Everything you Need to Know
“We hope to be a model, not only for Medellin, not only for Colombia, but for the world. Colombia is not only Pablo Escobar, Colombia is not only drugs or prostitutes; Colombia is culture, art, music, innovation, and the best possible example of HOPE.”
Does the thought of Colombia bring anything to mind? If you thought of the drug trade, the Medellín Cartel or Pablo Escobar, then you are not alone. Formerly a country whose political instability made it a no-go for travelers, Colombia is now one of the most popular destinations in Latin America and one of the best examples of resilience to date. And no place embodies that attribute quite like one of its most famous neighborhoods, Comuna 13. Previously considered the most dangerous neighborhood in the world’s most dangerous city, Comuna 13 doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would attract a lot of tourist attention. However, it’s probably the most important place to visit while in Medellín – a place that will completely change your impression of Colombia. In this Comuna 13 travel guide we will tell you a remarkable story of transformation, and outline everything you need to know before visiting.
Comuna 13 is a low socioeconomic neighborhood perched above Medellín. The neighborhood was originally settled after violence in the Colombian countryside drove thousands of citizens into Medellín, all searching for refuge. With little more than the clothes on their back, most of these individuals couldn’t afford to live within the city itself – and so formed various neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. The government didn’t recognize these residences as legal, leaving Comuna 13 without any basic infrastructure and no support from the police. Its complete lack of police presence, in conjunction with its prime location between the city and the mountains, made it the ultimate corridor for drugs to leave, and weapons to enter Medellin. Before we knew it, Comuna 13 was considered the most dangerous place in all of Medellín, and Medellin considered the most dangerous city in the world. In fact, in 1988, Time Magazine wrote an article titled “Welcome to Medellin, coke capital of the world”, calling out Medellin as the most dangerous place on earth. Think: frequent assassination of government officials, thousands of people murdered annually, bodies frequently lying in the streets, hundreds of bomb detonations, and so forth.
Comuna 13 rose to notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of Colombia’s drug and gang era. During this time the barrio became a transit point for drug traffickers, guerillas, and gangs. The neighborhood found itself hopelessly caught in an ongoing war between the Medellín Cartel, opposing gangs, guerrilla insurgents, extremist paramilitary forces, and the government, each vying for control over the barrio. As you can imagine, all of these insatiable powers converging on a single neighborhood resulted in several decades of the intense bloodshed, with kidnappings, disappearances, and murders becoming daily occurrences in Comuna 13. To date, locals describe living under this level of fear as crippling, wondering each night whether their loved ones would return home, and having no hope of escape.
In 2002 the situation began to turn around, when President Alvaro Uribe launched a successful operation, Operation Orion, to expel the cartel and guerrilla groups based in Comuna 13. Unfortunately, what unfolded was an incredibly violent assault on the neighborhood that resulted in 20+ more killings and almost 250 arrests, with many innocent civilians getting caught in the crossfire. Still, this marked a real turning point for Comuna 13— and Medellín. In 2011 the slow journey towards transformation continued, when the government installed a series of outdoor escalators to make the streets more accessible. With greater accessibility came less stigma, and the narrative surrounding Comuna 13 started to shift. Soon, the streets became safer and the neighborhoods turned into a playground for children and artists alike.
What Its Like Today
Over the past eight years, Comuna 13 has undergone a complete transformation, no longer known for gang violence, police raids, cartels or illegal trafficking. Beyond the physical transformation, it has also shifted the way people think about the area, and now serves as a symbol of transformation, rebirth and hope towards a better future. These days, Comuna 13 is readily associated with graffiti, street art performances, culture, art, and walking tours – all community initiatives to engage young people who might otherwise be at risk for joining a gang. New infrastructure, including a metro cable and six outdoor escalators, has also made life in Comuna 13 significantly easier for residents, and has opened the area up to tourists like never before. Every day you will see dozens of energetic tour guides walking through Comuna 13, sharing stories of Medellín’s darkest days, and showcasing the incredible transformation we see today. In fact, Comuna 13 sees almost 15,000 visitors a day!
Just 25 years after being called the “world’s most dangerous city”, Medellin was awarded with the title of “the world’s most innovative city” by the Urban Land Institute and the Wall Street Journal. Nowhere is this incredible transformation better exemplified than in Comuna 13, whose bullet-riddled streets are now lit up by playful children and endless street art.
During a recent trip to Medellín, we were fortunate enough to tour Comuna 13 with a local tour guide, and it was one of the coolest experiences of our lives. Immediately upon arriving in Comuna 13 we were overwhelmed by the vibrant colors, decorations, hundreds of murals, live music, and thousands of people out celebrating life! Our guide, a 25 year old male who was born and raised in Comuna 13, explained his first-hand experience of how his community drastically changed throughout his childhood. He led us on a street art journey, showing us dozens of large-scale stunning murals covering every building, while explaining the significance behind each. We learned that the art serves as a creative outlet for locals to share their stories and spread hope for a brighter future. Additionally, the art is incredibly effective way to engage at-risk youth in positive community programs. Along the way we encountered numerous groups of break dancers, rappers, singers, and artists all out sharing their talents with the community, serving as role models for the locals.
After being blown away by the gorgeous neighborhood, we had the chance to stop for local beer and empanadas at a local café, Aroma De Barrio, then went on to see the famous outdoor escalators. The long string of outdoor escalators is another of Comuna 13’s most striking features, representing huge progress in terms of social equity and accessibility. Where residents would have previously had to climb the equivalent of 28 stories to reach their home from the city, a 384m series of escalators now cuts the journey down to a mere 6 minutes. In addition, these escalators provide an unprecedented level of mobility to citizen of Comuna 13, many of whom had been effectively cut off from the rest of the city due to the physical geography of their home. In reverse, the escalators have also brought many city-dwelling individuals into the hills for possibly the first time, along with thousands of tourists. As you can imagine, this was a major step in dissolving the stigmatism surrounding Comuna 13 and the socio-economic disparity perpetuated as a result of these attitudes.
Another highlight of the tour was that Comuna 13 has some of the best views of Medellin you will find! On a clear day, you can see the entire metropolitan area sprawled out beneath you, giving you a true appreciation for the scale of the city. However, on a more heart-wrenching note, the gorgeous views also allow you to see a distinct portion of a nearby mountain covered in nothing but dirt. Our guide explained that this area was discovered in 2005 and quickly become considered the biggest mass grave in Latin America. So many thousands of bodies were uncovered that the government has plans to return this December 2021 to continue to look for the bodies of an additional 300 missing people.
Why You Should Visit?
Knowledge & History
In order to truly appreciate Medellin today, it is vital to understand what the city has been through. Educating yourself about the darkest moments in a city’s history can sometimes feel morbid, but this kind of social and cultural awareness is unbelievably important when we travel. Trust us when we say that no book or documentary will ever do justice to actually visiting Comuna 13 with someone who lived through the wild fear and incredible violence of Escobar-era Medellín.
Support the Community
By visiting you are helping a a community to rebuild! Every family in Comuna 13 has been negatively impacted by violence. By taking a Comuna 13 tour, you’re not only supporting local guides and local businesses in financial terms, you’re also helping people shed the stigma. That reputation is changing with every tourist group that visits. Not to mention, you are helping to show children that there is a new path of success they can take with working on tours or in the arts.
So Much Fun!
Honestly, it is so much fun! There is something about the energy when you enter Comuna 13 that we can’t quite describe. The energy is filled with hope, positivity, creativity, and inspiration. It’s not only powerful, but it makes the experience so much more enjoyable. Of course, the people, street art, street food, culture, music, cafes and bars throughout Comuna 13 make it so special, but this is really one of the most lively places we have ever been and worth every second.
Know Before You Go
When visiting Comuna 13 it is absolutely vital to focus on the future and the transformation, rather than the violence of the past. Only 20 years ago, bodies lay in the streets, co-opted government officials looked the other way, more than 600 police officers were murdered at Pablo’s behest, and so many families lost their loved ones. Memories of past violence are still very raw for families in this area, with thousands of people still unaccounted for, and powerful criminal banks still in operation. While the neighborhood has come such a long way, the violence of the past is not completely gone. To this day, residents in Comuna 13 are required to pay the criminal banks fees if they want protection from the criminal banks themselves. If you refuse to pay, you can expect a bullet in the head. Unfortunately, our tour guide’s father decided to put his foot down. As a result, he was shot in the face three times. Bottom line is, be respectful, leave your Pablo Escobar shirts at home, and understand that the locals do not like to discuss and glorify the criminal that caused so much suffering and pain.
- We highly recommend visiting with a local tour guide! Not only will you learn so much about the cities transformation, but you will also be supporting the local community.
- Best time to visit: It is a great year-round destination, but consider visiting in August during the festival of flowers.
- Wear comfortable shoes! The tour involves a lot of walking up steep hills and on streets pitched at precarious angles.
- Bring plenty of cash, as there are NO ATMs in Comuna 13!
- You have to try the local beer, 420 420 beer: 10% alcohol and made with weed.
- Pack an umbrella. The tour is outside, and there’s always a chance of rain.
- Get ready to have one of the most inspirational and fun days of your life!