If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know that we generally don’t like to spend too much time in cities. We prefer to be in the countryside. But, there were two things we definitely wanted to do in Medellin. The first was the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour. There are a total of 16 comuna, or districts, in Medellin and the largest is comuna 13 with 21 neighborhoods. The tour is mostly in 20 de Julio and Las Independencias neighborhoods.
Comuna 13 was considered the most dangerous neighborhood in all of South America just 25 years ago. It was Escobar’s main operating base. Today, its a sprawling tourist hub that’s known for their amazing graffiti. Artists from all over the world want to come to Medellin and show their talent. Once, people were ashamed to say they lived in comuna 13 and today our guide, Sebastian, was proud to admit he grew up in this neighborhood.
He’s seen the change and couldn’t be more proud of what the community has achieved with help from Antioquian government. He wanted to make sure we knew it was the local, Antioquian government and not the Colombian government. Our tour with Sebastian was free. At the end of the tour, you tip him whatever amount you want. The tour is about 3 hours long but can be a little longer (or shorter) depending on how many questions you ask.
We met Sebastian outside the San Javier metro station. From there, we took a local bus. We needed a green card to get on which we got from the bus driver for free. We added the balance for our ride on the green card, got on the bus, and gave the card back to the driver. The ride cost 1,200 pesos per person so about 35 cents.
Comuna 13 is all on a hill and high above the city center. This means getting to and from comuna 13 is a challenge even for those who are young and fit. But it was even worse for the elderly and disabled. One of the many things the local and Antioquian government has done is add 6 outdoor escalators to help people get up and down the mountain faster and without getting tired. There’s also free WiFi for everyone in the neighborhood. San Javier metro station connects the neighborhood to the rest of the city and it’s only a short bus ride away.
Another amazing thing the Antioquian government has done is offer free language and trade classes for all the residents. In fact, that’s how our tour guide learned English. And he’s now enrolled in French classes so he can also give tours in French. Here’s a video of a boy practicing English he learned in class by explaining a complex lion graffiti with 16 hidden animals. They also offer free trade classes for those interested. It’s one of many ways the Antioquian government is helping the community that was most affected by violence and drugs.
Graffiti tour involves a lot of walking and and some stairs so wear comfortable shoes. The six outdoor escalators certainly help but it’s still all uphill. There’s food, good coffee, souvenir shops, and bathrooms along the way. There are street performances, art galleries, and artists at work in many places. You’ll see people selling local, handmade crafts, and stalls that sell sugarcane juice. I love sugarcane juice. I grew up drinking it in India and it was so satisfying to finally drink it again.
There are ice cream shops with exotic flavors like avocado, green mango, and queso. The avocado ice cream was surprisingly delicious. I wasn’t brave enough to try the queso ice cream. And the entire time we felt safe but it is important to note that comuna 13 is huge so follow you guide. Don’t wander off. There are still parts that are unsafe in comuna 13.
Many of the graffiti painted have a message, a meaning, it conveys a feeling, something personal and deep rooted in history. Now, lets talk about how an artist gets the rights to graffiti something on the building. It’s actually very simple. They just have to get the permission from the owner of the building. If you want to add or change something on an already existing graffiti, you need permission from the original artist. All the artists sign their work and the year they did it.
One of the common thread we noticed in a lot of graffiti was the image of an elephant because they have great memory. And the people of Medellin, and especially comuna 13, want to remember what went wrong and never to repeat it again. They don’t want to forget the past. But they also want to be hopeful so there are also many graffiti that symbolize freedom and change.
The two other graffiti that captures the essence of Comuna 13 are “we are all immigrants” which you see at the start of the tour and “changing lives with color” which is about half way up the hill. Towards the end you also see a graffiti of a gun with the barrel tied up in a knot. All these are powerful images of what can be accomplished if we come together and care.
As Sebastian, our wonderful tour guide, put it “in most places the rich have the best view. In Medellin, the poorest have the best view”. And he’s absolutely right. Just look at the view in the picture below. The project to revive more of the neighborhood is underway. You can see construction being done to expand the tour and have more graffiti artists come and show their talent. The tour officially ends with eating ice cream from a local shop. In case you forgot, I had the avocado ice cream.
There are a few things I learned on the tour that has really stayed with me. When you hear loud music coming from a house, you associate it with Colombian culture but the root cause of it was to drown out bullet sounds. Families didn’t want to hear those sounds and they didn’t want kids to hear it either. So, they turned the music loud to drown out the sound of gun fight. You’ll hear loud music coming from a few places on the tour but now it’s just become more of a habit. It was a sad realization of how bad things really were back in the day.
Houses in comuna 13 still don’t have actual addresses. So, I can’t mail a package or a letter to someone living in comuna 13. They usually have a PO box near the San Javier metro station where mail gets delivered. It was so strange to think that I can get my groceries delivered right to my door but these families can’t even get mail delivered to their home. They don’t have actual addresses. There’s no street name or house number. They have to walk down the hill, go down the 6 escalators, and take a bus to the San Javier metro station just to pick up their mail! It was a striking difference between our worlds.
So after all this, we had to ask Sebastian for his favorite restaurant near by. He took us to a place that has no name but is owned by his mom’s best friend and she cooks everything. It was delicious and super cheap. It only cost us 8,000 Colombian pesos which is about $2.35 USD per person and it included soup, main course and a drink! This place had the best chicharon I had in the 8 days I spent in Colombia. The restaurant has no name.
Most of the graffiti are very new and recent. There are artists from all over the world who want to come and show their talent in comuna 13. Graffiti tour is an absolute must in Medellin. If you only have time to do one thing in Medellin, let it be comuna 13 graffiti tour. And make sure your tour guide is someone local, someone who lives there and grew up in the neighborhood.
Overall, comuna 13 gave me hope in humanity. It’s a testament to how much good people can do if they just try and care. It is an uplifting, heartwarming, real life story that makes you feel optimistic about the world and have faith in humanity. There are so many places in the world that can replicate what Antioquia has done and help those who need it most.
For more pictures of my latest adventures, follow me on Instagram. I’ve posted more pictures of graffiti tour on Insta here and here. There is also a video of our guide Sebastian making a case for why everyone should visit Colombia and I couldn’t agree more. It was a great vacation destination, especially if you live in USA.