ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO – The state motto of New Mexico is “Land of Enchantment.” This is especially true in the weather-perfect month of October when the city of Albuquerque comes alive with the sight of hundreds of colorful hot air balloons filling the deep blue sky.
For the past 48 years, the Albuquerque International BalloonFiesta has been giving people both on and off the ground a visual feast of rare beauty.
What began in 1972 with a modest launch of 13 balloons has evolved into the largest ballooning event in the world — and the world’s most photographed event.
Over the course of a nine-day celebration earlier this month, about 800,000 visitors witnessed more than 550 balloons of all shapes and sizes float above the state’s largest city.
Balloon flows and glows
In the evening, about 200 balloons lit up the sky with balloon glows followed by spectacular fireworks.
Balloon pilot Gary Michalek has been piloting hot air balloons for 32 years, 20 of them at the festival.
“Flying above the surface of the earth, like really close to the ground or high up, I mean, it’s unique,” he said. “You have few types of aviation where you can just float above the ground, so yeah, after that first flight, it’s like you’re hooked!”
On this brisk, sunny day, he pilots his balloon high up into the sky, and after carefully navigating the wind, lowers his craft close enough for unique views of the cityscape below.
It’s a surreal experience to look around, above and below and see hundreds of multicolored balloons floating in the air with the scenic Rio Grande Valley as the backdrop.
The highlight of the festival for most people is the stunning spectacle of Mass Ascension, when hundreds of balloons take to the skies at sunrise in a series of waves over the course of an hour or two.
The one-of-a-kind display is best seen from the massive 32-hectare grassy launch field where visitors have an opportunity to get close to the balloons.
Jill Levin was excited to see an oversize balloon in the shape of a stagecoach hover over her head.
“Look at that! Look at that stagecoach!” she cried out. “That is incredible! This is the most magnificent event in Albuquerque. … I’ve been coming out for 40 years since I came out here for college, and it’s fabulous every single time. Can’t beat it!”
“It just screams New Mexico. I don’t know another place that has something remotely close to this,” said Reyna Naranjo, who was visiting with her boyfriend.
“It’s almost like a tradition to come every year,” said a man named Omar. “Every New Mexican knows that every time when October comes, it’s balloon time.”
Omar brought a family member, 12-year-old Jacob, who was attending for the first time.
“I’ve never seen this in real life because I usually see the balloons on TV, and that made me think, ‘What if I was here in New Mexico one day, and my cousins took me over here?’ And my dream actually came true,” he said.
WATCH: Albuquerque Balloon Festival Draws Massive Crowds
Best day ever!
Seeing the balloons up close is among the highlights of the festival experience says Director of Operations Sam Parks.
“One of the things that I heard yesterday, which really touched my heart, was a young boy telling his mother, ‘This is the best day ever!’ And so, when you hear things like that, it just kind of puts it all in perspective, and it makes you feel like you’re doing a good thing,” he said.
That’s a familiar feeling for regulars like Gary Michalek, and something to aspire to for those still dreaming to come.
“This is on the bucket list for every balloonist all over the world,” Michalek said. “They have to come here. And some keep coming back, like me!”