Medellin’s Comuna 13 used to be the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world. Now, thanks to the locals, it has been transformed into a peaceful, vibrant area, full of colourful street art and happy kids. And we loved it!
We joined a walking tour of the neighbourhood, booked through our hostel Black Sheep, and it was the perfect way to explore Comuna 13. Our guides Andrés and Maurizio told us all about the history of the area, how in Pablo Escobar’s time all the drug gangs reported to him but after his imprisonment and then death, gang wars broke out over territory. It was a lawless area with no police presence, and innocent residents and children got caught between crossfire.
In 2002, the government was asked by the local mayor to step in because the violence in the neighbourhood was beyond severe. A military operation began to arrest or kill the gang members. Thousands of innocent residents were caught between the fighting and hundreds lost their lives. The military operation lasted until the area was deemed safe from the gang violence. To try and repair the years of pain the residents had suffered, the local government started to regenerate the whole area and several projects were put in place, including the installation of on-street escalators to connect the houses high on the hill to the main transport links into the city.
We met one teenager who said that before the escalators, he had to walk hundreds of steps down to the nearest shop and the walk back up was long and tiring. Not only that but during the gang wars, innocent residents had to make the journey while waving a white flag to show they weren’t part of a gang, and even then they still weren’t safe. Now there is no gang violence and it’s easy for suppliers to transport goods up the hill so there are shops all around the neighbourhood, making a huge difference to the locals.
The history of Comuna 13 is gruesome and sad, but it was so amazing to see how it has been turned around. We met so many kids who were playing in the streets and looked so happy. It’s hard to imagine how different it would have been for the generation before them.
Another important feature of the transformation of Comuna 13 is the street art. Even during the military operation, local graffiti artists were starting to express the need for change on the walls of the buildings. Since then, murals have been created all over the neighbourhood with many of them trying to emphasise how important peace is. During our tour we were even lucky enough to meet two of the most famous street artists, Yorck and Yes.
Other highlights of the tour included trying the local ‘crema’ (handmade ice cream) – we had mango flavour and it was so good! It had proper chunks of mango in it so we felt like we could justify it as a healthy snack. We also had empanadas and ‘cafe limonada’ (coffee lemonade) at the cafe Yes works in. The coffee lemonade was actually really yummy and refreshing, we definitely recommend giving it a try.
We were also treated to a break dancing performance by local group Black and White, which was so good! Those guys had some moves, that’s for sure! Hip hop is really popular in the neighbourhood, where many of the residents have an Afro-Caribbean background, and the leaders of Black and White encourage the young kids to get involved. They told us they hope to inspire the kids to dance and follow a positive lifestyle rather than get involved in drugs. Such great role models!
We absolutely loved our tour of Comuna 13, it was probably the best walking tour we have had in South America! And why? Rather than looking at churches and government buildings, we got to find out more about the lives of real people and the amazing turnaround that the neighbourhood has gone through. Everyone we met was so welcoming and genuinely proud of where they live, it’s so inspiring to think that they are the ones who created this change.
We paid 55000 pesos (about £14) each to visit with Magicol tours, who we definitely recommend. If you plan on visiting Medellin, stick Comuna 13 at the top of your must-see list!
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