I liked Medellin more than Bogota. Part of it was timing: we arrived at the start of the Feria de las Flores (Festival of Flowers), which lasts a week, with a myriad of festivities and parades that come with any large festival. But I also liked Medellin because they’ve put a lot of effort/investment in infrastructure and organization, like . . . transportation and libraries (things that are near and dear to my geek heart.)

Feria de las Flores is symbolized by a sillertero, a country person carrying a large wooden easel (think of the painting easels in kindergarten class) with a giant floral display on their back (think Rose Bowl Parade, but in 2-D, with displays made of flowers, seeds, twigs, etc.) I think it’s supposed to symbolize and celebrate traditional Columbian agricultural/rustic values.

It’s bit like the Mooncake (Chinese) or Loy Kratong (Thai) festival, in that both large corporations and private/personal families will have some sort of Feria de las Flores  floral/rustic-themed advertising, promotion or decoration, instead of a lantern or kratong theme.

Bad things first: The Horse Parade is completely overrated, and a waste of time if you’re not into horses (I’m not.)  It consisted primarily of individuals riding on horses, in what we’d term western- wear (i.e. they weren’t dressed up in matching outfits, which you’d expect from organized groups of people in processions). There were hardly any floral decorations; you’d expect that perhaps there would be flowers and ribbons braided into horses’ tails and manes. I got the impression that anyone who had a horse could simply sign up and ride in the parade.

A relatively low barrier to entry is nice (I’m sure it’s not cheap to own or have access to a horse, not to mention the know-how of equestrian riding), but I don’t get why soooo many people would show up to watch a parade of people riding on horses, unless horse-riding and horses are something highly valued by Colombians – I’m sure as a foreigner, I’m missing out on something.

We’d found ourselves a shady spot to sit an hour before the official start time underneath a loquat tree (alas, the fruit was a few weeks from being ripe enough to eat.) The parade started an hour late, of course, but even after it started, the processions came in fit and starts. One group would pass by, and then no one would come by for another 20 minutes. (It felt like dining at a restaurant with bad pacing, having an appetizer, and then not getting your main course until 30 minutes later.) It was sort of fun to watch the crowd, and all the vendors. (Pilsen, which is the official beer sponsor for the Feria has bright red booths set up at every event, although, there are individuals who simply bring a Styrofoam ice-chest or big black plastic bag of beers and drinks to sell too. It is ridiculously convenient and cheap  to buy beer on the street around here.)

The group of young men sitting in front of us bought beers, tried to bargain the mango seller to sell his sliced mangos for half the going rate! (50 cents instead of a $1). Then they tried on hats and bargained for those also.  Since the hat seller didn’t have a mirror, one young blade took a picture of himself with each hat on his phone, and then checked the picture on the phone to see how it looked on him. Smart use of a smartphone, if you don’t trust your friends’ sartorial judgment.  And of course, the young men were flirting with any of the pretty girls who were sitting around them. “Oh can I take a photo with you? . . . What is your name? . . . Oh I’ve just posted it on facebook. What’s your phone number so I can send it to you? . . . Oh do show me pictures of your puppy on your phone, how cute…”

The primary entertainment value from the horse parade itself was whenever a woman rider in a tight-fitting, low-cut blouse trotted by, up-down, up-down, up-down, so that her bosom would jiggle up-down, up-down, up-down accordingly.  You could tell someone like that as approaching as she would be heralded by male cat-callers/whistlers in the parade audience! Where is Mustafa (Old-Spice guy) bare-chested on a horse when you need him!?

So we didn’t bother to stick around for the end of the parade. Maybe they saved the best for the last, i.e. there’d be horses draped in flowers carrying silleteros, or horses doing circus or Lipizzaner routines, breathing fire, or juggling mangoes, and we missed it. Oh well, it didn’t seem worth waiting through the end to find out.  We took off to ride the cable car to Biblioteca Espana instead, where we were guaranteed good views and the pleasure of a joy ride.

Children’s Parade:  I think the Horse Parade was especially disappointing, suffering in comparison to the Children’s Parade, which was so much more fun, festive and joyful for all the senses. And that was the first parade we went to, we didn’t know how ‘lucky’ that was.

It was like a cross between Fourth of July/Halloween/ block party parade for kids. There were groups sponsored by schools, with kids dressed in traditional costumes, with their parents walking alongside to chaperone and take photos. If the kids were tired, the parents would pick the up and carry them along. Kids had smaller sillerteros, made of styrofoam, much lighter.  (I think that’s why it reminded me of Loy Kratong, since in modern times kratongs are made with a Styrofoam base, whereas traditionally they were made of cross-section chunks of banana trees.)

There were marching bands, and junior military groups, including one I thought of as the junior Green Berets. There were a couple of girls in there too, which I only noticed because they had their hair in a bun below their beret. But they carried the same loaded backpacks, and had the same camouflage make-up on their faces as the guys. Their group had one sillertero with the picture of a soldier carrying a backpack with flowers in it. I think a hippie from the 1960’s would have found that ironic.

The Children’s Parade wasn’t too long, and was on a residential/collector street, so people who lived on the street had parade viewing parties from their balconies or in front of their house, like people who live along the Bay-to-Breaker’s route in Hayes Valley or the Panhandle. Many neighbours had also decorated their homes with floral themes, which added to the festive atmosphere. Some companies or institutions also handed out cardboard visors, or hats or fans to people along the parade route as promotional materials that were also useful for keeping cool. There were the usual assortment of vendors selling snacks, drinks, ice-cream, hats and balloons, but almost no beer sellers!

Infrastructure and Investment

There’s a book called “Stuff White People Like” and I could have sworn that in it, one of the things listed was foreign cities with metro/subway systems. Somehow metro systems are more appealing than bus networks. And even if you expected the BRT system to be a metro system on rubber wheels, as we found out in Bogota, it was impossible to navigate.

Medellin not only has a metro system (Bogota has BRT), but there are two hanging cable car/gondola lines that go up to uphill neighbourhoods. There is also bus service also, hairpinning the hillside roads, as well as networks of concrete steps with bright yellow handrails.  These all look relatively new, it’s a heartening sign that there’s investment in this kind of infrastructure for residents. The uphill neighborhoods were/are the poorer neighborhoods, since they are farther/harder to access the city center. (Medellin is set in a valley, so it’s a long skinny city centered on the flatter/valley floor.) The cable cars were clean and well maintained, just like the rest of the metro system. We saw a cleaner go into a car with a broom and dustpan as we were in the very orderly queue to board the cable cars.

The hanging cable cars are not simply Disneyland/ski-lift fun rides, but meant to serve as public transportation. The cable car lines are part of the metro system, and transfers are free, so you only pay 1,800 pesos ($US 1) per ride.  As we rode them on the weekend, it was hard to gauge what normal weekday usage would be. I think many of the riders were joy-riders like us, enjoying the sweeping views below of the red brick and tiled homes. You even could see creeks with little rapids below. The line from San Javier to Le Aurora goes up and down, spanning a ridge, so there was a slight roller coaster effect!

The line to Santo Domingo leads up to the Biblioteca Espana, which is a modern architectural attraction in its own right. Three big black imposing cubes look like a stern fortress, but when you go inside, it’s fairly light and airy, with skylights, detached white walls and scattered little windows. It’s not just a library, the book collections themselves take up very little of the building space, but there’s computer areas, exhibition halls, workshop spaces for kids, auditoriums, meeting rooms, it’s more intended to be a community center. (I believe the “Spain” part of the name might be due to some contribution from that country; there were two plaques on the building, commemorating a visit from the King and Queen of Spain, and another visit from their Crown Prince.)

There’s a plaza in front, terraces for taking in the views, and adjoining park areas. And this being Colombia on a weekend, the public space was well used, lots of people around, families on an outing, teenage couple creating their own private courting space in a public setting, children playing hide and seek. The inevitable vendors and stands selling snacks for all, beer for adults, and toys for kids. The lively, festive atmosphere as white noise makes it hard to figure out if there’s really a special event going on, or is this the norm?

It’s a good sign when you get a free map put out by the city, and there’s little graphics of landmarks, not just text labels. Some older freebie maps of Paris would have little drawings of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, so a tourist could easily zoom in and figure out where they were. The Medellin map was equally as helpful, with icons of museums, plazas, and libraries. Not so much that tourists want to go check out books, but since the city launched this program to boost libraries and parks and other public buildings, in the mid-2000’s, and built them as architectural wonders in their own right. (The big library in front of Plaza Cisneros has a lovely fountain in front, as well as a little bar, which is genius. How can you not like a library with a bar!) Whereas with Bogota, there’s investment, but it seems to be more focused on private/commercial real estate development.

It reminds me a bit of a Shanghai – Beijing rivalry, that perhaps Medellin, the second city concerned about playing second fiddle to Bogota the capital. After Beijing won the bid for the Olympic Games, Shanghai set itself up to host a Expo, and in advance of that, poured tons of money into infrastructure for the expected hordes of visitors. (I was irked that the Bund was a completely dusty, noisy, blocked off construction zone when I visited the summer before the Expo.)

With both Bogota and Medellin (and maybe the rest of Colombia), perhaps it’s the pent-up demand being met now that it’s possible, since the social/political situation is stabilized. Colombia used to be considered unsafe, what with the drug cartels, and the FARC vs the government civil war in the 1990s. Roads can be built, hotels and tourist attractions can be developed so that visitors can go around the country in ways that we as Americans take for granted in the US.

I can’t really imagine what life was really like for Colombians in those times, not being to move around freely in their own country. (The closest thing I can think of would be the south of Thailand in the 70’s and 80’s, when there was a lot of communist insurgency, and no one from Bangkok would travel south unless they needed to, and even then, it would be limited to the major towns of Phuket and Hat Yai.  The rest of the resort areas in the South, like Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, etc, didn’t exist, and didn’t get developed until after there was a ceasefire.( Although now the south of Thailand has insurgency issues with the Muslim separatists.)


The Museo Antioquia has a huge collection of Botero’s paintings and sculpture (he’s from Medellin), and he generously donated most of those works to the museum, after the museum said to him “we’d like to buy your work, but we can’t really afford it.) It also had a sign, thankfully in Spanish and English that explained “Why does Botero paint fat people?” Apparently, it’s not about fat, it about expressing volume.

The museum is rather blah-looking from the outside, like a misplaced piece of soviet architecture, but inside it’s a lovely piece of Art Deco work, two wings each surrounding a courtyard for breeze and ventilation (before the advent of air-con!)

In front of the Museo Antioquia is Plaza Botero, which is full of bronze sculptures by him, which you can enjoy for free. There are no regulations preventing anyone from touching or climbing on them, except for the laws of gravity and human dexterity. As you can imagine, certain parts of the sculptures have been more polished by countless human hands than others.

However the museum costs $10,000 pesos to enter (although you get a free coffee in the snack bar with admission) and you have to stay behind the line and not touch Botero’s paintings and sculptures. Obviously there’s a  lot fewer people around, so you can easily take photos without waiting for people to get out of your way.

I used to want to take photos of arts, monuments, etc,  without any other strangers in the shot, and would wait for the scene to clear. But then I realized that having other people in the shot provides a sense of scale, and adds a touch of life to the picture.  A ‘clean’ shot seems a bit sterile sometimes. So now I actually try to spot for interesting passers-by to include in my shots, although I then worry about invasion of privacy. Kids playing, couples kissing, other people taking photos of the same view, I think it all adds interest, and makes my photos slightly more memorable.

I think I’ll post this write-up now, and maybe add the photo links later. (Children’s Parade photo link posted in previous blog entry.)

UPDATE: Medellin photos posted.


5 thoughts on “Medellin

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