This is Medellin, Colombia - a lively, modern, mountain metropolis, standing amid South America's Andes at a comfortable 8,000 ft., and known as a City of Eternal Spring. The altitude is just high enough for perfect weather, and ensures an ideal climate for year 'round blossoms that has made Medellin "Flower Capital of the Americas."
Those who live here, and in neighboring areas, are known as Paisas - a term used with great pride. Like Texans - with western hats, sturdy horses, and prime beef - they have plenty of reasons to boast, but do it without arrogance. Last August I was privileged to spend an intriguing eight days discovering what it means to be a Paisa!
Medellin's Flower Festival officially opens with the Cabalgate - a three-hour long horse parade that begins dramatically with Colombia's vibrant colors - red, yellow, and blue - filling the sky from smoke fireworks, and giving the Feria de Flores a flower kingdom's majesty.
The spirited horses are striking - imposing Pasofinos trot elegantly, followed by sturdy white, brown, and black thoroughbreds parading triumphantly in unison The riders are decked out in a variety of Paisa clothing - from traditional wide brimmed hats, elaborate western-style boots, and colorful shirts accented with tri-colored Paisa serapes, and many riders show the loveliness of Paisa women.
The festival's Parade of Flowers was next, and is like none other imaginable - a spectacular, mobile show of colossal floral arrangements. The flower displays, called selliteros, have evolved from small wooden boxes, to extravagant six-foot disks which take strong backs to carry. Like the cabalgate's parading horses these imaginative arrangements, created by Paisa artists, seem endless; yet one never tires of the amazing colors and imaginative displays of lush green, deep red and purple, to brilliant yellow intended to represent ecological conservation for future generations.
As the floral procession unfolded, bystanders cheered, celebrated, and applauded the beautiful arrangements. It was a parade of color, beauty, and a true festival of life. The appreciative, congenial crowd clearly demonstrated two top Paisa trademarks - cordiality and friendliness.
Next came the Parade of Antique Cars, a convoy of hundreds of faithfully restored antique turn-of-the-century autos. Mint condition Ford Model Ts chugged past, while sleek Packards, and even an antique fire truck awed onlookers as it wound its way for miles through the celebrating city. It was a most memorable finale to eight exciting days of revelry.
The most fascinating of all, however, were the Chiva - multicolored holiday busses used by Colombians for celebration. New friend Arturo Tapia, Publisher of MedellinTraveler.com, explained the paisas celebrate by riding in Chivas with their open areas where once aboard one may dance, sing and drink aguardiente - the potent Paisa liquor. I was invited to jump on, and was instantly among friends. The idea is to enjoy the ride as long as you wish. Again, it reinforced a Paisa attribute - to make visitors feel genuinely welcome.
Aboard the Chiva the Paisas proudly pointed out their city's highlights which included impressive parks, plazas, and playgrounds. Arturo explained "Paisas are proud to show off what may be South America's best kept secret - Medellin." With what I'd already seen in less than a week it was easy to understand.
As our Chiva wound through crowd-lined streets the popular song "Que Bonita Es Esta Vida" came across the speakers. Meaning How Beautiful Is Life, the enchanting and contagious melody has become Colombia's de-facto national song. The music sent everyone into a frenzy of singing and dancing confirming whole-heartedly life should be lived to its fullest.
In retrospect, that was one of several best moments of Medellin's "Feria de Flores," and of the Paisas themselves - their unabashed celebration of life!
I'm already planning to return next year!