Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Me Voy Para Medellín a la Feria de las Flores (PHOTO FRENZY!)

Last weekend, Norbert and I had the opportunity to attend Medellin’s largest festival, La Feria de las Flores. We’d heard so many good things about Medellin so we were excited to check it out—and the city did not disappoint! 

Flying over the Andes

Antioquia below

We got there around mid-afternoon on Friday and found our way easily to our AirBnB via the city’s excellent Metrorail system. Can I just say that their public transport system easily puts most American cities to shame? It’s efficient, clean, and extensive. It got us everywhere we needed to go!

After meeting our delightful AirBnB hosts, a family full of Paisa hospitality (Paisa is what they call the culture in the province of Antioquia, where Medellin is), we headed out to explore the city on foot. Without meaning to, we covered about 10 kilometers that afternoon/evening. We found our way to the top of a mini mountain in the middle of the city where they have El Pueblito Paisa, a re-creation of an old Paisa village, complete with cathedral in the center of a town square. We wasted no time trying the region’s specialty, la bandeja Paisa, essentially a tray filled with rice, beans, ground meat, scrambled egg, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), avocado, patacones (fried plantains), arepa, and pork belly. Yeah, they don’t leave anything out.

After dinner, we came across a fairground full of people celebrating la Feria de las Flores. There was live music, dancing, and tents showcasing some of the silletos, or flower arrangements, that are at the center of this historical event. There was also an expo of all the nearby towns such as Santa Elena and Campo Alegre with typical foods and products for sale. 

It’s the villagers from these villages that have been growing the famous flowers for generations and making the trek down the mountain to the valley of Medellin to sell their blossoms, oftentimes leaving at 1 in the morning to make it in time to the morning market. It’s this trek that is honored in the Feria de las Flores, and although villagers no longer carry and sell flowers like they used to, once a year they honor the tradition by building enormous flower arrangements and carrying them on their back like their ancestors did, this time in a parade through the city. But that wouldn’t be for a few more days. For now, the party continues!

We headed over to El Poblado, a super hip and happening neighborhood, to meet up with some Fulbright folks for a drink. Tourists and locals alike were out in full force and reggaetón was blaring from every bar and restaurant. After ending up in a giant ball pit in the basement of a bar, we decided we could call it a night.

Saturday morning was another beautiful Andean day. After a typical Paisa breakfast of arepa and huevos with our hosts, Norbert and I headed out to the botanical garden to check out a special expo of orchids, flower arrangements, and artisanal products, another event in honor of La Feria! Once again, we were amazed by the intricate floral designs.

lots of awesome street performers!

From there, we took the metro north to make the connection to one of Medellin’s 3 “metrocables”, cable car lines that travel up the steep mountain side where families live on incredible steep streets. 

 Once at the top, we were able to hop on yet another cable car that travels over the mountain into a national reserve called Parque Arvi. (The cable car was actually closed to tourists but thanks to a call made by our host to his nephew who works security at the park, we were able to get onboard! That’s what I call hospitality!) At Parque Arvi, we tried another local delicacy, giant grilled mushrooms, and then joined a guided nature tour with a great group of Colombian and French tourists. It was much colder at the top than it had been down in the city, but we kept warm on our hike and the guide did a great job telling us about the local flora and fauna. Plus, the Colombian ladies had us laughing the whole time.

From Parque Arvi, we took the metrocable out of the nature reserve. From there, we decided to walk down rather than jump on the metrocable line down to the valley. Life on the slope of the mountain was just as busy and bustling as the city below. Although the narrow roads were nearly at 90-degree angles, that didn’t stop buses from rushing or motorcyclists from speeding all over the place. The weekend was in full swing; vendors hawked their wares, kids flew kites, music blared, cervezas were consumed, and kids rode rides and played games on a town square overlooking the valley. 

being pragmatic about power ;)

Further down the mountain, children stopped us to take their picture, just as enchanted to meet faraway visitors on their own street as we were to meet them!

Norbert showing the girls where the US & Germany are on the map! 

a salsa bar under a highway

Medellin & the full moon

Inside the metro

Our bustling metro stop, Estadio
That night, we went home with every intention of showering and leaving again to go dancing, but a short nap turned into 12 hours of sleep, which was probably necessary after the exciting day we’d had.

Since we awoke fresh-faced and bushy-tailed from our epic night of sleep, we headed out first thing in the morning to catch an early tour to Santa Elena, one of the most important villages during La Feria de las Flores. After a steep and winding climb out of the valley, the tour stopped at a hacienda or typical mountain lodge for a breakfast “de montaña”: arepa, sausage, hot chocolate and queso freso. 

From there, we continued to the center of Santa Elena where they were having a fair in honor of la Feria (do you see a trend??) and then to the main event: a visit to a finca de flores, a flower farm! The family farm had been converted into a museum with great exhibits on how mountain life used to be for los silleteros. We also learned more about the flower arrangements themselves; there are several categories, and some only use flowers native to their village itself while other categories allow imported flowers to be used in the arrangements. Learning all about this got us excited for the desfile or parade that was going to happen the next day. Originally, we had planned on leaving that evening (Sunday) because we weren’t aware that Monday was a holiday. But given how special the desfile de los silleteros was, we felt it couldn’t be missed. So we skipped our flight and bought bus tickets back to Cartagena for Monday evening instead.

Monday morning, we woke up bright and early to make our way downtown to the parade route. Even though the parade didn’t start until 2, we’d heard that some people staked out their spots the night before. Securing the best viewing spot for the parade was clearly serious business. It was possible to buy tickets to sit in bleachers, but we decided to risk it and see what we could find on the street. Luckily, we found a spot on a sidewalk with a sweet family. The father was a complete joker and had everyone around us cracking up for hours as we waited for the parade to begin. Once it began, he and his daughters whistled at all the passing parade people, urging them to give a “Vuelta” or a turn—even the city workers picking up garbage. The parade didn’t only feature the silleteros, or villagers carrying flowers on their back. It also featured dance troops, live bands, clowns, military on horseback & police with their dogs, city workers, etc. It was clear how much the people from Medellin love their city and their heritage. I especially love how much everyone cheered when the city’s recycling team walked down the parade route holding bouquets of flowers fashioned from plastic bottles.

Waiting for the parade to start

The beloved recycling team

hiding from the sun

But the true heroes were the silleteros, the men, women, and children carrying enormous floral arrangements on their backs—some up to 200 kilos! Some of the silletos had elaborate designs made from flowers with environmental and cultural messages. It was the 60th anniversary of the Feria de las Flores so los silleteros went all out! They loved showing off their hard work, and the crowd responded in turn with whistles, screams, and chants of “Se lucio Santa Elena, se lucio!” (Shine on, Santa Elena!) and “Cuando pasa un silletero es Antioquia la que pasa” (When a silletero passes by, it’s Antioquia that passes!)

Los pioneros silleteros - the pioneer silleteros

The amazing pioneer!

El ganador absoluto - The overall winner!!

Here are some more pictures, but most of them can be viewed in this digital photo album.

It was a very moving experience and I’m glad we decided not to miss it. The parade was the crown jewel on an already glorious weekend exploring a great city. We loved everything Paisa: the food, the flowers, and best of all – the people! Antioquia—we’ll be back!

More videos can be found HERE!