Tension and an air of suppressed excitement grip the crowd milling about the lobby. Overheard snatches of conversation reflect the mood: “What time is the flight?” “I hope the take-off is smooth.” “How long will it take?” “Fingers crossed, nothing goes wrong.” “Do you think the pilot has done this before?”
Just the usual trepidation that accompanies air journeys in the US these days, you’d think. And, you couldn’t be further from the truth. In this lobby, there are no security checks, no boarding passes, no baggage tags, and certainly no plastic smiles. The emotions are all genuine and they swim just below the surface. A little winding up and it comes bubbling out: enthusiasm tinged with the awareness of impending adventure. This is no ordinary flight we’re prepping to take: We are going on our very first hot-air balloon ride in Albuquerque, the ballooning capital of the world, and cold feet is our common accessory.
Travellers take off for a hot-air balloon ride on the outskirts of Albuquerque
In the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa, where the to-be balloonists have gathered, we try to calm the butterflies in our stomach by focusing on terra firma. After all, Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, has a colourful history stretching all the way from prehistoric times to the present day, via native American settlers and Spanish colonizers. Under the conquistadors, Albuquerque was an outpost on El Camino Real (literally, the royal road) that ran from Mexico City to Santa Fé: The original town plan was actually based on a Spanish village.
Alas, the subject soon runs dry in the 30 minutes it takes us to reach the banks of the Rio Grande on the outskirts of the city. All too soon, our pilot, Brooke Owen, and his three crewmen have unloaded the basket, the burner and the envelope (what regular people would call the balloon) and assembled the “vehicle”. “The weather’s beautiful,” Owen calls across to this obviously nervous group as the balloon rises, ready to float.
And, it is. The late September sun is sending the first streaks of orange across the bright blue sky, tinging the tips of the surrounding mountains. Albuquerque itself is located in the middle of the Rio Grande valley, with the Sandia and Manzano mountains to the east and five volcanic cones to the west. The arid continental weather is typically sunny and dry, with very low humidity.
All of which makes for perfect ballooning conditions. According to Owen, who has been ballooning for over 15 years in this region, the weather and the geographical formations allow pilots to launch balloons, move with the winds at various altitudes and even backtrack—a particularly difficult movement to negotiate in the air—with ease.
Owen seems particularly grateful for the Albuquerque Box, a set of predictable wind patterns that balloonists can exploit to their advantage. Because of the relative locations of the Rio Grande valley and the Sandia mountains, the winds blow in a southerly direction at low heights. At higher elevations, they tend to be northerly. So, pilots can simply change altitude to switch directions.
The science, explained in layman’s terms, does more to calm our nerves than the feverish chatter about Albuquerque’s origins. Chris steps inside the oversized wicker basket first, followed by me. Tania is third. The order is crucial, since the weight has to be distributed uniformly. It’s 6.30am as we take off, chanting the Balloonist’s Prayer (author unknown).
“May the winds welcome you with softness
May the sun bless you with his warm hands
May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter
And sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
A few minutes later, I am not looking forward to returning to Mother Earth’s arms any time soon. As the ground falls away, it appears to be like a thick carpet, chequered in some places. A few hundred feet above the ground, we seem to be hanging motionless in the air, though Owen says we are actually travelling at 10 miles per hour.
Before we realize it and much before the fear factor can set in, the bright, five-storey-high balloon has carried us into the azure skies 2,000ft above Albuquerque. Looking out, we can see the distant mountains as well as the entire city of 600,000 and the river snaking through it. It’s only our eyes that assure us we are moving —there is no feeling of motion because we are floating with the wind, not against it. That helps, and, before long, we are sharing can-you-believe-it grins.
“That’s the balloon museum,” says Owen, pointing at a building that looks like an upturned balloon from our height. The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, which opened in 2005, is the world’s premier facility dedicated to the art, culture, science, history and spectacle of ballooning.
A visit later to the museum tells me that the first creatures to go up in a balloon were a duck, a sheep and a rooster in France some 220 years ago: King Louis XVI apparently didn’t allow a man to go up in the smoky fire-propelled cloth-bag-and-basket contraption because he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to breathe in the rarefied air. We sure have come a long way since that ride.
“This is marvellous!” exclaims Harry from Washington, who had been dreading a bumpy, sick-making experience, as we float over the Rio Grande and skim over green cottonwood trees. Owen manipulates the propane-fuelled flames to guide the balloon up and down, but the going is smooth. Birds do a double take at this intrusion into their space, but the early risers in the backyards below wave casually at us.
It’s 6.57am as the sun’s rays finally touch down on the tree cover adjoining the river and our pilot presents us our biggest thrill yet. The balloon starts to descend suddenly and, within minutes, we are touching the surface of the Rio Grande. Before we can wonder “Is everything okay?”, a peal of laughter rings out from Owen, followed by rapturous applause. It might be an old trick, but something tells me the trick never loses its magic, with the length and breadth of the river stretching away before us.
After nearly 50 minutes, our time is up. No runway, no radar, no air traffic controller—how on earth are we going to land? The manipulations begin on board: We have to stand behind one another, keep all our belongings on the floor of the basket and bend our knees. Then Owen deftly guides the balloon back to the take-off site—we had travelled nearly 8 miles away from the spot—and we touch down smoother than any jet plane, though the basket is unable to stay upright and we all tumble out.
Reason tells us we’re back where we belong. But the romance of the air lingers long after we’ve received our commemorative certificates and flight plans. For a few minutes, we had all touched our inner Icarus.
How to go:
Fly Delta Airlines to Albuquerque from Delhi (round-trip economy fares Rs50,000 onward), Bangalore (Rs48,000 onward), and Mumbai (Rs48,000 onward). Albuquerque is also well connected with major US cities by air and road.
Where to stay:
I stayed at Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa on the outskirts of Albuquerque (‘www.tamaya.hyatt.com’; Tel.: 505-8671234). Set in the hills above the Rio Grande valley on the Santa Ana Pueblo, this resort offers spacious rooms, a full-service spa, an 18-hole golf course, spectacular views of the mountains and Corn Maiden, an award-winning restaurant. Rates start at $220 (around Rs9,400) per person.
Sandia Resort and Casino (‘www.sandiacasino.com’; Tel.: 505-7983978), a relatively new resort, attracts big-time casino enthusiasts. Apart from good amenities and large rooms, the open-air lounge in the Bien Shur restaurant and the amphitheatre are further attractions. Rates start at $189 (Rs8,100) per person.
What to do:
With 310 days of sunshine a year, Albuquerque is the perfect place to enjoy the great outdoors. From mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking to playing golf, the city offers great outdoor activities. For those interested in culture, the National Hispanic Cultural Center (‘www.nhccnm.org’) and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (‘www.indianpueblo.org’) are outstanding destinations. Don’t miss the stunning views of the city from the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway (‘www.sandiapeak.com’), as it slowly scales the 10,350ft peak of the mountains on Albuquerque’s eastern border. The historic old town houses a variety of shops, restaurants and art galleries. The pueblo architecture and adobe buildings are worth a look. At night, there’s symphony orchestra, ballets and comedy shows.
Ballooning: Several reliable companies in the heart of Albuquerque offer ballooning tours. One of the best outfitters in town is Rainbow Ryders (‘www.rainbowryders.com’; Tel.: 505-8231111). It charges $160 (Rs6,900) per person (5-12-year-olds, $110). If you go ballooning, don’t forget your camera—the views are spectacular—and wear clothing in layers. Carry sunblock or suntan lotion.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org