While The New York Times placed stylish, cosmopolitan Medellin near the top of its annual “52 Places to Go in 2018” list, last year our press group was super-lucky to be invited by the Greater Medellin Convention and Visitors Bureau and Spirit Airlines to be in this capital of the Antioquia department or the Feria de Flores; in 2020, this “Festival of Flowers” will run Aug. 1-10, and the time is now to start planning to be in Colombia when the “City of Eternal Spring” bursts into bloom for one of the most spectacular of South American celebrations.
Festival events range from a blowout concert in the sports stadium to the exposition of orchids, flowers and handicrafts in the Botanical Gardens, to an all-day parade of spiffy classic and antique cars. But the piece de resistance is the Desfile de Silleteros (Flower Carriers’ Parade), starring a 500-strong procession of countrymen and women of all ages from surrounding mountain villages carrying on their backs their silletas (wooden trestles), sculpted in thousands of intricately woven flowers. The flower bearers flow by the parade stands in a moveable floral feast, with support from marching bands; uniformed riders aboard prancing paso fino horses; horse-drawn flowering floats with historic and folkloric themes; and dancers—on foot and on stilts—in carnival-style costumes, visually creating human gardens of flowers, fruits, butterflies, bees and birds.
This first-time visitor is well aware that such a flowery picture of Medellin is not the image most of the world has of Colombia’s second largest city. However, today the city is one of South America’s most progressive and engaging cities. Its keys to success were visionary social policies, plus publicly supported, high-impact projects, such as a ground-breaking transport system that has increased accessibility to jobs and education. Major tools for local reinvention focused on culture and generating new public spaces.
And those public spaces are worthy of high praise. Innovative urban installations—doubling as not-to-miss visitor attractions—include Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park), where city-center you just slip off your shoes to walk along a bamboo-lined footpath of soothing stones and slimy mud, through a maze to be crossed with closed eyes, moving only by touch, sound and instinct, followed by a cool foot bath. Then there’s the Parque de las Luces—formerly a spot where the city’s homeless gathered and is now renewed with a forest of towering light poles.
This urban great outdoors also includes Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden, spread over 40 subtropical acres, embracing a lagoon, a palm-tree garden, and a desert garden, as well as architectural works such as the orchid house. One of most lovely and delicious places our group dined was in the garden’s In Situ restaurant. Another outstanding meal can be had at Marmoleo, a suburban steakhouse in a colonial country house, serving up a very fine Colombian-Argentine barbecue.
A unique, superstar attraction in Medellin is its transport system, the Metrocable. Ride with the locals aboard a metro that seemingly glides silently over Medellin’s colonial-style rooftops, connecting to and uniting this sprawling city with a network of cable-car gondolas offering rapid service to the city’s hillside neighborhoods…and fabulous views. They provide access to such neighborhoods as Santo Domingo where the award-winning Parque Biblioteca Espana or Spain-Library Park is found; it comes complete with murals and great street food. Another cable line lifts passengers to Parque Arvi, an area boasting 1,761 acres of lakes and trails, forests and waterfalls.
For a bird’s-eye view of Medellin’s scenic and urban splendors, Helifly takes you up, up and away on helicopter tours. Closer to earth but relatively sky-high—and about my favorite Medellin memory—was our afternoon spent in Comuna 13 on a graffiti art tour of the vertical neighborhood once dominated by urban guerrilla groups and today blazing with color. While you can walk up the steep, twisting streets, better to ride the amazing escalera electrica, a series of spiffy, roofed-over escalators built at gravity-defying angles into the hilltop. At each level, you step onto narrow streets whose mountain walls are ablaze with marvelous murals, whose stone houses come in a rainbow of colors and wall-art, and whose galleries and craft shops have their own decorative message; on weekends, you’ll find Comuna’s streets a bit of a three-ring-circus of hip-hop performers and musicians, food—empanadas, roasted corn, grilled chicken—stalls and swinging cafes. Any day, the view from the top is spellbinding.
Medellin has the good fortune to be the hometown of Fernando Botero; the world-renowned artist donated 23 of his voluptuous sculptures—men, women, a Roman soldier, a cat—that line the central alleyway of bustling Plaza Botero. Adjoining this outdoor museum is Museo de Antioquia, which serves up not only good coffee and a fine gift shop, but many galleries showcasing both Botero and Picasso paintings. View more Colombian artists in the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAMM), housed in a repurposed steel factory.
The upscale El Poblado neighborhood hosts the five-star hotel scene, as well as a bevy of lively bars, coffee shops, nightclubs, and restaurants serving up all manner of world cuisines. The chic 42-room Charlee Hotel is here, with rooftop pool and bar. Close to the nightlife of Parque Lleras, Hotel Marriott Medellin, comes with an onsite spa, fitness center and pool. New to the scene is cool, plant-shrouded Click Clack Hotel, whose guests rave about amazing breakfasts included in the room rate, pool and rooftop bar.
Spirit Airlines was our host carrier to Medellin, aboard nonstop flights from Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando; these U.S. gateways also serve Bogota, Cartagena, Cali and Armenia. Come the end of April, Spirit will inaugurate thrice-weekly services from Ft. Lauderdale to Bucaramanga and Barranquilla.