For the 43rd year, hundreds of hot air balloons are taking to the New Mexico skies as part of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest ballooning event in the world. The nine-day festival lasts until October 12, and features over 500 ballooning teams from 22 countries, bringing in balloon pilots from countries as diverse as Jamaica and Lithuania.
The festival began in 1972 as a modest affair, with only 13 balloons taking flight from a parking lot at the Coronado Center Mall east of Albuquerque's downtown. The festival has since expanded into an international event, featuring several days of races and competitions. On this year's opening day last Saturday, balloon pilots took off at dawn, vessels glowing in the dark sky. Several hours later the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race began, a cross-country, long-distance competition won by the balloon pilot that flies the farthest distance (last year, the winners touched down in Ontario, Canada). The record distance was set in 2000, when brothers David and Alan Levin piloted their gas balloon over 1,998 miles, landing ten miles northwest of Portland, Maine. While it might seem terrifying to fly such a long distance in a gas balloon, such trips harken back to a time before the invention of the airplane, when gas balloons were the primary mode of air travel. Other competitions this week will test pilots' finesse and accuracy, with activities such as the ring toss, pole grab, key grab, and races that ask pilots to drop markers into designated areas.
The festival isn't all about competition, however. It also also honors the artistic splendor of hot air balloons through the Special Shape Rodeo, which features balloons shaped like giant frogs, blue whales, baby dinosaurs, and more. Visitors can also take advantage of booths and balloons selling memorabilia, and concessions dolling out traditional New Mexican cuisine, which are slated to occupy some 100 acres of the 360-acre Balloon Fiesta Park.
Albuquerque is renowned among ballooning enthusiasts for its ideal ballooning conditions, which occur thanks to the "Albuquerque box"—a specific wind pattern that allows balloon pilots to take off and land in roughly the same spot. The "box" occurs because winds at low elevations tend to move in one direction (often southerly), while winds at a higher altitude move in the other direction. Balloon pilots, then, only have to worry about maneuvering their balloons vertically, since the wind directions during their trip essentially cancel each other out.
Can't make it to Albuquerque in time to see the balloons take flight? The city is also home to the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, dedicated to the history and science of ballooning and located just outside of the Balloon Fiesta Park.
Below, check out a stunning time-lapse video of last year's festival, put together by the folks at Roadtrippers.