The Blossoming of Medellin

The Silleteros Parade is a highlight of the annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair) in Medellin.

The Silleteros Parade is a highlight of the annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair) in Medellin.

 

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When Luis German Restrepo was a 15-year-old growing up in Medellin, he understandably didn’t feel a sense of community in his violence-ravaged hometown where staying indoors and tight curfews were common practice if you wanted to stay alive.

“I remember never being able to leave the house,” says Restrepo, now the U.S. executive director of Proexport Colombia, as he recalls the cartel-driven Medellin in the early ’80s and ’90s. “Maybe we were allowed to go to a neighbor’s house or something like that, but we always had a strict curfew of 10 p.m. The repression we felt was awful; we disliked it.”

The author visits Plaza Botero, which celebrates the works of artist and sculptor Fernando Botero.Pictured: The author visits Plaza Botero, which celebrates the works of artist and sculptor Fernando Botero.

Flash forward roughly 30 years and the Medellin you will see now is perhaps the best tourist destination in all of Latin America for everyone from foodies to adventure lovers to night owls. Not only is the city no longer dangerous, it is now filled with Paisas, the name for locals, who feel something they were lacking when Pablo Escobar, a drug lord and cocaine trafficker, was wreaking havoc on the city and the country—a sense of pride.

So, when did that sense of community return to the Paisas after it spent years lying dormant? Most would point to the death of Escobar in 1993 as the moment when the locals began to feel like they were taking back control of their city, but Restrepo singles out something much simpler—a Metro cable transit system. It was implemented in Colombia in 1986, years before Escobar was finally gunned down by local authorities (although family members still contend that he shot himself in the ear when he realized he was captured).

“The Metro system brought that feeling back, that feeling that said, ‘Hey, I was born here and I have to take care of this city,’ ” says Restrepo. “We wanted to protect it, to keep it clean, to keep it safe.”

It also made locals’ lives a little easier as they were no longer required to get up incredibly early to catch a two-hour bus to get to work. Now they had a new system, the first of its kind in Colombia, that could get employees to work in less than an hour. 

“It really brought back a sense of pride in our community,” says Restrepo.

One of the many floral ‘silletas’ on display at this year’s Flower Fair.Pictured: One of the many floral ‘silletas’ on display at this year’s Flower Fair.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the country was able to convince foreigners to come and see the progress the town had begun to make from new hotels to practically zero pollution to, most importantly, a serious drop in crime. 

Most people think the violent cloud was lifted from Medellin when Escobar was killed. But after Escobar’s death and the fragmentation of the Medellin Cartel, the cocaine market soon became dominated by the rival Cali Cartel until the mid-1990s when its leaders, too, were either killed or captured by the Colombian government.

Long after violence in Medellin began to disappear, however, the notion of it never wavered, causing enough concern from tourists to bypass Medellin, and Colombia in general, for other parts of Latin America.

But one of the biggest factors in changing tourists’ minds was perhaps one of the best marketing campaigns for Proexport that was launched more than five years ago. The tagline? “The Only Risk is Not Wanting to Leave.”

It was hailed by many in the industry as being one of the most effective taglines as it addressed the proverbial elephant in the room while positioning Medellin as a destination that tourists will have a tough time saying goodbye to.

Between 2012 and 2013, the number of tourist arrivals from the U.S. to Medellin has increased by 9.1 percent from January to June, according to the Colombian National Migration Institute. And with about 1.5 million tourists heading to Colombia annually, Proexport figured people have gotten the safety message loud and clear and now it’s time to show them the specific cities and regions that comprise Colombia. With the tagline, “Magical Realism,” a series of video promotions will soon be launched, depicting the joys of each tourist destination in Colombia from Cartagena to Medellin.

“It was an incredibly successful campaign,” says Restrepo of the old marketing strategy. “We wanted to target the problem straight ahead and [safety] was a problem we once had. But now, it’s time for a new punch line, ‘Magical Realism.’ ”

Colombia is Magical Realism TV spot // Video by Colombiatravel

To help your clients achieve ‘Magical Realism’ in Medellin, Travel Agent breaks down a slew of selling points we uncovered during our recent coverage of Medellin’s biggest event of the year, the 56th annual Feria de las Flores, or the festival of flowers. 

Feria de las Flores: A New Bucket List Item?

The Desfile de Silleteros (Silleteros Parade) is the central event of Medellin's annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair), which attracts roughly 20,000 residents and tourists, and usually runs during the first or second week of August. 

We were there for the 56th edition of the parade, during which millions of flowers are shown in the famous “silletas,” complex flower arrangements made tirelessly by generations of farmers from Santa Elena. With more than 80 varieties of flowers, silleteros design beautiful landscapes, portraits and messages. 

Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Gardens’ high points include flowers presented in unique shapes and forms.

Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Gardens’ high points include flowers presented in unique shapes and forms.

 

This was one of the best festivals Travel Agent has ever seen and really should be included on all your clients’ bucket lists. It is truly a surreal experience to see thousands of these flowers, of all types and colors, being ushered down streets full of proud Colombians cheering and clapping for their friends and family. The parade also includes floats with some of Colombia’s most well-known musicians performing live music. 

There is free admission for patrons who want to line up on one side of the street while the other side has paid seats. We highly suggest the paid seats as they are covered, providing some shelter from the relentless August heat of Colombia. Also, a reserved seat means clients don’t have to get up at about 5 a.m. when most of locals usually start claiming spots. Also, be sure to watch the awarding of prizes for the best silletas. 

The parade, however, is just one part of the Feria de las Flores, which consists of a week full of free celebrations. Besides the parade, tell clients to check out the “Desfile Autos Antiguos,” or Antique Cars Parade. Classic and antique collection vehicles ride through a parade in the streets of Medellin and Envigado.

Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Gardens’ high points include flowers presented in unique shapes and forms.

Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Gardens’ high points include flowers presented in unique shapes and forms.

 

Also, later in the week is the annual Festival Nacional de la Trova Ciudad de Medellin, which is a free Trova festival. Trova is something like free-styling— think rap battles and then substitute folk music for rap. Even if you don’t speak a lick of Spanish, this can be a very enjoyable experience; children and adults alike really get the crowd pumped up with their performances. 

More to See and Do

There is much to explore and enjoy in and around Medellin, including several attractions that you can peg to your clients’ special interests. Following are some highlights.

A Fake Town With Very Real Views: Tell clients to spend an afternoon at nearby Nutibara Hill, one of seven hills in Medellin. Here you will find “Pueblito Paisa—Cerro Nutibara,” a replica of an old Medellin town with a fake town-square including a fake church and some very real snacks and beverages for sale. Tell clients who appreciate an adult beverage to try the micheladas—beers with a splash of lime juice and a salted rim. This area is also home to perhaps the best aerial views of Medellin.

Families Should Explore: A sell for all clients, especially for families with young children, is the Explora Park, one of the most modern and interactive parks in Latin America. You can find 300 different experiences here including an aquarium, exhibition halls, an auditorium for 3D movies, a children’s room, a TV studio and theme rooms that explore Colombia’s nature.

Calling Nature Lovers: The stillness of nature can be experienced at the newly renovated Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Gardens, in the heart of downtown Medellin. A variety of plants, flowers and birds fill this public space conducive for recreation, scientific research and environmental education. Here, you will find every type of flower including Cattleya trianae, Colombia’s national flower and all kinds of presentations from flowers in wine glasses to flowers shaped like dolphins. There’s also plenty to enjoy here if clients are into the whole botanical thing as scores of vendors set up stands selling all kinds of snacks and gifts.

Dancers in festive, floral-inspired costumes perform during the Flower Fair’s Silleteros Parade.

Dancers in festive, floral-inspired costumes perform during the Flower Fair’s Silleteros Parade.

 

For the Art Lover: Tell your art-loving clients to head for the Museo de Antioquia, a museum named after the state of Antioquia, of which Medellin is the capital. Featuring 108 works of art produced by Fernando Botero, who is well known for making all of his sculpture and painting subjects fat. Botero was born in Medellin and is one of the most recognized artists in visual arts for his unique style. You can spend hours inside and even outside of this museum as the Plaza Botero, located in front of the museum, houses 23 of the Botero’s monumental sculptures.

For the Thrill Seeker: Arvi Park is an ecological park where people can enjoy nature and the rich social, cultural, and culinary heritage of this region. It has marked trails that can be used for walking, biking and even horse-back riding. There are camping and picnic areas, all just 20 minutes away from the city. 

Colombia’s Not-so-Obvious Symbol of Pride: Metro Cable Santo Domingo Savio is a one of its kind cable railway, serving as public transportation in Medellin. The cultural and educational transformation of the city can be seen along the ride. The library parks built in these areas can also be seen from the cable car. These parks are spaces that combine knowledge and recreation.

Where to Stay

Medellin has a range of hotels to suit most tastes and budgets, and clients seeking a familiar brand will be happy to know that Best Western, Four Points by Sheraton, Holiday Inn Express, Ibis (Accor), Inter-Continental and TRYP are all represented there. There are quality local accommodations as well.

During our coverage of Medellin, Travel Agent stayed at the Hotel bh El Poblado. Our room (#110) was quite suitable for a client who is not expecting anything over the top. The decor was modern chic with a lot of purples and white accents throughout the room. It was a pretty modest accommodation and some of its amenities such as the fitness center and room service were a bit lackluster. But, for the location and the price (roughly $100 a night), you can’t go wrong.

The Origins of the Flower Fair

A silletero carries his floral display to the Flower Fair.

A silletero carries his floral display to the Flower Fair.

 

For clients who want to gain some history about the origins of the Feria de las Flores before they actually experience it, suggest a day trip to the small town of Santa Elena, located about an hour’s drive from Medellin, the place where the idea for Medellin’s annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Fair) was born. Flowers from this town used to be transported by foot to Medellin, so naturally someone came up with the idea for a parade displaying the country’s national pride in the form of silletas, chair-like contraptions for carrying flowers on a person’s back. Despite weighing an average of 40 pounds each, you will find everyone from 10 to 80-year-olds, and some even older, carrying these contraptions on their back. And you won’t find one silletero, the term used for the farmers who make beautiful flower arrangements on a silleta, not smiling—as the task is considered a great family honor. In Santa Elena, clients can take their best shot at being a silletero, as some replica silletas are available for practicing on or, at the very least, provide an awesome photo opportunity.

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