Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta brings colorful displays to the New Mexico sky

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Associated Press

A balloon pilot waves to the crowd as he takes off during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Roberto E. Rosales)

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has brought colorful displays to the New Mexico sky in an international event that attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators every year.

The event started Saturday with a drone light show before sunrise followed by a mass ascension of hot air balloons. Over nine days, local residents and visitors will be treated to a cavalcade of colorful and special-shaped balloons.

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The annual gathering has become a major economic driver for the state’s biggest city. The Rio Grande and nearby mountains provide spectacular backdrops to the fiesta that began with a few pilots launching 13 balloons from an open lot near a shopping center on what was the edge of Albuquerque in 1972.

The fiesta has morphed into one of the most photographed events in the world, now based at Balloon Fiesta Park. Balloon designs have featured cartoon animals, Star Wars characters and even the polar bear found on Klondike bars.

“But they’re still all about the basics,” said fiesta director Sam Parks, who flies a globe-style balloon modeled after one flown by the fiesta’s late founder Sid Cutter. “You add heat to a big bag of air and you go up.”

Nearly 830,000 people from around the world attended last year’s event. Scheduled nighttime events include fireworks and balloon glows, in which hot air balloons are inflated and lit up from the ground.

One of the biggest events in aviation, the Gordon Bennett competition, also launched Saturday night. Pilots navigate hydrogen-filled balloons high in the air and the ones who fly the farthest win.

The balloons are different than those featured throughout the Albuquerque fiesta that stay local.

Some 550 balloon pilots are registered to fly during the fiesta, seeking to take advantage of a phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque box,” when the wind blows in opposite directions at different elevations, allowing skillful pilots to bring a balloon back to a spot near the point of takeoff.

Visitors to the event also can pay to go aloft for views of the Sandia Mountains to the west and New Mexico's capital, Santa Fe, farther north.

“It has become part of the culture,” Parks said. “The thread, if you will, of those here.”

Elizabeth Wright-Smith, who is flying the Smokey Bear balloon this week, said she reunites with friends from all over the country at the fiesta that she would not see otherwise. As of early Saturday afternoon, she had already run into 30 people she had met from various balloon races, safety seminars and other events across the country.

“It’s a big reunion,” she said.

Her favorite part of the fiesta is watching and interacting with the thousands of spectators who flock to Balloon Fiesta Park, which grow smaller as she ascends in her balloon. The sky was clear Saturday – a contrast from last year, when off-and-on rain left parts of the fiesta soggy.

“Pictures don’t do it justice, videos don’t do it justice,” Wright-Smith said. “You’ve got to be standing there watching them to really get it.”

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Stern is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow Stern on X, formerly Twitter: @gabestern326.