“La bota, la bota!” an old man cries out. The white brim of his hat just covers the wrinkles on his forehead that are stacked like thin paperback books. “La bota!” He cries, louder this time as I squeeze by him on the crowded avenida. Literally translated, la bota means “the boot.” This curious boot, however, is not intended for your foot but rather for your parched mouth. The boot-shaped leather container is filled with Aguardiente (Colombian anise-flavored liquor) or rum. You wear it slung across your chest for easy access to a quick refreshment. La bota, along with a few other telling details, is a sure sign that the Feria de Manizales (The Manizales Fair) has begun.
Now a national cultural heritage, Feria de Manizales began in 1951, adapting the idea from the Spanish feria tradition. Though uniquely Colombian, Spain has left a lasting mark on many of the activities in this 10-day fair. Bullfighting for example, though extremely controversial, is still one of the main attractions. Famous toreros come from all over the world to conquer in the Plaza de Toros de Manizales. Tickets for the event cost anywhere between $16,000 COP to $3,737,000 COP (roughly $5.60 USD to $1,308 USD!) depending on the day and how close to the horns you feel like getting.
Feria de Manizales is also international. It brings together the most beautiful women in the world for the Reinado Internacional del Café (International Coffee Queen Pageant). Upon arriving, the queens tour the coffee region, learning the local traditions and making appearances in the cities and pueblos of the famous “Coffee Triangle” (land used for coffee production between Manizales, Pereira and Armenia). This year, 25 women from four continents compete for the title of “Reina.” Tickets are free to the pageant, but need to be picked up in advance.
Feria de Manizales: A City-wide Party
A full program of events for Feria de Manizales 2018 can be found at www.feriademanizales.gov.co where you’ll notice that on any given day, there are between 30 and 40 activities … and those are just the ones that made it to the list! These are diverse and seemingly unrelated events held all over the city. They consist of sports championships (billiards, soccer, and tennis, for example), dog shows, helicopter rides, technology expos, haunted houses, music and magic shows. Of course, as I mentioned, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems like everywhere I go, the streets are immersed in ferias.
I’m ecstatic to be able to enjoy the festivities this year because for the last two I have been completing my Master’s Degree in the damp cold of southern Netherlands. Of course, there are beautiful things about Maastricht too, but nothing compares to the sun and rumba of Manizales, Colombia. I moved here three and a half years ago from New York City after a brief excursion to the Colombian Coast and a slight obsession with the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Colombian Folk Music, Indian Sitars, Ethiopian Dancers, It’s All Ferias
There is music coming from somewhere … I can hear it from my apartment. As I get closer to the Sancancio mall, I see it. A small stage has been set up and there are three musicians playing happy pop and Colombian folk music. Two dancers are twirling around the entrance, energetic smiles plastered on their faces. Two beautiful women in slinky dresses offer me aguardiente as I walk through the doors. It’s 11am and I take a shot. Because – why not? It’s ferias!
Later that day, my husband and I go to check out some Indian music near Teatro Fundadores. There is an open-air market in the small alley to the left of the theatre and it is completely packed with people, Colombians and tourists alike maneuver through the small space to get a drink or a better view of the dancers. A sitar and a tabla boom through the giant speakers and a beautiful woman is dancing alone on the stage. Her movements are slight, her eyes thickly lined with black, and her expression slides between innocently coquettish and knowingly seductive. Each step and turn of the wrist is precise and direct, matching perfectly to the odd rhythms of the Indian classical music.
Her outfit is an elegant twist on the traditional Indian Sari and her hips and ankles are adorned with jingles and jangles that sing when she dances. After the performance, I ask in Spanish if she is from Manizales. “Why?” she replies giggling, thinking I have mistaken her for a true Indian. Not wanting to give away that I actually couldn’t be sure – I mention that I’m not from around here either, but that I loved the performance. I have always loved Indian music and dance, and she pulled off a near perfect execution of what I would naively expect (never having actually been to India). “I’m from Medellin.” She says.
Ferias is Food Too, and a Traditional Sombrero
We struggle to walk past the intoxicating odors of empanadas de pollo, chorizo and arepas con queso (we try to eat healthy whenever possible but these smells!) and eventually find ourselves on the main street once again. We slowly meander closer to the Catedral buying a cold Club Colombia Negra (one of the widely available beers) from a street vendor on the way. The vendadores seem to be hawking their welcome wares every couple of feet. “Cerveza! Poker! Club Colombia!” In addition to the beer, there are Micheladas (beer and lemonade mixed), coffee liquors, whiskeys, rums and aguardientes. I have been warned, however, never to purchase alcohol from street vendors. They sometimes tamper with the liquor to make a profit, adding harmful additives or just plain old water to stretch a peso. Better to fill your bota with name-brand liquors purchased in a trusted market.
I buy a white hat from a man just before Parque Caldas for diez mil pesitos (ten little pesos or about $3.50USD). Feeling truly Colombian, and a part of ferias, with my sombrero blanco and my Club Colombia beer, I start dancing with a little cowboy on the street. He’s about three years old and doesn’t know if this gringa is fun or scary … he dances anyway. The music is pumping from the stage across the street. The entire town is a fiesta, and like a bad McDonald’s commercial … I’m lovin it.
Alegría on the Crowded Streets
A friend of ours is playing reggae at Parque Ernesto Guitierrez, so we check that out too. The crowd is mostly younger kids in black T-shirts with long hair, but we see a couple of mature music lovers in the audience. They are gently knocking into each other with the beat of the song, some drinking beer, others singing along to the revolutionary lyrics in Spanish. There is a police force ready if anything happens, but we all know it probably won’t.
The streets are packed and it takes us quite a while to get anywhere, but we’re enjoying the slow pace of tourists and the assuredness that we have nowhere to go and nothing to do. As we reach the end of Carrera 23, we stop to watch a group of street musicians. They weren’t on the official program, but they are drawing a good-sized crowd with the pulsing energy of the Pacific Coast. There is a marimba, tambores, bombos, guazas and a couple cantadores (folk singers).
A little girl is flinging herself in every direction her tiny limbs will take her. She’s laughing uncontrollably, on a spiritual journey with the rich Colombian rhythms and enjoying every second of it. I realize this little girl is the very ESSENCE of Feria de Manizales; culture, tradition, beauty, and alegría … happiness. Strap on your bota, buy a sombrero and join the party. You’re not very likely to regret it.
There’s a lot more to tell … on Colombia
Having recently completed her master’s in music at the ZUYD Conservatory in Maastricht, Netherlands, guest blogger Jana DeBusk once again resides in Manizales. She teaches voice at Batuta, a national music institution known for bringing musical instruments and classes to the poorest areas of Colombia. She also performs at clubs around the city. For more information visit www.janadebuskmusic.com