Storytellers of Comuna 13: More Than a Street Art Tour

During our time in Medellín we took a tour of Comuna 13 with Stairway Storytellers. We were interested in visiting this neighbourhood for its famous street art. But we discovered so much more! We heard many intimate stories about Medellín’s violent past, and its current change for the better.

We took the Stairway Storytellers' tour of Comuna 13 in Medellín to see the famous street art. We also left with our heads full of many amazing stories.

We took the Stairway Storytellers’ tour of Comuna 13 in Medellín to see the famous street art. We also left with our heads full of many amazing stories.

Stiven, our guide, was young, very enthusiastic, and sometimes quite intense. But we loved him and his stories! They were very personal and touching. He knew Comuna 13‘s history first hand, because he grew up in this neighbourhood and still calls it home. And he’s proud of the changes he has witnessed in his young life. It gives him reason for real optimism.


The Recent History of Comuna 13

To bring the present into context, you have to know a little about Comuna 13‘s past. It was once the second most dangerous neighbourhood in the world; certainly the most dangerous part of Medellín, which was then the most dangerous city in the world.

If you are as old as we are (even if you haven’t watched the recent TV series, ‘Narcos‘), you will probably recall the name Pablo Escobar. In the 1980s and early 90s, the recurring TV news was often about yet another car bomb or violent shoot-out in the streets of Medellín.

To understand what follows, you need to get a picture of the topography of this neighbourhood. Comuna 13 basically consists of densely built, small wooden or brick and cement structures, which appear to be stacked on top of each other. They cover several steep hills, with hardly any road access. Traffic inside the neighbourhood is mostly on foot, up and down rickety stairs and muddy paths, with a few tracks wide enough for a bicycle or small motorbike.

One of the hills in Comuna 13. You can see how tightly jammed together most houses are - no streets. Note particularly the top houses: every floor juts out further than the one below - a typical Latin American style of building.

One of the hills in Comuna 13. You can see how tightly jammed together most houses are – no streets. Note particularly the top houses: every floor juts out further than the one below – a typical Latin American style of building.

The neighbourhood encloses part of National Route 62, one of Colombia’s major roads to the coast. Traditionally, this road has been a main smuggling route for drugs, weapons, and other illegal contraband. If you control Comuna 13, you control what’s coming in and out of Medellín along this road.

The struggle for Comuna 13 didn’t end with Escobar‘s death. Due to its strategic position, guerrillas like FARC moved in. Their presence was eliminated in 2002 with the very controversial ‘Operation Orion’, which caused hundreds of civilian casualties.

After this fight, the government forces left a power vacuum behind. Rival drug gangs and several vigilante groups fought for control. They terrorised the locals, forced them to vacate strategically important buildings and pay ‘protection money’, and – when not killing each other – killed anybody who dared to oppose them.

Stiven told us that, as a kid, he had to leave his home well before 6 o’clock in the morning to get to school – long before the night’s gunshot victims had been removed from the streets.

Stiven brought some photo prints, which show evidence of the violent past of Comuna 13 - once the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world's most dangerous city, Medellin.

Stiven brought some photo prints, which show evidence of the violent past of Comuna 13 – once the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world’s most dangerous city, Medellin.


Funiculars and Escalators Bring Real Change

Finally it took one visionary politician (yes, they exist occasionally) to jump-start a real change for Medellín: Sergio Fajardo, mayor from 2003 to 2007. He initiated an impressive infrastructure program for the forgotten poorer neighbourhoods of the city, in an effort to integrate them and bring peace to the entire city.

Money was found to build schools, libraries and public health services in those parts of town which needed them the most. Medellín was the first city in Colombia to build a Metro – a public transport system. To this day, its citizens are proud of it and use it with respect and care. Finally, Comuna 13 was integrated into this transport system by extending the Metro from San Javier with a funicular, the Metrocable, going further up into the nearly inaccessible hills, and giving people easier access to the city and increased opportunities.

StiStiven explained the importance of the escalators, and the changes they brought to the community. I'm not sure if I remember correctly, but I believe they cost the city of Medellin some 6 million Dollars to install, and are the only free public escalators in the world.ven explained us the importance of the escalators and the change they brought for the community. I'm not sure if I remember correctly, but I believe they cost the city of Medellin some 6 million Dollars to install and are the only free public escalators in the world.

Stiven explained the importance of the escalators, and the changes they brought to the community. I’m not sure if I remember correctly, but I believe they cost the city of Medellin some 6 million Dollars to install, and are the only free public escalators in the world.

The part of Comuna 13, which we went through, has a row of connecting escalators built up the steep hills. These are the only free, public, community escalators in the world! Previously, people who live on top of the hills had to climb down steep and badly maintained stairways to reach the nearest bus stop, medical services, or larger (and cheaper) shops. It would have taken them up to 30 minutes down, often much longer up. All supplies into the community would have had to have been carried up the same rickety paths.

The view down onto the roofed escalators in Comuna 13, Medellin.

The view down onto the roofed escalators in Comuna 13, Medellin.


The Stairways Storytellers – Local Guides with Local Stories

Stiven put all these impressive changes into context. As well as explaining the meaning of particular street art pieces, he pointed out the economic changes that peace brought to many, the new small businesses, kids playing freely and happily in the streets (something he never had a chance to experience), and repeated the overall positive impression that “Change is possible”.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

One of the new businesses along the escalators in Comuna 13. Note the hard hat as a hanging flower pot. ;)

One of the new businesses along the escalators in Comuna 13. Note the hard hat as a hanging flower pot. ;)

There's at least one better way than taking a stairway to get down the steep hills.

There’s at least one better way than taking a stairway to get down the steep hills.

 

Towards the end of the tour, he told us how he had learned English in a community school, which is financially supported by the Stairway Storytellers. It took him only a year and a half to get to where he is, and he now volunteers to teach beginner classes at the same school. It is his hope that a good knowledge of English will open up better job opportunities for the people of Comuna 13. Now people can actually go out to work and earn an honest income – the same people, who less than 10 years ago were too scared to leave their homes…

The bottom entry into Comuna 13 is full of different street art pieces. It also seems to be kind of a hang-out place; you can see everybody coming and going.

The bottom entry into Comuna 13 is full of different street art pieces. It also seems to be kind of a hang-out place; you can see everybody coming and going.

The beautification of this stairway (with holy figure) is part of a project Stairway Storytellers created and maintain as a youth project for the community.

The beautification of this stairway (with holy figure) is part of a project Stairway Storytellers created and maintain as a youth project for the community.

 

The Street Art – Only the Most Visual Sign of Change

In the mid to late 2000s, the youth of Comuna 13 started to rebel against the never-ending cycle of violence, and to protest against how so many of their friends were turned into drug mules or drug addicts. Their initial way to express themselves was rap and hip-hop music, with lyrics expressing their daily struggle. This didn’t go down well with the controlling gangs, and many of the newly emerging rappers were quickly murdered.

The first street art slowly emerged alongside this new wave of rap music. It often depicted either the violent history, or expressions of hope. Now the street art has evolved into the most visible and colourful expression of the change, which is sweeping through Comuna 13. Some of Colombia’s best known street artists still call the neighbourhood home.

All under the slogan “Peace – Love – Transformation – Hope”.

Finally some street art! Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo.


Short Practical Information

Any tour with ‘Stairway Storytellers‘ should be booked in advance, best through their Facebook page . This is a tour for tips.

Meeting point for the tour is at the San Javier Metro station. Try to be punctual and don’t make the entire group wait for you (like we did)…

Tours are available in the morning and the afternoon, and last 2½ to 3 hours. You should be reasonably fit, as you have to climb some steep hills and stairs. Be careful taking photos from the moving escalators – I was caught by a support pole for the roof and almost swept off the stair. If you visit during the rainy months (what Colombians call “winter”), October- November or March-April, better book a morning tour; rain usually starts around 2pm.

We were told, repeatedly that Comuna 13 is safe and you don’t have to fear for your camera or other valuables. As always: don’t be completely careless, though!

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.


Further Reading

I have referred to a lot of history, without going into too much detail. Here are some articles that delve into that detail.

    • “Medellin’s Turbulent Comuna 13” by Insight Crime, published in 2011. This article highlights the stories of the various “Combos” (gangs) and the number of their victims. Keep in mind: this was written only 6 years ago (from the time of writing this post)!
      “Medellín, Colombia: reinventing the world’s most dangerous city” , a long article by The Guardian, published in June 2013. This is really worth reading from beginning to end! I was very tempted to quote a number of statements from it, as they express so well the thought process and outcome of specific projects. It highlights how the everyday lives of so many were transformed, in quoted personal accounts.
  • At the beginning of the tour Stiven explained that the majority of people in Comuna 13 are black and where they originate from.

    At the beginning of the tour Stiven explained that the majority of people in Comuna 13 are black and where they originate from.


    The tour with Stairway Storytellers was a real surprise to us, as we left with our heads full of many amazing stories. I still managed to photograph a lot of outstanding street art, so please see our follow up gallery with 32 street art photos from Comuna 13 .

    Please expect a follow-up post with a street art gallery from Comuna 13!


    Do you know of any other place, which has made such a dramatic turn-around? In such a short time frame?
    Please tell us in the comments below!


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    We took the Stairway Storytellers' tour of Comuna 13 in Medellín to see the famous street art. But this tour is so much more! Our guide told us about the shocking past. He also provided many encouraging stories about this neighbourhood's struggle for peace and a future filled with hope. We highly recommend supporting this community-run tour and doing your little bit to bring lasting change to Comuna 13. See our full story!

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    Juergen

    webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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    60 Responses

    1. Jessica says:

      Thanks for sharing all this information, along with your sources! I have been interested in visiting Columbia for a few years now, but although I know times have changed I am still a bit nervous to visit with my young children. It’s wonderful that the children of today have so many more opportunities then they did just a single generation ago!

      • Juergen says:

        Don’t worry too much about safety – but be careful with your belongings. Most of South America is as safe as most South-East Asian countries. The pockets of violence in Colombia are areas you as a tourist wouldn’t enter (unless by mistake). Overall we feel in Colombia much safer than in Peru – a more popular destination. We know of more friends who were robbed in Chile than in Colombia. But I also have friends who were robbed in Spain! So where do you go to feel 100% safe?

        • Jessica says:

          Definitely no where is 100% safe and pick pockets are just the price of visiting a big city. My biggest fear with South America is kidnapping and I had a friend who’s father was kidnapped repeatedly while they lived in Colombia. Eventually the sought asylum in the US. That was about 12 years ago, but it’s hard to shake the association.

          Of course, if I had the opportunity to go without the kids, I would have no hesitations.

    2. Aniek says:

      Interesting tour, though it is sad to read about the violent history of this area.

    3. Bistra says:

      Incredible! Now I want to visit Medellin even more! I like the tour you took to the Comuna 13 and the company you chose – hopefully that money will help revitalising the community. Arts can help very severe situations, and Comuna 13 is just another proof of that!

      • Juergen says:

        We can recommend a visit of Medellin – the city has many nice corners and incredibly much greenery (for a city). It’s also a good starting point to explore the colourful coffee region.

    4. Oh wow, what an incredible place to view street art. I have heard that Medellin has an incredible Christmas lights festival too. I would love to visit someday.

    5. Medha says:

      It’s really sad to read the violent history of this town. Interesting that they decided to express their pain and struggle through street art, the art does reflect their history and struggles very beautifully. It’s always good to know the story of a place, its history and meet the locals when you travel. I’m amazed at those houses which almost look like building blocks, one above the other.

    6. Wow. I see other people have used the word fascinating to describe this story, but I’ve got to use it, too. I watched Narcos, which makes it all the more interesting. I’m so glad that the community is thriving and that Sergio Fajardo has the foresight to initiate infrastructure projects that are worthwhile. PS: I think Hong Kong has free public escalators outdoors.

      • Yasha says:

        Thanks so much for your comment. Several people have commented on Hong Kong’s escalators, so I suppose they must be there… Stiven was so proud of these in Comuna 13 being the only free escalators as public transport in the world. But we are happy to be corrected.

    7. Tami says:

      Very interesting post. I do love street art, but even more than that, I appreciate the story behind it. I loved reading about how Comuna 13 has been turned around and that the people there have hope now, where there was none before. (I can’t imagine trying to find an address in that jumble of buildings!) So cool that just adding a funicular could help so much, among other things. The best tours are the ones led by locals who really know and care about their area.

      • Juergen says:

        That was the one thing I forgot to ask Stiven: do they have an address system in Comuna 13 and how can you find a specific house?

    8. Lori says:

      Though we have travelled to South America often, we have not yet gone to Columbia. I’m now more curious than before and totally fascinated by the street art which I look for wherever we travel. Well done.

    9. Dorene says:

      Juergen and Yasha, you did a nice job with this piece. I live in Medellin and I’ve visited Comuna 13 a couple times. I need to go back and get Stiven as a guide, his stories and pictures definitely brought the stories to life. There is definitely some new artwork up there from my last time there, and you are right there is way more to it than the graffiti. Thanks!

    10. It looks really amazing! Looking at the beautiful pictures, and the amazing streetart, it’s difficult to believe that not that long ago it was such a dangerous place!

      • Juergen says:

        My guess is that the neighbouhood is still not completely safe at nighttime. And there are countless wounds, which will need longer to heal.

    11. Hannah says:

      I read about the regeneration of these neighbourhoods, but would love to see it in person. I cannot fathom what life was like during those gang and drug years, with children having to witness such acts of violence. Stiven sounds like a wonderfully inspirational fellow, having lived through it and now sharing all this knowledge. Thanks for such an amazing article.

    12. Ami says:

      I realized the need for a guide for street art when I visited Penang. Having one really helps you see the corners you might miss. I sense that in this post too. I loved the collection here. All those captures of the faces are quite interesting. Thanks for sharing these

      • Juergen says:

        Some guides are excellent, like Stiven in Comuna 13, some guides do street art tours only because it provides them with an income. If they are not knowledgeable about the topic it can be a waste of time and money. And you hardly ever know in advance…

    13. Mei says:

      The best tour one can get is by a guide who actually grew up in the neighborhood! I can only imagine that you got a nice expericence exploring these street arts thanks to Stiven! It’s kinda scary how Medellin used to be, and even if they didn’t talk much about it here in Europe, I remember well of the awful images I sometimes saw on TV back in the 90s. What Sergio Fajardo did to the city was really a good thing! And it’s awesome that the “Stairway Storytellers” are giving tours. If we ever visit Colombia we’d love to explore Comuna 13 too. Thank you for this post and all the useful info! ;)

    14. Love that so many places now offer great street art tours, and that street art has become such an appreciated phenomenon. Historic Medellín would be somewhere I’d love to see the street art myself. Loved learning the history of the Comuna 13 district, to give some context to the tour. Regarding the escalators though, I think the escalators in Hong Kong’s central to mid levels are also free and public as well? I love the slide that gives a fun way to come down!!! And then of course the street art. I love your photos of both the district and its art!

    15. Jem says:

      Such a dark and fascinating history but some positive changes have come forth from it. Loved the street art! Such a different culture than what I’m used to but would love to see it for myself one day.

    16. Arthur says:

      Great article. Have you checked out La Sierra Barrio Tour, another community that has transformed as well. Check out the the documentary La Sierra to learn more about the violent past.

      • Juergen says:

        Unfortunately we have left Medellin by now. I would have like to see more, but somehow we had too many other things to do (some doctor visits, visa extension, vehicle permit renewal, etc.) as we are travelling full-time for several years already.

    17. Tanvi says:

      I believe every place has a dark history behind it & the fact that a politician actually took an initiative to bring about the change is quite commendable.. Yes it’s rightly said that Change is Possible.. Also i’m loving all the colourful street art..will definitely check out this place if i ever go to Columbia :)

      • Yasha says:

        You are right – many places do have darkness in their history. It’s how the humans involved rise above it, as they have in Comuna 13, that’s really important.

    18. noel says:

      What a fantastic way to build change especially with a rough environment and focus on the beautiful aspects of this hilly landscape with blank walls and fill it with art, recreation, sport and a beautiful lifestyle.

    19. I remember as well how Colombia was a ‘no go’ country perceived to be highly dangerous and riddled with drugs and gangs when I was a kid. I never imagined Colombia as a place that I might someday visit. It’s amazing to see the turnaround that the country has had. I wonder if a similar approach (investment in infrastructure like the escalators you described) might also be helpful in other places (e.g., the favelas of Rio).

      • Yasha says:

        Many people are still afraid to travel in Colombia. From our experience, both now and in 2008, we have found the country beautiful and the people warm and welcoming. It still has it’s problems, but the turnaround in Comuna 13 shows that change can happen.

    20. Dan says:

      It looks like travelling in Colombia has really got under your skin and encouraged you to increase your knowledge of the history and culture. I can remember when Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world, and it is inspiring to see how the transformation of a place begins through a combination of public desire, inspired leadership, and the implementation of straightforward social programs. I guess that Colombia is still the source of much of the world’s cocaine, so it’s not exactly game over, but giving the lives back to the communities that have been negatively affected is really warming to read about. Thank you.

      • Juergen says:

        …and? Can you blame poor peasants who want see that they can make a living with coca cultivation? (They make the least from it.) The demand for their product stems from Western societies, namely the USA and Europe. As long as there’s demand for any product there will be a supply chain.

        • Dan says:

          Of course. Who was blaming the peasants? Not me.

          • Juergen says:

            I didn’t say that either. I simply want to make clear that most drug problems stem from demand in the West. As long as politicians want to shift the blame (or force them to restrict production) onto the producing countries there won’t be any real change in the situation.

    21. Martha says:

      I love how you incorporate the history of Pablo Escobar and Comuna 13 in this post! Maybe people neglect this in their travel posts and I think it’s so important. I also love your photos of the street art, so vibrant and gorgeous. I definitely want to visit Comuna 13 because I’m huge Narcos fan!

      • Juergen says:

        We always like to give our readers background information to places we visit. I think it makes for a more interesting read and an ‘evergreen post’.

    22. Megan Indoe says:

      Wow, this is incredibly interesting. We love finding good street art and its so interesting how beautiful and meaningful street art comes with huge historical context. Your comment about the visionary politician made me laugh. We are hoping to explore this part of the world soon making Medellin a priority. Beautifully written!

    23. Deni says:

      What an incredible way to reintegrate the second most dangerous neighbourhood in the world back into Medellin! I haven’t been to Colombia yet, but it seems like an incredible country! I really appreciate how infrastructure is what turned the neighbourhood around, and how the youth had had enough of their friends going into the drug trade and fought back with art! It must be strange for Stiven seeing how much his neighbourhood has changed over the years! Fantastic story! Thanks for sharing!

    24. Cathy says:

      I love how street art can help transform an area. I’ve seen it in Wynwood Miami and Worcester, Massachusetts so far. Thank you for sharing such an inspirational story.

    25. Ha says:

      I love the slogan “Peace – Love – Transformation – Hope” here. The entry to Comuna 13 is so unique with different artworks and it’s surely a great place to hang out with everyone. I didn’t know there was a street art area in Colombia like this one, so I’m glad to read this post and know more about the world. I start my love with street art city since I visited Berlin in Germany :)

    26. Lizzie says:

      Oh wow, there is so much here that I didn’t know. I’m not sure this is somewhere I would be brave enough to visit, but I have really enjoyed reading about it through your eyes.

      • Juergen says:

        As I wrote in my post: Comuna 13 is really safe! Particularly if your go there with a tour, as the guides are locals and well known and respected. So there wouldn’t be any risk of straying into a side lane which looks a bit dubious (not saying that this would be unsafe…). I found all people we met very friendly – as Colombians are!
        Also: we are part of a large overlander community, and I have never heard or read anything about assaults or other violent crimes against travellers in Colombia. Peru and Chile are a completely different story – so much more happens there.

    27. Lisa says:

      Thank you for such an interesting and well written post on Comuna 13. I also watched Narcos, and many other documentaries, and am happy to read that things are much better for the community. I’ve never seen escalators connecting towns anywhere in my life, so this was so cool to see! Going down the slides too looks like so much fun, and I would definitely take it!

    28. Samah says:

      The history behind Comuna 13 is very daunting, and not something I’ve ever thought of experiencing and I (fortunately) can’t fathom how people go about life in dangerous conditions. I’ve never seen outdoor roofed escalators, that’s an interesting concept.

      • Juergen says:

        I guess most of us cannot begin to imagine what life must have been like under a constant siege by armed crooks, to face death threads almost every day, and see victims of violence laying in the streets almost every morning… Imagine how traumatised children must be, who grew up under such conditions!

    29. Cassie says:

      I loved this article. Thanks so much, I am so glad I stumbled upon your site. You tell a fascinating story about such a famous place. I hope to get to Colombia in the next year so will be sure to check this tour out.

      The slide looks so fun! There are similar escalators in Hong Kong that I remember using in 2010.

    30. Jo says:

      What an amazing tour of Medellin and Comuna 13 with Stairway Storytellers – and the street art is fabulous. The slide, instead of a staircase looks a novel way of descending the hillside – do many people use it?

      • Juergen says:

        I guess the slide is more a kids’ attraction. People my age probably won’t use it too often ;) And it’s impractical as soon as you carry any large bag or other luggage.

    31. Rachelle says:

      I love street art and how much good it can do a community. It’s great to hear that local artists are finally able to earn some income and contribute to the neighborhood. I really love the sunflowers and stairs!

    32. Eric Gamble says:

      This is amazing. The more I read about the different cities in Colombia the more I just want to explore it all. To be honest I had never really heard of Comuna 13 but I do remember Pablo Escobar and the stories of the cocaine trade of Colombia! But I had no idea this was all based in Medellin! I am so amazed to see the change this area has gone through and even to know there is a visionary politician (Thought they lived with Santa & the Easter Bunny). I am definitely adding this history, culture, and street art tour to my Colombia Bucket List! Thank you

      • Juergen says:

        Yes, we can highly recommend this tour over others who visit Comuna 13. And you know that your tip will go straight back into the community.

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