Entering Comuna 13 @ Comuna 13, Medellín

Boys and Birds @ Comuna 13, Medellín

Black Lives @ Comuna 13, Medellín

Our bus journey to Medellin was meant to be about 13/14 hours, but we had been warned by some friends that it would take much longer. Luckily for us it was right on time as Alice had come down with some form of stomach bug and spent the whole bus journey not sleeping but trying not to vomit. As we drove into the city in the early hours of the morning, the sheer size of this place surprised me. I couldn’t believe the housing that sprawled over the mountains and down into the valleys, the buildings gradually becoming high rise the closer to the city centre and the red brick that every house and building was made from. Medellin was built in a valley, surrounded by the most dramatic and jagged peaks and has steadily expanded into the mountains.

We arrived to our hostel around 10, where Alice went to sleep in a hammock while we waited for our room. Restless, I jumped in an Uber and headed to a shopping mall to try grab some of the things we needed, as not to waste a full day. A couple hours later, I returned, Alice still asleep rolling around where I left her. We moved into our room before spending the afternoon catching up on “bus sleeps”, washing and waiting for the kitchen to be free.

Escalators @ Comuna 13, Medellín

Bright Eyes @ Comuna 13, Medellín

The next morning, the included breakfast stunned us as we found individual yogurts, pre made takeaway cups of granola and fruit, bread, jam and a toaster, along with as much fresh Colombian coffee you can drink. Alice was in heaven, this is her number one breakfast ever. It was absolutely perfect, if you didn’t have time to eat there, it was all ready to take out with you. With Al feeling 100% better, we jumped in an Uber and headed to Comuna 13 for a walking tour of the district.

Comuna 13 until recent years has been one of the most dangerous places in the world, Medellin itself was the most dangerous city in the world, and we were now standing in the most dangerous district. In the 80s and 90s comuna 13 was controlled by Pablo Escobar and even after his death in 93 the drug cartels sought control. Comuna 13 was over run with paramilitaries, narcos and gangs until the government decided to “take back control”. This happened in the controversial form of “Operation Orión” on the 16th October, 2002. The Colombian military carried out the “operation” to overthrow all of the rebel groups. More than 1,000 policemen, soldiers, and pilots in helicopters attacked the district. Nine people were killed (three children), and hundreds were wounded. The siege made it impossible for any medical attention to come in for the wounded. Our guide talked about how she was looking out of her window as a child when it happened. Our guide also threw around some wildly incorrect statistics about the daily death toll and a couple of other things which may have been a lost in translation thing as she had only been learning English for two years (fair play) so we have since done some fact checking. The inhabitants of Comuna 13 took to the streets in protest and solidarity flying white rags. With that action, the fighting stopped. The tour was basically about how since the horrendous events of 2002 performed by their own government, the inhabitants of Comuna 13 have expressed their anger and discontent in different forms; graffiti, art, dancing, social and cultural projects and of course- hip hop.

There have been numerous city projects in the last decade improving the quality of life of Comuna 13’s inhabitants, one being the metro cable car and the other being the rather unusual outdoor escalators. The cable car opened in 1996 to help inhabitants to gain easy access to the rest of the city. The enormous outdoor escalators measuring 384m in height making a tough journey by foot up the hillside that once took residence 35 minutes now takes only six minutes! It came with a very large questionable price tag but they were quite fun!

Escalators @ Comuna 13, Medellín

Our tour guide, Laura, was born in Comuna 13 and could remember this operation clearly. She told us stories of the gangs, the violence and the sadness that was Comuna 13 during her childhood. Along with the dark history, we were told the story of the “real” Comuna 13, the story of the people of this district, how they survived and then chose to thrive, despite their history. As we walked through the district, there was no denying the obvious signs that any low socio economic district would hold, but what stands out more was the beauty and the obvious resilience of the people. The people had flourished, opened artisanal tiendas, the younger generation had thrown themselves into educational programs, the freedom of art and expression on the street walls, and this is where we clearly saw the story of the new Comuna 13. Through the graffiti, we saw individual stories of struggle, hope and perseverance. It was a very powerful morning to say the least.

La 13 Es Mondial! @ Comuna 13, Medellín

We were sat down and a local dance crew put on a little show for us before we ended our tour shortly after. The dancing was pretty awful but you couldn’t help but feel impressed with the whole situation.

After the tour we headed to the other side of town to watch the Belgium match with a bunch of the guys from San Blas, Jess, Phil, Catherine and Nick who had just arrived on the same bus we had done the day before. After watching Belgiums glory, we headed through the “tourist” district where the streets were lined with really overpriced bars and restaurants. We spent the afternoon catching up before grabbing a metro back to our area, navigating our way through the streets with only locals, it was really nice to stay in a non touristy area. Back to our hostel for a home cooked meal.

Comuna 13 Housing @ Comuna 13, Medellín

My Favourite Graffiti @ Comuna 13, Medellín

When we woke up the next morning, we grabbed our breakfast to go and headed into the historic centre for, yet another walking tour. This time the tour was about the center of Medellin and promised us a showing of the “real city”, rather than the tourist sites. As we got into the morning, our guide Monsa (who was just fantastic!) would refer to Pablo Escobar only as “him”, “PB” or “Voldemort” as not all of the people of Medellin like talking about him, don’t like tourists learning more about him and HATE people profiting from his blood bath reign over the city. Monsa would happily answer any questions we had about this particular subject, but made one point very clear, Medellin was so much more than Pablo Escobar, and she, the people and the city were determined to show us that.

We learnt briefly about the history of Medellin and the Paisa people. Colombia is divided up into regions, who each have their stereotypical personalities and names. The Paisas are from the coffee region/Medellin area and are known for being strong business people and to be blunt- swindlers!

We also learnt a little about past and present politics. The current second in command of government that is about to be elected would be Colombia’s first woman in position, YAY! This, we thought was fantastic, until we learnt that although she was ok with gay marriage she didn’t think that homosexual couples should be allowed to have children and had planned to retract the law that allowed that to happen. Great for women, rubbish for the gays!

Bombs in Birds @ Medellín

Market Roof @ Medellín

Our Tour Group Plus One Friendly Local @ Medellín

The further we went into our walk, the more we fell in love with Medellin. It had fast become our favourite city to date. The history and sheer perseverance of the people after not just a drug gangs, but bombs, terrorism and the incomprehensible corruption was just outstanding. The city is beautiful and weeks in this one place would be very well spent.

Botero Large Laying Lady In Front Of Belgium Built Gothic Church @ Medellín

After trying some local food, making our way through the most important historic parts of the city and meeting some very colourful locals, a bunch of us from the group were dropped off at a local bar to sit and watch the England vs. Croatia match. Surrounded by Croatia supporting Colombians, it was a sad loss but really fun to watch it with all the locals. We headed through the streets, stumbled into a beautiful old cathedral and gradually made our way back to our hostel.

Graffiti Grannie @ Comuna 13, Medellín

Lions @ Comuna 13, Medellín

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