Getting high at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

New England may be the standard-bearer for fall travel, but New Mexico is an equally spectacular destination to spend the season. And perhaps there is no better way to usher in autumn than with necks craned skyward, under a dawn Albuquerque sky slowly filling up with several hundred illuminated hot air balloons.

Now in its 40th year, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta kicks off on October 1 for 9 days of events. The largest ballooning gathering in the world, and one of the largest events in the state, over 100,000 people attend to watch more than 700 balloons inflate, launch, and float over northern New Mexico. Many of these people happily set their alarms extra early in order to observe these vibrantly decorated balloons rise with the sun for the 5:30 a.m. mass ascent.

All of the week’s events take place at a 365-acre, tailor-made balloon park in the north of Albuquerque, about 10 miles from the airport and city center. So the city makes a perfect base for exploring both the Fiesta and the region. And surprisingly, for an event that brings 100,000 visitors into the area, affordable hotel rooms are still readily available. The event’s planners are also providing bus transportation from various points throughout the city, so thankfully there is no need to worry about driving through traffic or fighting for a parking spot.

For all you procrastinating gas balloon pilots out there, registration is unfortunately closed and you will have to wait until 2012. But for all you procrastinating spectators, tickets are still available. And who knows, instead of gazing up you may end up gazing down – it’s not unheard of for pilots to offer friendly, curious tourists a lift.

[flickr image via Corvair Owner]

Blogger Ori Epstein

Where was your photo taken: The side of the road in some unknown (to me) village in Rajasthan.

Where do you live now: The beautiful brownstone neighborhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, New York, at least until I get priced out.

Scariest airline flown: I think I have the complete opposite of a fear of flying – I get so excited by travel that just getting to the airport or boarding a plane can leave me downright giddy. And even severe turbulence or drunk-acting pilots won’t shake that giddiness. Of course, it also helps that I typically fly airlines like Delta or JetBlue, rather than something like Khyber Afghan Airlines or Trans Air Congo. But if I really had to pick the scariest, I guess it would be the first time I flew with my then 3-month old daughter, a 12-hour, 2-layover Southwest cross-country slog. I don’t know exactly what the feeling was of changing a cranky infant’s toxic diaper in a cramped 737 lavatory 20,000 feet above Sacramento, but it might as well have been fear.

Favorite city/country/place: Barcelona? Jerusalem? Peru? Australia? How can anyone possibly answer this, there are so many incredible places. But fine, I’ll answer it – Mexico. It pretty much has everything: vibrant cities, quaint colonial towns, ancient ruins, beaches, jungle, desert, and an incredible cuisine. And best of all, for us Americans, it’s all right there in our backyard!

Most remote corner of the globe visited: It might not feel like it when you’re there, but Hawaii. Out in the middle of the Pacific, over 2,000 miles away from the nearest human settlement, it’s extraordinary that this tropical, volcanic, Asian melting pot is part of the United States.

Favorite guidebook series: I think that all the major travel guide publishers can be pretty hit or miss, and the authors are usually a better gauge of quality than the brand. But for this I’ll go with Bradt Travel Guides. I’ve never actually used Bradt, this is more of an aspirational choice. Their books, which cover places like the Congo, Somaliland, and Iraq, appeal to the adventurous traveller in me that I have not quite become.

Dream travel destination: Crossing the salt flats of Bolivia; exploring the Okavango Delta of Botswana; hiking to the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. Basically, any country that starts with the letter B.

How did you get started travelling? My parents, inveterate passport stamp collectors, refused to let parenthood get in the way of their wanderlust. By the time I was 6, they had already dragged me along to places like Tanzania, the Seychelles, Israel, and Greece. Like it or not, they created a budding travel addict, and I can only hope to do the same for my daughter.

When I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m…either trying to corral a tireless 11-month old or pay off my law school debts.

Languages Spoken: Some Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Danish, and, thanks to my day job, legalese.

The Joy of the Unexpected: Embracing the Mislaid Travel Plan

Lying atop the powdery sands of a brochure-worthy beach soaking up the restorative Caribbean sun; or lying inside the claustrophobic tube of an MRI scanner while being plunged into darkness when the provincial Indian hospital loses power. One is the stereotypical dream vacation, the other just a bad dream. But guess which is the experience you are never going to forget?

I once spent a perfectly delightful fortnight in Belize with my wife. We went snorkeling off the world’s second largest reef, explored jungles and ruins, ate delicious freshly prepared meals, and, of course, lied out by the warm, gently lapping surf of the Caribbean Sea. It was essentially the kind of getaway one would hope for: relaxing, recharging, and a true escape. However, when we returned home, it was not like friends and family were lining up to view slideshows of sunsets and toucans or hear stories about sunbathing.

And then there was my trip to India, where I slipped on mud (at least I told myself it was mud) and smashed my knee on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, landing myself in that aforementioned, electricity-averse hospital. And where a cheap space heater short-circuited and partially burned down the wall of my equally cheap hotel room. Or where the taxi I was riding in sideswiped a bus and the cabbie jumped out to argue with the bus driver, abandoning me in the car that happened to be stopped across railway tracks, which I only discovered when a crowd of onlookers pushed the car out of the way of a rapidly approaching train. Or when, on the night of Tibetan New Year in Dharamsla, I stumbled into a drunken street fight and a shower of broken glass as someone was pushed through a store window.
Clearly, these are not events you choose to include when planning your travel itinerary. Nor could my trip to India be in any way described as relaxing. But I guarantee that friends did not fake interest when I would relate my stories. And not only will I not forget my time in India anytime soon, I eagerly await my return trip to the country.

I am certainly capable of enjoying a lazy beach vacation as readily as anybody. But as someone whose time spent traveling is a scandalously low percentage of my life, I more often than not seek out the “difficult” destinations. When travel is challenging and unpredictable I am far more likely to collect the experiences and encounters that will fuel a lifetime of fond recollection and travel nostalgia. Being shaken out of the pedestrian routine of everyday life is what makes foreign travel so rewarding.

So, the next time you find yourself caught out in a thunderstorm, or lost in a foreign county, or forced to navigate a city during a transit strike, remember that it still beats being stuck back home in a cubicle and will provide stories and memories that will far outlast the length of your trip.

Qantas pilots threaten to go on strike

The Southern Hemisphere’s largest airline may find itself grounded in the coming weeks, if pilots agree to carry out a strike.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA), the union representing Qantas pilots, will meet on Friday, February 10 to determine whether to go ahead with the strike. The meeting was scheduled after the airline rejected the union’s demands for a pay increase and measures to ensure job security.

Qantas has consistently rated as one of the world’s better airlines. Besides an enviable safety record, which Dustin Hoffman adamantly reminded us of in Rain Man, they typically provide great customer service, quality food, and a fantastic in-flight entertainment system. However, with competition from Asian carriers who can get away with paying lower salaries to their flight crews and domestic no-frills low cost airlines, it is questionable how long they can operate as is as a premium long-haul airline. Qantas may now face the unenviable choice of either alienating their pilots or their customers. Either way, both AIPA and Qantas must seriously rethink their strategies.

Four destinations in Mexico to safely venture off the beaten path

Mexico’s rapidly eroding security situation has attracted more negative press and fewer international visitors over the last few years.

Millions of foreigners certainly still travel to the country each year, although they mostly confine themselves to the self-contained beach resorts, which provide little opportunity for exploring or exposure to Mexican culture.

For the more independent-minded and adventurous traveler, the choice is not limited to venturing into narco-cartel dominated regions and lawless border towns or succumbing to the gringo ghettos of resorts such as Cabo San Lucas and Cancun. After all, Mexico is a huge country. And just as wildfires in California wouldn’t keep you from visiting Vermont, nor should horrific headlines from Juarez keep you from exploring the jungles and ruins of Chiapas. Thus, I present below four unique and off-the-tourist-trail destinations where personal safety should not be a concern.

Sian Ka’an: About 150 miles south of Cancun, lies this biosphere reserve dedicated to preserving the jungles and marshes which have largely disappeared from the region due to four decades of overdevelopment. With over one million acres of forest hugging the Caribbean coast, opportunities for wildlife spotting, snorkeling, and fishing are ample. But perhaps the most compelling reason to visit is the chance to enjoy the Yucatan Peninsula’s last great swath of protected habitat in almost complete solitude.
Yaxchilan: Mexico may be flush with stunning Mayan sites, but when your first encounter is of a giant parking lot filled with cruise ship- and resort-operated tour buses, a bit of the romance is certainly lost. No such worries with the ancient city of Yaxchilan. As impressive as these ruins and their lush jungle setting are, it is almost as equally impressive how refreshingly crowd-free the site is. This is because the only way in is via an hour-long motorized canoe trip up the Usmacinta River (which serves as the border between Mexico and Guatemala). And as is so often the case, the journey can be as rewarding as the destination.

Hierve el Agua: Looming over the Oaxacan hillside, Hierve el Agua appears from the distance to be a frozen waterfall or an enormous melted candle. In fact, this formation was created by thousands of years’ worth of minerals, fed from springs above, encrusting the cliff-face. A short hike will take you up to these mineral-rich springs, where you can bathe at the edge of the cliff, taking in the countryside below.

Mexcaltitan: Sometimes referred to as the Venice of Mexico, Mexcaltitan is a man-made island located in a lagoon in the western state of Nayarit. Like Venice, the town is car-free and the streets are prone to flooding; unlike Venice it is virtually free of any tourist infrastructure, or tourists for that matter. According to legend, and some archeologists, this is the birthplace of the Aztecs, and thus the Mexican people. So, although short on any true sightseeing spots, the point of visiting the island is to soak up its atmosphere and languid pace while feeling connected to the country’s rich history.

Flickr photo by Fredo in (((Stereo)))