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Colombian Christmas

Christmas In Medellin–A World-Class Festival Of Lights

I’ve been spending Christmas abroad since 2001 and have come to love the traditions and celebrations that take place throughout Latin America. But Christmas in Medellín is the most impressive extravaganza I’ve experienced.

My first half-dozen Christmases overseas were in Ecuador and were the most enjoyable Christmas experience I’d had in many years…probably since childhood. My home city of Cuenca was not exactly a small town but celebrating Christmas there certainly had a small-town feel. It was the first time I’d experienced all the events, parties, camaraderie, and celebrations of Christmas without the Black Friday woes, gift-buying frenzy, and deluge of forecasts for the economic outcome of the Christmas season.

In Uruguay, Christmas occurs in mid-summer and is the unofficial kickoff for the beach season. Punta del Este, which is a world-famous beach resort, was probably the least-Christmassy place I’ve been. Everyone’s focus was on sun, sand, and barbeque. The professional fireworks that every home seemed to have, however, were impressive…especially at New Year’s, when gunpowder hung in the air like a thick fog.

Here in Medellín, things are different. There’s a full agenda of exhibits, cultural exhibitions, shows, and celebrations. But what sets the city apart this time of year are the lights.

The city–led by the local utility, EPM–uses thousands of temporary workers over a period of months to decorate downtown with millions of lights in preparation for the grand lighting on the first of December. The event is called El Alumbrado, literally “the lighting.”

The celebration is a tremendous source of pride among the people of Medellín and enjoys broad public participation and support. Everybody gets out and enjoys the festivities.

El Alumbrado started in 1955, sponsored by EPM and the local municipality. It was a modest celebration in the early years but has steadily progressed to become the extravaganza it is today, drawing visitors from around the world.

El Alumbrado’s traditional kickoff date was Dec. 7, a Colombian holiday called Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles), held on the eve of Immaculate Conception. But, since 2011, the “lighting” has gradually crept back to Dec. 1, to accommodate the large tourism influx into the city for the occasion.

This year they’ve installed a jaw-dropping 475 miles of light strings with more than 27 million bulbs at a cost of around US$9 million. The effect is amazing. Have a look at these few random shots of Medellín’s Christmas lights

A great way to see the Christmas lights on foot (I don’t own a car) is to start at Plaza Botero with its landmark sculptures and the Antioquia museum with its impressive display of Fernando Botero’s paintings. These are worthwhile stops on any trip to Medellín, and you can visit them while it’s still daylight…then have a drink or snack on the veranda while you wait until it gets dark enough to appreciate the lights (just after 6 p.m.).

From Plaza Botero, take the Carabobo pedestrian walkway south until you get to the antique train station (you can’t miss this). From there, turn right to see Parque de las Luces (Park of Lights) in the same block. If you continue this way, you’ll eventually make your way to the river and some of the biggest displays along its banks.

If you’re up for another Christmas walk, try going the other way from Plaza Botero and work your way along Avenida La Playa, one of Medellín’s most-decorated avenues and a magnet for the region’s photographers.

I’d say there’s no better time to visit Medellín than right now. It’s downright Christmassy, despite the invitingly warm weather. With the abundance of events and festive Christmas atmosphere, I can’t think of a better place to be celebrating the season.

Lee Harrison

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