After the burning of Zozobra, Indian Market and Fiestas, tourism slows down in Santa Fe. One of the last gasps happens when visitors are in the area to watch hundreds of hot air balloon lift off from grassy fields during the 44th Annual Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta.
After eating breakfast burritos and downing hot chocolate during those early-morning mass ascensions, those same out-of-state visitors, according to a 2011 economic report (another survey is being completed this year), are spending at least a day and a half visiting other cities around the state, including Santa Fe.
With more than $117 million in indirect spending on the line, local hoteliers, restaurants, museums and galleries are gearing up to greet the influx in tourists ahead of Saturday’s first big launch.
Tom Garrity, a spokesman for the Balloon Fiesta, tells SFR the capital city is always a popular destination during the nine-day event.
And lots of people who live in the City Different will head to Albuquerque.
Patricia Ann Ruby-Baese is packing her bags and heading south to spend the week volunteering on the Balloon Fiesta’s prestigious competition scoring team.
An avid fan of the lighter-than-air sport, Ruby-Baese, a financial planning consultant in Santa Fe, still remembers her first visit to the world’s biggest balloon event.
Santa Fean Patricia Ann Ruby-Baese is a field judge.
“I was amazed at how close people can get to the balloons,” she says. “There’s nothing like it in anywhere else in the world.”
Sensing another thrilling year, Ruby-Baese is closing her office and taking a week off. Once she checks in to a hotel, she plans to head to the field, where her scoring team will listen in on daily pilot briefings, interact with launch units (known as zebras) and check morning weather reports.
Once pilots are aloft for the contest, Ruby-Baese and her scorers put out various targets for field and remote competitions.
With a tape measure in hand, she’s responsible for determining which pilot’s bean bag lands closest to the bull’s-eye.
Ruby-Baese tells SFR she became enamored with ballooning after attending a small rally in Wisconsin, where she lived 30 years ago. After seeing the balloons for the first time, she signed up for a chase crew and soon volunteered to be a competition observer.
After moving to New Mexico, Ruby-Baese didn’t wait long before volunteering here, and she gained more experience at national events and volunteering for the aptly named “Top Gun” group of competitive local pilots.
“It’s a lot of work,” she says, adding that a lot of logistics go into competitive ballooning.
The trick, she explains, is in the pilot’s approach, after flying at least a mile away from the field.
“They usually don’t get a second chance to line up their shot,” she says. “You can’t steer a balloon.”
Still, she says the new racing balloons are a little more nimble than standard balloons we’re more used to seeing.
When she’s not lining up a target this year, Ruby-Baese says she’ll go looking for a food concessionaire from Wisconsin, who she hopes is back with their tasty fried cheese. She also looks forward to running into a group that brings disabled kids to New Mexico to enjoy the fiesta every year.
“They only have enough money for one vacation a year, and they always like coming to see the hot air balloons,” says Ruby-Baese, whose own favorite balloon is the new butterfly.
“When the hot air starts filling the envelope, its wings open just like a real butterfly,” she says.
By the Numbers:
550 registered balloon teams
17 countries represented
7 gas balloon teams competing in the America’s Challenge cross-country race
45 food vendors selling goodies like burritos and bacon-wrapped donuts
20 laser boxes that put on light show demonstrations during morning and evening events
12 acrobats who maneuver through giant inflatable pillars with engine-powered paramotors strapped to their backs.