How to Visit Comuna 13 – History and Street Art in Medellin


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The city of Medellin has 250 neighbourhoods, which are all part of the 16 communes of the city.  A commune (or comuna in Spanish ) is a simply a neighbourhood of the city.  Different parts of the city of Medellin belong to communes.   El Poblado, the primary tourist area of the city, is, for instance, part of Comuna 14, Plaza Botrero, part of downtown Medellin belongs to Comuna 10.  Comuna 13 also known as San Javier was once considered a no go area.  It was labelled the most dangerous community of Medellin due to the very high homicide rates.  Comuna 13 today is the living embodiment of how a community has turned itself around.  Visiting Comuna 13 from Medellin is a great way to understand what changed here in this community and why.

Why go to Comuna 13

The history of Comuna 13 ties in closely with Colombia’s history.  By visiting Comuna 13 you’ll be learning about both some of the darker elements of Colombia’s history, but you’ll also be understanding what it takes to turn things around.  In taking a tour of Comuna 13 you’ll be supporting the continuing transformation of the community and neighbourhoods of this part of Medellin.

It’s important to learn from the past in order to move forward and you’ll find that in spades in Comuna 13.   You’ll get some idea of the scale and scope of the city of Medellin by visiting some of the neighbourhoods on the outskirts.  While some areas of Comuna 13 are safe for visiting tourists, you should always be aware of your surroundings, be respectful of the area in which you are visiting and her residents.

view from comuna 13

Many of the violent events that happened here in Comuna 13 and Medellin are in the recent past.  Many families were affected and many still do not know what happened to their loved ones.  Be respectful when you visit, these are people’s homes and so long as you take these few things into consideration you’ll a safe, interesting and educational visit.

Best Way to Take a Tour of Comuna 13

The best way to take a tour of Comuna 13 is to arrange one with a local.  You’ll get inside information and a sense of history that you won’t from just taking one with a general tour agency.  Check out these tour options.

 

  • In this four hour tour of Comuna 13 with a local, you’ll explore the district of Comuna 13, learn the history and see some of the most incredible street art. You’ll meet local artists and residents.   You’ll meet at the Poblado metro station and your metro tickets are included in the tour price. Check availability and book this highly rated tour now!
  • Take a private tour of Comuna 13, and benefit from a pick up from your hotel or hostel. You’ll get to head off the tourist trail and see the street art of Comuna 13 that has contributed towards transforming one of the most violent districts in the world to one of the most innovative. Explore your options and book now!

What is Comuna 13?

A commune in Medellin is simply one of the city of Medellin’s collection of neighbourhoods.  It stretches for 7 square kilometres and incorporates 12 different neighbourhoods.  Some of the neighbourhoods are safe, others aren’t.  Most tours and where you should focus your attention are the areas of Las Independencias and the 20 de Julio area.

Comune definitely doesn’t mean slum or dodgy area, it is just a collection of geographically connected neighbourhoods.    Comuna 13 is infamous as having been labelled the most dangerous part of a city, Medellin, that was already known for its violence and high homicide rates.

 

The History of Comuna 13 Medellin

Comuna 13 began as a small village called Las Granjas, it was also called, after that, La America.  As the city of Medellin grew and encompassed smaller, then outlying villages, las Granjas became a neighbourhood of Medellin.    Comuna 13 was, however, still primarily an agricultural area where fruit and vegetables were cultivated.

If you want to read more about Comuna 13 history we recommend this book District 13 – available in English and Spanish, it chronicles the stories of pain, violence and suffering of those living here.  It also describes how the district transformed and what happens there today. Buy this one kindle and enhance your Comuna 13 visit now!

Comuna 13 in the 1940s

The biggest changes in this area came in 1946 when one of the large farms of the area was transformed into a residential area.  Changes came even more quickly in the 1960s and 1970’s when more and more farmland was sold to provide housing for primarily economic migrants to the area.

escalataors

Comuna 13 in the 1970s and 1980s

Yet further migrants came in the late 1970s and the early 1980’s – primarily those displaced by drug and gun violence from more rural areas of Antioquia.  These immigrants were primarily poor, with few skills other than farming and construction.  There was very little integration and much discrimination between the different waves of immigrants to Comuna 13.

Many of those living in Comuna 13 at this time were living in cheap, poorly constructed houses made of wood and salvaged materials.  They used water that came from contaminated sources, stole electric and had jobs or means of income.  It is little wonder that they were targeted by gangs involved in smuggling and drug trafficking.

Comuna 13 is just one day trip to take from Medellin – here’s 9 others to check out

Comuna 13 in the late 1980s and early 1990s

Control of Comuna 13 during this time was under major dispute amongst Paramilitiaries, FARC and ELN.  Each of these illegal groups were keen on controlled Comuna 13 as it was a strategic location for moving both cocaine and weapons.  Comuna 13 was controlled by groups loyal to the notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar.  Even after his death, the cartels sought to retain control of this area, which was so important to their distribution.

These armed and violent groups took and retained power primarily based on the illegal drugs trade in Colombia and expanded their operations and became a nationwide problem claiming responsibility for multiple murders every single day.

 

Comuna 13 in 2003-2004

During this 2 year period, Comuna 13 was under the control of the Paramilitaries, who became judge and juror for those they identified as helping the guerrillas.   Those deemed as guilty were usually killed.  More than 200 people were “disappeared” and it is alleged, were buried in a rubbish dump called “La Escombrera”.  The Paramilitaries were disbanded in 2004 and a relative peace descended on Comuna 13.  That’s not to say that there was no gang or illegal activity took place.  It did and continues to do so today to a much lesser extent.

Postive change started in Comuna 13 in 2002

The election of Alvaro Uribe in 2002 as Colombian President along with the support of the then Medellin Mayor, Luis Perez led to the beginning of change for Comuna 13.   The first changes came with 10 military operations, which were instigated during 2002.  The first operation, Mariscal, took places on 21st May 2002.  9 people were killed, all innocent civilians.   It led, primarily to the displacement of many citizens to other areas and neighbourhoods of Medellin.  Mariscal came to an end with the waving of a single white bed sheet from one window – a mother desperate to take her sons to hospital.  Other neighbours followed suit and the operation ended.

The last military operation of Comuna 13 was also the biggest.  In October, the Orion operation lasted for 3 days and employed more than 1500 military, 2 helicopters and a tank.  The Colombian army and police are thought to have worked with the paramilitaries to destroy the guerrillas holed up in Comuna 13.  Many innocent citizens were again injured and killed.  While Operation Orion might have wiped out the guerrillas, it simply handed control of Comuna 13 to the Paramilitaries.

Comuna 13 from 2002 – 2006

Comuna 13 residents stared to voice their anger with the violence of the operations of 2002.  Community events and pieces of street art depicting the waving of the white sheets raised solidarity and hopes for peace in the area.

comuna 13 street art (2)

Comuna 13 from 2006 to 2011

Local government investment in Comuna 13 started in 2006 and a new cable car line was opened in 2008.  San Javier Station was built and Comuna 13 became much more connected with her surrounding communities.

In December 2011 six electrical escalators were opened in Comuna 13 – providing residents with an alternative to the 384 metres (1260 feet) climb over 350 steep stairs that were their only access previously.

escalators

The escalators are free and operate from 0600 until 2200 during the week and from 0800 until 1900 on Sundays.

A wide pathway, the Viaducto Media Ladera connecting different neighbourhoods and providing for outside meeting places and seating areas was also provided.

Comuna 13 in 2020

Comuna 13 is a transformed neighbourhood.   International visitors come every day to see this vibrant neighbourhood, where locals give tours and first-hand accounts of the changes.  Revenue from tourism brings money directly into the neighbourhood and into the hands of those who live here, not any faceless (to the tourist) organization or gang that controls things.

The very look and feel of the neighbourhood have changed.  Street Art adorns many walls.  Music reverberates throughout the area.  Dance squads entertain tourists.  Local vendors sell cane juice and ice creams, restaurants and coffee shops tempt you in for further refreshments.

Above all, life has changed.  There are opportunities for gainful, sustainable legal employment.  Transport links such as the escalators, the cable cars and the metro station – as well as the easy and cheap pricing of the transport make it possible for anyone from here to travel anywhere on the Medellin metro network for just 2.550 COP.

Now you have the history of Comuna 13, here’s how to visit Comuna 13.

How to take a tour of Comuna 13

You can visit Comuna 13 as part of a guided tour or independently.  We know you’re probably concerned that it might not be safe to visit independently, so here’s a little about safety.

tour groups on the escalators

Is it safe to go to comuna 13 by yourself?  Yes.  It’s safe to visit Comuna 13, so long as you follow a few simple rules.  And to be honest we apply these rules wherever we visit, in any country.

  1. Visit during daylight hours.
  2. Don’t overtly show fancy jewellery or expensive gear
  3. Always ask before taking a photo of people.
  4. If you don’t feel safe in a situation back out of it.
  5. Stick to the main routes and areas.

 

How to get to Comuna 13 on a guided Tour

Taking a guided tour to Comuna 13 is the easiest way to visit Comuna 13.  You’ll either be met in Poblado, Laureles or at the exit of the San Javier Metro station. Our guide to the Medellin metro makes it REALLY easy to navigate Medellin’s fabulous metro system.

Here are our most highly recommended guided tours of Comuna 13.

  • In this four hour tour of Comuna 13 with a local, you’ll explore the district of Comuna 13, learn the history and see some of the most incredible street art. You’ll meet local artists and residents.   You’ll meet at the Poblado metro station and your metro tickets are included in the tour price. Check availability and book this highly rated tour now!
  • Take a private tour of Comuna 13, and benefit from a pick up from your hotel or hostel. You’ll get to head off the tourist trail and see the street art of Comuna 13 that has contributed towards transforming one of the most violent districts in the world to one of the most innovative. Explore your options and book now!

comuna 13 street art

How to get to Comuna 13 without a tour

If you wish to visit Comuna 13 independently, then it is easy to do so.  You’ll find Comuna 13 in the west of Medellin, around 6 miles (10 kilometres) from Poblado, but despite the distance its really easy to get there on Medellin’s metro system.  The closest Medellin metro station is San Javier.  This is the last stop of the B line.  So take the metro to San Javier.

When you exit San Javier metro station, the Comuna 13 escalators are a short 1 kilometre (0.6 miles) walk (turn left out of the metro station).  The walk to the Comuna 13 escalators from the San Javier metro station takes a slow 20 minutes.

You can also take a taxi (around 5,000 COP) or take the bus number 225i or any bus with “escalares” written on it.  The bus from San Javier Metro station to the escalators will cost 1,100 COP per person.

bus from san javier to escalators

If you are taking a guided Comuna 13 tour, then most tours will either meet outside the San Javier Metro station or will meet you at the Poblado metro station.

What to see when you’re visiting Comuna 13 independently

The first things that you’ll want to do is to take the escalators.  So make your way to them, either walk (it is easy, that’s what we did), take a bus, also easy or take a taxi (even easier)

square near the base of the escalators

There are 6 escalators.  Each escalator takes seconds.  There are platforms at the top of each.  On some platforms, there are vendors selling drinks and souvenirs.  Stop and take a while at each to explore the artwork and the vendors’ offerings.

adjoining escalators

You’ll find cafes, ice creams, guarapo all offering something for sale.  Also on the way up you’ll find some of the street art that COmuna 13 is so famous for.

What to Know About Comuna 13’s Street Art.

You’ll notice several motifs amongst the street art in Comuna 13.

White Cloths:  These stand for the time when during the Mariscal military operation white clothes and sheets were used to stop the operation in order that residents could take their injured to hospital.

Red, Yellow & Blue:  the colours of the Colombian flag

Birds:  symbols for peace.

comuna 13 street art

Things to do in Comuna 13

  1. Take a tour – take a tour from a local to get more of the inside information about transformation here and also get the local story – try this tour here
  2. Get an ice-cream – there are several vendors selling the most fabulous ice cream. Try green mango, you don’t regret it!
  3. Get a guarapo – fresh-squeezed cane juice- its really refreshing.
  4. Get a coffee – you are, after all, in the land of coffee!
  5. Eat lunch in Comuna 13. You’ll find a few places to eat either at the stops on the escalators or at the bottom of them.
  6. Photograph the artwork that takes your fancy.
  7. Watch the black and white break dancing dance group at the top of escalators. Don’t forget to tip.
  8. Don’t wander off the beaten track. There’s a great balcony walk that you can walk around and get amazing views of the wider city of Medellin.

artwork on the parade comuna 13

How long does a trip to Comuna 13 take?

You can take as long as you like.  A guided tour of Comuna 13 usually lasts around 3 hours. When we took our independent trip to Comuna 13, from the time we stepped off the San Javier Metro to the time we got back on it, we’d spent around 2 hours here.

black white dance group comuna 13

Final Words about Visiting Comuna 13

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Comuna 13.  We found the residents and tour guides to be friendly and open.  The street vendors were open, helped us with our stumbling Spanish and the guarapo and ice-cream that we bought was thoroughly enjoyable.  We felt safe the entire time of our trip to Comuna 13 and no issues or worries at all.  My biggest worry was that my visit was intrusive to the local community, but that didn’t appear to be an issue at all either!

So, please understand a little more about the history and hopes of Comuna 13 and enjoy your visit!

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About Sarah Carter

Sarah Carter is an avid reader, writer and traveller. She loves hiking, sailing, skiing and exploring the world through food. She left a successful career in IT security and compliance in both the UK and US to travel the world with husband and partner in adventure, Nigel.

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