The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place every October, the first full week of the month (Saturday of one weekend through Sunday the next). I’ve now had time to sort through the shots I took from this year’s Fiesta, so I thought it’d be a good time to write down some thoughts / advice on how to photograph the event. I’ll talk about logistics in this post, and follow up in a few days with some gear recommendations.
According to a number of estimates, the Fiesta is the most photographed single event on the planet. And it’s easy to see why — admission is open and reasonably priced, you’ve got lots of color to work with, skies are usually blue. And with the advent of the internet, you can get your ticket(s) online in advance. Piece of cake.
But all this comes with one little complication — the Fiesta can be a crowded place.
To put it in perspective — the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico has a population of a bit over 500,000. The last estimate I saw pegs the visitor count for this year’s Fiesta at about 750,000. I suspect this double- and triple-counts people that come to town and attend multiple days’ launches. But still, on weekend days you’re out on a field with well over 100,000 other pedestrians.
Did I mention that if you don’t have any in-town relatives, you need to line up a hotel room well in advance for this?
Anyway, the crowd is friendly, but it’s no place for the claustrophobic. Since you’ll be viewing the balloons from the same field they’re launching from (on weekend mornings, about 600 balloons launch in multiple waves as part of “mass ascensions”), you need to be ready to do some walking — if only to get out of the way of the next wave of balloons as they are brought in by trailer.
Also, as you might imagine, getting 100,000+ people in and out of a single large field is no mean feat. There are only so many ways you can get to the park where the Fiesta launches — so driving definitely isn’t recommended. Instead, when you buy your ticket(s), get the kind that include a shuttle-bus ride. Here, you’ll just need to drag your tail and your gear down to a large parking lot (your choice of six) early in the morning — the bus driver will take it from there.
And by “early,” I mean before 5:30 am — the buses have to take a circuitous route to the field (to get around all the people in cars), and that means that even with every bus in town on the job, the first wave of buses in will be on the road by 5:30 — and tied up in traffic until 6:30 or so. Show up too late, and you might not get a seat on the second wave of busses — and the last bus in leaves at 7:00.
Here’s the GPS track of our bus ride one day. We rode in from the Hoffmantown lot (parking for a local mega-church), and as you can see, minimizing drive time isn’t high on the priority list. It’s just the only way to dodge the log jam caused by thousands of cars trying to take the shortest route in from the interstate.
On the bright side, since this is a New Mexico event, when you get to the Fiesta grounds at an ungodly hour of the morning, you’ve got a very tasty breakfast burrito waiting for you…