Comuna 13: a Colombian neighbourhood that was once considered the most dangerous place in the world’s most dangerous city, has transformed itself and is rapidly becoming a very popular tourist destination. Not too long ago, the city of Medellin suffered from terrible violence, but nowhere was it more prevalent than in Comuna 13. Learn how this commune has reinvented itself and why it is quickly becoming the number 1 attraction in Medellin.
Where is Comuna 13?
Comuna 13, also known as San Javier, is a district in Medellín, Colombia’s second city. It is one of 16 neighbourhoods (“comunas“) of Medellín, located in the region of Antioquia.
Why is Comuna 13 famous?
In the 1980’s-1990’s Comuna 13 had such high murder rates it was considered the most dangerous place in the world. Now it has become a vibrant place where young people can be creative and express themselves through street art, and the locals are optimistic they can live in peace again. If you are heading to Medellín, a visit to Comuna 13 is a must. It is one of the best things to do in Medellin and it is a really informative and humbling place to visit.
Why does Comuna 13 have such a turbulent past?
The notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar lived in Medellin, hence drug cartels in the region were loyal to him. The Medellín Cartel took over Comuna 13 and ruled it during the 1980’s-1990’s. This was due to the location of Comuna 13: it was seen as a favourable position for the cartel as it is located just off the San Juan Highway, on a steep hill just west side of the city. Therefore it was the ideal route for the cartel to transport guns, drugs and money from the rural parts of the Antioquia region to it’s main city: Medellín. Even after Escobar died in 1993, activity was rife here as rival rebel groups sought to take control over the area and guerrilla and paramilitary activities would constantly take place here.
Comuna 13 was, and still is, a very densely populated lower class area – there are around 100,000 inhabitants here, living in small houses clinging to the side of the mountain. During this time, everyday life was filled with fear and chaos for the residents innocently caught up in the mess of gang violence and illegal trafficking. Thousands of residents even became displaced due to the violence.
During the reign of the drug cartel huge social class differences were created and social tensions with the Government mounted. So in 2002 the military attempted a controversial attempt to overthrow the cartel in Operation Orion. Helicopters, soldiers and policemen attacked the area (over a thousand of them altogether). There were many raids and unfortunately this meant many innocent residents died or got seriously injured as a result of the crossfire and couldn’t access medical attention. The residents united together and took to the streets, raising white rags in a plea to end the violence. And with that, the violence stopped. The sense of community, solidarity and bravery shown by the residents in a bid to finally get peace is incredibly moving.
Whilst this operation significantly lowered the murder rate by about 400% and is considered by the Government to be very successful, the people of Comuna 13 believe murder rates dropped simply because people started ‘disappearing’ instead. However, the neighbourhood is in a much better place now than it was and people are channelling their discontentment and energy about Operation Orion into art, music and dance and expressing themselves in this positive way. As a result, you will see a lot of symbolic art work on the streets in Comuna 13.
What is Comuna 13 like these days?
Thankfully these days, things are much brighter for Comuna 13. During the last 10 years or so, the neighbourhood has been completely transformed. The once dangerously violent streets are now covered in beautiful wall murals and street art, which the locals use as a way to express themselves. Whilst it is still a very poor area, art and tourism in particular have given this community hope.
Tourism has increased dramatically here in the last 2 or 3 years alone as word of mouth has spread about this neighbourhood that has transformed itself. I first visited in 2017 and the streets were fairly quiet with the odd few tourists walking around. Nowadays however, you’ll see hoards of tourists here, (25,000 a week!!!) which can kind of take away from the experience here. I guess that’s what happens when you find a good thing – it never stays secret for long! And I am happy the locals are benefitting from the tourism and tourists are learning about the history here and spreading the positive word.
Should you visit Comuna 13?
Comuna 13 is such a vibrant and optimistic places filled me full of happiness, but more importantly, full of hope. It is a great example of urban transformation in a city that was desperate to change it’s reputation. I found it very educational and moving visiting this neighbourhood, and it was definitely one of my highlights in my Colombia trip. The walls of this neighbourhood tell a thousand stories and it was so incredible to walk around and witness all the impressive art work.
The locals want you to visit Comuna 13 so you can see hope and transformation. Not so you can nose into their troublesome past. You might find it surprising, but many locals are actually very offended all the ‘narco tourism’ that has become very popular in Medellin. People in this city want to look forwards, and not be constantly reminded of their past. Remember feelings and memories are still very raw for those living here. Many people died and thousands are still unaccounted for. Please be respectful towards the residents here.
What is there to see in Comuna 13?
As soon as you get to Comuna 13 you’ll see the ‘escaleras eléctricas’ (electric escalators). There are 6 outdoor linking escalators in total, and they were built as a means to help the residents easily get up and down the steep hill that the neighbourhood is located on. They have replaced 350 of the steepest steps and have really helped to make life a lot easier for the locals (the strenuous 35 minute uphill walk now takes just over 5 minutes!). They have also meant the locals feel more connected to the city of Medellin and the area is more accessible, which in turn, helped tourism flourish here.
Make sure you take the final escalator to the top, where you’ll be awarded with sweeping panoramic views – some of the best in Medellin! Medellín is located in a valley and Comuna 13 looks down into the city. It’s only from here that you’ll realise the grand scale of Medellin and Comuna 13.
The escalators operate from 06:00-22:00 (08:00-19:00 on Sundays) and are free to use.
The area is nowadays most famous for it’s large wall murals and street art. Every piece of street art here is symbolic and tells a story about the area’s past, and it’s hopes for the future. You’ll see some elephant motifs: a sign that Comuna 13 will never forget it’s past, and motifs of birds which symbolise peace. White sheet motifs symbolise the time when the locals of Comuna 13 raised white flags above their houses during the attacks to plead for the violence to end. A lot of the street art is very colourful which makes the place really uplifting.
As you go higher up the hill there are lots of pedestrianised areas where you can stroll round, sit and admire the art and take pictures. You may even see some youths performing street dance or hip hop – a way that young people are able to focus their energy and have a creative outlet instead of getting caught up in violence.
Also make sure to ride the cable car when you are in the area. Similar to the escalators, the cable car has helped transform the lives of the locals by providing easy accessibility to the metro. Therefore they can easily get into Medellin now have more opportunities for jobs. Visit the cable car after you have finished visiting Comuna 13 as it is next to the San Javier metro stop. Get on the cable car (line J) and it will go up and down the mountain, over Comuna 13 to La Aurora, providing incredible views. It is one of four cable car lines in Medellin.
How to get to Comuna 13
If coming from the metro in Medellín, get off at San Javier stop. This is the final stop on the B Line. A 20 minute uphill walk from the metro will take you to the escalators and Main Street art area. Alternatively you can wait for the bus 225i, which stops right outside the metro station. Tell the bus driver you want to get off at ‘escaleras electricas‘.
To be honest, I advise to take the bus from the metro as opposed to walking. This is not for safety reasons as I felt perfectly safe, but because it’s a lot of walking (uphill too!) and it can be easy to get disorientated amongst all the streets. Comuna 13 is not just one barrio, but a mixture of several – a commune, as it’s name suggests. It is pretty big: the whole area of Comuna 13 is actually more than seven square kilometres, made up of several neighbourhoods. So if you do plan to walk, make sure you have offline maps such as maps.me or Google Maps on your phone as it’s not one simple road to get there. Click here to see the route to walk.
Therefore it is definitely easier to take the bus as you’ll end up near the escaleras electricas, which is the main part that tourists visit, and where you can see all the street art. Plus the bus is very cheap and you’ll be with many locals on the bus which will be a cool experience.
If you wish to take a taxi to escaleras electricas, it will cost around 4,000 Colombian pesos (£1).
Is it safe to visit Comuna 13 alone?
In my opinion as a female solo traveller, yes it is. Just exercise caution and be vigilant like you would be anywhere in the world. Many people actually explore it without a tour and you’ll see plenty other tourists walking round. It is still a poor area though and crime does sometimes exist, so just keep your wits about you like you would anywhere when you travel alone.
I felt very safe here and was so glad I decided to visit. If you want to visit, don’t let other people’s comments put you off. People are really friendly and really kind here here and want to change your perception about what their area is like. Some of them will want to chat to you and share their culture with you. Make time to interact with them – you are in their area after all and it is still quite a new thing for the locals to see tourists!
People here are going back to living their normal lives without feeling scared. You’ll see street vendors, children playing in the streets, women carrying their groceries home. I did not feel threatened at all when I was here.
Be mindful when taking photographs – if you want one of a local, ask for their permission first and be respectful of people’s private property. The area is very over-populated and many of the houses here are built almost ontop of each other, so be careful you aren’t going onto someone’s property by accident.
Whilst it is great to visit Comuna 13 alone, if you are on a tour you will get to hear the stories behind the area, the art work and transformation, which is just as inspiring as seeing the art work. Therefore you may have a more meaningful and insightful experience if you visit with a tour. Read below about which two local tours I recommend.
How can you help the residents?
If you visit Comuna 13, please don’t be one of those cheap tourists who just walks around, takes pictures and leaves. Try and support the community – everyone here has been negatively affected by the violence that happened here. Whether that is by buying a postcard or a print in one of the little market stalls, or buying some street food or a juice from somewhere (there are lots of restaurants and cafes, especially near the metro station!). Your contributions will really help these residents.
You can also help the residents by going on a tour that is organised by the locals, see below for details.
Tour of Comuna 13
If you don’t fancy exploring the area alone, you can go with a tour. There are several companies that offer tours, however it is best to go with a local company, to directly help support the local community and to be more ethical. Two local companies that I recommend are:
Medellin graffiti tour is a highly recommended tour to take. Not only are the tours highly educational, but part of the proceeds of their tours are used to fund education programs for local children here in Comuna 13. Local street artists lead the tour and will tell you about the transformation of the area. They will also explain the stories behind the street art: all which promote peace and hope. The tours depart daily from Medellin, cost 80,000 Colombian pesos and last about 4 hours as they depart from Medellin (metro and bus tickets included in the price). Click here to find out more.
Zippy Tours are also a good company that offer free tours (although a tip afterwards would be very much appreciated). They are led by local guides who grew up in the area, so know the streets and stories very well and are able to give a personal and reliable account of what happened back in the day. Tours depart from San Javier metro station and you walk to Comuna 13 from here (you don’t take the bus like in Medellin Graffiti Tour). Tours also depart daily, leaving at 10am and 2pm. Click here to book a place.
What should I wear?
As Comuna 13 is set on a steep hillside, there is a fair bit of uphill walking when you get here, so wear suitable shoes. Also be respectful – this is a low socio-economic area so don’t parade around sporting your most fancy and designer gear. When I visit places like this, I don’t want local people to think I am gawping into their life or feeling sorry for them “seeing how the other half live”. (yuk I hate that expression). I just want to show that I am a normal person inquisitive about learning about other cultures.
Medellin was probably my favourite city in Colombia. You could feel the optimism in the air, the thirst for change and people looking eagerly towards the future. The Government and the people of Medellin are passionate for the city to lose it’s long-standing reputation as a centre for drug trafficking and it is rapidly becoming a much safer, and more modern place.
Looking for other ways to help Colombian families who come from a low socio-economic background? Read my post on volunteering in Bogota here!
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