.
901 Rio Grande Blvd NW #B100 Albuquerque, New Mexico 87104
If you head to D.H. Lescombes, I'd suggest a reservation, as it was quite busy when we went. Once we were seated, the service was excellent. I loved that you could order a flight of wine, because they have a large list to choose from (so the FOMO isn't as bad)! The serving sizes were very generous and the atmosphere was great. They had really nice seating both inside and outside in two different areas.
The wine flight and "signature nosh" (charcuterie) at D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro in Albuquerque, NM
After some fresh air at the zoo and food in our stomachs, we returned to the hotel for a siesta. At about 4:30 PM we headed back to the launch field to catch the evening events. We were lucky enough to spend some time in the media tent for a light supper, then waited for the festivities to start. Around 6:00 PM balloons started to pop up for the "balloon glow".
I had never been up close and personal with a hot air balloon before, so I was intrigued by the process of getting everything set up. While in the media tent, we met another blogger couple (Exploring Through Our Lens) who had made friends with a balloon pilot and invited us to their spot on the launch field. They let us tag along and we met pilot Tom Russo from New Jersey. He was brave enough to let me into the basket and get the burner going. To be honest, this was super exciting to me and I was content just being stationary inside the basket.
My first hot air balloon encounter - supervised by pilot Tom Russo at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
That evening, we watched a sea of anchored balloons illuminate the sky as the sun went down, which was pretty amazing. Every so often, they would coordinate on the loudspeakers to get everyone glowing at once. To my surprise, our little one was scared of the flames... we stayed for a while, then returned to the hotel to get some sleep for the early morning to come.
Taking in the beauty of the hot air balloons at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta during balloon glow
Monday was our day to experience the morning events before we hit the road home. As a member of the media, I was given the opportunity to sign up for an actual hot air balloon ride, but was told it was first come, first serve. So on Monday morning, we hit the road at 4:30 AM to get to the media tent by 5 AM. I was the 4th person to sign up and made the cut! Once I found out, I started to get nervous... I think I went to the restroom 3 times before the morning flight...
The coordinators paired passengers with pilots based on their weight capacity; I'm so grateful I was matched with Jim Lynch and his chase crew from Destin, FL. At about 6:30 AM I was brought over to their launch area and introduced. I never really thought about the logistics of a hot air balloon flight until that moment, and realized that not only do you need a pilot, you need a crew to retrieve the balloon and passengers at the landing site...hence the chase crew.
The crew getting "The Whirlaway" ready for flight at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
As they got the balloon ready, I stood there anxiously after signing multiple waivers. Once ready, I was instructed to enter the basket with Jim the pilot, and a friend of theirs who was also going for the ride. As we went up, I lodged myself in the corner of the basket and didn't move much the entire time. The thought of how high you are is daunting at first, but then the silence and peacefulness you find in flight really takes over. Seeing other balloons take off was also quite amazing from this vantage point.
A view of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta launch field from the sky
I also never considered how a hot air balloon landing would work, until the wind took us a bit too far to the right and we were unable to come down onto a large field, where we had originally planned to land. We went back up and looked for open areas we could safely come down to - but the city of Albuquerque was approaching, so our pilot had to make a quick decision. We saw a parking lot in the distance, and he let his chase crew know our target on the radio. As we approached the ground, we were nearing a small hill filled with cactus, shrubs and rocks. We hit the ground and all three of us got knocked forward inside the basket. The first impact didn't stop us, and we dragged into another bunch of rocks. I sustained some cuts on my knee from the initial impact - falling into the side of the basket and other lady with us ended up with cuts all over her hands. It was not what I imagined at all...
But aside from all that, I really loved the opportunity to take flight and see first hand what a hot air balloon ride entails. Even the recovery of the balloon by the chase crew was interesting to see and help with and as we got everything into the truck to transport back.
Standing with my pilot, Jim, after my first flight "initiation" at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
To end this amazing experience, Jim and his wife Nancy were kind enough to invite my family and I to a tailgate that afternoon. They made a toast to me for surviving my first flight and did an entire ceremony where I received a pin with their balloon, The Whirlaway, as a memento. This was such an incredible day.
Things to know for next year:
-Do not take the Roy Tramway exit, get off at Alameda
-Get to the launch field by 5 AM during the week and closer to 4-430 AM on a weekend for morning events
-Get to the evening events by 5 PM
-Attend one of the Thursday or Friday's to see the special shape balloons
-Bring layers for the early mornings - it's fairly cold before the sun comes up!
-Book more days off to attend!!!
This truly was a once in a lifetime experience and I am so grateful to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival for this opportunity. I am hopeful to attend again next year for the 50th Annual and see Jim and Nancy for possibly their last Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta...