As the diverse South American country of Colombia as a whole has pulled off an impressive comeback from the drug and guerrilla violence especially of the 1980s and 1990s (in the process creating a booming tourism industry surrounding its many compelling destinations and experiences), so has its second largest city.
Tucked into an Andes valley of Colombia’s north-central department of Antioquía – giving it among other things the fresh climate leading to its nickname “city of eternal spring” – since its early 17th-century origins, Medellín (pop. 3.8 million) has for the most part enjoyed an illustrious history. And in these days, its dark turn of the closing decades of the 20th century, dominated by a drug cartel and its brutal leaders like Pablo Escobar, has finally been relegated to the past thanks to innovative policies and infrastructure building (like a plaza devoted to the sculpture of hometown artist Fernando Botero and a groundbreaking public cable car system to help integrate the poor hillside communities with the rest of the city) that have helped give this city a dynamic new lease on life, with a dramatic easing of poverty and crime.
And through it all, one of the most looked-forward-to events on the annual calendar of Medallo (as it’s also fondly known) has been the Feria de las Flores, spanning various days from late July through early August, which while also by extension a celebration of the history and culture of Antioquía, is also focussed above all on one of the region’s defining mainstays: an important concentration of Colombia’s critical cut-flower-export industry (specifically, about a quarter of it). Though not a tremendously old tradition (next summer will be its 60th anniversary), the Feria de las Flores has been beloved by generations, and as Medellín starts to attract more holidaymakers, this has become a prime draw (this year, the city’s convention and visitors bureau estimated that of a total of nearly 23,000 visitors, the Feria drew just over 11,000 from abroad – many from elsewhere in Latin America but also an increasing number of Europeans and North Americans).
The Feria’s final several days hold its biggest and most interesting events, culminating in the final Sunday’s Desfile de Silleteros, a three-hour parade focussed on traditional small flower farmers from outside the city in the hills of Antioquia. They’re called silleteros (from the word silleta, a wooden frame in the form of a silla, chair), who used to cart their botanical bounty to market on their backs. Some 500 – both males and females of all ages – still come down from the hills into Medellín every August to parade their wares and compete for best arrangements in various categories.
So last Sunday, I joined the multitudes in the shaded metal grandstands to watch as various companies of silleteros strode by. Their burdens were a mix of classic, boxy silletas and large, more elaborate round frames on which were attached arrangements of breathtaking colour and complexity. There were abstracts as well as pictoral depictions and even commercial logos of both Colombian and international companies. Messages abounded, promoting protection of the environment; women’s rights; family togetherness; cultural traditions; world peace; and reconciliation in Colombia following the many years of guerrilla war (one of my favourite slogans: the very up-to-date “Don’t let technology extinguish social interaction”).
As they passed, spectators would clap, cheer, and chant, “vuelta, vuelta!” (turn around!) so that the silleteros would display their arrangements from all angles. I marvelled especially at the ability of these folks – some of them quite young and others quite elderly – to haul on their backs these colourful contraptions weighing as much as 80 kilos (176 pounds) for more than two kilometres (nearly a mile and a half) in the bright afternoon sun. But for the most part they seemed happy to bask in the attention and adulation – after all, for many this is the highlight of their year.
Honestly, as attractive as these displays are, it would get perhaps a little monotonous without the other aspects of the parade, namely, the folkloric dancers, bands, and other entertainers, both serious and comic, interspersed throughout (there was even a gay troupe). The only odd note to the proceedings I found was at the end, when suddenly it turned into a military and police parade, with every conceivable type of soldier and cop (along with some boy and girl scouts) stomping seriously along. Kind of a jarring way to end up an otherwise joyous occasion, IMHO.
photo | David Paul Appell
But nonetheless, all in all a privilege to be part of – and it’s not the only chance for fun and spectacle during this week. I went to concerts, of both international, national and local talent; saw part of an antique auto parade with drivers in period costume (above); an exhibition of orchids and other flowers, along with various other local food and crafts vendors in the botanical garden. Other attractions/events include a pet parade; a “flower carpet” in a city plaza; mass bicycle rides; livestock shows; and various other shows, contests, and concerts.
And finally, there are many other attractions in Medellín to take in during your visit (more about those in an upcoming post), along with a year-round nearly springlike climate to enjoy it all in. If this sounds good to you, plan to come on down in the first week of August 2017, when they’ll especially be pulling out all the flower-power stops for the 60th anniversary. Should be quite something.
More information: MedellinConventionBureau.com.