More than 600,000 flowers are used to create the spectacle that is the Flower Parade, a highlight of the annual Feria de las Flores Flower Festival in Medellin, Colombia. And that’s just for one parade! The total number of flowers used to craft elaborate displays, public art works, and more during this beloved event is probably closer to 1.5 million, and those flowers don’t drop from the sky and arrange themselves. Nope. A small army of growers and artisans are responsible for the blooming beauty and we visited a few of them during the hectic and exciting lead up to the Flower Festival.
Flowers rule in Colombia
Colombia ranks second behind Holland in global flower exports and the sprawling, sparsely populated mountain town of Santa Elena is part of that industry. Though technically within the sprawling city limits of Medellin, Santa Elena is worlds away with its provincial vibe, agricultural core, and country atmosphere.
Fruits and vegetables are also grown in this fertile environment, but flowers rule. We were told that the arrangements that are carried by paraders, called silleteros, in the Flower Parade must contain a minimum of 15 different varieties of flowers. This helps explain the diversity you can see being grown in Santa Elena.
The silleta arrangements themselves are also created in Santa Elena. There are three main categories of arrangements: Traditional Arrangements resemble super-sized flower arrangements, Monumental Arrangements are created by covering enormous circles with flowers and Emblematic Arrangements are like portable US style parade floats portraying three-dimensional scenes, sometimes with moving parts.
The fourth category pays the bills and many artisans in Santa Elena make arrangements which depict corporate logos. We watched a man put the finishing touches on an arrangement for Antioqueno Aguardiente, the region’s beloved fermented sugar cane booze.
Growing and arranging flowers for local sale and for the annual Flower Festival is such an important part of Santa Elena’s existence that the town square has a huge statue commemorating floral work.
Meeting the most charismatic flower farmer in Colombia
Directions to Don Aristedes’ Finca Chagualo (named for a common type of tree in the Santa Elena region) go like this: “Turn right at the second phone booth then turn left at the big cedar tree.” The two-wheel-drive vehicle we were in (not our truck) couldn’t get up the steep and rocky final driveway to the finca so we walked the last bit past a large mora (blackberry) field. This turned out to be the best way to approach the finca because we rose slowly up the steep hill with ample time to take in the expanding view and quickening breeze.
And then there was Don Aristedes, regal in his traditional silletero garb: black pants, white shirt, Panama hat, cloth shoes like espadrilles, and the gorgeous carriel bag made from black patent leather, cowhide and colored thread.
Don Aristedes’ rustically stylish and meticulously kept home is modest as is his flower farm. His personal pride, however, was eveident as he showed us around. He has participated in 47 Flower Parades, once with a broken leg injured when a large milk jug fell on it. He’s never won an award and he says that’s not his goal. He does it for the tradition and his main job is to grow flowers year round in plastic-covered greenhouses on his property.
One small room in Don Aristedes’ home has been turned into a museum of Flower Festival history and traditions. His greatest pride and joy is a decades old artesenal silleta made from fine wood that’s been hand rubbed and rounded into a piece of art. It’s not at all like the silletas which are mass produced today out of cheap plywood and pine, which Don Aristedes called garbage which a sniff.
Don Aristedes says silleteros have a responsibility to represent the proud face of the Antioquia region (of which Medellin is the capital) to the world. He is so good at it that his photograph appears on a Colombian tourism campaign poster and he has traveled around the world representing Colombia.
If you want to visit Santa Elena and meet Don Aristedes for yourself, contact Medellin City Services and book their half day (US$100) or full day (US$175) tour to the region. Both tours include a visit to Don Aristdes’ finca, a souvenir key chain, a regional beverage, a bilingual guide, and pickup and return to Medellin in a comfortable vehicle. The full day tour also includes a traditional lunch in Santa Elena and a visit to the town’s silletero museum.
Flower Festival Medellin travel tips
Every year the Flower Festival in Medellin brings in thousands of tourists and hotels fill up fast. During last year’s Flower Festival we managed to get a room at 61 Prado Guesthouse and we highly recommend it to any traveler who likes spotlessly clean and comfortable rooms at reasonable rates (US$35 for a private double room with bathroom) in a homey environment just a few blocks from Medellin’s famous metro system.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia