The city of Medellin is located in the Aburra Valley, in a central region of Colombia. It has gone through major upheavals: in the late 80s and early 90s, the region became synonymous with drug trafficking. Having always been intrigued by this region, I sought out different travel guides to learn more — but I found little about its current situation. Still, somehow, the lack of information — and a penchant for exploring — is what actually convinced me to book a trip to Medellin.
I reached the city on a Friday evening, planning to stay in El Poblado. After the 90s, this area became a hub for rapid development — to my amazement, each lane was lined with idyllic cafes, bars, and restaurants. It only took me a day to realize that afternoons were lazy here; the locals came out at night. I was close to the Parque Lleras area, which is a favorite among locals for partying. The never-ending nightlife defined this area. I got a chance to connect with a few locals while dining that night and kept on hearing a recurring theme: that this neighborhood was nothing like the rest of Medellin. This intrigued me, and encouraged me to venture out to the pockets of the city that truly define the city.
One such area is Comuna 13, which has always been at the the heart of Medellin’s turbulent character. The local topography of this area lends itself to being a natural hideout for crime and illegal activities. Until about 2011, this area ranked high on a list of the world’s most dangerous cities, with one of the highest homicide rates. It housed an impoverished population who, due to hard times, succumbed to joining local gangs and doing whatever it took to earn a living. The proximity of this region to the San Juan highway made it an important spot to observe and control all entries into the city.
I was fascinated by the Comuna, but was dissuaded from going by locals. After being refused to be taken by there by a couple of local cab drivers, I and my two fellow travelers decided to get as close to Comuna 13 on our own as we could, and figure out the rest when we got there. After reaching the station, we cluelessly looked around and asked the locals to direct us to Comuna 13. Our questions were answered with a lot of apprehension. Fortunately, we found a local colectivo — a local transit bus — heading in that direction. We got into it and were dropped off at the bottommost border of Comuna 13.
We got off the colectivo clutching tightly to our bags. The area was surprisingly vibrant, and we were tempted to take out our cameras and phones to capture it — but the rumors we’d heard so far had definitely got us a little stressed. We followed the graffiti-lined walls uphill; the incline was drastic, keeping us gasping for breath. At 10 a.m., we were amazed not to find any tourists in the area — which only fueled our anxiety.
We continued to follow the path of graffiti, and finally reached the bottom of an unexpected marvel: the neighborhood’s renowned 384-meter, orange-roofed escalators. Here we ran into a young man in his twenties, John (whose nickname, he told us, was Chota) who was dressed in a red vest — the uniform of an official tour guide. He greeted us, and his friendly demeanor immediately comforted us. He soon joined us as we started exploring the neighborhood. We learnt that John was active in the creative movement that filled the area: he was a local graffiti artist. Along with three friends, he would use the walls of the neighborhood as a canvas to depict the story of his community.
Most of his artwork was based on a terrible experience he faced as a kid. He vividly described a night when he was a teenager, resting at home, when he heard gunshots and realized Comuna 13 was undergoing a military incursion. In the press, it was described as urban combat; the authorities wanted to free the area from the shackles of paramilitary forces, but the combat led to many civilian casualties. The memory of that night is embedded in the minds of most kids growing up during that time. Most of John’s artwork depicts that civil strife, and the fear it caused in Comuna 13. The eyes of the figures in his works show the grief and uncertainty people faced during those times.
After describing his inspiration for his art, John — in a surprisingly optimistic tone — explained to us how the community has changed. He mentioned that the installation of the roofed escalators have been an ingenious way not only to unite the people of Comuna 13, but also to bring residents in from other parts of Medellin. Comuna 13 consists of shanty houses perched all over the hills, stacked on top of each other, echoing their unique stories and perspectives. From the top of the escalators, this view is particularly astounding (it left me speechless). John told us that this one-of-a-kind structure, which was built in 2011, has already been regarded as a model of urban planning. It is helping the kids growing up in the area to forget the past, and look forward to more promising times.
I would recommend to anyone visiting Medellin not to be deterred by hearsay: Make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to go to Comuna 13, and see the city through a local lens. Meeting John, and other locals from Medellin, has made me believe that although the country is still facing political issues and gang problems, Colombians are more resilient than ever, ready to bounce back and make their community better for the coming generations. Experiences as indelible as this one are what define traveling for me — this local spirit has taught me to keep fighting.