Once one of the most violent places in Medellin, Comuna 13 is now a bustling tourist destination home to colorful graffiti displays, exciting street performances and highly-rated walking tours. This hillside suburb is no longer riddled with gang wars, police raids, cartels and trafficking – rather, it attracts locals and foreigners alike who want to celebrate the social change that took place in just the short space of a decade. Indeed, entering the Comuna 13 area 10 years ago was unimaginable but today it has become a bucket-list experience for every traveler visiting the City of Eternal Spring.
Aside from being dangerous, Comuna 13 also lacked investment and infrastructure – making poverty inevitable. However, in recent years, cable cars and outdoor escalators were installed to open up the neighborhood. As soon as crime dropped after several military interventions, companies such as Comuna 13 Tours were eager to show tourists around. Although, at the beginning, people thought they were crazy to run tours in the community because they believed tourists would get killed. It was basically a ghost town in the early days, yet it transformed into a hub of culture.
The first guests that Comuna 13 Tours hosted were a young couple from the USA. Admittedly, the woman was apprehensive but soon relaxed when she was greeted with open arms by the residents. From this successful first trip, the tour operator has continued to go from strength to strength due to the increased safety levels in the neighborhood. A combination of government support and investment by mayors has boosted the economy of Comuna 13 to put it on the path towards prosperity. Of course, there is still plenty of work to do but the violent scars of the past are starting to heal.
The Tumultuous History of Comuna 13
Before you book with Comuna 13 Tours, it’s important to read up on the history of the neighborhood as much as possible in order to gain context and background information. It helps to have a basic understanding of Comuna 13 so you can dive deeper into the historical details, and ask the right questions, while on the tour. The neighborhood began as an unplanned and illegal settlement back in the 1960s when thousands of families fled here after being displaced by various conflicts in Antioquia. A few decades later, the suburb started to attract cartels and gangs.
This was primarily due to Comuna 13’s location on the outskirts of the city, its clandestine streets and absence of police presence. Paramilitary groups, one pro-government and the other a Marxist guerrilla group called FARC, fought for control of the commune. The violence got so bad that no one dared visit, not even lifelong Medellin inhabitants. Eventually, something had to be done. So, in 2002, a newly elected Colombian president – Alvaro Uribe Velez – decided to act. He launched a series of intense military operations with the bloodiest one known as Operation Orion.
The government sent armed forces and many innocent people were killed in the crossfire. In the end, the gang wars stopped – not just in Comuna 13 but in most of Colombia – when a peace accord was signed in 2016 between the two parties. Other key dates were 2008 and 2011 when the metro station and outdoor escalators were built, which connected Comuna 13 with the rest of Medellin. Slowly but surely, the area got safer and kids went out into the streets to play again. Jobs appeared and artists showed admiration for locals by painting murals dedicated to their resilience.
Best Things To Do in Comuna 13 Today
Taking a tour, whether it be private or small group, is the best way to immerse in the cultural charms of Comuna 13 because you will get shown the top spots in addition to learning about the unwavering strength of the inhabitants. Nevertheless, you still might want to go exploring on your own. If that is the case, there are some incredible things to do in Comuna 13 that will blow you away. For starters, the creative graffiti and street art murals are a must-see attraction. Talented artists, many of them locals, have done a wonderful job paying homage to the people of the barrio.
Secondly, you need to find the break dancers. Use the free electric stairs and wander the colorful streets until you find them. They will be happy to accept tips in exchange for a performance and photos. Another highlight of Comuna 13 is marveling at the beautiful views of Medellin and the surrounding landscapes. This activity can be ticked off your list at the barrio itself or by enjoying a cable car ride at the start or end of your visit (or both). The contrast between the metropolitan city of Medellin below and the hillside neighborhood is nothing short of spectacular.
Finally, no trip to Comuna 13 is complete without supporting the small local businesses. Buy their artisan products, such as organically grown coffee and unique pieces of art, to ensure the money you spend circulates there. The great thing about Comuna 13 is the locals never push their products or services on you, so you can shop without feeling pressured. Even the smallest purchase goes a long way to maintaining the responsible and sustainable tourism practices that the residents have come to champion. For those interested in a tour, we cover that option below.
Why Book a Guided Tour in Comuna 13
Comuna 13 Tours is rated as one of the top five experiences in Medellin by Tripadvisor and it’s easy to see why. They help you absorb the turbulent history and miraculous transformation of the district on a thrilling four hour small group walking tour. It kicks off with a journey on the metro-cable car, before hiking up the steep hillside terrain of Comuna 13 where the outdoor escalators are located. You will be greeted with panoramic views throughout, be given the opportunity to converse with locals, take fantastic photos of all the colorful street art murals and hear some fascinating tales.
The tour guide provides you with a deep knowledge of Colombian history, tells you how Comuna 13 recovered from such a violent past and leads you from place to place via the most comfortable routes. None of the walking is too strenuous – every age and ability can participate. It’s a mix of education and fun, unlike anything else in Medellin. The group is encouraged to bring cash to pay for food, drinks and entertainment offered by the community. Although it’s not mandatory to purchase anything, a gesture of goodwill to the friendly folks of Comuna 13 is something you won’t regret.
Above all, Comuna 13 centers around people. It makes you think about the power of community, and how ordinary men and women have the ability to conquer adversity in just a few short years. While some of the stories are harrowing, what you come away with most is a sense of optimism about the future. The atmosphere of art, love and peace in Comuna 13 is contagious and it certainly leaves its mark on you. That is what traveling does best – at times it’s uncomfortable but it changes you for the better. Comuna 13, and the country of Colombia as a whole, will inspire you.