Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Festival of Flowers in Medellin

Orchids, Birds and Flowers in Medellin, Colombia

August 10, Chicago International Travel Examiner Dennis D. Jacobs

Slowly but surely, like a germinating seed, Medellin, Colombia – once the murder capital of the world – is becoming the flower capital of the world.

Every year at the beginning of August, this city of 2.4 million people puts on a huge celebration called Feria de las Flores (Festival of Flowers). This year’s festival stretched from July 31 to August 9 and featured a wide array of events ranging from antique automobile displays to concerts and theatrical performances.

The biggest event of the festival is the parade which takes place on Friday, a national holiday in Colombia. A highlight of the parade is the procession of silliteros – local flower growers who march carrying massive flower arrangements on their backs.

Another major attraction of the festival is the Orquídeas, Pájaros y Flores (Orchids, Birds and Flowers) show held at the Medellin botanical garden in a facility called the Orquideorama. As part of a group of journalists touring the country as guests of Colombian tourism officials, I got a behind-the-scenes look as 100 workers prepared for last Wednesday night’s opening of the show.

Although orchids are the stars of this show, put on by the Sociedad Colombiana de Orquideología (Colombian Society of Orchidology), many other flowers are represented, including carnations, roses, delphiniums, and bird of paradise.

Speaking of birds, scattered amid the displays are cages holding canaries, parakeets, and larks whose colors rival those produced by the flowers.

The show’s imaginative displays attract many visitors and there are sometimes long lines to get into the facility, the jewel of the refurbished nine-acre botanical gardens.

In addition to Medellin residents, each year the flower festival attracts 300,000 visitors from other parts of Colombia and about 10,000 from outside the country.

As word gets out that Medellin is no longer a dangerous place (local officials proudly point out that the violent crime rate in the city is lower than many American cities, including Washington, D.C.), those numbers are likely to continue to grow… slowly but surely.

The Silleteros Parade: Hop on a chair and get carried away in Medellin

In Spanish, a silleta is a small chair. The man carrying a silleta on his back is a silletero.

The strong silleteros in the area around Medellin, Colombia – legs hardened by tramping up and down the Andes Mountains – used to convey travelers in those chairs. They also carried produce down from the mountains, including flowers.

Over time, the chairs grew more and more elaborate. Some included leafy canopies to protect the traveler from sun and rain. Those used to convey produce also grew in size to accommodate more cargo.

This tradition lives on today in the Desfile de Silleteros (Silleteros Parade), the biggest and longest-running event in Medellin’s annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) that takes place annually the first week of August. The first Silleteros Parade was held in 1957. It has grown over the years to include other participants, such as bands and dancers, but the silleteros are still the stars of the show. About 500 take part in the event each year.

The silletas are judged prior to the start of the parade in a variety of categories, from traditional silletas like those used by farmers to sell flowers outside churches on Sundays to the monumental silletas. The latter may stand over 12 feet tall and weigh upwards of 220 pounds!

Discover The Transformation of Medellin, Colombia (click here.)

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