Comuna 13 is the part of Medellin that used to be the most dangerous district in the most dangerous city in the world. The heart of Colombia’s violence, where people died every day, just for walking outside.
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That violence is now in the past, but it is a continual work in progress for the people who live here. Don’t get me wrong, compared to the level of violence in Medellin from 3 years ago, the difference is day and night.
Click here for info on the tour I took.
(I don’t get commission and this article is not sponsored.)
My guide, Rafa, was a well known rapper in the area, complete with dreadlocks, headphones and a baggy T-shirt that came straight out of the 90s. He explained that, as the violence was coming to a hilt a few years ago, mothers pushed their children to become successful and well known artists, because the gangs left artists alone. Street artists were (and still are) highly respected, and getting into the art scene was one of the only ways that mothers could prevent their children – especially their boys – from disappearing or being shot dead in the street.
Our guide brought us to a popsicle shop, where they sold frozen fruit in plastic cups. Super, super sweet chunks of mango and passion fruit, doused in a squirt of incredibly tangy saltwater. The people in Comuna 13 have gotten popsicles here for as long as they can remember, making this shop one of the few places of peace in a city surrounded by uncertainty. The girl painted onto the shop’s wall became the face of hope for a peaceful and safe future for this vibrant community. She is now the face of Comuna 13.
Rafa beamed with pride as he showed us how the community built an outdoor escalator, and how it kept locals safe. The older folks no longer had to climb 287 steps to get home. The elevators are also heavily guarded by multiple men – carrying military grade weapons – in order to protect the community, the escalators and what they stand for.
I was walking down one of the escalators and someone turned to me and yelled, “Stop! No walking on the elevator. Only standing. They might break if we all walk on them.” Considering how poor this community was, building these escalators must have been a colossal expense. I imagine that it would take months to fix it if one ever broke down. I felt so silly I hadn’t put that together. I apologized.
We went into a local art shop, where the artists painted bright, vibrant pieces of people, animals and symbols of the city. Rafa explained how each painting had something that represented Medellin in it, whether it was the tramway or simply the color green, the color of hope for Medellin. This local family of artists created incredible pieces. I bought three copies of the large paintings for about $10 each. They were printed on a type of stiff felt, so quite durable and easy to transport.
We got on the escalator and continued our tour! At the top of the escalator, a little old woman was selling chocolates that she makes in her own kitchen. This was her sole means of supporting herself and the chocolates were less than $2. I bought one and then asked to take a picture with her. She stood up and was about four feet tall. She buttoned her baggy sweater and smiled with her eyes closed. She didn’t speak a word of English (nor I, Spanish) but when we parted ways, she squeezed my hand warmly. 😭❤️😭❤️
As we walked up the hill, I was shocked by the incredible view. Expansive mountains and colorful houses and swaying trees…most people would pay top dollar for a view like this…and it was one of the poorest parts of the city. This experience was just beautiful. And we were just getting started.
My friend from the coffee farm, Ai, came on this tour, too. She was a hoot – originally from Japan, but lived in Mexico for three years. Before heading back to Japan to be with her long distance boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen in over 6 months, she’s spending a some time in Colombia to improve her Spanish. She loved taking pictures just as much as I did, which made for a wonderful tour companion, as this led to a fabulous photo shoot for the both of us haha (at appropriate times and places, of course).
There were guys rapping and breakdancing and members of said dance group exercising on treadmills right next to the performers. There were old men relaxing with their shirts off, toddlers wandering around with bows in their hair, and young men practicing their English by giving tours to the tourists. Ai, Rafa and I joined up with a group of 7 people and two other tour guides, both of whom were friends with our guide.
Comuna 13 has become a beautiful place, full of music, dancing, restaurants, sweeping views, and most of all, street art. Our guides did a great job of explaining the importance each mural and the history behind them.
Also, I finally got my favorite tour guides all in one picture! These guys work so hard every day, showing visitors what used to be the most dangerous area in the most violent country in the world…a place that they know as home. Medellin has been their city – before, during, and after the violence – and they will continue to be proud of it.
Now, incomparably safer and much more colorful, each one of these kind-hearted dudes beamed with pride and strength as they told their stories about growing up around violence, and how they wanted a better life “for the children.” – These guys couldn’t have been more than 20. They were practically children themselves!
It broke my heart that they had to work toward making sure that their siblings and their young children weren’t shot dead in the middle of the streets, but as they put it, “Peace has to start somewhere.”
And it has, and Medellin is flourishing. They showed us every piece of street art and told us the stories that went with them. How green stood for hope and red for bloodshed. How the birds stood for the two helicopters that flew overhead, patrolling every day, 24/7. How their city is a mix of indigenous peoples and Spanish people, everyone joining together to create this incredible storyline. How the military is now their hero and their protector, as they are the ones that continue to keep their children safe. The police, like in many cities these days, are not always welcomed with open arms, but according to Rafa, Medellin – and especially Comuna 13 – is leaps and bounds better and safer than it used to be.
My experience? I was glad I was with a guide in Comuna 13. It didn’t feel dangerous, but my red hair and muddy boots gave me away as a Gringa, and therefore, someone to watch. Out of curiosity, of course, but it was comforting to have a young man to show us the way. No one was ever threatening, or even mildly so. In fact, they often performed for the tour groups, dancing and singing and doing magic tricks. Everyone was smiling and eating empanadas, but it was nice to have Rafa tell us where the tourist area of Comuna 13 ended and where the space for locals began. He said that everyone was happy if the tourists didn’t wander about in the neighborhoods. “It’s not pretty like it is here, anyway.”
The were lots of young men out, mostly makeshift patrolling, if you will. I would have been more willing to go alone to Comuna 13 had I seen more local gals meandering around. There were lots of families, and lots of children, but this community is super close knit (they had to be), so it almost felt like I was walking into a tribe. A welcoming, joyful, creative, artistic tribe with delicious food, but still something much different than I found even 20 minutes down the hill in the city center of Medellin. It was almost like a separate city in itself.
I saw t-shirts that I could design myself with various logos and symbols from Comuna 13. There was a lively bar with live performances by our guides, giggling bar tenders and the smallest, crunchiest empanadas I’ve ever had. I never wanted to leave. However, it was getting dark, and it was time to make my exit.
Don’t misunderstand, Comuna 13 was one of the best parts of my trip. It was something I did not, nor could not (and mostly still cannot) understand, in terms of their history and the violence and the bonds that they must have with each other, and I feel so honored that I got to meet these young (and old haha) guys and gals and be a part of their welcoming community – even just for a few hours. I wouldn’t move here, but Comuna 13 holds a special and irreplaceable part of my heart. It’s entirely unlike anything I saw in Medellin and I’m so glad that I was able to witness this community growing and spreading joy.
Don’t miss this amazing neighborhood in this amazing city in one of the best countries in the world.
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