Colombia has a fascinating history, a country that reborn and reinvented itself throughout the time, from being one of the most dangerous country in the world to an interesting tourist destination.
First thing that comes to your mind when you think about Colombia… Pablo Escobar, drugs, crimes and gang related fights, isn’t it? Well, I can’t blame you for that. This was the exact perception that I had about Colombia few years back but I took my chances and here I am starting my two weeks holiday in the notorious city of Medellin.
Comuna 13 is probably one of the best example for the progress that the country has made and if you want to understand Colombia you must first understand the history behind Comuna 13. At first you may think it’s another slum where the poverty has reached unimaginable levels and the locals are using graffiti to attract some tourists. WRONG!
Here are some tips for your visit to Comuna 13
1. Book a tour
The street muralls together with the hip hop culture are an artistic representation of a dark past and the painful process that made Comuna 13 advance from violence to innovation.
If a decade ago the foreigners wouldn’t dare to set foot in here due to the gang violence and illegal trafficking, today the area is opened to tourism and filled with people from all around the world.
If you are looking just for an instagramable spot or a good selfie location you can visit Comuna 13 by yourself but it would be a waste as every wall mural has a beautiful story that awaits to be discovered. Most of the travel agencies in Medellin will offer you a guided tour in English or Spanish or you can choose a “free walking tour” with one of the local guides (voluntary tips to be offered at the end of the visit).
2. Learn the history
Comuna 13 was part of my Pablo Escobar tour and I must confess that I didn’t know anything about the neighborhood before setting foot in there. Every mural it’s a page of history unfolding before your eyes and if in the past it was shameful for the locals to admit they live in the ramshackle suburbs of Comuna 13, now they are taking great pride in what this place has became (every resident playing an important part in the development of the neighborhood). As a courtesy, pay attention to their story and you will find out many important informations that Google won’t know.
Due to its strategical location close to an important highway, Comuna 13 was a “dream land” for many drug traffickers, gangs and guerrillas who were fighting for power. In 2002 a military intervention ordered by the government aiming to regain control over the area, resulted in death of innocent people but it was soon stopped by a brave mother who waved a white flag out of her balcony after two of her sons were injured in the attack. In less than 30 minutes the whole neighborhood was covered by white flags as a sign of solidarity, forcing the army to retreat.
Later on the same year, a second operation was implemented and 1500 officers, two helicopters and one tank were shooting towards the aluminum houses for a period of 3 days killing not only guerrillas members but civilans as well. The macabre event is known as the Orion operation and it’s immortalized in one of the most representative mural that the neighborhood has.
3. Try the local ice-cream
Take a break during your tour and try a refreshing ice cream. The salty mango flavor it’s a local specialty and by visiting the neighborhood or purchasing local products you directly support the comunity. Every shop it’s unique and a great opportunity to take some pictures aa souvenir.
Promote Comuna 13 the best way you can once you are back home. Their brave story needs to be heard.
5.Take a picture with your lover
Transformation, rebirth and hope are the most common themes used by the artists to decorate the walls of Comuna 13. But there is one painting dedicated entirely to love. If you have your partner with you it’s a must to take a picture next by the “Lovers mural”, if you are single the locals advise to sit next to the mushroom.
You might ask yourself who is the artist behind those colorful murals… well it’s not only one but a several talented residents expressing themselves through art. While the most renowned of them signs his art as Chota13, international artists have also brought their own contributions, the only rule is that they must collaborate with a local artist for their work. You can find samples of artwork in the local shops and you can even meet some of the artists (we were pleased to see Chota that day).
4. Use the escalator
If you would have visited Comuna 13 in the past you would have had to climb the 350 stairs steps to the top, a torturous journey that many elderly people were forced to take daily. Nowadays the stairs were replaced by an escalator in an attempt of improving the quality of life in a neighborhood that was drastically neglected.
Are you picturing the progress yet?
5. See Comuna 13 from above
Comuna 13 offers the most impressive view over the surrounding hills of Medellin and the best part is seeing it right from above. The cable car, same as the escalators are part of a governmental attempt to facilitate the locals access to the rest of the city and to integrate them in the society by offering the chance to have a job or take their kids to school, in another words… a chance to normal life.
Last but not the least
Before visiting Comuna 13 please leave your Pablo Escobar t-shirt in the hotel room and refrain from mentioning him during the tour. The residents have lived in hell “thanks” to people like him and even though Colombia is responsible for promoting the narco tourism this is not one of them.