We arrived in Medellin last year just in time to catch the Christmas lights, which are city-wide and amazing. We heard that December was the best time to visit Medellin and we were not disappointed. However, I will now add that August is an equally great time to visit Medellin, specifically the week of the Feria de las Flores.
What’s a Silletero?
Before we go any further, I recommend you read this blog post about our trip to the nearby town of Santa Elena. In that post I explain the concept of a silletero and how it all came to be. That will help you understand the rest of this post a bit better. Go on now. Read it. I’ll wait.
For those of you who didn’t go read it, the cliff notes version is thus: a silletero is a traditional flower farmer from the mountainous areas surrounding Medellin, specifically the town of Santa Elena. These farmers would carry the flowers on their back on a chair-like structure (silla) into central Medellin to sell them. They no longer do this but this tradition is now celebrated each year at this time.
Fun fact: Colombia grows a LOT of flowers. Here’s a few stats for you:
- The Colombian flower industry exported around $1 billion to the United States in 2015.
- 95 percent of Colombia flower production is exported to international markets.
- Colombia is the second-largest cut flower supplier in the world and the largest supplier of cut roses to the United States.
Colombia has a varied climate but mostly warmish (all year long) so that works great for flower growing. The city of Medellin itself is a little too warm for flowers but the towns nearby in the mountains are great for this purpose.
Feria de las Flores
We started to notice evidence of the upcoming flower festival about mid-July. Much like Fur Rondezvous in Anchorage, where I grew up, the city of Medellin starts to pepper itself with decorations. Malls put up extra flower decorations, vendors start selling the traditional hats, the center part of malls is taken over by massive decorations, the grocery stores have samples and sales of traditional Paisa food and the streets start to fill up with even more people, if that’s possible. Someone told me that if you are Colombian and you know anyone in Medellin, you come and stay with them during this week in August. Based on my attempts to get around the city a few days of that week, this is entirely true. The Friday before the parade it took me 1 hour to go get the kids at school, which is about 1 km away. Lesson learned. Next year they get the day off.
So what’s up with the week? What’s going down? Well, all kinds of things. There are flower shows and tons of live music and artisan fairs, dog costume parades, antique car parades and the big daddy of them all: the parade of silleteros.
(Not) Everybody Loves a Parade
Zoe loves parades. Trips to Disneyland were always filled with Zoe stopping in her tracks anytime she saw a live performance or a parade. I like them too but Dan and Haley… eh, notsomuch. But the parade of silleteros was pretty famous for it’s not-to-be-missed feature. So I started looking into it and learned that you could watch the parade in two different ways: 1) buy expensive tickets to sit on bleachers in the shade, or; 2) stake out a spot somewhere on the sidewalk early in the morning, make your own attempts to provide shade and use your elbows to guard your space.
I’ll take “Reserved Space for $120”, Alex. Although I have to admit I was conflicted. The tickets were $30 PER PERSON. No, that’s not pesos. That’s greenbacks. When minimum wage is $266 a month (yes, A MONTH) here in Colombia, it’s hard to imagine how anyone is buying those tickets. But they are and we did. We figured that this was a one-time thing and if we are going to see this parade, we better do it in some degree of comfort. Plenty of Colombians and tourists from other South American countries felt the same. We did not see many other gringos, despite some saying that the seats would be filled with gringos. Yeah, not so much.
But who wants to do such a big event alone? Of course we had to drag along our besties, the Cate family. When the tickets went on sale it was a bit like concert tickets. They open up the sales on a website on a particular day at a particular time. I was online ready to buy but soon realized I could only buy 4. No problem. While in PJs and with coffee in hand, I marched over to Jamie’s apartment and we did our purchasing at the same time so we could be seated in the same section. A few weeks later the tickets were delivered to my door. We can already tell this is unlike all of the parades we had the pleasure of witnessing in Panama. This is serious business.
Now, just a side note. Not everyone was happy with the opportunity to buy tickets. I saw this post in one of my Facebook groups. Essentially it’s Colombians expressing their displeasure with the mayor, for all the flower festival events that cost a lot of money. My favorite line: “The only low cost event offered is the dog parade and you have to bring your own dog!” haha. The nerve! Bringing your own dog to a dog parade. But really, I get it. Some of the events were expensive and that wasn’t going over well with some of the local folks.
But back to the primary purpose of this post: the parade. Parade day came and in true Colombian style we got conflicting info:
- The parade starts at 3 p.m.
- You need to be in your seats by 9:30 a.m.
- You have reserved seats.
- You have to get there early to save your seat.
- You cannot be admitted after 1 p.m.
- The parade starts at 11 a.m.
- You will not be able to get anywhere near your seats by car, you will need to walk.
- You can be dropped off right next to your seats.
What in the world are we to think??? Here’s what to think: Figure Sh!t Out, Fam! So we set off for the day fully prepared for whatever adventure might unfold. Jamie, Zoe, Cam and I went in the first group (taking taxis everywhere means you can only go 4 at a time) and our driver Bryan got us pretty close to our seats. The walk to the seats was entertaining with all the hat vendors. We obliged at the first vendor and bought hats. Hats seemed like the thing to do.
Soon we got to our seats, and discovered that we could sit at the very top of the bleachers so we had a back to lean against. Awesome! However, if you stood up too fast you’d get a concussion from hitting your head on the concrete overpass shading us. Back support or concussion? What’s your preference, Dan? He chose back support and he managed to not hit his head. Scott and Jamie were not so lucky. But I, on the other hand, could stand up straight. #shortperks
Well, as it turns out, all of the advice was somewhat right. We had to walk a ways to get to our seats but the family members who came in group 2 were dropped off pretty close to our seats. And we got there around 10:00am and it was good to get there early to get the seats with the back to lean on. And we got there in time for good people-watching while we waited for the parade to start.
The parade started mas o menos at 11am so that was good. We were only a few floats into the parade when Zoe announced that Colombia could teach Panama a thing or two about parades. Panama has really long gaps in between floats. Like, for 45 minutes. You never know if the parade is over or there’s some kind of problem. But in Colombia the trucks rolled one after another, there was a lot of music, dancing and general revelry.
After the trucks stopped there seemed to be a break. But no one was leaving AND the silleteros had not yet come so we knew there was more. Haley was not feeling well and Dan strongly suggested we heed to her head cold and he nicely volunteered to go home with her. He’s a giver like that. I gave in but only after I made him promise to put the parade on the TV at home. Dan looked a little shocked that the parade was on TV and he was just now hearing about this option, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. #smartDan
Fun fact: we were not able to leave the bleacher area and go back in but that’s OK because we had bathrooms (not too bad, but they were kind of dark so that probably made them better) and vendors selling drinks, meat on a stick and chips. We discovered that when you come back from the bathroom, the crowd is supposed to chant your name, led by your own family. We are all for cultural immersion so we did that too. Jamie was having no part of that and she has a camel-sized bladder so she didn’t get to be on the receiving end of that tradition.
Finally the silleteros came down the road. So. Many. Silleteros!!! They were amazing. All the award winners came first: winners of different categories like traditional or a specific message or a commercially-sponsored one or a junior category. When you saw one you liked evidently it’s the thing to do to run up and get a selfie with them from the gate. It’s also the thing to do to offer them rum shots as they walk down. We did neither of these things but we definitely watched it all go down.
I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. The flower arrangements being carried were so pretty and so detailed and… so heavy. A few times the person carrying the flowers was clearly struggling and had to stop and rest and/or get help from the scout troops.
If you’re really a die-hard parade fan, you can check out a few videos Dan took by clicking on this link. They are not long videos and you can see the culture of parades in Colombia, which involves a lot of audience participation and chanting.
The parade ended around 4pm and Jamie and I were the only ones left, as the rest of the family members had slowly drifted away as the parade wore on and on and on. But we were the faithful ones and stuck it out to the very end. After the parade ended everyone was in motion at once. It was hard to get a taxi or even meet up with our driver, so we walked home. But it was OK because we had the shade from our pretty flower hats.
All in all, a great day in Medellin.