Insider’s Guide to Balloon Fiesta
What your mother would tell you
Balloon Fiesta is one of the greatest gateway events in the United States for welcoming in fall weather. Here in New Mexico, where we really do have four seasons that last about 90 days each, fall is the one we probably enjoy most. That is until you sit in traffic trying to get to the Balloon Fiesta Field, with your bladder bursting from the pot of coffee you drank to handle the carload of sleepy, whiny kids who fought to stay in bed. With that thought in mind, here are some handy tips for staving off unexpected consequences of sleep deprivation, crowd overload, traffic meltdown and the age-old question of what to do when the morning's over.
Leave for the Field at 4:30am
If you leave your home or hotel at 6am, you're going to sit in traffic. That's a fact. Breathe deep and let the fumes fill your lungs, as the kids' screeching queries regarding breakfast, bathrooms, estimated arrival time and other childish concerns ring in your ears like a bad case of tinnitus. If you did in fact drink that pot of coffee, at least there are Porta Potties right at the entrance to the park. I applaud this brilliant foresight by event coordinators.
If none of that sounds like much fun, the real solution is to leave for the field at 4:30am. You'll get there before lines have formed at the vendor booths, so you can feed, drink, shop and navigate the field without the zombie throngs that will be waiting in traffic a couple hours later. By the time the zombies arrive, you'll be fed, acclimated and know the lay of the land. Plus, you can look at the field, study the grid the pilots use and locate that special balloon you especially want to see lift off. Once the field is stuffed with people, it isn't so easy.
Dress in layers and wear closed-toe shoes
Yeah, I'm not your mother, but you need a reminder. You are going to feel a little chilly in the morning, but when the sun comes up and you're moving around, you're going to warm up fast. … assuming the weather is nice. When it comes to layers of clothing, make sure you can stuff them or wrap them around your girth because the less you have to carry in your hands, the better. Also, thousands of people will be converging on Balloon Fiesta Field, and every single one of them will be looking up. Protect your toes from those people, those people's errant, running kids, the errant kids' spilled drinks and cheese sauce and plain-old dirt.
If you went ahead and sat in traffic at 6am, stay on the field after the launch. One of the best times to meet people and experience the international feel of the Fiesta happens on the field after the crowds clear. After the launch, when the field clears, it's the perfect time to let the kids run wild and get some shopping in. The fiesta's massive vendor strip stays open all day.
What to do when the Balloon Launch is over
If you have kids, they're going to pass out after lunch, and you might, too. Plan for a nap. Take one for yourself and share one with others. You can get back up around 2pm and head back to the field. Or better yet, hit some quirky sightseeing spots you won't find anywhere else.
I love kitschy roadside attractions, and Tinkertown is a treasure. It's my personal favorite and a must-see for all ages. Ross Ward's 40-year obsession with carving and collecting is open to the public on the back side of the Sandia Mountains. Featured on “Antiques Roadshow” and “American Pickers,” Tinkertown is an inspiration to all visitors. With its modest admission price of $3 per person, it's a beautiful and thrifty mountain destination that makes time (but not clocks) stand still. I dare you: Just try to stare at Ward's now-landlocked yacht while imagining his exotic travels for less than half an hour.
New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science
If the Titanic exhibit didn't come to your town, now is your best chance to see (almost) exactly what it was like to be a passenger on that famously doomed ship. It's an amazing history lesson for all ages, and it's only in Albuquerque through the end of October.
Weird science is fun for both kids and adults alike. Whether you've had a nap or not, set the kids loose in this adventurous and educational—don't tell them it's educational—environment. Unique, fun-filled and loaded with wonders to keep the littlest of fingers grubbing, Explora is a hands-on playground of science for kids of all sizes.
Our beloved old adobe plaza, centered around the San Felipe de Neri Church, has great food, shopping and parks right near the museums. Old Town is a great choice for visitors because it's easy to find, convenient and not too boring for the kids—and by “not too boring,” I'm talking about the Rattlesnake Museum, arrowheads, alleged hauntings and scorpion paperweights.
Albuquerque's Zoo and nearby Aquarium and Botanical Gardens are top-notch and make for a pleasant way to kill an afternoon. Be sure to check out the Japanese garden—it's amazing.
Sandia Peak Tramway
Albuquerque's Tramway has the world's third-longest span and makes for a thrilling ride to the top. Acrophobics may find it a bit nerve-wracking, but so is a balloon ride. And the view from the top is spectacular.
Get a feel for Burque
If you just want to wander around, the Nob Hill and UNM areas of Central are packed with quirky little shops, galleries and restaurants, plus lots of people wandering around just like you. If you want some nightlife, Downtown hosts a dense cluster of bars and nightclubs with plenty of live music and an active, festive feel almost every night of the week. Like any town, it can seem a little rough around the edges, but that's part of the fun. Stick to the beaten path and you'll be safe as milk. Otherwise, just drive around. Albuquerque's streets are set up on a grid and with the mountains in the east, it's pretty hard to get lost.
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