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In many ways, the 50th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was bigger than ever.

A total of 648 hot air balloons lifted off at this year’s Balloon Fiesta – around 100 more than last year and the most balloons that have flown out of Balloon Fiesta Park since 2000.

Twenty different countries were represented at the fiesta, a full recovery since 2021 when representatives from just seven countries were able to visit due to international travel restrictions and concerns about COVID-19.

Almost 200 more volunteers helped with the event this year compared to last year, a total of 1,144.

And 1.6 million people around the world watched some part of the fiesta online.

“That first Saturday morning on … opening day, I think we’ll say, is the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen Balloon Fiesta Park,” said Sam Parks, Balloon Fiesta director of operations. “All of our parking lots were full, all of our park-and-ride buses were full. I don’t know where we could have put another single person.”

But, despite a promising first day, Parks said, the total 828,800 visitors to the park over nine days of fiesta was an “average” number.

“We’ve actually seen bigger crowds and I think the weather really caused some reductions,” Parks said at a Friday news briefing at the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce. “… I think the weather probably prevented us from breaking any records on attendance.”

The crowd at the 50th ABQ International Balloon Fiesta was “average” due to rain. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Normally, Parks, a balloonist himself, said October is dry in Albuquerque. But late rains resulted in two shelter-in-place orders and the cancellation of more than half of the planned flights.

As a decrease in landing zones has continued to raise concerns about the growth and future of Balloon Fiesta, however, more Albuquerque residents than ever offered up their properties as landing sites, said Jim Garcia, who leads the “X marks the spot” program with the Hispano Chamber. The 4-year-old program asks willing landowners to install a large X on their properties to guide balloonists to a place to land.

Garcia said that they made hundreds of Xs this year, limited by lack of materials rather than lack of interest.

“If we would have had 2,000, we would have handed out 2,000,” Garcia said, citing numerous calls from interested landowners to the Hispano Chamber. “It was that popular.”

Rosalie Garcia picked up a raffle basket of wine, beer, cheese and gift cards at the event after 26 balloons landed almost in her backyard this year. Participants in the “X marks the spot” program were entered into a raffle and picked at random.

Over the years, many balloons have landed in the open field adjacent to her house in Los Ranchos. Her son, she said, was able to start his own balloon pin collection just from the many balloonists who landed nearby, some from as far away as Brazil and England. This year, her grandchildren stayed over, waking up in the early morning to see balloon after balloon land.

“I’m very fortunate that I live in the village of Los Ranchos and my house is adjacent to an open space,” she said. “So, every year, it’s been at least two balloonists … I love balloons.”