Like an increasing number of public events in the Land of Enchantment, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is back and open to the public. As the most visible New Mexico event of the year—not to mention the one that brings in the most out-of-town tourists—the Balloon Fiesta’s absence was keenly felt last year. It’s just not fall in New Mexico without a rainbow of hot air balloons drifting across the early morning sky. The event takes place this year Saturday, Oct. 2 through Sunday, Oct. 10. It starts bright and early at 6am every day with the Dawn Patrol and ends, most nights, around 8pm with an AfterGlow Fireworks Show.
As you might expect, things are a little different in the era of COVID. Some events have been moved or cancelled, and certain health precautions must be observed in order to attend. So what do you need to know to make the most of the 2021 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta? Let’s break it down.
The Balloon Fiesta Park is located on Albuquerque’s north side just off the Pan-American Freeway (I-25). Look for Exit 177 if you’re coming off the freeway. It’s bordered on the south by Alameda Blvd. and on the east by San Mateo Blvd. General parking lots are located on the north and south ends of the park. There is a $20 fee (in addition to admission) for each session you are at the park. Each parking lot is color-coded and the gates are numbered, so remember the color and number of the gate through which you entered the field. Have cash ready as you enter the parking areas, as attendants do not accept credit or debit cards for parking fees.
Although attendance is expected to be down compared to previous years, drivers can still expect a good deal of congestion, particularly before the morning mass ascension and the evening balloon glow. Hour-long traffic jams are not uncommon. If you aren’t hauling a large family or a lot of gear, you might consider taking advantage of the Park-and-Ride system known as Fiesta Express. Park-and-Ride tickets include: Round-trip transportation to and from Balloon Fiesta Park, an expedited route to bypass heavy traffic and admission to the Balloon Fiesta itself. Due to a shortage of drivers and buses and COVID Safe Protocols, the number of spaces available for Park-and-Ride are limited—so it’s not a guaranteed solution to your travel problems. But it’s frequently your best option for getting to the park with the least amount of hassle. This year there are three Fiesta Express locations: Cottonwood Mall (10000 Coors Bypass NW), Coronado Center (6600 Menaul Blvd. NE) and Hoffmantown Church (8888 Harper Road NE). The Intel Park-and-Ride location is not available this year. Fiesta Express tickets are $22 for adults, $20 seniors and $10 children. All departure times are listed at balloonfiesta.com/Park-Ride, and tickets must be purchased in advance.
If you’re the athletic type, or just want to help fight global warming, you can beat the traffic entirely and ride your bicycle to Balloon Fiesta! Albuquerque’s picturesque bike trail runs along the AMAFCA North Diversion Channel, crosses underneath Paseo del Norte and Alameda Blvd. continuing north where it crosses from the west side to the east, ending just north of the Balloon Museum. Dismount here and you’ll find the Balloon Fiesta’s free Bike Valet service, staffed by local bicycle group volunteers. They’ll present you with a ticket stub, which will allow you to reclaim your bike whenever you’re ready to pedal home. The Bike Valet is open 4:30am to 10:30am and 4:30pm to 9pm. So, why not avoid the congestion by taking two wheels instead of four. For more info on this option, go to balloonfiesta.com/Bike-Valet.
Admission for Balloon Fiesta is $15 per session for guests 13 and older. Children 12 years and under are free. One “session” is either all morning activities or all evening activities. No refunds are available, but tickets for cancelled sessions (typically due to inclement weather) may be used for future sessions. It is strongly recommended you purchase your tickets in advance by going to balloonfiesta.com.
Of course, if you’d like to “upgrade” your hot air experience, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is offering a special package for guests. A ticket to the Chasers’ Club gives you guaranteed seating in a private outdoor patio located next to the launch field where you can enjoy traditional New Mexican food catered by Little Anita’s along with cookies and beverages. Coffee is provided and is served along with hot cocoa in the mornings and iced tea and lemonade are served during evening sessions. Chasers’ Club guests will also have access to private restrooms located within the Chasers’ Club area.
The Chasers’ Club is located on the north end of Balloon Fiesta Park and offers a deluxe view of the launch field. The Chasers’ Club is also connected to the Chase Lounge, which allows you the opportunity to purchase alcoholic beverages without the bother of standing in a beer garden. Admission to the Chaser’s Club is $60 per person (children under 6 are free)
If you’re looking for something even more exclusive, the Gondola Club is a private area away from the crowds that offer guests “delicious food, local entertainment, premium parking, courtesy shuttles and outdoor seating.” Naturally, you’ll have the best views of a Mass Ascension, Special Shapes Rodeo, balloon glow and the evening fireworks show. The Gondola Club also has its own gift shop, so you can shop without fighting the crowds on Main Street. Entrance to the Gondola Club for one “session” (morning or evening) is $125 for adults or $65 for children ages 4 to 12.
Unfortunately, the Concierge Service (complete with private guide and personal golf cart) and the three-night, on-field “glamping” program are sold out for this year. Plan ahead for 2022.
Based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the current State of New Mexico Public Health Order pertaining to COVID Safe Practices, the Balloon Fiesta will require masks for all guests in all indoor areas and in crowded outdoor settings. Increased physical distancing is encouraged at all times. Unlike this year’s New Mexico State Fair, the Balloon Fiesta will not require proof of COVID vaccination to enter (but it’s a really good idea to get vaccinated, particularly if you’re planning on attending public events).
In addition to asking guests to mask up indoors and in crowded outdoor areas, the Balloon Fiesta Park has made a number of other changes. The 2021 Music Fiesta has been cancelled, due to the close proximity of attendees. The Balloon Discovery Center will also be closed because of its indoor nature and the fact that it features activities with multiple touchpoints. Hospitality seating has been moved from indoor and tent areas to all outdoor seating. Cashless options are available to purchase tickets (although pre-purchasing tickets online is still the best option). All restrooms will have hand sanitizers, and hand washing stations have been increased throughout the park. Finally, The most popular “special shapes” balloons are being spread around the park to prevent clustering of picture-snapping fans (which is something that should have been done years ago).
So mask up, dress in layers, get your tickets in advance, don’t forget where you parked, be sure to grab a breakfast burrito and have a fantastic time at the 2021 International Balloon Fiesta.
For complete, up-to-date info on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, go to balloonfiesta.com or download the mobile app at the App Store or Google Play.