Visit Comuna 13 travel guide: the Graffiti Tour in Medellin

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How do you recover from the wounds inflicted by a century-long conflict and move forward? A visit to Comuna 13 in Medellín plunges us into the history of Colombia with a capital H.

With the fighting behind us, entire territories are potentially accessible again, and it’s impressive to see how quickly life is getting back on track.

Comuna 13 is one of those places that is slowlygetting back on its feet and revolutionizing its day-to-day life, through its inhabitants themselves, and in particular its street culture artists, and through its urban transformation.

So tourists who come to Comuna 13 simply to photograph the street art or to slum it in what used to be “one of the most dangerous districts in Colombia” have got it all wrong. We come to Comuna 13 to pay homage to the resilience of a people and listen to the message they have to teach us.

Disclaimer: we apologize in advance for any grammatical or syntactic errors, as our native language is not English (we're a Colombian-French couple), so we hope you'll forgive us and still enjoy the information we share with you! Please note that all the information on our blog is based on our own experience, and is checked and updated regularly.

Introduction to Comuna 13

UNDERSTANDING ITS HISTORY

Visit Comuna 13 travel guide: the Graffiti Tour in Medellin
The elephants represent the strength, resistance and memory of the inhabitants of Comuna 13

To give a brief historical perspective on the Graffiti Tour we took part in, it’s important to remember that the subject is extremely complex, and that the information provided during the guided tours is extremely rich.

In the 1960s, armed conflict in Colombia forced the region’s peasants to take refuge in the hills above Medellín. Shanty towns sprang up, which gradually grew to be “integrated” into the city. Comuna 13 is one such shantytown.

But La Comuna 13 was a strategic zone. It was Medellín’s gateway to and from the north and the Uraba region.

In the 90s, the conflict drew closer to Medellín. The FARCS and ELN (Marxist guerrillas) took control of the Comuna 13 district to gain control of the road to the north.

Until the early 2000s, Comuna 13 became one of Colombia’s most dangerous neighborhoods. With guerrillas, paramilitaries and armed gangs linked to drug trafficking, the population was left to fend for itself by the authorities, and the result was anarchy and violence.

This was the moment the Colombian government chose to launch Operation Orion. It was a military operation that led to civilian deaths in the district, and dislodged the guerrillas to set up even more violent paramilitary groups.

operation Orion

In 2002, the government decided to launch a military operation to “clean up” the district, Operation Orion. This operation left an indelible mark on the history of Comuna 13.

Aided by paramilitary militias, the army entered Comuna 13 and surrounded the district. For 3 days, the inhabitants experienced a veritable urban war, with several civilians killed and hundreds wounded. There is also talk of a hundred or so missing persons, never found, who are said to be buried in a fake clandestine commune in the mountains.

With Operation Orion over and the Marxist guerrillas out of the way, paramilitary militias took control of Comuna 13. Instead of solving the neighborhood’s problems, the paramilitaries’ takeover of the district proved even more deadly.

The paramilitary groups’ procedure is well known and has been reproduced in various regions of the country: it’s called “limpieza social”, or social cleansing. In other words, civilians suspected of supporting the guerrillas are murdered.

Acting like a mafia, the terror inflicted by the paramilitaries continued for several years without any intervention from the state. Families in Comuna 13 were threatened and extorted, and residents continued to disappear.

This is what Operation Orion is all about: a military intervention by the Colombian state justified by the presence of Marxist guerrillas, which will ultimately install an even more devastating paramilitary presence for the inhabitants.

In the mid-2000s, the government launched a communication campaign around the “disarmament” of paramilitary groups. In the Comuna 13 neighborhood, however, no changes were made.

It wasn’t until the late 2000s that the neighborhood began to calm down.

Local initiatives began to emerge, notably from youth and the hip-hop movement. The city is also beginning to invest in the district’s development. Finally, the rebirth of Comuna 13 begins.

Pablo Escobar and Comuna 13

As you may have noticed, there’s no mention of Pablo Escobar in the history of Comuna 13, simply because he never had any influence over Comuna 13 – his power extended to other parts of the city.

Urban transformation

HOW URBANISM IS CHANGING comuna 13

Visit Comuna 13 travel guide: the Graffiti Tour in Medellin
Escalators, symbols of the transformation of Comuna 13

With a vague idea of what we were about to discover, we took the metro to Poblado station, heading for Comuna 13. We had marked this visit with a white cross on our new trip to Colombia, as we wanted to find out more about this district that has become a must-see for foreign tourists.

We met up with Mike from Casa Kolacho, an association of hip-hop artists working to promote social cohesion in the district through artistic education, to discover Comuna 13 through a Graffiti Tour.

The tone is set as soon as we arrive. Mike, our guide for the day, a graffiti artist and resident of Comuna 13, reassures us (if there was any need to do so): “Here we’re going to have a good time, to understand and appreciate the evolution of our neighborhood, get out your cameras, keep them around your neck, you risk nothing and enjoy!”

Everything we love.

Mike is passionate about the evolution of his neighborhood, and it starts right from our first steps to catch the bus. In just a few minutes on the road, the architectural transformation between the lower part of the neighborhood and the labyrinth of buildings in the upper Comuna is striking.

Mike is a wealth of knowledge, and this Graffiti Tour with him is a master class in the sociology of struggle, involving urban planning, the art of survival and resilience.

What is a “Comuna”?

The term “Comunas” simply refers to the 16 zones that make up the city of Medellín. Each Comuna is divided into “Barrios”. It’s a mistake to confuse Comunas with Favelas, or slums. Only the Comunas on the mountainside have sprung up as shantytowns.

With the exodus caused by the armed conflict in Colombia, the peasants arrived in Medellín and each one built himself a “house” of wood, brick or sheet metal on a few square meters to take refuge. Over the years, these “extensions” of the city have been legalized and structured to become this mosaic of precarious buildings on the mountainside.

But confusing “Comuna” with “Favela” or “Bidon-ville” would be a mistake.

The topography of the area has played a major role in the neighborhood’s evolution. One wonders how so many houses managed to grow on such steep, craggy terrain. The difficulty of getting around Comuna 13 and the lack of state presence created a real isolation for the neighborhood and its inhabitants. Getting to downtown Medellín was very complicated and time-consuming.

So it’s easy to see why the arrival of the metrocable (cable car) and electric staircases has reshuffled the deck and transformed the lives of the inhabitants. The mayor of the time invested considerable resources in the transformation of Medellín: a veritable revolution that changed the face of the city in the eyes of the world.

In 2013, Medellín was named the world’s most innovative city , and the city’s poorer districts were to benefit from this urban innovation.

With direct access to the city center, improved traffic flow within the district and the end of the armed conflict, over the years Comuna 13 has finally begun to see the light. By breaking out of its isolation and finally receiving the support of the city, the inhabitants will be able to look forward to a new stage, that of a relative but well-deserved peace.

Meanwhile, the young people of Comuna 13 are developing a voice of their own, through the hip-hop movement, to express the memory of the neighborhood, their rage for freedom and change.

Comuna 13, Graffiti Tour

OR ART AS SOCIAL COHESION

Visit Comuna 13 travel guide: the Graffiti Tour in Medellin
Mike, graffiti artist and local Graffiti Tour guide

While Mike is passionate about the urban transformation of Comuna 13, he is also, and above all, a graffiti artist and member of the Casa Kolacho collective. And he knows the walls of his barrio like the back of his hand. He makes you realize that every centimeter of paint has been applied to these wobbly bricks for a reason.

Comuna 13 is divided into 16 barrios, and for the Graffiti Tour we’re in Independencia 1. Here, murals, graffiti, street art – call them what you will – tell the story of the neighborhood. Like a diary. Like a window into the souls of the residents. Like an open book on dramas, struggles and hopes.

So it’s through hip-hop culture, the artistic practice of dance, graffiti and music, that the young people of Comuna 13 have expressed themselves, revolted. By telling their stories on the walls, they will give a voice to the ordinary inhabitants and build an identity, the possibility of self-esteem. A velvet revolution that lost its combatants, but which today forms the bedrock of Comuna 13.

The Casa Kolacho collective is there to keep the flame alive. Present for over 15 years and spearheading the hip-hop movement in the Comuna, they work to promote social cohesion by offering dance, painting and music classes and initiations for young people, as well as concerts, performances and guided tours.

So you come to Comuna 13 to admire its colors, you come to photograph the street art, you come to party in what used to be “one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Colombia”, but you’ve got it all wrong. We come to Comuna 13 to pay homage to the resilience of a people and listen to the message they have to teach us.

Resilience is surely the least known quality of the Colombian character, and yet it is perhaps the greatest strength of the Colombian people. Resilience is the ability of the men and women of this country to rise above difficult trials, to always find a space of freedom in the darkness, a glimmer of hope.

Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour

For us, it’s essential to visit Comuna 13 with a local guide. For those who speak English or Spanish, it’s possible to take either the Comuna 13 Freetour or the Grafitour with Casa Kolacho.

Private tour of Comuna 13 in english and lunch at a local’s home

For those who would like a guided tour in english, here’s our recommendation: Cathy’s agency offers guided tours of Comuna 13 in english, ending with a meal at a local‘s home, an experience we highly recommend.

Kaanas Travel Medellin (#10)

To contact Cathy directly, our local partner in Medellin, you can use the form below. You won’t pay any more, but it will let her know you’ve come from us.

IMPORTANT: If you don’t hear from our partner within 72 hours, please check your SPAMS first before contacting us.

How to get to Comuna 13

Metro: San Javier stop
Metrocable: Line J, San Javier stop
Then bus: 221-I or 228-I to Independencia 1 and walk to the escalators.

Security

Although Comuna 13 still suffers from delinquency, as do many other neighborhoods around the world, France included, it’s a far cry from the days when it was uninhabitable.

In 2017, the Independencia district, where the Graffiti Tour takes place in Comuna 13, welcomed over 100,000 visitors… so you can imagine that today it’s a safe place to stroll around during the day and meet the locals.

Where to stay in Medellin

Medellin, the best hotels

574 hotel

574 hotel

Double room : $150.000 to $200.000 COP

A small hotel with a neat and pretty decor. It has very good reviews for cleanliness, service, breakfast and location. We think it could be good value for money

Laureles, Medellin, the best hotels

Appartment Laureles Stadiuam

Appartement

Appartment Laureles Stadiuam

Double room : $150.000 to $200.000 COP

Really affordable apartments, super clean and perfectly located in the trendy new district of Laureles!

Laureles, Medellin, the best hotels

Appart'Hotel Loma verde

Appartement

Appart’Hotel Loma verde

Double room : $400.000 à $700.000

For those looking for the comfort of a hotel and the convenience of having a kitchen and space in an apartment, Loma Verde offers beautiful, well-decorated apartments in a convenient location away from the noise of Poblado!

Laureles, Medellin, the best hotels

Avanti apartments

Appartement

Avanti apartments

Double room : $0 to $100.000 COP

Several apartments for 2 people in Laureles, Medellin’s trendy new district. Well-equipped, comfortable, conveniently located… what more could you ask for?

Medellin, the best hotels, Poblado

Patio del mundo hotel

Hotel

Patio del mundo hotel

Double room : $400.000 à $700.000

So let’s face it, we’re dreaming of spending a night there! May the gods of travel hear us! El Patio del mundo is a beautiful place to spend an exceptional moment… what else!

Medellin, the best hotels, Poblado

Garden of Blues Hostel

Hostal

Garden of Blues Hostel

Dormitory : $25.000 to $50.000/Double room : $0 to $100.000 COP

Located in the El Poblado district, the Garden of Blues hostel is everything we love: a green space in the middle of the city. The whole place is dedicated to plants, and the atmosphere is just great!

Medellin, the best hotels, Poblado

Yolo Hostal

Hostal

Yolo Hostal

Dormitory : $25.000 to $50.000/Double room : $100.000 to $150.000 COP

Located in the El Poblado district, it’s one of Medellin’s best-selling hostals, but still gets rave reviews. Bonus: you can eat well on site.

Santa Elena

Forest house

Finca

Forest house

Double room : $0 to $100.000 COP

Located in Santa Elena, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all! Carlos, the owner, will make you feel right at home, and you’ll never want to leave.

Santa Elena

Monte Helicon Ecolodge

Eco Lodge

Monte Helicon Ecolodge

Double room : $300.000 to $350.000 COP

Located in Vereda Piedra Gorda, the Monte Helicon eco-lodge is a little bubble of luxury in the middle of nature, with its spa and treatments, it’s the perfect place to relax and be pampered.

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Authors

Angélica & Samuel

We are Angélica and Samuel, a French-Colombian couple, professional photographers and web editors specializing in travel to Colombia. We created this blog to change the image of the country, help you prepare your trip and inspire you to discover Colombia in a different way!

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