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Stairway to Heaven: Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta

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Heavenly bodies on the horizon

I’m not a morning person. So when I saw the itinerary for the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, I did a double take. 6 a.m. start time! With a little coffee, I managed to make it through the early morning(read 4 a.m.) trips from the hotel to the park, all bundled up in my layers of thermals and wool. After learning from my hotel concierge that this was the largest ballooning event in the world, I was a bit curious…

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Piñon Coffee keeping this California girl warm!

Once I saw a few of these colorful globes take to the sky before dawn, all of my fatigue melted away. The few brave balloons, known as the “Dawn Patrol”, tested the wind patterns for their fellow fiesta goers still on the ground. This scene was absolutely stunning!

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The Dawn Patrol takes flight

What’s even better than the visual of the gas balloons set against the vista of the Albuquerque mountains, is the sound of them lighting up. The powerful “whoosh” of the helium and hydrogen flooding these giant globes is almost as magical as the sound of the crowds cheering them on as they lift up to the heavens.

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Leo lighting up the early morning sky

And what a crowd! I literally saw generations of families, young and old, groups of friends, couples on honeymoons, photography clubs, and every combination of group you could think of. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is fun for everyone. If you don’t marvel at this magnificent event, then there’s something definitely wrong with you!

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No filter needed!

My family decided to attend this annual display of color to celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday. In between balloon fiesta fun, we got a chance to sample some of the delicious cuisine in Albuquerque, known for its generous use of red and green chiles. If you don’t like spicy – ask them for super mild. Trust me on this one!

When we weren’t eating the tasty New Mexico treats(like sopapillas), we did some shopping in the town square and picked up a few souvenirs along the way. My favorite finds were a store called Masks Y Mas, which housed art, jewelry, and of course, masks. Then just a few doors down I discovered, Off Broadway, the most decadent vintage shop that had me pulling at my purse strings as I piled my dressing room with a number of gorgeous gems. I walked away with this wool coat – perfect for the brisk New Mexico breeze!

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Vintage wool from Off Broadway keeping me warm!

After some well-deserved naps, my family and I headed back to the park to witness what is known as “Balloon Glow”. This evening event is not to be missed, as the visual of vibrant balloons against the night sky envelops you. Everywhere you turn there’s some new wonder to be seen. It’s no surprise that this is the world’s most photographed event, with over 25 million photographs being taken each year!

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Twilight Twinkle glow!

Since the balloons don’t embark at the evening events, you’ll get to wander among them in all of their colorful glory. The hum of the gas lighting up these beauties gave me the chills! And hearing the oohs and ahhs coming from everyone around you, all of us in collective childlike wonder, is enough to give you goosebumps.albuquerque-balloon-fiestaalbuquerque-balloon-fiestaIf you want the true VIP experience at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, get tickets to the Gondola Club. And don’t wait until the last minute! We waited a bit too long and were only able to get them for one morning, but we’re sooo glad we did. A hot breakfast buffet, open bar, and fire pits greeted us as we descended on the park for another early morning of fiesta fun.

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Get your tickets early!

And when you’re ready to get up close to the balloons, there’s a VIP tram waiting to drive you closer to the action. This is one of the best Gondola Club benefits since the park is over 350 acres big. The highlight of that morning was watching Annabelle, the Creamland Dairy mascot, finally come into her udderly full glory. After the team tried for a couple of days to get her up, she finally made it to the skies and set sail with the rest of her balloon friends. The crowd went wild as she was set free!

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C’mon Annabelle – you can do it!
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There she goes!
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It’s raining ice cream!

These balloons are too gorgeous for words. No filter is needed for your photos! In fact, I spent very little time editing photos because the light and color of the New Mexico sky is just perfect. Pro tip – bring an extra memory card and a portable charger. You’ll be out there from around 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., so it’s good to be prepared. And bring a backpack or bag to hold your gloves, hats, etc. You’ll want to shed some layers as the sun comes up – it gets surprisingly warm!

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Space Odyssey – New Mexico style!
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The largest ballooning event in the world!
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Come back señorita!
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Star Wars action along the Albuquerque horizon
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Some of the 1,000 balloons represented!

Swirling in a serene symphony led by Mother Nature’s wispy winds, the balloons drift above your head and then eventually out of sight. The heavens, dotted with color, will leave you in awe. As I watched everyone gaze up at the sky, some of us snuggled next to our loved ones for warmth, I felt so happy to be here. What a unique experience!

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New Mexico True!

Even with the early mornings and bone-chilling cold, I would do it all over again. There’s nothing like gazing up at the sky and watching the balloons dance along the desert sky. Next time this California girl will pack her earmuffs. And I’ll make sure to get my Gondola Club tickets well in advance!

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Smiles from the most photographed event on earth!

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As American As Mole

“I am an American discovering America”. These words by Marsden Hartley never rang truer than during my trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This enchanting artists’ colony has been on my travel bucket list for some time. I had no idea the rich history, both culturally and culinary, that awaited me in this southwestern town.

A lover of all things epicurean, I enrolled in a cooking class at the suggestion of my hotel concierge. Santa Fe School of Cooking hosts a wide array of hands-on courses and tasting menus, which made it hard to choose, but I ultimately decided on “Mole & More”. Mole, a dish with endless ingredients and prep time that would deter most home chefs, has always intimidated a seasoned cook like myself. Little did I know that our instructor, Chef Michelle Chavez, would guide us through the process with ease, providing helpful tips and tricks along the way.

Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class
Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class

Michelle, equal parts historian, teacher, and foodie, began our four-hour session with an introduction that rivaled my AP US History class. During her talk, I learned more about this region of America than in my four years of high school history classes. “Every group of people who came through Santa Fe, be it on the Camino Real or the Santa Fe Trail, left an indelible impression on our food and culture. To remove one from our history would change our ways drastically”, shared Michelle as she pointed out the bountiful culinary traditions of those who had come before. “Corn, beans and squash, collectively known as The Three Sisters, were gifts of the native population, as well as the wine grapes, pigs, sheep, wheat and other cultivars brought by the Spanish.” She shared stories of the Pueblo, Zuni, and Oaxaca heritages, highlighting the often overlooked contributions of these Native Americans to this plentiful cuisine and culture.

Prepped ingredients ready for
Prepped ingredients ready for Michelle’s mastery

While Michelle mixed fresh beans, roasted fragrant chiles, and simmered Abuelita chocolate, she offered suggestions on everything from making bone broth to cookie-crumb crust. Scribbling down every word on my recipe sheets, I was eager to try these suggestions back home. With Food Network-style presentation, Michelle wove around the room with each course neatly timed. Each dish exceeded my palette’s expectations, and had a precise mixture of sweet and savory, all while offering that signature New Mexican spice.

As class came to a close, I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle and thank her for an unforgettable experience. After telling her about my spotty knowledge of American history, she recommended that I read Blood & Thunder by Kit Carson. Eager for a deeper insight to the history of New Mexico and the southwest, I added the book to my wish list. Not wanting the class to end, I asked Michelle for a photo and barraged her with other questions. Obliging, she mentioned that she was working on a book and that her travel bucket list location was “to the spice markets of Northern Africa and India; basically anywhere that has a strong food culture with great biodiversity.”

Weaving my way up through the center of town, I thought about my impromptu history lesson and what this area must have looked like centuries ago. I imagined towering rows of corn, fields of colorful squash, and an earthy expanse set against the stark blue sky and hovering mountains.

Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art
Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art

Stepping into the courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I now understood why so many artists had been drawn to this magical place. The Will Shuster murals that lined the courtyard offered a glimpse into what life was like on this land long ago.

Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster
Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster

Once inside the museum walls, I walked through the exhibit enjoying a multitude of interpretations on early American life. From Diego Romero’s Romanticism-inspired piece Olympia to Fritz Scholder’s larger than life Pop-Art Super Indian, I was overwhelmed by the wash of hues and textures that this “Summer of Color” inspired exhibit displayed. One piece drew me closer, and I stepped towards it in a cautious manner. The Scout, by Warren E. Rollins, made me wonder what was going through this man’s head.  Capturing the uneasy feeling of a stranger approaching, “Do I retreat? What do they want? Where are they from?” Rollins’ work left me pensive, yet uncomfortable.

Detail of Rollins'
Detail of Rollins’ “The Scout”

Moving on to Taos Pueblo-Moonlight, the neighboring oil painting by E. Irving Couse, I longed to step into the picture. A familiar, yet somber mood came over me as I studied the family around the fire: an elder passing on generational wisdom to an eager child.

Leaving the museum, I crossed through the square and absorbed the fresh breeze on this crisp, spring evening. Inspired by the varied artistic expressions, I took some photographs of passersby and local architecture. While seeking out my next stop, a local vendor in the square recommended that I take a walk up to San Miguel Mission.

San Miguel, the oldest church in the United States, has a simple façade washed in the burnt almond color that is ubiquitous in Santa Fe. With each creaking footstep, I made my way along the pews, admiring the quaint and homely church.

San Miguel interior
San Miguel interior

Approaching the altar, I dropped in some coins and lit a candle for my nephew. As I knelt down at the wooden altar, I looked into the foundation of the church. Squinting to make out the placard below, I could see the ruins of an Indian home dated 1300. My eyes welled up with heavy tears, overcome with the emotion and burden from the day’s lessons. I silently wept for all those who had lost their homes and habitats in that early round of colonization.  Walking slowly out of the small church, I wondered what it would be like to be displaced and lose my house and heritage in the process.

Foundation of San Miguel altar
Foundation of San Miguel altar

Once home, I was eager to try my hand at the menu that Michelle had so synchronistically prepared during my trip. Lucky enough to live in Los Angeles where many of these ingredients can be found, I reviewed my notes and assembled a shopping list for my recreation of “Mole & More”. Noting a few holes in my ingredient list, I called the school and ordered a few things to complete my menu.

Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking
Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking

I created a new acronym, WWMD, as I repeatedly asked myself through the lengthy preparation, “What would Michelle do?” With a few tweaks and twists, I prepared a spicy and sumptuous feast for a few friends. My delectable dishes were devoured in what seemed like minutes. Sharing stories of everything from summer romances to systemic racism, my guests and I enjoyed a fragrant and fulfilling meal. Pleased with my performance, I recounted stories and insights from my trip to Santa Fe and vowed to return to the southwestern town before year-end.

Santa Fe, New Mexico airport
Santa Fe, New Mexico airport