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Couple watched the balloons take off at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.

Fantasies Take Flight at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

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Fantasies Take Flight at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Gazing up at hundreds of brightly colored hot air balloons as they rise into clear blue skies, you will understand why Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been called the "Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World."

For nine days every October, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes to the skies with around 600 balloons and crews from all over the globe. Since the first rally in 1972, the Balloon Fiesta has grown so popular that it claims to be the USA's largest annual international event and one of the most photographed events worldwide. Nightly, beautiful sunsets light the incredible scenery the southwest state is known for, from the rugged Sandia Mountains to the flat mesa stretching to the far west, which only add to the photographic appeal.

As rosy dawn brightens over the mountains, you will hear the roar of burners, inflating hundreds of balloons ready for the morning ascension.

As rosy dawn brightens over the mountains, you will hear the roar of burners, inflating hundreds of balloons ready for the morning ascension.
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Up, Up and Away.

With nearly 1 million people flocking to the launch field during the festival, you will want to plan carefully. Each day varies, so there is plenty to see and do: Morning mass ascensions, balloon contest stunts, chainsaw carving, a car show, evening balloon "glows," fireworks and plenty of other entertainment.

Each magical morning, spectators stroll around the 32-hectare launch field, chatting with balloon pilots and their teams and maybe even helping out with a launch. Plan to dress warmly in layers—it can be chilly early on, but it usually warms up by noon. You can keep your hands warm with a foil-wrapped breakfast burrito, spiced with green chile — a local delicacy.

Excitement builds as whistle-blowing officials — called "Zebras" due to their bold black and white striped shirts — clear the balloons for liftoff. It takes up to two hours for all the balloons to launch, and spectators try to follow their favorite with their eyes as the balloons drift across the Rio Grande Valley.

 

In the ascensions for "special shapes" balloons, a fantasy world unfolds as balloons inflate and take life as a massive bumble bee, a panda, a pink elephant, a huge Darth Vader head and even a flying cow.

In the ascensions for "special shapes" balloons, a fantasy world unfolds as balloons inflate and take life as a massive bumble bee, a panda, a pink elephant, a huge Darth Vader head and even a flying cow.
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Stunts, Races Fill the Days.

Fiesta events continue throughout day, and include contests for flying accuracy, like the Key Grab (pilots jostle to snatch a set of car keys from the top of a 9-meter pole); Blackjack (they drop markers on large playing cards spread on the ground) and Hula Hoops (they try to throw hoops from their balloon over six-meter-tall bottles). Meanwhile, children can learn about the history and science of ballooning at the Balloon Discovery Center.

Competitors race to see who can fly the farthest distance from Albuquerque before landing. They often stay in the air for three nights and fly more than 300 kilometers to the East Coast of the USA.

Evening sessions feature balloon glows, creating a wonderland of light. The pilots fire up the burners but the balloons stay tethered to the ground, so they glow in the dusk. Live music and fireworks round off a festive day.

The America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race launches from the festival in a rousing send-off by the crowds.

The America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race launches from the festival in a rousing send-off by the crowds.
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High-Flying Experiences.

No time for a balloon ride? You can still get panoramic views on the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, zipping up some 3,000 meters to gaze out over nearly 260 hectares of New Mexico. Enjoy a meal or snack at the High Finance Restaurant on the peak.

Want to get even closer to the action? Anyone can volunteer for the chase crews to help set up and launch balloons and follow them to their landing spots. About 10 percent of festival volunteers come from outside the USA, and no experience is needed. To sign up, visit the festival's website.

As the balloonists' prayer says: "May the winds welcome you with softness. May the sun bless you with its warm hands."

For more Southwest adventures, take a road trip through its Grand Landscapes.

You can watch events from the air by taking a balloon ride with the fiesta's official operator, Rainbow Ryders.

You can watch events from the air by taking a balloon ride with the fiesta's official operator, Rainbow Ryders.
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