Colombia :: Medellin’s Comuna 13

“Once one of the most dangerous places in the world, Comuna 13 is now a cradle of art and culture.”

The city of Medellin is divided into communes. Comuna 13 consists of thousands of brightly colored houses at the top of a very steep hill and is different from the other 15 comunas because of the enormous amount of colorful street art and graffiti.

“Tucked away in a corner of the former ‘murder capital of the world’ is Comuna 13, once one of the most dangerous places in the world, and now a cradle of art and culture, and a symbol of the fight against terror.”
– The Hindu

You’ll find a different mural on every wall of every building and smaller art pieces in between. Added to this is the many street musicians and kids trying to jump start their rap career, the vendors selling original art, prints and trinkets as souvenirs. You can also test out the Mango Popsicle dipped in honey water… At least I think that’s what it was, the water was so sweet even I couldn’t finish it – and that’s saying a lot.

I got on another guided tour this time, but it wasn’t for safety and you really don’t have to worry about going just you and a friend. We saw several people in groups of two or three with no guides, handling their Lonely Planet books and trying to figure out the history of this place and Franklin told us it was perfectly fine. I trust Franklin, he could rap. For myself though, I wanted the more “curated experience” again. I have come to realize that I, (at least when I am fatigued), prefer someone to take me to a place and point out and explain to me the most important parts. Preferably with some storytelling and tidbits in there. And we certainly got that with our guide/storyteller/rapper/chef, Franklin.

Franklin, our guide

I got myself to the metro station “San Javier Cll.45 #98-80 Medellin” and after a while the tourists started congregating. We were all there for the tour and each of us were assigned a guide. The guides broke the group up in smaller groups and got a taxivan each for their specific group. It was kind of like being back in elementary school and being divided up for theme day or something. In my van there were people from the Netherlands, England, France, and another European country I can’t remember now. I ended up bonding with Emero and Jamie from my other motherland while we “sped” along the crowded street towards the starting point of our walking tour.

“At first glance, the graffiti is hard to understand: a herd of elephants weeping, a group of disoriented people looking nowhere in particular. But hidden within every piece of art in Comuna 13 is a strong message, not just to the residents of the commune, but to the world. If you look closer, every elephant in the herd carries a white handkerchief to denote peace, while thick tears roll down their eyes, despondent about the violence once rampant here. It is hard for people to forget the violence that was once a part of their lives; and elephants have the greatest memory.”
– The Hindu

After the death of Escobar there were several gangs that tried to take control of Medellin. This lead to the bloody wars that are infamous now. Pop culture has no shortage of series, books and music dedicated to Escobar’s reign and the consequences of it. Comuna 13 was on the highway used to transport drugs out of Medellin and as gang members wreaked havoc on the surroundings the violence erupted and millions of people lost their lives before the government stepped in.

The government didn’t do a good job though. I fact, they didn’t distinguish between drug lord, trafficker and civilian, so for four days weapons were fired en masse at civilian homes to target gangsters. The loss of innocent, civilian lives was horrific. In addition, ambulances could not negotiate the steep slope up to the comuna so first responders couldn’t even help. This was when the people of Comuna 13 came together and waved white handkerchiefs symbolising peace, and ending the bloodshed. (Very simplified, but this is the story. The civilians were desperate and persuaded the soldiers on both sides to stop by waving the handkerchiefs and risking their lives getting wounded help).

In the aftermath artists protested by splashing the walls with colour to depict the people’s suffering. And from this came the famous street art of Comuna 13.

What started as a protest has grown into the areas greatest means of income today. Comuna 13 welcomes tourists from all over the world and entertain them while they drink the beer, listen to the music and are captivated by the stories and art of the place. I certainly was. I didn’t buy any original art (this time), I ended up with a fridge magnet and some postcards trying to be all smart about my expenses… I’m an idiot. But at least I have a fridge magnet. We also got to see a small gallery where they paint 3D paintings in neon colours. We got glasses on and everything – it was spectacular! (The pictures above do not translate the actual experience).

This is the art piece on my fridge magnet. I have the taste. There are different animals hidden within the lion (easier to spot on mine as it doesn’t have the writing over it).

Franklin met up with some of his pals (I mean, he knew everyone there so…) and they gave us a show rapping about stuff I couldn’t understand (it was in Spanish), but it sounded really good. Franklin even stepped in for a verse here and a chorus there.

After a long day with some of the hottest sun we’d had so far and too many impressions and stories to count (to be honest I think I remember about half the stuff I was told), we could choose to either call it quits and go home or get a trip on the Metrocable (the cable car/gondola in Medellin). It was even included in our tour ticket, so Emero, Jamie and I decided to go.

It started operations in 2004, has five separate lines and carries approximately 30,000 people daily. It’s a great compliment to the metro and bus system and given that Medellin is surrounded by mountains it makes it way easier for the people to reach some of the city’s informal settlements on the steep hills. We ended up on Line J and took it to the top, the station was called “Aurora Cll.64 #104-69”. Just rolls off the tongue that one…

“Soon after officials saw the enormous success of Line K, plans to proceed with another line – Line J – was immediately on the table. It officially opened in 2008. Similar to Line K, it also has four stations: San Javier, Juan XXIII, Vallejuelos and La Aurora. The entire length of Line J runs along 2.7 km of cable.”

At the top we found a funky building decorated with panels covered in various colours and decorations. I later found out it houses swimming pools and apparently you can “do sports there”, so maybe it’s a gym(?) – took photos anyway, the building was cool. We also saw a lovely terrace for taking in the view of the whole valley below, it was so beautiful. This is where I saw something that looked like a tiny kite far, far in the distance… So far away I couldn’t make out what it was, but Jamie said “that’s a kite”. When I asked “how do they get it all the way up there then?” (cause it was SERIOUSLY high up!), Jamie went into that total “Brit Dry Mode ” and just said: “String.”

Thanks, Jamie. ❤

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