More than 20 countries will be represented this week as nearly one million balloon experts, eager photographers, and New Mexico newcomers look to the skies for Albuquerque’s 46th International Balloon Fiesta.
Jennifer Garcia is in charge of the pilots for this year’s 562 hot air balloons. “It’s indescribable,” she said, “to walk amongst the balloons, they’re like gentle giants. It’s definitely a bucket list item.”
Thousands of people gathered in the darkness of the launch field before this year’s first mass ascension began.
Families clutching hot chocolate, couples wrapped in blankets, and sleepy-eyed children crowded around the nearest balloon to watch in amazement as crews and pilots began to inflate their aircrafts on Saturday morning.
“It’s like being at the state fair, but then there’s this amazing view all around you, it’s almost overwhelming, your eyes can barely take it all in,” said Raymond Donavan who was in attendance from Dallas, Texas.
The golden light of propane flames lit the faces of on-lookers and excited chatter and cheers could be heard across the field as the first balloon departed from the dewy grass.
One of the first balloons to take off this year was carrying Governor Susana Martinez, it flew an American flag from its basket, as the pilot shouted, “Happy Fiesta!” to the masses below.
This year, 20 new balloons are making their Albuquerque debut, but some pilots have been entertaining audiences here for decades.
Louisiana native, Robert Ambeau, attended his first Fiesta 30 years ago. He fell in love with the sport and two weeks later, he owned his very own hot air balloon. He now has over 1,800 hours as a pilot in command.
“Flying a balloon is like floating on a cloud, that’s the best way to explain it,” he said.
This is the 15th year you’ll see his Dr. Pepper balloon gracing the Albuquerque skyline, but he and his wife Sue have flown all over the world.
They say the hospitality of the city is evident in the way the Fiesta treats its pilots. It’s an event they love and they know others will too.
“This is second to nothing, it’s number one. Everyone should come and see it once and experience it, and if they see it once, they’ll come again,” said Ambeau.
And why wouldn’t they? To stand next to something that once resembled a tarp on the ground and watch as it comes to life and grows to be as tall as a building, then following it as it rises higher and higher into the endless blue of the New Mexico sky, for many it’s an experience of a lifetime.
“It’s the most visually exciting event I’ve ever been to,” said Xavier Donas, a 25-year-old from Denver, Colorado.
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this,” he said, as he snapped more photos of the balloon dotted sky.
But the annual spectacle means more than just an influx of out of towners for Albuquerque.
Bringing in millions of dollars to the city each year, the Fiesta creates a sense of liveliness and hope in the community.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I love volunteering here so much, everyone’s smiling, and people are always so kind. You can tell everyone is happy,” said six year volunteer Yvonne Rowley.
Her sentiment rings true for the whole experience. From the high school students directing people to their parking spaces, to the merchants in their tents, everyone seems to enjoy themselves, regardless of the chill in the air.
The Fiesta provides Albuquerque with an opportunity to show its best sides.
Strolling down the main walkway of the event, attendees will find entertainment, music, and activities for all ages, but in the famous string of white tents, merchants are selling more than just goods and traditional food.
Many non-profits get involved to raise awareness and funds for their cause.
This year Fathers Building Futures, an organization helping formerly incarcerated fathers learn vocational skills to be able to provide for their families, has a tent where they’re selling handcrafted woodwork to benefit their program.
Dara Romero, the organization’s marketing and HR representative, said that even though the process to get a tent was tedious, the outcome has already been well worth it.
For many local companies, restaurants, hotels, and other organizations, the amount of exposure the Fiesta creates can’t be beat.
While the traffic may get on local nerves, it’s difficult to deny the beauty the Balloon Fiesta brings to both the skies, and the economy of Albuquerque.Like this story? Sign up for our daily newsletter to get more of our best original news.