Medellin, Colombia: Feria de las Flores

I took a deep breath and counted to five. Exhaled. Then I took another and did the same. Beside me, Maruja patted my hand as the waves of claustrophobia washed over me. Maruja

The last time I’d been in an elbow-in-the-rib and backed up against a sea of bodies was at the Zigong Lantern Festival in China in 1987. Whenever the people in the foreigner affairs office at the university wanted to go somewhere or to do something, they would arrange an outing for the expat teachers. We were always a great excuse.

Over a million people had gathered in Zigong. I took a couple of happy snaps of the fireworks and lasted about four and a half minutes before I had to get out of the crowd.

The Medellin Event of the Year

The Fieria de las Flores started on July 29 and partied on until August 9th. During that time there was something for everyone: the botanical gardens hosted an orchid and birds display, a parade of thousands of horses wound their way through the city streets, an expose of antique cars was on exhibit events for the kids were on offer, street dances — both planned and spontaneous – happened and copious amounts of aguardiente, the local hooch, was consumed.

It was a massive party that I managed to avoid.

The Wrap-Up

Thousands of people had already gathered along the street of San Juan for the final event of the Feria de las Flores. And there were thousands more were arriving by the minute.

To make sure we got a good space we had arrived early and sat on the pavement for two hours. Then when the first silletero –a chair-carrier covered with flowers – appeared all hell broke loose as the pavement-sitters collectively lunged towards the barricade lined with police for crowd control.

20150809_153850The chair-carriers are the traditional way to move goods and people the 40 km or so up the mountain to Santa Helena, the flower producing capital of Colombia. The idea is that the loads are piled up, but the person can then sit down and rest on the chair. For the feria – festival or party– the chairs are decorated with intricate flower patterns, lifted onto people’s backs and balanced with a piece of cloth on the forehead.

Not for shrinking violets, the men, women and children all get into decorating their respective chairs. 20150809_155133And the larger ones can weigh up to 75kg. There were also singers, dancers, musicians and clowns dancing around on stilts as part of the procession.


Actually I didn’t see much as peeking through people doesn’t make for a great view, but every once in a while I would catch a glimpse. There was no mistaking the cheering and yelling of the crowd.

After about an hour or so Maruja and I escaped the crowd and joined her partner, Eidad, who is tall enough to see over the crowd. He got some great video footage. I reverted to regular breathing and we strolled around the area.

Small Towns, Big Crowds

Monday morning on the news I learned a million people had been to the final ceremony of Fiera de las Flores, so no wonder it felt like shades of Zigong. Hells bells you would have to gather everyone in the entire province of Saskatchewan to amass a crowd like that.

Perhaps it is because I was raised in small towns that I really can’t cope with crowds I suppose I could get counselling to overcome my fear of crowds and heights, but why bother as they are both dangerous? Until they installed a chute in Mecca, for example, hundreds of Muslims died every year as they stampeded to touch the 30 cm by 1.5 meters Black Stone.

Am I glad I went to the Feria de las Flores? Of course. Would I do it again? Of course not.

If you want to get in on the action from the comfort and safety of wherever, check these links as the feria really is spectacular:





Doing Jerico in Spanish

Snaking up the mountain and trying not to peek at the thousand meter drop was challenging. Liliana Gaviria drove well, accelerating into the many curves on the switchback from Medellin to Jerico.

Although the road is only 104 km, the trip takes about three hours. Even people who don’t get excited about scenery – like me – are impressed by some of the most spectacular views of the tree-covered Andes in the country. Cerro_Tusa_Antioquia

And Cerra Tusa – a mountain that is the shape of a pyramid – is strategically located along the route.



Jorge Uribe

Two weeks ago I’m met Jorge Uribe, a 79-year old painter who is an institution in the Colombian art world. 20150724_112405The following week I posed for him wearing a Japanese kimono and a brocade skirt of his late wife, Ethel Gilmour also a painter and an art icon.

The following Tuesday Jorge invited me to go to Jerico with him and some of his women friends on Thursday. The only other information I had was that we were leaving from Jorge’s apartment at 09:30 that morning.

As an aside, Jorge owns the entire sixth floor of the building located downtown. The massive apartment is decorated with total kitsch everywhere – original statues, stuffed toys, colored bottles – which is done so well that it all comes together to make an artistic statement. Ethel was a pack-rat.

Getting There


When I arrived, Silvia Helena Valencia Madrid – a long-time friend of Ethel and Jorge’s – was already there. We talked: her in beautiful flowing Spanish and me bumbling along trying to follow the conversation with my four-year old vocabulary.

Then Liliana and Luz Imelda Ramirez Gonzalez knocked on the door. It suddenly dawned on me that Jorge hadn’t told the other women he had invited me. So all of the sudden I felt like the odd card out. Fortunately, Colombians are exceedingly gracious.

We descended to the depths of the parking lot with bags in hand, stacked them into Lilian’s little SUV and off we went.


Built in 1850, Jerico is a village that maintains its identity: cobble-stone streets, brightly painted houses and warm, generous people. 20150724_10312620150724_115302

When we arrived we went straight to the museum. There Roberto Ojalvo, the director, became our gracious host. Ah, and there were three exhibits going on in the various sections of the space: Jorge, a memorial to Ethel and Liliana. So that was why we were there – it was the Art Festival of Jerico and there were all sorts of cultural events happening: art exhibits, films, dance, food.







Jorge’s art



A memorial tribute to Ethel

20150724_11414720150724_114154       Part of Liliana’s exhibit.


Then Roberto took us off on a tour of a couple of villas that were being restored. Built in the original Spanish style with an open courtyard I took one look and was overwhelmed at how much time, effort, detail and money would have to go into renovating them.

The tour over, we checked into a hotel near the central square. The kids and their dog played in the lobby and we picked the rooms we wanted and they seemed to go on forever. At $15 a night they were a great bargain.

Panic attack. The keyboard on my computer wouldn’t work. So I begged off going to dinner. Somehow or another – and don’t ask for tech support – I managed to reboot it and get the laptop working again. Insha’Allah.

Lovely as our hotel was, the cathedral overpowered it. So at 02:15 the bell clanged once; then at 02:30 twice, at 02:45 three times. Then at 03:00 it was four clangs and three gongs. So much for doing something nocturnally ordinary, like sleeping.20150724_100008


After a relaxing breakfast overlooking the square from a second floor restaurant we set off on a tour of the opera house and a couple of museums.


At this point, I’m sort of following what is going on, around me in Spanish, but a touch confused. Oscar Mewen – whom I think is also an artist – again joined our tour group.

Churches, gardens, peasants with horses and ponchos, traders, traditional music – the streets have it all.








As it turns out Imelda speaks very good English as she lived in London for two years, but she is a touch shy about it. Liliana also does quite well. When I would get that caught-in-the-headlights look they would come to my rescue. And Jorge’s English is much better than my Spanish, but he prefers to make me work at it.

Yes, yes, I know I have to suck it up, but it is good to know others will help if I get totally lost.

We ended up wandering around the town and stopping at a coffee café. Remember that Colombian coffee ranks up there with the best in the world.

Then it was off for dinner. We ended up ordering a large pizza that was vegetarian, except for Jorge’s section with anchovies. I took one bite and couldn’t quite believe it. Sweet pizza, even without any pineapple? There is sugar in everything in Colombia so I carry a bottle of chili sauce in my handbag to override it.


After another lovely breakfast at the same café we headed back to Medellin.

It was a lovely drive with a traditional lunch enroute.

It was wonderful to get away for a few days and enjoy the company of truly delightful and artistic people that I was fortunate to meet through my friend, Alvaro. Gracias a todos (thanks everyone).

An aerial painting of Jerico.
An aerial painting of Jerico.