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I had heard of Comuna 13 before arriving in Medellin Colombia but it meant nothing to me. I did know that Medellin had a violent past but did not know that the most dangerous part of the city was Comuna 13.
Medellin, the capital of Colombia’s Antioquia province, has a population of 2.5 million. Several residents, I spoke to have never been to Comuna 13. However, it is a must-see stop on the tourist trail.
Compelling Reasons To Visit Comuna 13 Medellin
1. Know The Story Of Comuna 13
Over the decades, many displaced people arrived in Medellin, a city that did not have ample infrastructure to deal with the growth. For example, in the past, farmers were told to leave their farms or be killed. What’s the option? You leave, move to the city and start a new life.
Medellin sits in a valley and many communities crawl up the slopes of the mountains that surround it. Thus displaced people settled on the slopes of the mountains in makeshift homes.
Medellin, which was once the most violent city in the world, is divided into 16 comunas or municipalities. Comuna 13 gained a reputation as the most violent in the city. This area of the city sits on the path of a perfect drug and arms route from the Pacific coast over the mountains into Medellin and further inland. Gangs, violence, kidnappings and extortion were part of everyday life in Comuna 13.
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2. The Story Of Comuna 13: Part 2
After Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord was killed in 1993, the government thought the violence in Medellin and specifically, Comuna 13 would diminish but in fact, the exact opposite was true. Suddenly there was a leadership position open and leaders of vying gangs fought it out to be king. Violence in Comuna 13 Medellin escalated. This went on for years. People disappeared. Young impoverished men joined the gangs. And homicides hit world records.
The Colombian government tried two Operations to stop the violence. The second operation, Operatión Orión, on October 16, 2002, involved over 1500 troops and 2 Black Hawk helicopters. For three days the neighbourhood was under siege. Undercover operatives assisted the government in finding hidden leaders and ousting them. Many people were injured and the government never published how many people were killed.
The result? Since 2002, there has been a slow path towards a calmer and more peaceful life in Comuna 13 Medellin.
3. Graffiti: Moving The Community Forward
Comuna 13 is a large municipality. When you visit you are in fact visiting one small area called Independencia 1. Here creative expression has been one way to heal the past. Some houses are colourfully painted and graffiti graces many of the walls. All the paintings, of course, carry significance and a story. Graffiti artists, both local and from around the world, have also participated in telling the story here, some as recent as a few months ago.
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4. Street Dancing: A Positive Vibe
Dance is a huge part of the community. Both times I visited, there was street dancing, hip hop and lessons going on at the top of Escalator 6.
5. Escalators Connect Comuna 13
In 2012, the installation of 6 escalators in Independencia 1 increased the residents’ accessibility to Medellin. No longer do residents have to climb hundreds of stairs to get home. The orange roofs over the escalators, which were added in 2013, provide a pop of colour and are an unmistakable landmark for Independencia 1. A cable car from San Javier metro station also creates accessibility for residents living on the other side of Comuna 13.
Comuna 13 Medellin is a neighbourhood on a path of reinvention and transformation. These things take time. There is a strong police presence during the day and according to a local, even stronger at night.
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6. Give Back To Comuna 13
When you walk the streets of Independencia 1, the locals welcome you. They are appreciative if you purchase anything on offer such as ice lollies (my favourite the coconut and the mango), jewellery and art.
The coffee shop, Café Aroma de Barrio, between the 3rd and 4th escalators is a must-stop. Grab a coffee, look out over the neighbourhood and glance at the binders full of photographs from the past. Purchase a canvas portraying street art or a T-shirt. All is greatly appreciated.
When I paid for my coffee with 5000 COP ($21 Cdn), the chica took my bill opened up a blank notebook and rubbed my bill onto the paper. Purple ink appeared on the sheet of paper. One way to know if the bill is counterfeit or not. Phew. Purple ink = the real deal.
7. Comuna 13 Tour Groups That Give Back
Two Comuna 13 tour groups that donate a portion of the cost of the tour back into community programs are:
Free Zippy Walking Tour: I took this outstanding tour. The guides with Zippy all live in Comuna 13. Laura, my guide, invited us into her house and offered us a free empanada. Drinks were available to purchase. Like all “free” tours, a generous tip is always welcome.
Toucan Café: This Spanish school offers many tours one of which goes to Comuna 13 and is led by a local urban artist.
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Lots of people told me that it was perfectly safe to go to Comuna 13 Medellin solo. I went on a Saturday mid-day, having carefully picked both the day and time. I took a taxi from San Javier station and was dropped off by a graffiti wall but no orange escalators in sight. I felt a bit uneasy. After getting directions, finding the orange escalators and seeing there were multiple tours going on, I relaxed and settled into my visit. What I love about not being on a tour is the ability to linger, revisit and discover things on my own. In Comuna 13, I did that but didn’t venture too far from the tour groups.
Afterwards, there was something missing. What were the stories behind all the graffiti and what was the history of this notorious neighbourhood?
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The next week I returned with a Comuna 13 tour group – the Free Zippy Walking Tour.
I was spellbound by the stories of Comuna 13 and Independencia 1. My tour guide grew up in Independencia 1 and recounted peaceful days as a child before violence and terror wreaked havoc on the neighbourhood.
After the tour, I felt a sense of connection and compassion to this neighbourhood.
How To Get To Comuna 13
Take the Metro Line B to San Javier Station. From there, you can walk about 15 minutes uphill. Use google maps to direct you. Our Comuna 13 tour group met at San Javier Station.
Alternatively, grab a little yellow taxi from the San Javier and ask to be taken to the escalators (in Spanish: las escaleras electricas) or the graffiti (in Spanish: las pintadas). The taxi will cost about 6000 COP ($3 Cdn).
More Travel Info
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