Familia Londono – The Real Face of Medellin
This is the eleventh post from my trip to Colombia with Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad and we’ve finally arrived at that most notorious of drug cartel cities, Medellin. However, before we explore the city’s violence ridden past and how Medellin emerged from it as one of Latin America’s most progressive cities, there’s a more pleasant task. Our first stop will be at Familia Londono, a silletero or Colombian flower farm as we would call it in English. Won’t you join our group and find out, as I did, why these silleteros are much more the real face of Medellin than Pablo Escobar ever was?
We started the day with a walk around the small Andean hill town of Jardin which I wrote about in this post, after which our bus driver tackled the winding mountain roads on a gradual descent towards Medellin. Some sections of the these roads were a bit scary with straight drop offs of hundreds of feet in places and I couldn’t help but think of the stories of tourist buses plunging over them, usually in Mexico. But in truth our driver was very cautious and Andrés Fernandéz, our tour leader, made it clear that he would not tolerate reckless driving. Even if that were not the case we needn’t have worried because we had this guy as our co-pilot at the front of the bus.
Once we got back to the main road to Medellin we made good time and arrived in this city of two and a half million by mid-afternoon. Traffic was surprisingly light and we stopped to pick up our local guide Jean Canesto, a chic looking young man who spoke very good English. Our next destination was the small village of Santa Elena which sits hundreds of feet above the city of Medellin in an ecosystem that is substantially cooler and more verdant than the valley below. The volcanic soil has long been recognized as being an excellent source of the nutrients required to grow an amazing variety of flowers. Our very first stop in Colombia was the flower market in Bogota and now we would visit one of the places where these flowers were grown.
Long before anyone thought of processing coca leaves into cocaine, crack and other lethal exports, Colombians were growing a much nicer product – cut flowers. Everywhere you go in Colombia you cannot help but notice the role that fresh flowers play in their daily life. They simply love flowers, and actually, who doesn’t? Supplying the huge demand for fresh cut flowers are the many silleteros, dedicated flower farms, that are especially prevalent in the Santa Elena area. Many of these silleteros have been in one family for generations and that is certainly the case with the Familia Londono which proudly opens their doors to visitors like our group.
We are greeted warmly by Don Ivan de Jesus Londoño Amariles, the current patriarch of the Familia Londono and his wife Dona Blanca, both dressed in traditional silletero garb.
Chamomile tea is served as we wander freely through the home and gardens before Jean summons us to learn the story of the Familia Londono and how flower growing developed through the centuries in the Santa Elena area.
It all started with something called a sillero which was a brutally primitive form of transportation used specifically for crossing the Quindio Pass on La Linea, the road between Bogota and the colonial city of Popoyan. You’d have to be one arrogant and lazy son of a bitch to do this to another human being.
Don Ivan shows us how it was done without actually lifting his passenger into the air.
Recognizing that the sillero was a useful means of transportation for things other than lazy s.o.b.s, the device was modified specifically for the carrying of flowers to market, becoming a siccetero. Here Don Ivan shows us how the flowers were inserted in layers to get as many as possible into a configuration suitable for carrying to market in the siccetero.
Guess who got to carry the siccetero the many miles each day to and from the city centre?
Now we get to the fun part. Starting in 1957 the city of Medellin hosted an annual Feria de Las Flores (Festival of Flowers) the highlight of which is the parade of the silleteros who compete for title of the most gorgeous floral display and the bragging rights as the #1 silletero in the country. The entries are not quite as simple as what Dona Blanca is carrying on her back in the picture above. Here’s a couple of modern entries from the Familia Londono, the first being a more traditional design.
And the second a religious themed siccetero done by using the flowers of everlasting plants like statice and straw flowers.
Like the floats in the Rose Bowl Parade, the entries for the silletero’s parade can only be prepared the day and night before the actual parade. They are then carried to the parade and this is what you see – definitely worth returning to Medellin in August just to watch.
The Familia Londono has been participating in the silleteros parade since 1958 and have won dozens of awards including the grand prize on a number of occasions.
Don Ivan and Dona Blanca are justly proud of these accomplishments, but more so of what’s on the wall beside the awards.
These are some of the many degrees of higher education that generations of the Familia Londono have earned, using the money earned from the once back breaking work of being a silletero, and converting it into a way to an easier life without forsaking the family tradition of growing flowers.
As we thanked Don Ivan and Dona Blanca for their hospitality I took this picture of him as he said, “This is the real face of Medellin” and I couldn’t agree more.