Sun 8th April
So today I’m heading on another tour…this time to the one time most rough and dangerous barrios in Medellín – Comuna 13. It appears on every must do/see list for Medellin.
There are several tours on offer and range in price. Having done a lot of the free walking tours already, I opt for this one with a start time of 10am (there is another at 2pm).
I catch the metro to San Javier and look for the people in blue tops and blue umbrellas and after a rather large (too big in my opinion) group has formed, we set off towards the Comuna.
We are told a bit about the history of Comuna 13, about how many poor people from the countryside came to the region looking for work, unable to afford city housing, built illegal houses on the mountainsides of the city – just like the favelas in Brazil.
The authorities didn’t agree with these and summoned to have them torn down. The people fought back and rebuilt. The police wouldn’t help these people as the houses weren’t legal so they didn’t care. In order to get some protection, young street boys from the Comuna were employed to act as a form of protectionism. This worked for a while but it didn’t take long for guerrilla group FARC to get involved. They ploughed money and resource into these guys by means of training, uniforms and weaponry. It didn’t take long for these young boys to abuse their power and locals began to fear these also.
Built on the west hillside of Medellín, it granted access to the main highway out of the city. This meant it was a key route for drug, money and weapon smuggling which was a vital artery to control. This was the cause to a lot of the constant violence between narcos, rebel groups and the government.
In 2002 the military launched Operation Orión to overthrow all guerrilla/rebel groups in the area. Over 1000 police, soldiers and armed helicopters were called in were put into action to deal with this issue. Shockingly, 9 people died including 3 children (surprisingly not more due to the force of the attack) and hundreds were injured. Being in such a remote location made it impossible for people to seek and receive medical attention. The community at large took to the streets waving anything white as an act of peace, ceasefire and surrender.
Residents expressed their disdain for the violence and the now present peace in their neighbourhood in the form of graffiti which also depicts the massive changes this barrio has undergone.
Graffiti is a huge part of the Comuna and is a vibrant way to depict a dark history with a now positive outlook on the future. White flags can be seen in much of the artwork, and all represent a strong focus on the community, peace and more importantly – hope.
Hip hop is also very prevalent in the Comuna and can be heard amongst the streets but also at the top of escalator 6 where a group of street dancers gather and perform
Socialist Mayor Fajardo was massively instrumental in improving the area. He wanted to eradicate all these problem areas and make them much safer, provide access to basic services and not render them so remote. He went about creating small projects in different areas and started knitting the city together.
One of the main things he introduced here were the 6 escalators up through the barrio, connecting the people right at the top of the mountain to the lower levels. What was an agonising, long walk through the twisting web of streets, could now be done in minutes. The cable car system that was installed also helped people get from the barrio into the city much quicker.
The views from the top are amazing and give sweeping views across and below the whole community
An educational library was also set up here that many have benefited from. All these initiatives help these people feel much more connected to the city and that for once, the people in power are actually doing things to help rather than forget them.
Comuna 13 is a world away from the violent zone it once was. The streets are full of happy people, kids playing in the steer, vendors selling food and drinks, everyone saying hola, welcoming tourists in, proud of the area they now inhabit.
An area nobody would once dare enter is now a bustling destination for most visiting Medellin.
I would most definitely recommend this tour to anyone visiting here but avoid on the weekend. There were more than 40 people in my group alone and maybe more than 10 tours running at the same time. This made it impossible to see the graffiti properly and the group size also made it difficult to follow the guide and her explanations. I feel I missed out on quite a bit of the info, especially relating to the artwork due to too many people.
My guide said weekdays are definitely quieter.
I head back on the metro, grab a bite to eat and go to meet some people I met yesterday to head to the football. Another must do activity if u can, is head to a football game. Medellin has 2 teams and I was fortunate to be here for the derby match between Atletico Nacional and Independiente Medellín.
We get to the ground early as we have been told men and women queue separately and the queues for guys are enormous – and they’re not wrong!
The biggest team out of the 2 is Atletico (which u can easily tell by the number of green and white jerseys on display)and we have tickets for their end. I go neutral and wear my new Colombia top!
We can hear the crowds singing and the drums going from the queue. The people behind us tell us these are both ends and they play throughout the entire game. We are shown to our seats and the 5 of us are completely blown away by the sheer passion these supporters have for the sport and their team. I have never in my life seen anything quite like it.
The game starts, but it’s actually more fun watching the extremely animated crowd than the football.
However, their passion and excitement does rub off on you and we all got into the very heated game which consisted of quite a few scuffles on pitch
and about 7 yellow cards.
We leave 5 minutes before the end to avoid getting caught in the surge of 50 odd thousand people leaving the stadium but Atletico win so does mean everyone our side is happy!
Get home exhausted after a busy and fabulous day and pretty much head straight to bed!