Hot air balloons fill the skies to the north of Albuquerque, up toward Bernalillo and sometimes over the Sandia Reservation. It happens every year in early October, the largest hot air balloon event in the world. There are balloons of every color, many are traditional tear-drop shapes but many others have unusual designs or shapes: a massive stagecoach, a panda, a stork delivering a baby, a huge cow. The list is extensive. Others are inspired by books or movies like Dumbo the Elephant, Woody Woodpecker, Noah’s Ark, and Dino the Dinosaur.
Balloon pilots are here from most states plus various international locations. There is a Native presence in ballooning throughout the region and Native Americans are seen mixed throughout the crowds which number upwards of 100,000 viewers. Two balloons carry Native designs. One is the Zia Sun symbol which is also the New Mexico flag and the second carried a corn maiden design from the Acoma Pueblo.
A visit to the Albuquerque Balloon Museum shows a strong Native influence. A large pot standing four or five feet tall and painted like a Pueblo pot rests outside the main entrance to the museum. It has geometric designs of pueblo pottery but also four large circles around the circumference with scenes painted showing hot air balloons above the scenes.
Inside the museum one spots a display of five items made by Native people: two pottery pieces made by Fio and Lee Vallo of Acoma in the shape of hot air balloons, a balloon fiesta pot over Sandia Pueblo by Robert Tenorio of Santo Domingo and another of his with a design of a bird on a pot shaped like an inverted balloon. The fifth item is a Zia horse hair dance bustle made by Calvert Chapo and Jackie Platero and the center is shaped like a balloon with the Zia Sun symbol.
There’s a poster titled Acoma Sunrise with numerous balloons, plus various small pottery pieces depicting balloons and sold as ornaments by potters from Acoma, Jemez, and the Navajo Nation. Another horse hair bustle is for sale made by Lillian Romero, Laguna, and Marlene Petero, Navajo. It’s shaped like the one on display but has several bright colors on the balloon.
Oldtown, in Albuquerque, has a park where visitors gather to shop from surrounding stores or from Native artisans who line one block to sell their work. In the park a banner proclaimed “Welcome Balloonists”. Several groups took turns performing here including Steve Toya, Zia/Jemez, who drummed and sang as his son Todd did a version of the Eagle dance from Jemez Pueblo. Fabian Fontenelle and Shelley Morningsong also entertained the crowd with his drumming and dancing and her songs.
Back at Balloon Fiesta Park, visitors, pilots, and their chase crews gather well before daylight. Most mornings there is a dawn patrol show before daylight. Balloons light up almost like light bulbs as burners are turned on and balloons are inflated. A mass ascension takes place one morning when nearly 500 balloons rise from the grounds about the time the sun climbs over the ridges. It’s an impressive sight!
Visitors can stay back along the long line of vendors selling everything from food to clothing, or sit on benches along the edge of the area where balloons are being prepared. Or, they can wander out among the balloons and even chat with the pilots and their crews when things are quiet. It’s a photographers dream to capture images of the balloons as they rise, silhouetted against the sky, singly or in large groups.
On two days the “Special Shape” balloons take center stage. It’s here that the bizarre, the amusing, the enormous, the cute, the comical balloons are featured. They may fly other days as well but this is their day to shine.
There were 553 pilots entered but some had more than one balloon so the final total would be near 600 balloons. The number has varied over the years. The event began in 1972 with the hope of breaking the record number of balloons for an event which England held with 19 balloons. Albuquerque thought it would surpass that but bad weather conflicted and just 13 showed up. It grew from there as an annual event and hit its peak in 2000 with 1,019 balloons entered. The next year a limit of 750 was imposed and in 2009 it was again reduced, this time to 600 due to the city expanding and landing zones becoming fewer. It still retains its claim as the world’s largest balloon gathering.
Those who missed the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta can view the world’s second largest balloon event, also in New Mexico, on November 30 through December 2 when the Red Rock Balloon Rally takes place at Gallup. Over two hundred balloons are expected including many that flew in Albuquerque. The red rock landscape provides the backdrop for another wonderful show.
Check back soon for a photo gallery of the event.