Visiting Comuna 13, Medellin

Visiting Comuna 13, graffiti tour in Medellin, Colombia

Medellin’s Comuna 13

Strangled by the grip of the battling paramilitary groups, vicious gangs, narcoterrorism and the Colombian government, life hasn’t been easy for the past few decades of Medellín’s Comuna 13. Discarded mountains of bodies met mass graves, murdered civilians lay dead in the street for days before their corpses were cleaned away, private armies imposed their own form of martial law on the district. High in the hills that surround the city, Comuna 13 was once the most dangerous district in the most dangerous city, in the most dangerous country in the world.

The groups of tourists ambling through the district’s steep streets, perusing street art with few cares in the world, exemplify the utterly transformed nature of the comuna. Once an area where locals feared leaving their front door steps, guided tours of the local street art are now a ‘must-see’ attraction for travellers in Medellín.

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The hub of an extensive revitalisation project across the city, Comuna 13 has become recognisable for their escalators, helping some of the city’s poorest communities reach their homes without the gruelling mountainside climb. Alongside the famous cable cars that run from San Javier to the various barrios stacked up the hills, Medellín has made great progress with their socially-driven infrastructure projects, emulated in cities like La Paz. Emerging from such a dark and disastrous period in the country’s history, Colombia could easily have fallen into further disorganisation and disarray. Instead, they’ve created a beacon of transformation.

The ‘transformation tours’ offered in Medellín are one of the most popular tourist attractions available. Free tours run every day from San Javier station, with large crowds gathering for a guided tour through the most popular streets of Comuna 13.

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Is a Comuna 13 tour worth it?

I took the free walking tour through the district, after having been in Medellín for a few weeks already. Many months into my South America trip, I was a tad more streetwise than some of the people fresh off the plane from Florida. Many of my friends chose to take a self-guided tour through the district, which I think may have been the better option in hindsight. If I were still heavily concerned about safety, or about getting lost, or about needing to speak Spanish, my opinion may differ. However, if you’re comfortable in Latin America already, you may also want to consider not taking a guided tour.

The tours take you, in a large group, past the best and most famous features of the comuna’s street art. They also sit you down and talk you through a little bit of the history of the area, but this information is widely and readily available should you want to do a little bit of homework before setting out. While it was great to see that the tours were run by locals from the district, the guides did push purchases at their friends or families homes quite insistently. We passed a disabled man, were introduced and told that he was a victim of the city’s violent past, and that he sold small chocolates should we want to help him support himself. My friends who took the Spanish speaking tour were introduced to the same man by a different name, told he was disabled from birth, and were also encouraged to buy his goods. I’m all in favour of putting money back into local trade, but the string of lies left a sour taste.

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We were also brought to the famous Cafe Aroma de Barrio, run by Comuna 13’s most prolific street artist. This cafe is one of the best places in the city to sample the iced coffee with lemon famously founnd in the Antioquian coffee regions, and offers a good view over the stacked streets along the hills. If you came without the guided tour, you could control the amount of time you want to stay here. You can also control your time at the local art gallery and school, which we were hurried through. That is the nature of group tours, there’s no controlling or complaining about it.

Comuna 13 is less dangerous than much of the city, given its fresh reputation as a tourist hot-spot. There will still be pickpockets, there will still be people trying to rip off tourists, it is still very unwise to wander around the neighbourhood alone at night. It’s Colombia, after all. As long as you are aware of your surroundings, and duly cautious, you’ll have no trouble. The same mentality can be applied to Comuna 13, and if you’re comfortable with Colombian customs then there’s no reason for you to feel unsafe when visiting without a group tour. The area is easy to navigate, and the best street art spots are easily scouted out. My friends that visited the area alone chatted to the locals, got a taste for the character of the comuna, and saw all the same street art without being shepherded by a tour guide. If you’re nervous of travelling alone or in a small group around Medellín then take the tour, if not then just research the history before you head out and enjoying wandering up and down the hillside alone. If you stray into an area you shouldn’t, of which there are many dotted around, a local will invariably point out to you that that isn’t the wisest idea.

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All across South America, there are areas of cities that aren’t the most tourist friendly, that have violent pasts and violent presents. I’ve never heard of anybody straying into one of these accidentally, without being aided by a local passer-by. Colombians, in general, are welcoming and wonderful people who want to change the international perspective of their country as dangerous for tourists. Trust local people, ask them if you need help or if you need advice. The easiest way to get yourself into a tricky situation is not to heed warnings from those around you.

The community of Comuna 13 express themselves through the art along their walls. You can find messages of discontent, of hope, of rebellion. Symbols of progress, and snippets of history and personality within the district. Understanding their art allows you an insight into the comuna’s character, and of their miraculous transformation. The city is growing, learning, becoming a better place, and Medellín’s metamorphosis is epitomised by the colourful Comuna 13.

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How to visit Comuna 13 in Medellin, Colombia