Thanksgiving was a little different around here this year. While most people were perfecting their pumpkin pie making skills and digging out their stretchy pants from the bottom of their closet, I decided to jump on a plane and head to New Mexico. Obviously.
Ok, maybe not so obvious. Timing was a bit unfortunate in the family holiday dept but kinda perfect in the travel bucket list dept. A few year ago I was researching the famous hot air balloon festival in Turkey and found out that there’s another huge balloon festival much closer to home, in New Mexico. Every October thousands of beautiful hot air balloons take to the skies over Albuquerque for Balloon Fiesta and after years of thinking about it I decided to finally scratch it off the list. It also happened to fall on the week following my birthday so it seemed like a great way to treat yo’self.
I’ve done a bunch of traveling so far (25 countries over 6 continents) and every adventure has been different from the places, to the company I kept to the people I met. I decided almost right away that this was probably going to be a solo mission. I’ve done it all; solo, with a boyfriend, a good friend, group of friends, travel group….they all have their pros and cons. Good company is always good, if it’s good. Know what I’m saying? I put a few feelers out there but I knew it was going to be a hard sell to convince someone to ditch Thanksgiving with their fam (with 2 weeks notice) to head to the dessert with a daily 4am wakeup call to watch hot air balloons. I only had a few days and knew what I wanted to do and kinda didn’t want to compromise on that, so solo it was.
As much as I love hot air balloons (what kind of heartless bastard doesn’t?!) I did think that 4 full days of balloons might be a bit much, even for me. So I did take the chance to explore a few other nearby destinations in New Mexico. I’m warning you now, this post includes a ridiculous amount of balloon photos but until you’ve had to edit down days worth of flying eye candy photos, don’t judge. It’s like a colour/travel junkie’s worst nightmare and heavenly dream all at once.
I thought it would be easiest if I just broke it down per day so you can come along for the ride and get a sense of what’s possible with this quick schedule if you end up in New Mexico one day.
PRE-DAY: I arrived in Albuquerque at 10pm. I would recommend getting an earlier flight if it’s available as the ideal wake up call to catch the morning balloons is 3:30am. I rented a car at the airport which was super fast and easy. This trip would not be possible without your own wheels. The schedule is just too wonky, plus it gives you the freedom to explore.
Unlike my recent California adventure where the hotels we stayed in were part of the experience, this was all about the balloons (and the single gal budget) so it was Motel 6’s all the way. Keeping it real people.
Alarm went off at 3:30am to give me time to get ready and drive to the shuttle that left at 4:30am. Even though I had my own car I had read that driving and parking around the Balloon Fiesta venue was a nightmare and that the park & ride shuttle option was the way to go.
The reason for the insanely early morning is to catch the morning Dawn Patrol which starts at 6am. This a small group of balloons that are trained to fly in the dark and go out before the big group to check out the conditions. All I know is that they’re hella beautiful all lit up in the morning darkness.
I honestly gasped when I saw the first balloon light up the sky. As I get older I’m chasing that elusive “first time” that becomes more rare as we age. And no I’m not talking about THAT specific first time, although that is definitely a memorable one (for better or worse). It’s that feeling of doing something or discovering something for the first time that children have on a regular basis. That feeling of discovery. It’s the best (natural) high around.
It really was just beautiful and it only got better as the sun rose over the mountains. Soon the sky started filling with balloons. It was a never ending rise of eye candy for almost 2 hours straight as over 400 (!) balloons took to the sky. The crappy connecting flight, the sleepless night, the early morning and shuttle bus people herding was all worth it to see this.
I struggled with the decision of whether to bring my DSLR camera or not on this trip. I stopped bringing my camera on trips years ago. My iPhone 7+ is so much more compact and takes great pictures. I’m not trying to be some National Geographic photographer after all. In the end I didn’t bring it and I’ll be honest, I sorta regret it. The iPhone is great in good conditions but it doesn’t do well in low lighting, which I didn’t really think of. I really struggled with the take in the moment vs document the moment. But in the end I did give myself plenty of time to take it all in and still have more than enough photos to remember the experience.
What I didn’t realize until after, which is another reason to enjoy the moment, is that I got so lucky with the weather on the first day. Picture-perfect blue skies, no clouds and a gorgeous sunrise. The other days weren’t so perfect and one session was even cancelled because of weather. So Carpe Diem people!
The good thing about waking up at 3:30am is that even though you feel like you’ve done & seen soooo much…….it’s only 10am.
After leaving the Balloon Fiesta park with the masses, I decided to explore Albuquerque a bit. I went to check out the old town which is full of food, shopping and lots of Mexican style charm & character. It’s definitely a touristy spot but it’s a great way to kill a few hours and there’s lots of beautiful hand made authentic items among the mass produced tourist crap.
After a day of exploring I headed back to the balloon park for the sunset glow but unfortunately the balloons didn’t even make an appearance because the weather turned and it was windy. Those balloons are divas when it comes to the weather. Conditions have to be perfect for them to show off.
By 8pm I was pooped and headed back to my ghetto hotel to pass out.
Another early morning to catch the morning ascension. I mean, I came all this way to see balloons and it’s not exactly something that happens every day so yes, I went to see it again. This time the weather wasn’t as perfect and there was no dawn patrol and it wasn’t until the sun was already up over the cloudy sky that we even saw any sign of balloons. The call was that it was too windy for the balloons to actually fly but (probably to avoid mass disappointment by a whole bunch of tired people) they still filled up and showed off from the ground.
It was literally a sea of balloons as far as the eye could see. The pics don’t really do justice. It was different than seeing them all take off into the sky but still a pretty awesome sight.
So another balloon day under my belt and it was only 10am. I took my time to grab a hearty breakfast then it was time to hit the road on route to the White Sands of New Mexico!
This meant 4 hours driving in the desert, just me, some tunes and the open road. If I have a choice – honestly I prefer to be the passenger. Not because I don’t like or have a fear of driving…I just really like to look out the window and take it all in. Also, if you know me well, you know I am capable of sleeping in any moving vehicle at any time. Luckily my automotive narcolepsy didn’t kick in and I was able to stay awake (and alive) to take in the scenery from the drivers seat.
It was almost 5 pm by the time I reached the White Sands National Park. I was hoping to catch a stunning sunset but it wasn’t looking all that promising with big ass dark clouds moving in. It was kinda like a beautiful disaster situation, with a double rainbow and all.
After narrowly escaping the down pour, I made it to my road side perfection motel nearby and happily passed out for the evening. For the record it was indeed very quiet and clean….and I slept like a rock.
The only day on this trip that I slept in past 8am! I’m naturally a morning person but it was glorious. The dark skies were gone and although the weather wasn’t perfect, I was ready to take what I could get.
I headed back to the White Sands National Park in hopes of catching it’s white rolling hills in all their glory. It was still pretty cloudy but the pro was that this fair skinned ginger didn’t burn her butt off. Also the sand was still fairly wet from the rainy night which made it super easy to walk on. That’s what I call a different kind of double rainbow after the rain.
Here’s another instance where my iPhone probably isn’t the greatest for capturing the subtleties of miles of rolling pure white sand hills. When the sun managed to break through and you really got to see the contrasting highlights and shadows it was really something spectacular. Sometimes a sky full of balloons can be just as amazing as a sea of nothingness. More can be more but less can definitely be more.
It was creepily quiet. There were so few people and so much space that it really was a solitary experience. The silence and the obvious colour of the landscape reminded me of the time after a good snowfall where the air eats up the sound.
I spent a few hours exploring the dunes. There is an official 8 mile trail if you dare to follow the white nothingness. They say that’s where you see the National Geographic photo worthy dunes.
Although it seemed like a long drive to go for less than 24 hours, I think it was worth it. I just love the desert and it’s not every day that you get to see something so unique. I bet you had zero clue this existed in New Mexico let alone North America, amiright? Plus isn’t the road trip half the fun?
The best part of any road trip is the unscheduled stops. These unscheduled stops are not for the planners at heart. You gotta be cool with random stops that may or may not derail your schedule anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours. I like to think of myself as a pretty spontaneous person. The truth is that being spontaneous sounds great on a dating profile but in real life the outcome can go either way. It can be total unplanned fun or it can mean lots of solo activities that may or not be worth the trouble. With travel I think it’s great to have a balance of both planned and unplanned time – planned so that you’re not disappointed or stressed about a place to stay or sold out activities and not planned to leave room for unexpected surprises that often end up being the best part of an adventure.
On this occasion being spontaneous paid off. On my lonnnnnnngg drive back to Albuquerque I noticed that I was going to pass a town called Truth or Consequence. I mean, common, the name alone is enough to make anyone stop. I did a quick google search (PS: how did we travel without smartphones?!) and saw that they have a small spa there with some natural hot pools. I was already sold on the name, the hot pools were a bonus.
I stoped to check the place out. I’ll be honest, the town itself had some colourful charming elements but it was kinda a ghost town. Literally I felt like I was in a movie driving through a town after an alien abduction. It was kinda surreal.
But tucked away down a side street was this little piece of heaven. The Riverbend Hot Springs are proof that you can NOT judge a book by it’s cover. I went in and behind the cute but unassuming facade in this ghost of a town was a little oasis in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.
I spent two glorious hours in the Rio private pool for a whopping $15 USD an hour. Sure, there was also a beautiful common area with a few pools, hammocks and a sauna but why force nearly nude awkward small talk when you can have a whole pool to yourself? Note – this would be one of those times that the right company (and some wine) would have been nice. Just sayin’.
Just over 2 hours later I left refreshed and feeling damn good about my random decision to stop. I wouldn’t spend any more than a couple hours in T&C (as the locals say) but it makes for a great stop to break up the drive to/from White Sands if that’s where you’re heading.
You didn’t think I was going to go alllllllllllll the way to New Mexico to see a billion hot air balloons and not try and get on one? As if.
Here’s a travel tip for you, especially the last minute non-planners like me. Not surprisingly every balloon company I could find online said they were fully booked during the Balloon Fiesta week. I went old school and started calling them instead and like magic! when I actually talked to a human they managed to find a spot for a single rider who wasn’t picky about day or time.
I showed up at a big parking lot at 6am and me and 5 other strangers hopped into a grown up size basket and took to the sky! Ok, that’s sorta true. There was actually 2 groups and I was in the second one so I watched the first group get in the basket and take off but then learned about a side of ballooning I never thought about – balloon chasers! So here’s the thing, ballooning isn’t as ‘official’ as you may think. They kinda take off and land wherever they can find a spot but they need a team – these dudes are called balloon chasers. These are like the guys in the pit at a car race that do all the dirty work to make the magic happen.
So me and the rest of group got in a van with the 2 chasers and we literally drove around Albuquerque chasing a hot air balloon in the sky. Thanks to modern tech, the balloon did have a GPS and they were able to see it’s path but the wind doesn’t follow any map and will take the balloon where it wants so we were constantly changing routes and guessing approx. what area they would land. Crazy right?
Finally the pilot decided he was going to land in a high school baseball field. The chasers rushed over, told the guy at the front security gate that “we’re here to chase our balloon”…no biggy. We drove and in and the two guys literally jumped out of the van and ran into the field (followed by dozens of students) to help land the balloon. Just another day in Albuquerque I guess?
Then it was our turn to get in. I felt totally safe in the big basket but when you think about it, it is kinda mind blowing how little security there is in ballooning compared to anything else that travels 4000 ft in the air.
It was a pretty awesome experience. It didn’t really feel like we were moving but everything slowly got smaller. With the exception of the loud bursts of fire to keep the balloon afloat it was actually very quiet up there. We flew over the city, across residential neighbourhoods, parks, etc. I got a kick out of passing schools and watching the kiddos go nuts running after the balloon. We travelled about 30 miles before landing in a high school football field, greeted by these two crazy, balloon chasing dudes.
I can’t think of a better way to end a mini adventure in the desert. After my balloon landed I had just enough time to get to the airport and start the trip home.
New Mexico you were a blast! I have a feeling we’ll meet again in the future.
If you’re still reading, wow! I’m impressed and love you! if in all that I somehow left out some details that you have questions about feel free to leave a message below.