This post has taken me awhile to write and put my experience into words, as it was such an emotional day learning about the history of Medellín. I have started and stopped probably 10 times over the last 11 months. But here I am, at the end of October, finding myself with no more excuses. Here it goes….
We started the day with a walking tour and ended with a tour of Comuna 13: The Graffiti Tour. It’s impossible to capture the passion of our two tour guides as they are both from Medellin and have such pride for their city and country and the transformation both have gone through. But I will write some cultural highlights. I understand there is no way to communicate this passion through a post and it was definitely one of those times where hearing and seeing first hand was most impactful.
After an “asi asi” sleep (our first encounter with mosquitoes and bites) we were up and ready by 8:45, plenty of time to relax before the walking tour at 10:00. I finally got to enjoy their famous coffee, which when I asked for cafe, they said which one? and I learned that regular coffee is called Americano!
My favorite word I’ve learned is for sparkling water: agua (water) con gas (means with gas)
While we were waiting for our walking tour we decided to book a tour to Comuna 13: The Graffiti Tour. The tour left at 2:30, later in the day and little did we know how eventful the tour would be!! But first, we had our walking tour with Capture Colombia. We started by introducing ourselves in a large circle – my favorite (nothing is more awkward than going on tour without ever being introduced).
Our guides were Sara and Luis Mi, both originally from Medellin! Sara we learned later has also been to Seattle!
After introduces, Luis gave us an overview of where we were going and also gave a great overview of the Metro, which has transformed the city. The Medellín Metro (Spanish: Metro de Medellín) is a rapid transit system that crosses the Metropolitan Area of Medellín from North to South and from Centre to West.
It first opened for service in November 1995 and was one of the first implementations of modern mass transportation in Colombia and the only metro system in the country! The Medellín Metro is a product of the urban planning of the Antioquia department of Colombia.
Something that was really neat and unique about the metro is that no other country owns it, it is locally owned. Something else is the education; it was basically a campaign across the city to teach everyone about the metro and the benefits (also how to behave when on the metro). This started 6 YEARS before the Metro was completed! Luis told us the pride that the community has for the Metro and feels that they are owners and it is their responsibility to uphold the rules.
The Metro changed everything for the city of Medellín; allowing everyone in the hills and more rural areas to come into the city for work. Medellín is massive, we would see later in the day the expansive city but we remember seeing scenes of Medellín on Narcos. Here is a sneak peak at the city from our trip later in the day that shows just how expansive this city is:
Luis also told us about the class system in Medellín. The municipality is divided into six zones: The urban zone, which is subdivided into 16 comunas (communes). The communes are further divided into 249 statistical neighborhoods. The remaining zones outside the urban zones comprise five corregimientos (townships). Medellín is structured following the flow of the Medellín River, which runs from south to north.
The comunas are numbered and this is a ranking system. Comuna #1 is the wealthiest while #16 is the poorest. Looking at the map above, we were starting to realize just how important public transportation is, as the higher in the number (poorer) the further it is from the city and where the jobs are located. Not only that, but these comunas were up in the mountains, making travel even more difficult. This why the Metrocable was built, which is a gondola lift system implemented by the City Council of Medellín, Colombia, with the purpose of providing a complementary transportation service to the Medellín Metro!
It was designed to reach some of the city’s informal settlements on the steep hills that mark its topography. It is largely considered to be the first urban cable propelled transit system in South America. There were plans in the city for some decades before its inception for some form of transportation that took account the difficult topography of the region. These ideas date back to the use of cable-car technology for exporting coffee (Manizales – Mariquita Cableway) starting in the 1930s between the city of Manizales, to the south of Medellín, and the Cauca River 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) below.
In its modern incarnation, it was the result of a joint effort between the city’s elected mayor, Luis Pérez Gutiérrez, and the Metro Company. For some, the initial conception of this system was indirectly inspired by the Caracas Aerial Tramway (also known as the Mount Avila Gondola) which was designed primarily to carry passengers to a luxury hotel in the 1950s. We had not even started our tour, but we were already seeing how this city had transformed over the years and the pride that everyone had for their city and the revitalization. We were excited to learn more and see the transit in action. Luis told us where to purchase tickets, where we were going and we were on our way!
We got off at our stop (Plaza San Antonio) as instructed and walked through the plaza where we then gathered to talk about the history of Medellín. The next 45 minutes Luis gave us a simplified but powerful overview of the history of Colombia and Medellín; including how detrimental the Medellín Cartel were to the community BUT also how complex the problem was. It was in this overview and history lesson that I started to understand how hurtful it is to have tourists come into Medellín wanting to see where Pablo Escobar lived and having shows and movies glorify him; he was a monster and responsible for so much destruction, death and pain for the Medellín people. After this emotional lesson we walked around the square and took some pictures and took in the evolution of this city and the pride of the revitalization.
The 1990’s was the most dangerous time for Medellin (with 1991 probably being the worst year). Below is the Pajaro de Paz, (Bird of Peace) which was created by artist Fernando Botero (who is from Medellin). Fernando Botero is famous for his exaggerated, large bronze statures of people and animals.
In June 1995, 22 pounds of dynamite left at the base of the statue exploded during an outdoor concert, killing 30 and injuring more than 200. FARC (guerrilla group) took responsibility for the bombing, and claimed it was a message aimed at Colombia’s then-defense minister Fernando Botero Zea, Botero’s son. FARC said it was seeking to punish Botero Zea for not engaging in peace negotiations with FARC, and that it had only sought to destroy his father’s statue.
The bombing came towards the end of Medellin’s era as the world’s most violent city. The violence had mostly subsided after the killing of Pablo Escobar in 1993 (reminder that today Medellin is one of the safest cities in South America.) In 2000, Fernando Botero donated the identical, undamaged bronze bird and he insisted that the exploded statue remain in the plaza where the names of the bombing victims are carved into the base. of the destroyed statue.
Luis then went on to describe that Medellin was able to come back from all the violence and destruction by implementing the 5 pillars of transformation, what would be the main theme for our day, seeing and learning more about how and where these were implemented. The 5 pillars of transformation: Art, People, Education, Industry, Love and Passion.
We walked through the city hearing more about the 5 pillars and history.
Time for Lulo Juice!! Lulo is an exotic fruit with a citrus flavor that is popular in Colombia. It is also known as naranjilla, in other Latin American countries.
After a fresh and local lunch, we walked through what looked like the financial district and learned more about Colombian culture; like Quinceañera (dresses below) and Bandeja Paisa (traditional meal that we would enjoy the following day)
The Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture was stunning and reminded me of Alice and Wonderland!
The Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture houses cultural programs related to the Department of Antioquia, such as concerts, conferences, and art exhibitions.
Our tour ended here and we had about an hour before we needed to hop on the metro and meet our next tour group, where we would be venturing to Comuna 13. We found somewhere we could sit, relax, use the bathroom and have a cold beer and take a load off before getting back on our feet.
It is in moments like this, during travel, that I feel the most uncomfortable, sitting at a table in a bar that is filled with locals, no group, no tour guide, not a tourist stop. I feel out of place, that everyone is looking at me and judging me, thinking “stupid American”. I sit in the uncomfortableness, this is one of the reasons I travel, to feel uncomfortable and experience it, as most of my life I never had the opportunity to feel out of place based on what I looked like.
The feeling quickly ends when I work up the confidence (and look at the Spanish word for “key”) to ask to use the bathroom. When I do, the server hurries to get the key and tells me to wait as she goes and cleans the bathroom for me. I am being treated better than the last 5 people I watched go into the bathroom, who were charged, closely watched and definitely did not have it cleaned for them. Guilt and white privilege flood over me and it is hard to not get emotional. It is a good experience to think I am being judged and to have insight into the uncomfortable feeling so many people have based on their appearance but I will never know what it truly feels like. This guilt, is the other underlining tone of the day, as we learn more about the history of Medellín and Comuna 13.
We made our way back to the Metro to the meeting spot we arranged with our next tour guide. Once we met up with everyone, we were off on the long commute to Comuna 13. The original plan was to take the Metro, a gondola and then a bus…but as the stop for the gondola approached, the dark clouds that had rolled in started to open up. The Metro stopped and our guide asked if we wanted to risk getting out and taking the gondola; which we could see in distant, rocking back and forth with the wind. After seeing that and hearing the crash of thunder, we decided to pass and went for a small bus instead that would be longer but probably much safer.
As we looked around, we realized Derek and and I (and the guide) were the only ones with raincoats one. We made it to our stop, feeling prepared for the rain we walked/ran outside to the small bus waiting for us and we were off on our journey up the mountain to Comuna 13.
As we were on our small bus, the storm intensified, rain blowing and thunder crashing. As we pushed further up the mountain the rain came down from the sky and the mountain, creating rivers around us. Eventually we needed to get out as we were suppose to walk the rest of the way (unsure if that was the original plan or if the storm prevented us to go further). We stopped and waited under an awning. Luckily for everyone else a savvy entertainer came by selling ponchos. The group all purchased one, I did too for my backpack. Once we all had ponchos we ran across the street to a larger awning where we planned to wait out the storm.
Finally, we just gave in and decided to push on, through the rain, we bought the ponchos for a reason! We walked/ran up to where the graffiti started and found another awning to huddle under as we heard the history of Comuna 13.
While we were listening to the history of the Comuna 13, it was hard not to get emotional; hearing about violence and how the United States had contributed to the violence was hard to hear. I know I was young when this was happening, but I also felt ignorant for not knowing about the unrest and how complex the problem was. I did not want to take notes during this part of the tour as I wanted to give the guide my 100% attention. He actually was from Comuna 13, so having him talk about his childhood and hear how he as personally been affected was powerful.
Since I had not taken notes, I researched some other blogs and articles about the history. I found the below except from Atlas Obscura‘s blog post titled Comuna 13 Medellín, Colombia Outdoor escalators and art have helped change what was once a notoriously dangerous part of Medellín:
“Comuna 13 used to be one of the most dangerous areas in Medellin but community projects and a series of outdoor escalators have helped turn this poor district into one of the most colorful communes in the city.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Comuna 13 was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world. It was run by violent drug trafficking organizations, who used the poor, sprawling hillside barrio as a transit route in and out of the city, and served as a stronghold for guerrillas, gangs, and paramilitaries.
But things began to change in 2002 when President Alvaro Uribe launched Operation Orion, a raid on Comuna 13 spearheaded by 3,000 troops backed by helicopters. It was a brutal and controversial beginning. During the first week of the raid, at least 18 people were killed, 34 wounded and almost 250 arrested in Comuna 13. The neighborhood’s 100,000 residents were caught in the crossfire, resulting in arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and hundreds of injuries.
During the following decade, the government set about improving the hillside commune, redeveloping the brick houses and building community centers but access remained a problem. So, in 2011, the government installed the escaleras electricas, a series of outdoor escalators that extend for 1,260 feet (384 m), connecting parts of the once chaotic and isolated hillside neighborhood to the city below.
The escalators gave residents newfound freedom and brought about a total shift in the local mentality. Kids began to play on the streets once again, and local artists felt safe enough to go out and brighten up their neighborhood.
The result was the creation of one of the most colorful communes in Medellín. The area surrounding the six sets of escalators is now covered with murals and graffiti, with bright colors and street art decorating walls once riddled with bullet holes. Many murals tell the story of Comuna 13, or depict local heroes, the artwork sliding by as you ride the escalator up to the top of the hill, where a lookout and boardwalk provide excellent views across the city.
It’s been a dramatic shift for Comuna 13, and tourists now come to ride the escalator and see the street art. But despite the improvements, it remains a poor and not entirely safe neighborhood. Comuna 13 still has a long way to go, but at least the future looks far brighter for what was once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world.”Added By Tony Dunnell, Edited by WanderLush, ccesare
Atlas Obscura Comuna 13Medellín, Colombia Outdoor escalators and art have helped change what was once a notoriously dangerous part of Medellín.
After our history lesson the rain had started to let up, perfect timing for us to start exploring the neighborhood.
Our guide showed us into an art exhibit that had graffiti/art that was 3D! I had never seen anything like it, pictures did not do it justice.
We then gathered around a series of graffiti that our guide explained the meaning behind. A consistent theme in Comuna 13 was that the art was symbolic and had themes throughout. For example, a hummingbird means a helicopter and illustrating elephants can mean that the people of Comuna 13 will never forget the history, since elephants are known for their memory.
Going up the famous escalators!!
Most of the artwork/graffiti tells a story or has deep meaning. Here are some that our guide told us about. The bottom right is in honor of the indigenous people of Colombia. Unsure if it was the bottom, two from the left, but there was a God like spirit that our guide called “Luca” and I believe this is to represent them.
We continued up through the neighbor which had expansive and powerful views of the city below and all around us.
One of the most painful facts from this time during the drug wars and the years of violence were the False Positives. Here is an article that Vice posted in 2015 titled ‘False Positives’: How Colombia’s Army Executed Civilians And Called Them Guerrillas with the heading:
Facing pressure to boost its battlefield figures under former President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s army lured and executed at least 3,000 civilians and notched them as combat kills, according to a new Human Rights Watch report
There were many places that honored the False Positives and paid tribute to them. When we reach the top of the neighbor and looked out over the expansive city, our guide pointed to the hillside I have below. This hillside has hundreds, possibility thousands of bodies from the years of violence. It is currently being excavated to try and find as many as possible to give closure and a proper burial for the families of murdered loved ones.
As we neared the top and end of our tour, there were some of the most vibrant and colorful images yet:
Being in somewhat of a valley the sun goes down even earlier than it did on the coast. Suddenly the sky turned dark and the city lit up below us.
It was time to end our time in Comuna 13. Emotionally and physically drained, we ventured back to our hostel and ate across the street.
Pizza has never tasted so good. It was an eventful, educational and emotional day. After the experience of exploring and learning the history of Medellín and Colombia, I have a completely new perspective; which I think is the entire point of traveling!