Comuna 13, once known as the most dangerous neighborhood in the world, is now a popular tourist destination in Medellin. Visitors come high up into the mountain community to see the dazzling colorful artworks that cover the walls of buildings, shacks and public spaces. But the story of Comuna 13, and the tour of this place, is more than breathtaking color and strokes of creativity. This place holds the stories of a dark past and a community determined, and inching closer and closer to moving past it.
I took the Graffiti/ Comuna 13 Tour on Wednesday, my fourth day in Medellin, through Toucan Tours. I booked it in the café attached to my school. It feels a bit lame that I chose to take this tour through the school I attend, rather than finding my own way up to the mountains of the northwest. But it was convenient, sounded interesting, and so I went.
The tour cost 70,000 Colombian Pesos, roughly $22 USD and double the price of some of the other similar tours. There is, in fact, a free walking tour of the area. Still I don’t feel swindled, and I’ll tell you why.
For one thing, this tour began at the Toucan café in the Lleras Park area of Poblado, a very easy spot to find. From there the guide walked all of us in a group to the Poblado metro station where we got a quick overview of the metro and then continued on our journey to the Western hillsides of Medellin via two metro lines and a very interesting bus ride. Sure, the metro system here is easy…once you’re used to it. But finding your way up to the top to Comuna 13 (including the hair-raising 10 minute bus ride up steep, narrow, winding roads) would be quite a task. The price of all transportation was included in our tour, so our guide gave us metro cards to use for the day and then we returned them at the end.
The money paid for this particular tour of Comuna 13 directly benefits Casa Kolacho, a local collective of artists responsible for 90% of the eye-popping graffiti that covers the walls of Comuna 13. Casa Kolacho is a collective of break dancers, graffiti artists, musicians, rappers, DJs, and producers. As a means of revitalizing the community, they offer locals of all ages, especially children, the opportunity to learn these skills completely free of charge. This even includes free use of the recording studio with which the house is equipped. Half of the money collected for this Toucan Tour goes to Casa Kolacha to help them fund their various community initiatives.
Lastly, I’ve paid way more for less. $22 USD is nothing in the scheme of things, and for a four hour tour including metro fare and not one, but two local guides, the price seemed fine to me. Plus we got a free snack! Green mango fruit ice cream dipped in salty lemon sauce. Sounds weird right? Get yo’self here and try you some! Truly one of the highlights of my day.
San Javier Metro Station
Art is hiding everywhere
Comuna 13, otherwise known as San Javier, was once called the most dangerous neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world. This neighborhood, built into the slope of the mountain west of the city of Medellin, was created of poor farmers, displaced from their homes due to violence. They constructed homes from plastic, bricks, scrap materials they could find, many little more than shacks made of trash. Up in the mountains and a poor population, the Comuna was of little interest to the city’s government and was of much interest to guerillas and organized crime. The Comuna was infiltrated with guerillas and clashes between authorities and different criminal enterprises went on for years, with the innocent residents of the neighborhood caught in the crossfires. This is not to insinuate that it was good vs. evil, because as we know in life things are often more gray than black or white.
On October 16, 2002, the Colombian government launched Operation Orion, a deadly siege on the tightly packed Comuna that left hundreds of civilians injured, dead, arbitrarily arrested, or missing. This operation included 1,000 troops and policia and two blackhawk armed helicopters—genrally reserved for war. Following the days of bloody battle, the left-wing paramilitary that had been hiding out in the cracks and crevices of Comuna 13 were expelled, making room for the new Right-wing paramilitary groups ushered in after Operation Orion. These groups continued to terrorize the residents for years.
It is said that over 300 people went missing from this area, never to be seen again.
In our rickety bus ride from Comuna 13 to the Casa Kolecha we passed a cemetary. It, like the Comuna, was painted brilliantly. But instead of birds and metaphors and uplifting symbolism, the paintings that line the cemetery are of the faces of the missing people. Children. Grandmothers. It was a lot to take in, and my heart ached for this community.
The tour was not all devastatingly sad, believe it or not. There were some bright spots.
Like this mural, representing “what it’s all about,” as our guide said. “For the kids to keep their innocence. To just be kids.”
Like this incredible artwork produced by a few famous artists and the vast majority created by locals looking to beautify, inspire, and lift their community up, one positive message at a time.
Like this green mango fruit ice cream—world famous I’m told. I have no idea if this is true and have no interest in fact checking. It’s delicious.
The penguins symblolize loyalty
Green mango + salty lemon juice. A tasty surprise.
Like looking over the vast valley that composes Medellin; the mountains on all sides, and the structures that compose the city itself– from shacks to high-rises—as different from one another as a grand green peak to a deep, depressed valley.
Like seeing Café Kolacha, hearing the passion in our guide’s voice when speaking of the various initiatives of this organization.
It’s a heavy thing to learn about. It makes the heart hurt and the brain wonder how human beings can cause so much devastation, and at the same time, how they can be so resilient.
To learn more about the Graffiti Tour/ Comuna 13 tour through Toucan Tours, click here.
The story of this place, the violence, the military intervention is intense. I gave a very general very brief very short synopsis of a crisis that is actually quite complex, interesting and shocking. I’d encourage you to read a quick article if you’re at all interested. Here are a couple resources if you’d like to learn a bit more about Comuna 13 and Operation Orion:
And here’s a link to Casa Kolecha’s Facebook page.