With Susan’s mom visiting from Texas last week, we had the pleasure of visiting Finca Los Girasoles– a flower finca (farm) in Santa Elena – with our driver/guide Juan Camilo Aguilar. A pretty little town perched up on the eastern Andes ridge overlooking Medellín, Santa Elena is known as the birthplace of Colombia’s unique sillatero culture. Today, Santa Elena farmers create the beautiful flower displays (also known as silletas) that are the focal point of Medellín’s dazzling Feria de las Flores in August. Here’s our account of last year’s Feria.
NOTE: Photos are in galleries. To see a larger version and click through the sequence, just click on the first one.
A Little Background: The Sillatero Culture
The sillatero is one of the most potent symbols for the people of Antioquia, the huge Colombian province anchored by the city of Medellín. For at least a couple of centuries, sillateros have carried their wares in silletas, chair-like contraptions on their backs, from their highland farms to the city markets. While early-day sillateros carried all kinds of goods and even people (such as elderly folk and people needing medical attention), the tradition evolved to center on the flower trade.
For many decades, sillateros from Santa Elena were the main suppliers of fresh-cut flowers to the Placita de Floréz, the central flower market in Medellín (well worth a visit). The Fería de las Flores was born more than 60 years ago when Medellín civic leaders wanted to recognize the tremendous role sillateros have played in Paisa (Antioquian) culture and also bring broader attention to the burgeoning Colombian flower market. From the first humble event in 1957, the Feria has grown to be Medellín’s signature event. For two weeks every August, it attracts huge crowds from all over South American and the world.
Today Colombia is one of the world’s largest exporters of cut flowers, driven by huge industrial farming operations near Bogotá and Medellín. While the small-volume farmers of Santa Elena still sell their wares at the Placita de Floréz, their main focus is the Fería. To march in the big parade, a sillatero or sillatera must have been born in Santa Elena, and all of the flowers used to create the incredibly elaborate silletas must come from a Santa Elena finca. It’s easy to see why the farmers are so proud of this beautiful tradition.
Joaquin Zapata is a third-generation flower farmer in Santa Elena.
Together with his cheerful wife, Doña Luz, Don Joaquin welcomed us to Finca Los Girasoles, a plantation that has been in his family for well over 100 years. Don Joaquin gave us a tour of the flower fields, where he cultivates all of the primary flowers used in the sillateras for the big parade: zinnias, chrysanthemums, daisies, alstroemerias, and – his favorite and Susan’s – girasoles (sunflowers).
Next, Doña Luz served a traditional and very tasty lunch of Colombian empanadas (fried corn pies filled with potatoes) and sancocho (a rich stew of chicken, corn, and other vegetables). Everything served at Finca Los Girasoles is organic and grown on-site.
After lunch, Don Joaquin recounted his family’s unique role in the history of the sillateros and the Fería and gave a demonstration of how the silletas are made using flowers from his fields.
Here, Don Joaquin demonstrates the chant he uses to get cheers from the crowd during the parade:
Here are some incredible facts Don Joaquin shared, with helpful translation from Juan:
- Back in the day, the farmers would make the arduous trip down the mountain to Medellín every week. Carrying their huge flower burdens on their backs, they would leave in late evening and walk all night – up to eight hours – to arrive before the market opened the next morning. Once they sold all their wares, they would load up their silletas with household goods and supplies for the next week and then hike back UP the mountain (yikes).
- Three of Don Joaquin’s grandparents were in the original silleta parade in 1957. They were among the original 120 farmers whose descendants (Joaquin included) still participate.
- Don Joaquin himself has been carrying a silleta in the parade since he was very young, and his own children and grandchildren now march with him. He’s grateful that the tradition is staying alive and being carried on by future generations of his family.
We loved our morning at Finca los Girasoles.
For us city-dwellers, the tour was a welcome respite from the hustle bustle and a chance to breath some clean, fresh air scented with beautiful flowers of every description. But the biggest reward for us was learning more about the vibrant sillatero culture and experiencing the tremendous pride that Joaquin, Luz, and their fellow farmers take in this lovely tradition.
- Santa Elena is a scenic 45-minute drive from Medellín. For a very reasonable rate, Juan Camilo Aguilar offers a round-trip excursion in his comfortable SUV, including a stop at the main parque of Santa Elena before the finca tour. Reach Juan on WhatsApp at +57-316-833-4225.
- The Finca Los Girasoles tour is 20,000 pesos (about $6) per person, and the optional lunch is an additional 20k.
- BRING: Sunblock, water, bug spray, a sun hat, and comfortable shoes for strolling in the garden. And, if you have lunch, bring your appetite! The meal is hearty and delicious.
- If you go on a weekend, make it Saturday. Sundays can get crowded in Santa Elena with other folks from Medellín getting a dose of country.