ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Long before the hit television series "Breaking Bad" put New Mexico's largest city in the spotlight, Albuquerque gained international fame for its balloons.
This weekend, more than 600 colorful hot air balloons of all shapes and sizes and from all over the world return for the city's 42nd annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, an event that casts a decidedly cheerier light on the city than Walter White's methamphetamine dynasty does on the show that ended Sunday.
The nine-day fiesta, which event President Bill Walker says is probably the state's single largest tourism draw, has attracted balloonists from 35 states and 18 countries this year. It draws thousands of spectators from around the world who can roam the city's 72-acre balloon park to watch the morning mass ascensions and events like the floating of nearly 100 "special shapes" balloons like the kissing bees, a spotted cow and a Darth Vader helmet. There are also evening "glows," where the balloons are inflated but remain on the ground, lit up from the propane burners that fuel their flights.
A new event this year is a country-western music fiesta Saturday, with headliner Darius Rucker, who is best known as the frontman of the rock band Hootie & the Blowfish.
The balloon fiesta began in 1972 in a mall parking lot. Its record attendance was 1,000 balloons in 2000. This year there are 548 regular balloons and 97 special shapes, Walker said.
While 1,000 was probably too many balloons, he said, attendance has declined as the costly sport is "graying a bit."
Still, the convention and visitors bureau says 700,000 guests are expected for the event.
For Albuquerque residents, the event is a fall staple and much-anticipated treat as the balloons float over the city each morning, landing in yards, parking lots, sometimes even on the banks of the Rio Grande.
What makes Albuquerque in October ideal for such an event are its typically clear skies; cool, often cold, mornings; and what is known as the Albuquerque "box" that is created by the unique mountain formations and weather patterns. When the box is in effect, the lower winds blow south and higher winds blow north, meaning balloonists can travel one direction, then backtrack to land near their launch site by changing elevation. That keeps the colorful balloons bobbing over the city rather than drifting away.
A cold front blowing in Friday was bringing high winds to the city, but Walker remained optimistic they would die before Saturday morning's inaugural mass ascension.
"I'm hoping for 10 days of calm wind, blue skies and lots of soft landings," he said.