The Porce River isn’t a particularly attractive thing; murky brown water filling a concrete half-pipe, flowing through the centre of Medellín and cutting the city in two. However, for one month of the year, it becomes a flowing rainbow of neon and light as it is transformed into one of the world’s most beautiful Christmas displays.
A web of twinkling orbs hangs above water and flashes as if flowing with the river. Oversized 3D ornaments depicting fish, boats, and people appear to bob on its surface, twirling and rotating, over 20 feet high. All along the banks, people meander between mammoth, sparkling dioramas and through tunnels of light. This is a Christmas spectacle on a scale I have never seen before. In fact, in 2012, it was named by National Geographic as one of the top 10 spots in the world to see Christmas lights.
It is a tradition that goes back over 160 years. The people of Medellín have been hanging Christmas lights for public display since 1851, but it is only in the last 50 years that the city’s Alumbrado Navideño has really taken off. It began when the Medellin public utility company – Empresas Públicas de Medellín – was founded, and contributed a few lights to the city centre, strung along La Playa Avenue. Since then, the scale of the project has continued to expand up to the point were, this year, the display is made up of 37 million lights in over 100 locations around the city.
I hadn’t intended on spending Christmas among Medellín’s illuminations, it was more of fortunate happenstance; one of the quirks of life on the road that you coincidently end up in the right place at the right time. I wasn’t even aware of the festivities until I arrived.
As it was Christmas, I decided to go all out, booking myself into the 5-star Dann Carlton Hotel in El Poblado, Medellín’s most upmarket neighbourhood. Even backpackers need to treat themselves occasionally.
This was my first Christmas spent away from home. For me, It wasn’t too bad. I don’t have parents to visit and I was able to briefly try to Skype my brother from the poolside while sipping an ice-cold Aguila. For Becky, it was a little tougher to spend Christmas away from family.
We tried to make the best of it. We hastily bought gifts from Sante Fe mall, the only place that was open on Christmas Eve; some chocolate and sweets, rum, a few camera accessories that we had desperately needed. We played Christmas songs through our battered laptop speakers. We attempted to watch a grainy copy of Elf that had taken 16 hours to download on intermittent to non-existent Wifi. Even with all this, it is difficult to embrace the festive cheer when sitting by the poolside in 30° heat.
What made it harder was that everywhere was closed; the shops, bars, even the hotel restaurant. Colombians celebrate Christmas eve with their families, eating their main Christmas meal that evening. As we explored El Poblado, there wasn’t a soul in sight. The city was unusually tranquil. In Parque el Poblado, the trees dripped with neon icicles and 7-foot high lettering wished ‘Feliz Navidad’ to the empty square. All of the bars were shuttered. We ended up huddled in the Hard Rock Cafe, the one spot serving food, surrounded by other bemused looking tourists.
Christmas day was much the same. We spent it in Parque El Poblado, chatting and swigging our rum with some other lost souls; a group of fellow travellers we had met on Panama’s San Blas Islands, whiling away the hours under the square’s glowing Christmas lights until the cafes and bars surrounding the park opened for the evening. When somewhere finally opened, we set up shop, ordering cocktail after cocktail from a barman that looked like an extra from breaking bad, complete with scarred and tattooed faced, serving drinks from a tiny hatch. Each time we ordered, he would bring a completely different drink, slamming it on the counter with an imposing glare. Who were we to argue with his drink choices? By the end of the evening, we had found our festive cheer, linking arms with a group of Spanish tourists as we all bellowed the lyrics to Feliz Navidad and span in circles.
Festive cheer is something that Medellín does well. It begins on on December 7th, the Eve of the Immaculate Conception, when Colombians celebrate Día de Las Velitas – the Day of the Little Candles. Candles are everywhere; on balconies, in windows, and lining the pavement, all in honour of the immaculate conception. The next day, the candles are removed and white flags are hung from homes, depicting the Virgin Mary.
The main show, however, is the Alumbrado Navideñ. As we made our way from Poblado towards the river, every street was illuminated with thousands of sparkling ornaments, each neighbourhood decorated in a different colour scheme. Even the smaller barrios fill their parks with glowing trinkets and festoon their churches with flashing lights.
We crossed the Gilberto Echeverri Mejia Bridge, itself glowing a rhythmic array of colours to see the Medellin River stretched out below us. For over a mile, the river was netted with blues and greens, imitating ocean waves. Colourful boats, 20 feet high, bobbed on its surface as the lights pulsed and flashed like a vast, electric ocean. On the banks, thousands of people milled between colossal dioramas depicting the themes of Gratitude, Generosity, Hope, Tranquility, Forgiveness, Tolerance, and Love. We wandered between the crowds, climbed inside the displays and marvelled at the sheer scale of the city’s celebrations.
It is thought that over 3 million people visit this light show over its 6-week residency, but it felt like they were all there at once. Vendors barbequed by the side of the street, selling empanadas and buñuelos. Kids ran about, tossing glowsticks while their parents laughed and walked alongside. Groups of friends shared beers and danced to tinny boomboxes by the water’s edge.
In this small area of the city, all of that year’s themes were on display, not just in the decorations but in the people. It may have been hard to do in this climate, but Medellin had helped me to embrace a tropical Christmas.
Have you seen any light displays better than Medellin’s? Let me know in the comments!
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Some images provided by Empresas Públicas de Medellín