How to Experience the World’s Flower Capital

Learn how to build a traditional flower arrangement in the country that supplies 65 percent of the cut flowers used in the United States.

How to Experience the World’s Flower Capital

Catch Medellin’s Festival of Flowers in August.

Photo by Rubí Flórez/Flickr

When visiting Medellín, Colombia, a city rife with stories of a complex past and a promising future, you’ll want to see it all—but you’ll want to do it right. To get to the heart of paisa (locals from the Antioquia region) culture, you’ll need to venture outside the valley and into the hills of Santa Elena, and delve into one of Medellín’s most iconic symbols: flowers. In these parts, everything revolves around the silleta, a traditional, backpack-like entity used to transport the blooms. Even if you’re not a fan of bees flying around drunkenly and nuzzling your neck, the scenery, food, and explosion of scents are well worth leaving Medellín behind for a day. Here’s how to build the sexiest silleta you ever did see!

Get Thee to El Pensamiento Farm

About 45 minutes outside the Medellín valley, through narrow, orange poppy-lined roads, is Santa Elena, a small farm community filled with rows of towering sunflowers and small homes painted in yellows and blues. Your farm for the day is El Pensamiento, a family-run operation growing more than 80 varieties of flowers. If you need a place to stay in the hills, try La Montana Magica. The views alone are worth it.

But First, Brush Up on Your Flowers

Familiarize yourself with at least a few breeds of flower to garner a better appreciation for the breadth of flora on the farm. You’ll see all your favorites—dahlias, geraniums, pansies, petunias, orchids, anthuriums, begonias, lilies. Get close and take a whiff. These are the flowers that will make their way north and around the world—the Colombian flower industry alone supplies nearly 65 percent of all cut flowers used in the United States.

Meet the Silleta and the Silletero

At El Pensamiento, you’ll learn to make the traditional silleta, the pride and joy of Antioquia. The silleta itself resembles a backpack, a sort of chair on your back. Historically, farmers would use them to transport flowers from the cliffside fields to Medellín, a nearly 12-hour journey on foot. A modern rendition that you’ll see most often in Medellín is the emblematic silleta used at the annual Festival of Flowers in August where over 500 silleteros march and compete for 10 finalist prizes. Most important to remember is what Don Jose tells you: “When you pass by a silletero, you are passing by all of Antioquia.”

Head to Santa Elena to see the hills in full bloom.

Head to Santa Elena to see the hills in full bloom.

Photo by Eugenio Prieto Soto/Flickr

Channel Your Inner Silletero/a, and Construct Your Masterpiece

You won’t be building the massive silletas like those at the annual festival (they weigh upwards of 90 kilograms), but the same strict rules apply: 1) Flowers must be in tight bunches; 2) Start with herbs for a stable foundation; 3) Color composition is essential—don’t forget to contrast your brights and darks; 4) Strive for a gradual progression of height as well as textural contrast. Oh, and hydrangeas are great filler!

Strut. And Slay.

Heed these tips and you’re ready to walk the fields with your silleta and your carriel, the traditional leather satchel used by silleteros. Remember, it’s not a catwalk. You should keep your back straight as you bend down and bow while tipping your sombrero vueltiao, showing the inspired crowds your work of art.

After a day on the farm, walk to Donde Edward Restaurant and savor the rabbit or pork dishes with veggies picked that day.

>> Next: Finding Colombia’s Roots in Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City