We had been planning to go to the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque for some time, however we weren’t planning it a year in advance like most others therefore we could only find a camping spot for 3 out of the 9 nights of the fiesta.  Eh, better than nothing!  

Bernalillo KOA

The KOA in Bernalillo, NM is where we ended up staying.  I tell you what, a little patch of grass (even though it was fake), some shade and privacy felt so good.  If we had come to this KOA first on our trip I assure you we wouldn’t have been as impressed, but after desert land for so long it was great!  Federal land is great to camp on and you can’t beat the price, but in the dessert everything is so stinking pokey!  The girls weren’t able to walk without getting a pricker stuck in their socks and didn’t even think of sitting down!

Campsite at Bernalillo KOA

Here at the KOA the girls made an elaborately decorated fort behind Wobbles.  They set up a seating area with camp furniture, packed clothing bags for the two of them for their home, created a carpet of blankets, arranged the shoe area to encompass any weather and even made and hung a “no shoes” sign in an effort to keep their fort tidy.  They then made an assortment of mud pies to serve one another.  A handful of darkling beetles also kept us busy. It was really cute and exactly what they needed.  

The playground was neat too with swings, an electric car with no batteries, spring loaded teeter-totter, and climbing spinning thing and sand.

The only down side and hazard was that it was positioned directly next to the dump station.  It wasn’t partitioned off or anything!  Good luck kids! 

Dump station, convenient to playground

We had planned on meeting up with our friends while at the balloon festival as they are usually part of a balloon crew and chase team.  Sadly, we learned just before we arrived for the fiesta that they were unable to make it.  They suggested we take their place on the crew in their absence.  They have two children as well, a little older than our girls, but the entire family was involved in crewing therefore it would be something our girls could take part in as well. 

At first we thought this idea was lunacy!  Waking our girls before dawn seemed like a crazy idea.  Then we got thinking about it.  What other time would we get this opportunity?  Maybe never, especially with the girls right along side us.  So, I contacted the family who owns the balloons and asked if we could help out.  They welcomed us with open arms!  

Meanwhile at the campground we found another perk.  There was a brewery right behind the KOA! The camp host raved about the convenience and we saw that a beer sign with an arrow pointing to an alley was just a couple sites from ours.  Great, we thought!  We could get dinner and beers here early since we were shifting our sleeping schedule to an earlier time due to the balloon fiesta early wake up.  Justin looked at the Kaktus Brewing’s website and it was fancy and boasted being “New Mexico’s first destination brewery.”

Following the “beer” sign, we first came upon a “beer door.”  Into the magic portal to beer land we went.  Wait a second…this wasn’t a portal!  This was a sketchy ally lined with broken down trailers and campers that possibly housed persons.  A periodic pimped out car would drive through scattering us to the side.  Was this a trap??

Is there really a brewery here?

Soon we saw another brewery sign pointing to a run down yard with broken furniture and strange half broken statues strewn about.  Were we in the right place??  It reminded me of a hoarders episode when the hoarder collects kind of neat things but because of the quantity of them and the half broken form it is immensely less appealing.  

We took our chances and walked inside to find that there was a bar there.  It seemed normal enough inside.  There is the type of bar that looks half like a restaurant and half like a classy bar and there are bars that you think must have opened up at 9am for the locals.  This one was the second kind, therefore sitting inside didn’t seem like the appropriate option with kids.  Since the chaotic yard was outside and it was nice evening we decided to sit there.

It was strange for sure.  The seat cushions were slightly damp (luckily there were some chairs with cushions missing so I sat there) and there was more than one clump of unfamiliar hair on the seats.  The table was covered in crusty sauce of sorts.  It was a bit intense and I debated leaving a couple times but we had already ordered.  We waited and waited some more while the girls happily played with the life size chess set and plastic figurine houses.

Just as I was about to leave and get the girls something to eat from our camper our food arrived.  So much for an early dinner.  We ended up waiting a little over an hour for our food.  It was definitely a laid back crew.  I have to say though despite the disheveled atmosphere, the pizza was really tasty!  If any one of you go there I would order the cheese pizza.  Boring right?  But with the pizza’s with toppings there were so few toppings it could have been a cheese pizza and you would have saved 5 bucks.  Justin got the Frito bean dish.  It was a paper bowl with chips, cheese and beans in it.  He gave it a thumbs up!  

Oh well, it got us fed for that evening.  We were semi-successful with getting everyone asleep early.  Our little one did sadly wake up at 3am and finally fell back to sleep 10 minutes before I had to wake her at 4:15am for the balloon fiesta.  Eek!

Balloon Fiesta

I had been told that the crew was on the field by 5am so that’s what we were aiming for.  We really didn’t have much information.  We had two names and phone numbers of folks on the crew though the one I spoke with wasn’t going to be there the first two days we would be.  We also had two parking locations of where the crew was supposed to be.  

With that, we drove in the dark of early morning to the Balloon Park where the event was supposed to take place.  We were funneled into a long line of cars when at some point a man with a cowboy hat told us we needed to pay $15.  When we asked what the $15 was for he said for parking though we couldn’t see any parking lot in view.  Were we even going to the correct spot?  Who was this guy?  He wore nothing telling us he was official.  We were weary but we gave him the money.  To our relief it was legit and we followed like lemmings the parking directors into a spot.  

From there we walked into the field trying to figure out what the coordinates we were given meant and how to get there.  We finally found one of the spots but there was nobody there.  We waited for quite some time noticing that there were still crew teams arriving on the field so we figured the crew we were on must be still arriving too.  Justin ended up walking down to the second set of coordinates to see if he had any luck there.

While he was gone the girls and I went around asking “neighbors” if they had heard of the ballooning group we were supposed to be part of.  None had heard of it and when they asked what kinds of balloons they were flying we hadn’t a clue!  Well, at the very least we figured we would see some great balloons.  One of the neighbors, Tim, who was leading the chase vehicle on his crew saw that we were all really cold and offered the girls a donut to split.  It was so sweet and the girls were ecstatic!  It was just the thing to cheer the girls up.  They were so looking forward to being part of the crew and as the minutes ticked on I was doubting more and more that we would have the opportunity.  After the girls were done with their donuts Tim let them bounce around and snuggle up in his giant bean bag chair in the back of his truck.  The girls had such a great time!  It was so kind of him.  He also gave the girls their first balloon card to show them what his group’s balloon looked like.  

Just before the sun came up Dawn Patrol blew up, glowing in the early morning dark sky and took off into the early morning sky.  It was beautiful and so special to watch.  We learned later that these balloons that go up when it’s dark have a very particular license to do so and all have lights dangling from the bottom of their baskets.  

Dawn patrol lighting up

As soon as the sun came up we could see farther than our own hands and we were able to spot the Nilz Family Ballooning team we were supposed to be meeting up with.  Hurray!  Over an hour after we arrived at the coordinates we had found each other and not a moment too soon.  We were quickly ushered into their chaser vehicle and carried off to find a location for the balloon to take off from.  Some of the take offs are from the main field and in those cases their landing location is unknown, hence the name chaser vehicle.  However, other times, such as this one, pilots take off from various spots around the city of their choosing.  Sounds like a bit of chaos?  It was for sure!  Hundreds of ballooning teams were scouring the city streets trying to find the perfect place to take off from.  The goal was to throw a bean bag (from the flying balloon) on a marked target on the main field.  As you can imagine wind and temperature have a lot to do with where you take off from.  It was crazy watching various teams set up along streets, in parking lots, in yards…you name it!

First balloons in the air

We stopped at several different spots where the pilots and some crew would launch a party balloon with meters attached to them.  From these readings and by sight they could see where the air currents were and in what direction the wind was blowing.  Pretty old school but it works!  

When the spot was finally chosen we helped unroll the balloon from a giant canvas bag, attach the basket to the balloon where the propane burners are and blow it up.  I was shocked that the fabric used for the balloon was simple rip-stop nylon!  Yikes!  I couldn’t tell what stitch was used under all the seam strips but I wonder if it was just as simple as making a kite only on a much larger scale.  Also, Velcro was used to attach the crown of the balloon!  Eek!  Velcro wears out so easily! Clearly it wasn’t an issue otherwise ballooners wouldn’t still be using it but, boy!  

Filling up the balloon (loud fan!)
Balloons filling up in a field next to the Cabela’s parking lot

The balloons were just SO big and looked so amazing the way they slowly came to life once air was blown in them.  Again this process was pretty simple as well.  After a large and usually colorful tarp was laid out and the balloon unrolled on top of that, a group of people hold open the end of the balloon and a giant fan blows air into it.  Once the balloon is almost fully inflated the pilot starts the double propane burners and blows them into the opening of the balloon.

All at once the balloon tips upright and take off soon follows.  The tricky more complicated and finicky part is piloting one once in the air.


The crew was so welcoming of us and let the girls be part of the process as well.  The girls job was to jump on the balloon after we had rolled it back up and into the stuff sack.  You’ve got to get the air out some how!  What a blast it was!!  We were so excited to be helping out and learning new things along side our girls.  

The girls helping squeeze the air out of the balloon

The girls also loved the large work horses a group of police officers were riding to patrol.  Both girls loved petting them but our oldest got a startle when the ginormous head of one swiftly turned to face her.  I tell you, they certainly looked bigger when you were eye to eye.  Ha!  

Each morning for three days we did this.  Every morning things worked a little differently due to wind conditions and also the events.

Dawn Patrol on our second day at the Fiesta

One day our team took off from the field and we had to go chase them down to help them land.  Thank goodness for GPS’s!  Although, even with a GPS finding roads that connect to the right place is tricky!  We did a lot of stopping, turning around, racing forward and such to keep a visual on our balloon.  What fun it was!!

Balloons filling up on the main field
In the chase vehicle

On one of our chases we even saw some wild turkey’s to gawk at.  They are such funny birds.

Wild turkeys at our balloon’s landing site

Every day after the balloon festival was over, which was a shocking 9:00am, there was a cook out on the field with the crew.  Everyone was so sweet and welcoming.  The girls were the only kids but had fun munching and taking advantage of the huge open field around.  We met so many new great people.  

After one morning of balloon fun we went to the Balloon Museum which was conveniently within walking distance from the balloon field.

Going to the Balloon Museum

Justin went on a tour and learned some things but the girls and I mostly played hide and seek in their banquet hall.  Haha.  We did peek at a couple other things such at their build-your-own balloon station where you velcro different colored panels together, velcro a crown on it and stick it on a blower to inflate it.  We also saw how they weaved the baskets and which knots they used for various things on the balloon.  The neatest part for me was seeing the extremely heavy contenders people used to carry by balloon.  They were like mini-ships!

Turned out to not be the best place to go when we were feeling so sleepy.   

The last day we could be at the event it was the day that all the shaped balloons were blowing up.  All the kids in Albuquerque schools were now officially on break for the rest of the work week. I had forgotten someone told us this until there were all of a sudden mobs of people around the balloons which hadn’t been the case in the slightest the previous days.  

Dawn patrol

Sadly it was a very windy morning.  Dawn patrol barely stayed upright which meant they didn’t fly either of course.  This wind died down a little bit once the sun had come up.  Long enough for most shapes to blow up for at least 10 minutes or so, some longer.

It was too dangerous to fly under the wind conditions but it was still amazing to see all the different shaped creatures!  The girls had a ball asking pilots for their balloon cards to add to their collection.  

Balloon cards

When it was our group’s turn to inflate there was a 9 story tall saguaro called The Dude and a witch flying on her broom called Sarah the Good Witch.  Justin and I were able to be extra hands on helping blow up the Sarah balloon.  We held the opening of the balloon open while the air filled it.

Sarah holding open “Sarah the Good Witch” balloon while it was blown up

Let me tell you, those propane burners throw a lot of heat!  Especially when you are a foot away from them!  It felt so nice on the cold morning. 

Then, once it was blown up, our oldest and I got to stand in it!!  Since it was so windy we even were airborne for a couple seconds.  Only a handful of inches off the ground but still, it was thrilling!

In the basket!!

The girls also got to help roll and jump out the air out of Sarah the Good Witch, which was a blast for them!

Rolling the air out!

We checked out the vendors the last day as well and found that there was a small NASA hands on section for the kids.

We also found a booth full of wool alpaca dolls which were hard to keep our hands off of. I wanted so badly to get one for the girls but they were pricey and we have no room to put it. They were so fluffy though!! I remember having a small round sheep skin pillow when I was little and loving it so much! I remember it being so comforting and soft. That booth had beautiful alpaca sweaters as well for adults. We had to pry ourselves out of there before we bought anything.

Alpaca booth

Some of the shapes chaser cars were really great!  My favorite was Smokey the Bear that had an old fashion fire engine as the chase car.  How awesome is that?!  There were over 580 balloons at the fiesta.  A pretty incredible sight!  The experience was magical and we are so glad we did it.  However, waking the girls so early 3 mornings in a row took its toll so our camping reservations ended at just the right time.  We will certainly do it again.