Whenever I started listing my itinerary for the Little Big Trip (LBT) to people, they were surprised that Albuquerque was on there, let alone my first stop. (Some thought it was because of the show Breaking Bad, which I have yet to watch.) I wanted to visit Albuquerque to check out the annual International Balloon Fiesta. A few months earlier, I saw photos of a field of hot air balloons somewhere and thought it would be a great sight to see.
After carefully packing my things into one carry-on luggage for the six-week adventure, I flew from San Francisco to Albuquerque (or “ABQ” as I refer to the entire city now) with a connection at Phoenix. While I had flown over the American Southwest before, this was the first time I really looked out the window and become mesmerized by the alien-looking landscape. It may also be the time of day when the sun hits the land with a warm color. The Phoenix airport, maybe because of the openness of the land, also looks out to beautiful skylines in the evening time.
I stayed at an Airbnb in Albuquerque. Since I was one of the hundreds of thousands of spectators coming to Albuquerque for the Fiesta, a lot of the hotel rooms were booked in advance, and any rooms left would be expensive or low quality. This would be the perfect opportunity to book an Airbnb and be economical and self-sufficient to start off the trip.
I chose the place I stayed at based on its relatively close location to the pick-up spot for the Fiesta. The Fiesta offers these “Park & Ride” tickets where you meet up at one of four locations in the city and they would shuttle you to the Fiesta park. I looked up the Airbnb spot on a map and it was about a 20-minute walk to the meet-up point at Coronado mall, and I felt that 20 minutes was totally doable. The listing was also relatively inexpensive.
After landing at the ABQ airport at night, I Lyfted to the Airbnb house. I could go into detail about this place some other time, but basically, the place belongs to a young guy who’s starting a business and has this large house, so he’s renting out some of the rooms to Airbnb guests. This is one of the listings. The house was large, and it definitely has a 20-something guy’s pad feel to it, as in under-furnished with mismatched pieces of furniture. My room left something to be desired. But at this early point of the trip, I had an open mind and was glad to have a place to stay.
Most of the traveling I did in the city were 1) walking to and from the Airbnb place and the Coronado Center, 2) the school bus shuttles from the Coronado Center to the Fiesta Park and back, and 3) riding a bike I borrowed from the Airbnb place for a special errand (more on that later). I forewent the idea of renting a car because I felt that it was too much trouble, responsibility and money for an “easy” 20-minute walk. After settling into my Airbnb place that evening, I woke up very early the next morning because I had to walk to the Coronado Center for the Park & Ride. The walk was much longer than I anticipated; it may have been 25-30 minutes. It was around four in the morning, so the temperature was cool. During the day, however, when I returned from the mall (Coronado Center), it got a bit warmer, and the walk felt even longer. I believe I walked this length six times during my stay. In retrospect, I would rent a car. Albuquerque is very spread out with most of the streets in a grid.
Climate and Clothing
Time of year: Early October
My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
- At night, it’s cool. A light jacket would suffice.
- But at the Fiesta Park, since it’s a big open field, it gets really chilly before daybreak. So wear layers to get ready to take off as the day warms up.
- During the day, it’s sunny, with barely a cloud. Sometimes there’s a breeze. Short-sleeves are preferred. Long pants are still okay if walking.
For the most part, the people are nice. I would say it’s the standard American polite etiquette for interacting with strangers. Small talks come up, especially around big events where there are out-of-towners and they’re generally in a good mood. Actually, on my first Park-and-Ride shuttle ride to the Fiesta park, I sat next to a woman who I honestly would not have a reason to talk to at home. I remember thinking on the bus that as I began this trip, I should start being more open and outgoing and try to talk to more people. I debated whether I should just break the ice with this woman; I would have doubts and make assumptions based on how different both of us looked and that we would not have anything in common to talk about. Finally, if I remember correctly, she broke the ice for us and asked whether I’ve come to this before. I said no, and then we found out we were both doing some traveling. She told me about her plans of traveling across the country, and I told her about my stunt to travel around the world and how this is the second day of my trip. By the end of the bus ride, I made a Facebook friend, and she had followed my journey ever since.
The Fiesta lasts for nine days, starting with one weekend, running through the week, and ending on the next weekend. Weekends are when most people visit, so they have “mass ascensions,” where a lot of balloons go up at the same time. On the weekends, there’s a morning session and an evening session. I attended the first weekend, morning and evening sessions on Saturday, and the morning session on Sunday.
There are many ways to attend. There are general admission tickets where guests would just enter the park on their own. There are the Park & Ride tickets, where guests meet up at one of many locations in ABQ, and get picked up through an enormous, organized network of school buses driven by real school bus drivers from schools in the area. There are also special VIP-type tickets that cover parking and food and an area at the Park to watch the balloons from. You can also buy tickets to ride one of the balloons. But a quick research showed how out of my price range it was (a few hundred dollars) that I didn’t look into it any more. I got the Park & Ride tickets and I would recommend this for most people. It just takes a lot of the hassle out of figuring out the logistics of getting to the Park.
I arrived at my Park & Ride pickup spot, Coronado Center, at around 4:30 in the morning. I thought I would be too early, or that there would be only a few people there, but when I arrived, there was already a long line snaking from the side of the parking lot. The system was pretty organized, where the workers scanned people’s tickets and led them to pens to be loaded onto a bus once the pen is full. There seems to be a never-ending queue of empty buses waiting to fill with people. It’s like the scene at an airport where taxis line up, except it’s school buses, and there are a lot more of them. There were so many visitors, and the Fiesta organizers knew this and were ready for it. It’s a huge operation, and they don’t mess around. From maps online, the driving distance from the mall to the Park seems short, but the bus ride was probably 20 minutes. Once there, everyone enters the booths area, which is a long strip of vendors selling souvenirs and whatnot. But first, I got an overpriced breakfast burrito from the first booth at the entrance. It’s still pretty dark out, so none of the balloons were up yet. So I walked along the booths, checking things out and killing time. By the time I got to one end of the strip, a few balloons were setting up on the field so I walked towards it, along with everyone else.
One row of balloons had set up and seemed to be doing synchronized burner firings to make the balloons glow together against dark sky. Other than that, for about an hour, there was very little happening. Only when the sky lightened a bit more did more balloons start filling up by rows, which were perpendicular to the strip of booths. When I read “mass ascension” on the website, I thought the balloons would go up all at the same time. But what actually happened was that they ascended in rows, so it would take a while before all the balloons would be in the air, and by that time, some of balloons launched earlier would already have landed somewhere else in the city.
It was a gradual process, but pretty soon, the sun came up, and a lot of the balloons were in the air. But the wind moved them away from the Park so they looked like a bunch of small semi-colored dots in the sky.
There were a bunch of adorable balloons with different markings and shapes in the form of animals or characters. I tried briefly to invoke my inner child to pick a favorite, but there were too many good ones to choose.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.
I looked up foods of Albuquerque, and there was very little special, regional dishes that I really had to try. So, I had pretty ordinary food while I was there, including a small, overpriced breakfast burrito at the Fiesta, a chicken salad at Jason’s Deli near the Coronado Center, and a sad salad from Target with sliced turkey added.
Losing My Wallet
Long story short, on my second day of trip, while I was riding the Park & Ride bus back from the morning session, I took out the new travel zip wallet I got for the trip to take out some cash to tip the driver. I saw people do it earlier the last time we got off the bus, so I felt I should do the same. I was still getting used to having a special wallet and putting it in a different place than I normally do to prevent theft, so I somehow forgot to put the wallet back in my pocket. On my walk back to the Airbnb house, I realized my pant pocket felt a bit empty. This led to about 28 hours of dread, disappointment, depression, and desperation that involved calling the Fiesta hotline about their lost-and-found process, asking as many bus drivers and staff members at the Coronado Center as I could about any returned wallets, asking the lost-and-found station at the Park many times, moping around during the evening session, feeling very disappointed at myself, escaping the problem for a few hours at night while I slept, emailing the Fiesta organizers about my situation as a last resort to plead for some help, calling credit card companies to cancel and reissue my cards while arranging with the hostel in South Africa via email to accept the packages two weeks away when I arrive, borrowing a bike from the Airbnb host to get to the FedEx Office store to complete and fax the paperwork to reissue my cards and to send them to South Africa, getting a call while I was at the FedEx Office store that my wallet’s been found, and riding one of the buses to the Park to pick up my wallet.
I consider myself incredibly lucky for many reasons. First and by far the most important, the only reason my wallet was found so quickly was that moments before I got on the bus where I lost my wallet, I casually noticed the bus number, and I saw that number again in passing in the later session, and I mentioned that number in the email to the Fiesta organizers, hoping that was the right bus. Second, this happened while I was still in the States, where I still had cell and data access, the people spoke English, and I still had time to arrange for replacements with access to places like a FedEx Office. And third, there are people in Albuquerque who are kind enough to help out-of-towners like me and in a timely fashion. I am very grateful for this and it was definitely a lesson for the rest of my trip.
From My Travel Log
October 4, 2014, 4:44pm, ABQ Balloon Fiesta [at the Saturday evening session]
Learned about self. I immediately thought of backup plan and steps to take care of mishap. But this is relatively not a trip-ending mishap. Losing my passport or getting stuck at a place would be really bad, and costly. Also a big disappointment on my trip.
October 6, 2014, 11:54am, ABQ -> IAH [on the plane to Houston]
One thing to note: It’s amazing how my day could turn from really happy to devastated to okay. This incident was a wake-up call, a practice round, for how to deal with problems. With hindsight, this was a relatively common problem with no real permanent damage. I don’t know what the next 42 1/2 days will bring. What I worry most right now are being stuck somewhere and/or not having enough money, not being able to communicate successfully with the different languages, being cold/not having enough clothing for Tromsø and Beijing, and maybe Cuzco.
- Lyft drivers: Danny (from the airport) and Chad (to the airport)
- Airbnb hosts: Travis, Reese, and Ryan
- People I met at the Fiesta
- Cynthia, the lady on the bus who broke the ice and became Facebook friends with me.
- Elaine, Janice, Trigo (sp?), the Park & Ride staff who helped me get my wallet back.
- Kathleen (sp?), my special private bus driver who drove me and only me back to the Coronado Center after I picked up my wallet from the Park.
- Rent a car, even if you are doing Park-and-Ride. It’s much more convenient to get around the spread-out city.
- If you do Park & Ride, tip the drivers (but make sure you still have your wallet).
- If you do Park & Ride, depending on your interest in spending time at the Park, try to leave the session very early or very late, because the lines to get back to your Park & Ride location is ridiculous. After all the balloons left the park, the booths and exhibits were still open.
- As far as I know, most of the booths at the fiesta park are cash-only, especially the food stands. Maybe booths selling expensive things will take cards. There are ATMs scattered throughout the strip.
- Full photo and video album (Flickr)
- The official site of Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta: balloonfiesta.com
- Average Monthly Temperature and Weather of Albuquerque
If you have questions about specific experiences of the Fiesta, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.