“Don’t go to Colombia” they said. “It’s risky and unsafe,” we were warned.
Understandably so. Colombia’s images are tainted of brutal violence, deadly turf wars and constant gunfire. We watched the first season of Narcos and knew we were entering a place with a very dark story. In the media, Colombia is dangerous and unwelcoming.
For over 20 years, the entire country was heavily controlled by drug cartels and the city of Medellin was the centre of Pablo Escobar’s $30 billion USD cocaine empire (he supplied nearly 80 percent of the US market). Up until a few years ago Medellin was the murder capital of the world and Comuna 13 was known as the most dangerous neighbourhood. No one dared to step foot in here. Not even police.
All the media tell you not to go, but we went to Colombia anyway. It was like nothing we’ve ever experienced. Today, Colombia is a world away from the dark, illicit past they warn you about. Instead, there is a complete transformation happening. We stepped into Comuna 13 – it used to be a no-go zone. Our tour guide grew up in this barrio and still lives here. We spent the afternoon with him as he shared first hand what it was like growing up in the midst of all the violence. Our experience with him was chilling, frightening, impressive and inspiring all at once – to see how one place can go from murder capital to now one of the most peaceful, inclusive places on the planet.
A No-Go Zone
Comuna 13 sits on the hills of San Javier, Medellin, a densely-populated, low socio-economic neighbourhood – the first people who settled here built their homes out of whatever material they could find. Corrugated rooftops made of aluminum and metal sheets are held down by bricks. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Escobar and his Medellin Drug Cartel had a stronghold over this barrio. He recruited young people in the comuna to form his network of sicarios or hitmen, and paid them well. The strategic location next to the main highway also made it ideal for trafficking – drugs, money and guns came and went easily here.
In 1993, Escobar was captured and killed but the violence in Comuna 13 didn’t end. A power vacuum ensued among rebels and guerrilla groups vying for new territorial control. Kidnappings, intimidation, and drive-by shootings were part of daily life. At the height of the violence, deaths averaged 400 a year in a neighbourhood of just 100,000 residents.
In 2002, the state military carried out Operation Orion, a controversial, bloody raid on the area to overthrow guerrilla movements like the FARC, ELN and M19. Over four days, they rolled in tanks and helicopters, and shot at innocent civilians. I’ve read news articles that 20 people were killed during the raid but our guide says the real number is closer to 3,000. Orion left the situation in worse condition than before – with a greater power vacuum, more violence, and more gunfire. Ordinary people mysteriously disappeared without a trace and unidentified bodies were buried in a field the locals call la escombrera – the dump.
It was only three years ago that a peace deal was finally signed. For the first time, locals are no longer afraid to leave their homes and even tour groups are visiting here, something which was once unthinkable.
Comuna 13 is now a vibrant, lively neighboured full of colourful street art and a new entrepreneurial spirit. Local government projects and communities have transformed one of the poorest slums in the world.
Typically, the higher you go in these hills the poorer the conditions. There is less access to infrastructure like hospitals, basic utilities, and transportation. In 2004, a new cable car transport system was built which could finally connect residents in the highest areas. People could now travel to and from places that were once inaccessible – they could go to work, earn an income, or go to school in other parts of the comuna or even city centre.
This was a life changer, not just geographically. The cable car also helped bring peace and unity. Instead of killing each other, people now got to know one another on their commute, meet their neighbours and feel a sense of community. What an extraordinary impact that something as simple as a cable car can have.
If you think you have a bad morning commute, some people have it worse. Before The Transformation, residents couldn’t cross from one neighbourhood to another. They risked being killed if they accidentally crossed some invisible territorial line. The hills are dangerously steep and stairways badly maintained. Things really began to change when the government commissioned to build 6 sections of electric escalators in 2011. They are 480-meters long replacing 357 stairs, and a dangerous 35 minute journey. Now it takes just six minutes.
The escaleras electricas were the first and largest outdoor network of escalators in the world and one of the main tourist draws when you visit Comuna 13. They’ve been so successful, that other governments have replicated them in places like Brazil, Bolivia and Turkey.
At the top of the orange-covered escalators are amazing rooftop views overlooking the comuna.
Hip Hop and Graffiti Art
The never-ending cycle of violence, blood, and suffering eventually drove youth to rebel. In the mid 2000s, young artists started using rap and hip hop music to express their opposition to crime and gangs. Some emerging artists were murdered for speaking out but that only fuelled more youth to stand up against the violence.
Walking through the comuna today, you’ll find young people openly rapping in the streets, break-dancing in the courtyards, and turning bullet-riddled walls into the most colourful messages of hope, resilience, and peace. Local artists like @chota_13 and @perrograff are now famous for their creations.
The Transformation also fuelled an entrepreneurial spirit. Ordinary people started opening small businesses for their community – and eventually tourism followed. For the first time ever, tourists would visit from around the globe. You’ll find delicious Colombian food, sweet shops and street vendors, and the most inspiring little café with the mission to create inclusivity and invite in the world. The youth who run the café sing and rap while serving up delicious lattés.
How to Get to Comuna 13
To get to Comuna 13, take the metro to San Javier station (the metro system is very modern and one of the cleanest I’ve ever seen). You can meander through the streets and explore the neighbourhood on your own but I strongly recommend taking one of the gazillion well-organized tours that take place here everyday.
How Can You Help the People Who Live Here?
Take a tour. The tours are really informative. They are run by local guides who used to live in the comuna (some still live here). You will get to hear their personal stories about the area, stories behind the street art, and The Transformation. Some tours are based on tips so please give generously because many of the guides are supporting a family or putting themselves through school.
This tour by Toucan Café is the original graffiti tour. Proceeds support the community group Casa Kolacho which created most of the street art.
Or you can take this Comuna 13 graffiti tour which includes a panoramic ride on the cable car.
Buy something. A postcard, an artwork, a coffee, an ice cream. Yes, the neighbourhood is colourful and beautiful but don’t just take photos and leave. Be a responsible traveller and support the rebuild.
Go home and tell others about Colombia. When I visited Café Aroma the youth there told me they want to welcome in the world. They want everyone to visit, see their revival and what they have rebuilt. I think the most impactful thing we can do is go home and tell people about the renewed Colombia, replace all the negative prejudice people have back home with what it’s really like – peaceful and positive.
Is Colombia Safe?
Yes! The truth is Colombia is safe. Although there are still some nightly clashes and things are not yet perfect, we never felt uneasy or insecure (we still used common sense like any city). Comuna 13 in particular was full of life and energy everywhere we went. We found kids playing in the streets, teens rapping to hip hop or salsa dancing, and people eating lunch at open-air restaurants. There is a new normalcy here.
Why You Should Visit
Places like this broaden our perspective of the world. My trip to Comuna 13 was one of the most meaningful experiences, seeing first-hand that no matter how hopeless things may seem, peace and progress is possible. It was inspiring to see how a place can go from a long-standing war zone to a peaceful community (and tourist destination) in such a short time.
Colombians want you to visit their country and they are trying hard to change the dark image the world has of them. So please don’t give into the media sensationalism, fear mongering or drug paranoia because these days Colombia is better at things like art, tourism, and coffee rather than violence.