Sweat trickles down the brow of a stooped 90-year-old lady walking in the heat. On her back she is carrying a 50-kilo flower display for miles across the city. And by her side dance half-naked performers in tribute to indigenous rituals. This is one of the pinnacles of South American gala, the Feria de los Flores (Flower Festival) in Colombia’s second city, Medellin.
For more than 50 years, men and women of all ages have been participating in this remarkable spectacle. Slaves were once forced to carry rich people up and down the city’s surrounding mountains. Now, proud country folk carry flowers. It is called the Silleteros parade – the crowning event of a ten-day festival including dog shows, automobile parades and beauty contests.
I arrived in Medellin, where I now live, at the beginning of the Feria. As my bus turned a corner, my first ever view of The City of Eternal Spring in the valley below was awe-inspiring. As usual, Medellin bathed in sunshine and redbrick buildings sprawled out for miles into the hills. But what really struck me was how modern and clean it looked – completely unlike other Colombian cities, as Paisas (Medellin locals) will proudly tell you.
When the festival began, a general wave of joy spread through the town, particularly at night in areas like Parque Lleras in Poblado and La 70, where Salsa bars line the streets.
Flower displays were everywhere. The inspiring SantaFé Mall, for example, dedicated the entirety of its ground floor to a marvellous exhibition. I also went to the botanical gardens and Parque Arví, where flower arrangements stole the show. Even alongside the magnificent España Library in the hills, equally innovative floral tributes had been crafted.
On one afternoon there was an old car parade with delighted owners waving and smiling down from their vehicles. There were hooting and cheering aplenty, particularly when a Coca Cola van sped past, throwing out free bottles of the stuff for screaming fans. You would not believe how much excitement that publicity stunt stirred among the locals, who scrambled on top of one another to get hold of a coke. Regrettably, amid the hubbub I missed out.
What I did not miss was the most colourful spectacles of the entire festival – dog shows all over town. Some of the strangest looking creatures I’d yet seen ran around with funny hairdos and clothes. I was starting to fall in love with this eccentric city.
All this came before the main event – the Silleteros parade. Medellin came to a complete halt and the entire population aligned the streets, making it near impossible to get a good view for those who arrive late. Some crafty dealers set up temporary stands for which they charged top dollar – up to $50,000 pesos (£16). Though somehow my friends and I managed to find one of the very few relatively empty areas.
The parade was down for a 2pm start. We waited in quiet anticipation for more than half an hour for the first signs of life. And just as my legs were giving way to boredom and I was searching for a place to lie down, I heard the first faint cheer from further up the road. I got to my feet and five minutes later saw the first of the Silleteros. A man was struggling along slowly with a huge flower arrangement on his back. It was bigger than him. The crowd boisterously willed him along and he even managed a few pirouettes to show off his flowers to the cameras.
For the next five hours I stuffed myself with crisps and beer while watching the spectacular event. Fortunately, some form of entertainment, such as a marching band or strange indigenous dance, followed each group of Silleteros. Otherwise it may have been a bit of a strain to watch endless flower-carriers.
So between acts, beautiful male and female dancers tangoed wildly while folks in giant monster costumes regaled the crowd. Flutists and trumpeters tooted and daredevils sparked fires. And all the while I was continually in awe of the numerous Silleteros carrying twice their body weight in flowers to make their city proud.
About the author:
Andrew is a freelance journalist who lives in Medellin. He holds an NCTJ qualification and worked as an online reporter for The Sun and several other publications before moving abroad. His passions are travel, football and languages – he speaks French and Spanish. He is constantly astounded at how much Colombia – and Medellin in particular – have to offer.
- Things to do in Medellin (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- The Basics of Public Transport in Medellin (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- Beyond Rio: Party and experience multi-cultural Colombian carnivals and festivals (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- Medellin and Feria de los Flores (internationalpeaceobserver.wordpress.com)