Every October, hot air balloon enthusiasts gather in New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the premier hot air balloon event in the US. Stretching across two weekends, the fiesta includes two mass ascensions, with over 500 balloons taking off from the grounds in the space of about 2 hours at sunrise, as well as exhibits, fireworks, concerts, and more. It is truly a special event, one that draws viewers and participants from all over the world.
In 2011, I attended the Fiesta with LA Rail. We left Los Angeles Union Station in the evening on the back of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief with two private rail cars, the Pacific Sands, a former Union Pacific sleeper built in 1950, and the Tioga Pass business car, a former Canadian National car built in 1959. After a delightful dinner, those on our trip retired to our bedrooms and roomettes for the overnight trip to New Mexico. Breakfast time found us near the Arizona/New Mexico border and we arrived in Albuquerque around noon where Amtrak dropped us off.
As you might imagine, an attraction this big fills hotels for miles around Albuquerque. That’s one big advantage of our mode of transport…we brought our hotel with us! Parked on a track at the Albuquerque Transit Center, we were free to come and go as we pleased, with easy access to the bus system and NM Rail Runner Express trains.
If you think hot air balloons are all more or less the same shape, this festival will enlighten you. In addition to hundreds of roundish balloons, the 2016 Fiesta included a Pirate Ship from England, Jack the Pelican, a Happy Orca and a Piranah from Brazil, the Snow Bird from Alaska, Darth Vader from Belgium, a Mariachi musician from Mexico, a Fire Engine from Germany, Kermie the Frog from Quebec, and many more.
Our mini-bus picked us up at the Transit Center around 5:30 AM and took us to the fairgrounds where we entered the balloon staging area. I didn’t venture too far from where we entered, but later learned that there were around 120,000 people there to witness the mass ascension. Balloons are laid out on the ground in rows, and event staff coordinate with the balloon crews to start inflation a row at a time. Soon, not only were we standing next to balloons being blown up, but way in the distance we could see other rows, giving a sense of just how big this event is.
As balloons lifted off into the clear, blue sky, I was furiously snapping pictures and, for the first time ever, filled the memory card in my camera. The geography around the fiesta grounds is such that unique air currents form. At ground level they go one direction, but a few hundred feet up they reverse, allowing balloon operators to fly in a rectangular shape, with some landing back at the fairgrounds. Others chose to fly higher and leave the area, chase crews in pursuit.
Following the mass ascension, we went to the Anderson – Abruzzo Albuquerque international Balloon Museum which is on the festival grounds. Much to my surprise, it was fascinating inside, filled with displays and information on lighter-than-air aviation of all sorts. Admission was included with our festival tickets.
In addition to this magnificent event, our LA Rail hosts had other things planned for us during our stay. One morning we boarded a mini-bus for Chama, New Mexico, and a ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railway. This former Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow gauge line runs over 10,015 foot Cumbres Pass and through Toltec Gorge. At Osier, the site of the former section crew housing, we got off the train for lunch. Every day is Thanksgiving Day on the Cumbres and Toltec as lunch is a full roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings, including apple pie for dessert. A Salad Line and Meatloaf Dinner line also exist for those who aren’t interested in having turkey. Following lunch we reboarded the train for the trip back to Chama. Groves of aspen trees had turned yellow and glowed on the hillsides, mixing with the evergreens and the fall sunlight angle to create beautiful scenery. Pulled by one of Cumbres and Toltec’s 5 operating steam engines and using antique passenger cars, this is a special trip along the highest and longest narrow gauge railroad in the United States.
Our third day in Albuquerque included a round-trip ride to Santa Fe on the NM Rail Runner Express, the commuter rail line that extends from Belen in the south to Santa Fe in the north, with Albuquerque one of 12 stations in the middle. Upon arriving at the Santa Fe depot, you are in Old Town, with shops, restaurants, galleries and museums. I spent several hours at the Georgie O’Keefe museum. We were free to return to Albuquerque on any of the afternoon or evening trains. Fans of large steam engines could walk a few blocks from the depot to Salvador Perez Park where AT&SF 5030 is on display. 5030 is a massive 2-10-4 Baldwin, built in 1944. AT&SF 4-8-4 2926, also located in Albuquerque is undergoing restoration by the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society and may be under steam by the time of the 2017 Fiesta.
After three days of New Mexico enchantment, we were ready to return to Los Angeles, and the westbound Southwest Chief picked us up late in the afternoon. Our final dinner on board was a time to review all we had experienced, exchange contact information with our new friends, and enjoy a sumptuous meal on rails.
LA Rail will once again take this trip in 2017, leaving Los Angeles on Thursday evening, October 5 and returning to Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 11.