Every August, Colombia hosts a festival unlike any other in the world: La Feria de Flores, or Festival of Flowers in Medellin. Throughout the festival, millions of flowers invade the city, decorating public spaces and brightening the streets. Colombia is the world’s 2nd largest exporter of flowers, so it’s fitting that this event centers around a product that is so important here.
The festival is a celebration of flowers, but specifically the work of the silleteros from Santa Elena and the surrounding regions. The silleteros grow flowers and create intricate flower silletas that they parade through the city.
History of the Feria de Flores
If you speak Spanish, you’ll know that silla means chair. During the colonial period, the mountainous terrain of Colombia meant that transportation was done by people and sometimes by mules. The sick, elderly and very wealthy were carried in a chair-like wooden harness on the back of another person. These intrepid chair carriers were called silleteros.
Once transportation options improved, to no one’s surprise this method of human transportation became obsolete. However, many flower growers still carried their flowers in similar contraptions down the mountains from Santa Elena to sell in Medellín.
In the 1957 the first festival was held to pay homage to the floriculture of the surrounding valley. It included a parade of farmers from the Santa Elena area exhibiting their flowers and over the years evolved into the nearly two-week long festival it is now.
These days the silletas that used to carry people over the mountains are round masterpieces as big as 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) in diameter. Made with dozens of types of flowers and greenery, they are a beautiful reminder of Colombia’s biodiversity. Some are abstract and others use flowers in the shape of words and images to design a social message or a brand logo.
There is, of course, a competition to judge the best silleta. Participants’ entries are judged by age if under 18 and by category. The silletas in different categories look very different. The smaller, traditional silletas are rectangular, those in the emblematic category are circular and then there is an artistic category where anything goes and you can see creative silletas shaped like cars and houses.
Silleteros wear traditional clothing. The exact outfit and the color has changed a bit over the years, as decided by the festival organizers, but generally is as follows:
- Blue pants
- A white shirt with a short, tight collar and a white apron
- A red ruana, or blanket-poncho
- A sombrero aguadeño (White hat)
- A carriel, a traditional leather bag from Jericó
- Alpargatas, white cloth shoes
- A belt and machete-holder
- Blue skirt (same materials as men’s pants)
- White apron
- Red Mantola shawl
- White scarf to cover hair
- Alpargatas, white cloth shoes
Other events to see
You can see the silleteros making silletas throughout the festival at many of the sites. The city does a great job of making sure that there are events in all different neighborhoods. The festival sites have concerts, food stands, craft fairs, and of course, lots of flowers.
Other places in the city have special flower displays, too. This gigantic spread of potted flowers in the atrium of the Santa Fe mall is definitely worth seeing.
In addition to pop concerts, there is another musical tradition that is unique to this festival: El Festival de la Trova, or Festival of the Ballads. Here, modern-day troubadours belt out improvised songs to traditional Colombian music in an attempt to out-sing each other. The crowd-pleasing rhymes usually revolve around Paisa (Antioquian) traditions, but they can get a bit raunchy, too.
Another event is the Desfile de Autos Clásicos y Antiguos, or the Classic and Antique Car Parade. There are less flowers here, but it definitely celebrates the history of Antioquia. In the past the parade has even included the oldest car in Colombia, over 100 years old! To add to the fun, participants are asked to dress like the era their car is from. After the parade, the cars are exhibited to allow spectators to get a closer look.
Attending the festival
If you are in Medellin during the festival, you’ll want to plan ahead. Tickets to the main parade can be obtained ahead of time on the official website. The parade is long and hot, so you’ll want to make sure to buy tickets to the covered sections where you can sit down. Note that the 2021 parade was held in a stadium because of the covid-19 pandemic, so ticketing was different.
The festival is a great way to get a feel for Antioquian culture and to meet friendly Paisas (people from the region). There is sure to be lots of aguardiente, the traditional spirit, flowing, and everyone is in a festive mood. Almost all the events are family friendly, and can be enjoyed by all ages. As one of the festival-goers explained to me “The Feria de Flores is our heart”.