Comuna 13- What to know and why to go

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Comuna 13, a low socioeconomic neighborhood located above Medellin, was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods within one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Due to its history and influence on Colombian culture, it is a very important place to visit when you come to Medellin. Below is some of the significant history of Comuna 13 and how you can visit to see it for yourself.

The history:

Hillside barrios like Comuna 13 began after the violence in the countryside of Colombia pushed thousands of people into Medellin, seeking a safer place to live. When many of these citizens ran to Medellin, they had minimal belongings and couldn’t afford to live in the city, so they were forced to make small unsanctioned homes of brick and cement stacked very close to one another.

Unfortunately, the government didn’t consider these residences legal, which meant that the area did not receive any support from the police. The location of this community, combined with a lack of infrastructure and government support, made a perfect storm that made Comuna 13 the perfect place for drug and arms trafficking.

Violent drug trafficking organizations took advantage of this poor hillside barrio as a transit route, and the community became overrun with guerrillas, gangs, and paramilitaries.

Fast forward to 2002 when President Alvar Uribe launched Operation Orion- a raid on Comuna 13 led by thousands of troops with helicopter support. In the first week of the raid, many of the commune’s residents were caught in the crossfire, causing hundreds of injuries and disappearances.

In the next 10 years, the government focused on improving the hillside barrio by building community centers and improving housing structures. The next issue was accessibility, so in 2011, the government installed “escaleras electricas” (outdoor escalators) to connect parts of the barrio with the city below.

How to visit:

Comuna 13 (San Javier) is located in Zone 4 of Medellin, on the city’s western edge. Despite being almost accessible from the metro line, it feels a world away from the sprawling city of Medellin in countless ways. Each day you can find a plethora of eccentric tour guides outside of the San Javier Metro Station, waiting to gather small groups to walk through Comuna 13 with them so they can share stories of the history of the barrio and Medellin, as well as the details of the transformative changes the area has been through in recent decades.

While you can visit Comuna 13 independently, it is highly recommended to go with a guide. Visiting the area with a knowledgeable guide is safer, as the area still suffers from poverty and violence. It is also a more interesting experience since you will learn more this way.

Do your research before picking your local tour guide, and focus on picking one with true connections with the area. Our 3-hour tour was about $15 USD, and we loved our “Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour” and our guide! You can book their tour here! In a general sense, I tend to avoid big tour groups due to price, crowds, and past disappointments, but for this area, booking a small group tour with this group is definitely the way to go.

Our tour started by riding the escalators that connect Medellin to the barrio. While we explored, we saw vibrant street murals painted over bullet holes, browsed local artists’ shops, ate homemade ice cream, and enjoyed sipping on a local beer while taking in all the history and culture.

Comuna 13, once taken over by gang violence and ruled by Pablo Escobar and his cartel, still has a long way to go. But when we visited in 2022, it was clear that it is filled with feelings of hope from the locals, and we never once felt unsafe or unwelcome walking around.

If you have any questions about our experience visiting Comuna 13, or Medellin, I’d be happy to answer them- you can contact me here!

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