The city of Medellín continues to amaze me every day. I recently went on a Comuna 13 graffiti tour. And I found Comuna 13 to be community that has been transformed through improved accessibility, investment, street art and community solidarity. Note the above photo is graffiti on display in Comuna 13. Medellín’s treacherous history is no secret. A mere 25 years ago, Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world with an average of 380 killings per 100,000 people. Fast forward to 2013 and Medellín was named the most innovative city in the entire World. So, it’s fair to say, A LOT has changed. Although I’ve felt immense love for the people and culture within Colombia from Day 1, there was always something special about Medellín.
I truly believe it is the resilience of the people that has captured my heart. Not only do they have a tremendous sense of pride for their city, but to put it simply, they’ve been through an awful lot. And those that have survived, have built a type of strength that is rarely seen. Yet with all they’ve endured, Paisas (the word for people from Medellín and Antioquia) still have a heart of gold.
It’s difficult to point to just one reason for Medellín’s stark transformation. I asked this question to our tour guide as we begin our Comuna 13 graffiti tour. She stated, ever so eloquently, that Medellín is finally giving its city back to the people.In other words, Medellín is drastically enhancing access to public spaces such as parks, libraries, schools, outdoor gyms and fútbol fields. And the city is providing opportunities for people to finally own their city again.
Comuna 13: San Javier
One of the best examples of Medellín giving their spaces back to its people, is Comuna 13 or District 13, also known as San Javier, which contains 21 different barrios (neighborhoods). San Javier is primarily residential, occupying a hilly area at the western edge of Medellín. In addition, it’s one of the most densely populated areas of the city.
If you Google the words “Comuna 13” and read about the history from 15 – 20 years ago, it is evident you wouldn’t venture there. That’s because there was heavy internal conflict between guerillas, narcos, the government and other rebel groups. Today, going on a graffiti tour in the Comuna 13 neighborhood is now one of the most popular tourist attractions Medellín has to offer.
In this article, I will share with you more about the history of the neighborhood, the graffiti tour and how you can also see these beautiful works of art.
Starting the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour
As the tour begins, we begin learning about the history of Medellín and specifically, Comuna 13. The benefits of going on an official Comuna 13 tour, is getting to know the story behind each piece of art. Each piece has a powerful message that almost brings our tour guide (and us) to tears. Below are several examples of the graffiti you’ll see as you walk through the Comuna. I won’t get into the individual stories of the graffiti pieces. It’s best you take the tour yourself to truly feel the impact.
The Escalators in Comuna 13
Within the hills surrounding Medellín, in many places, one must take a number of stairs to reach a destination or their home. As a result of installing escalators, similar to the Metrocable, it allowed residents better access to various parts of the neighborhood. The 357 stairs used to take approximately 35 minutes to climb. Now, the same trip via escalators takes 6 minutes. New cafes, jewelry shops and vendors are opening at record speed in the area – a clear sign of progress. We highly recommend purchasing from the local vendors to give back to the community.
You’ll notice an insurgence of hip-hop music echoing throughout the neighborhood. Hailing from Chicago, this type of music holds a special place in my heart. Here, hip-hop music is a sign of resistance. And it’s a place for kids to focus their energy outside of illegal and gang activities. As you continue to embrace the local art, also don’t forget to also take a moment and appreciate the beautiful city views.
The people of Comuna 13 are overwhelmingly welcoming and happy to see their neighborhood continue to grow into a positive place. And as a tourist, continue to be respectful of the people of Comuna 13, the neighborhood and show your support when possible. The GRAFFITI TOUR is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip to Medellín. Most noteworthy, it has definitely been a highlight of mine. Should Medellín continue to reinvest in other barrios in the same fashion, I believe this beautiful city has a very bright future.