Comuna 13 is a must-see place when you visit Medellin. From its recent past as one of the most dangerous places in the world, to a vibrant neighbourhood that has experienced astonishing change and growth – the world-reknowned street art here is shaped by history, struggle, and hope. This is my quick guide to exploring Comuna 13 in Medellin, and what you need to know before you go.
Since the demise of Pablo Escobar, Comuna 13 has changed significantly. The area has been completely transformed with government funding and interventions. Social and youth programs have brought colour back to the lives of the locals here, with beautiful graffiti on steps, buildings, and walls that speak of the culture and past history of the area – while also looking forward to a bright, peaceful future.
History of Comuna 13 in Medellin
During the 70s, Medellín was regarded as the most dangerous city in the world – having the unenviable claim to fame of “city with the most homicides on the planet”. This was all thanks to the increasing popularity of cocaine, which was being grown and exported under the watchful eye of moustache-twirling villain, Pablo Escobar – predominantly to fuel the appetites of flare-pantsed (is that a word?) disco groovers and Wall Street traders in the USA.
Within Medellin, there are 16 distinct areas (comunas) comprising 250 neighborhoods. For example, El Poblado is comuna 14, and downtown is comuna 10. So Comuna 13 isn’t just one single neighbourhood – but several combined.
Large waves of immigrants and displaced families escaping conflict in other parts of Colombia made their way to Comuna 13 between the 60s and 90s. This is why the hillsides now have such crazy-looking houses packed together on top of one another. The high population density is a result of thousands of people arriving and building over a short space of time – as there were no local government regulations in place to monitor construction.
The new inhabitants had no jobs, and mostly lived in self-made homes of wood, brick, and tin. This made them vulnerable to shady deals offered to them by the increasingly powerful cartel gangs. And so the problems grew.
By the 90s, numerous illegal groups were battling it out for cocaine supremacy in Comuna 13, and the death toll rose at an alarming rate. It wasn’t until 2002 that the government finally decided to step in – launching 10 military operations which resulted in (you guessed it) even more deaths.
The final and most important events for the community were the Mariscal and Orion operations, which eventually succeeded in their mission to eradicate the guerillas from the area.
Things to know before you visit Comuna 13
Everywhere you look, the graffiti is amazing – but it’s not there just for show. The art here is shaped by history and hope. The street art is painted by locals, and tells stories of important cultural and historic moments that have shaped the Comuna 13 area. Violence and transformation are threads that bind the artworks together, and highlight the people who have been instrumental in leading the radical changes for the families that live here.
In the mural above, you’ll notice the dice which bear significant numbers for this neighborhood. On 16 October 2002, the Colombian government staged its biggest and final military intervention here in an attempt to wipe out the guerilla forces – bringing 1,500 soldiers, two helicopters, and a tank into Comuna 13.
Operation Orion lasted for three days, subjecting the people in Comuna 13 to hours of terror, and killing or injuring civilians that were sheltering in their homes.
Recommended tours of Comuna 13
We did a self-guided tour of Comuna 13, which resulted in several hours of going in the wrong direction, climbing up and down eleventy million tiny steps, and relying on our wits and random hole-in-the-wall beer dispensaries to survive.
While getting lost is always part of our travel agenda – it might not be your idea of a good day out. Thankfully, there are some awesome guided tours of Comuna 13, run by people who live there.
Local tour companies
Zippy Tours – get a free guided tour in Spanish or English from one of the enthusiastic and knowledgeable locals of Comuna 13. Zippy offers one of the best Comuna 13 experiences for people who want to know about the culture and history of the area. Snack stops included! This is a free tour – but you should allow around $25,000 per person as a tip. A bargain for 3 hours!
Other Comuna 13 experiences
How to get to Comuna 13 from El Poblado and Laureles
You can catch an Uber directly to Comuna 13 from El Poblado and Laureles, or any of the surrounding suburbs. If you prefer public transport, you can jump on the bus to San Javier from Laureles, or take the metro from any stop and head in the direction of San Javier station.
Once you reach San Javier, you’ll be able to see the gondolas and catch one of those to explore the hills – or head left out of the metro station, and towards Las Independencias and Comuna 13 central.
If you want to trek to Comuna 13 on foot, it takes about an hour to walk from LA 70 in Laureles to San Javier. And slightly longer to walk back (after climbing 2,635,454 stairs – give or take). Make sure you power up on any buñuelo, zumo, and arepa opportunities that you pass by to keep you going!
What to expect in Comuna 13
Walking around the neighborhood
Don’t forget that this isn’t a tourist attraction. I mean, it is – but it’s also a real, local neighborhood where people live in very close quarters. And some of them probably don’t appreciate random strangers invading their space, taking selfies outside their living room, and snapping shots of their houses and families as they go about their daily lives. Don’t treat Comuna 13 as a some sort of people-zoo. Be respectful, and always ask permission if you want to take photos of people.
Outside of the Escaleras Electricas area, be mindful as you walk around. It’s seriously easy to get lost here. Comuna 13 is a tightly packed community knitted together with tiny stairwells and steep paths – and some of these are private property. As you explore the barrios, stick to the paths with yellow railings. These are the public walkways, and will help you avoid any awkward encounters with the locals.
We found people to be very friendly as we explored their neighbourhood. Bring an ample supply of buenoses with you – you’ll need them!
Hills and stairs
The Comuna 13 neighbourhoods are located in some seriously steep countryside, with lots of similarly steep stairs to help you get around. While the escalators and gondolas can help you explore more of the area with ease these days, it’s still a test of your fitness levels. This also makes it difficult for people with accessibility needs.
If you’re in a wheelchair (or if you’re like me and have knees that start complaining after climbing more than four stairs), contact one of the recommended local private tour groups to organize a guided trip that can still show you the beauty of this town – while avoiding all the tricky parts.
In 2011, the world’s first ever outdoor public escalators were installed at Comuna 13. $3.5 million dollars seems like a great deal to avoid walking up 350 stairs every day if you live here.
With the escalators drawing in curious crowds, the street art began to increase. Which meant more tourists. Which meant even more art. Which has all been an incredibly positive side effect for the local community.
Stunning city views
Take the outdoor escalators to the top of the main Comuna 13 areas and get prepared for some seriously spectacular views across Medellin. There are plenty of viewing platorms, so even if you visit on a weekend when it’s peak tourist time, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get the perfect shots looking down the hill and across the valley.
Food, souvenirs, and selfies
If you’re worried about getting any of these at Comuna 13 – don’t be. Everywhere you look in the escalator area has stalls, snacks, bars, and artwork.
We went on a Sunday – which is a terrible day for visiting any kind of attraction. Weekdays are probably a lot quieter here. What you can’t see in this photo are the crowds around me, waiting for their turn with the bunnies. I mean, I can’t blame them.
Bring some patience with you if it’s busy and you want to get the perfect shots!
The Comuna 13 people
Breakdancers, singers, artists, stallholders, bars, shops, and eateries pave the way from San Javier metro station up to the lofty heights of Comuna 13. When we got lost, locals pointed us in the direction of hidden artworks around corners and in alleyways that we would never have seen otherwise – and made sure we knew how to get to the escalators so we didn’t miss the main attractions.
Comuna 13 graffiti gallery
I’ll avoid a colossal photo dump here, but honestly, the artworks here are incredible, so I need to post some of them. We didn’t even get to see everything in the time that we had…so I’ve apologized to my knees in advance that we need to go back again before we leave.
Maybe close your eyes and scroll past this section if you don’t want spoilers.
Is Comuna 13 safe to visit?
We felt totally safe during our visit, even though we got pretty lost – and got laughed at by the locals as we battled their endless uphill stairs. But with anywhere you travel, it pays to be sensible. Don’t wander too far from the main Comuna Roads and into the private neighborhoods if you’re nervous, and keep your phone and cash secure in the escalator areas. Crowds anywhere provide ample opportunities for pickpockets to do what they do best.
Where we stayed in Medellin
We arrived into Medellin at 3am, after a 19 hour bus and plane journey from Costa Rica, so we needed something with a 24-hour check-in. Airbnbs don’t tend to be a good option, so we thought we’d opt for a central hotel – and a large comfy bed! We booked 4 nights at Sites Hotel, and it was fantastic – more like a self-contained studio with a kitchen and lounge area. Breakfast was traditional Colombian food – so if you want your first hit of arepas and calentado, you won’t be disappointed.
Situated at the start of LA 70 – the restaurant, bar, and nightlife strip in the heart of Laureles – you’ll find the new Factory Lofts apartments. I was trying my best to run lean on this Colombia trip, but once I saw this place it was all over.
Functional, fully equipped studios, fibre optic wifi, a coworking space and laundry, rooftop area with a pool and stunning views…you get the picture. You’ll also find a healthy cafe with amazing coffee, and a craft brew bar right outside.
We stayed here for a month, and it was absoloutely perfect for working and as a base to explore Laureles, Comuna 13, and the surrounding areas. I got parcels shipped here with no problem too.
Comuna 13 in Medellin is one of the most memorable places that I’ve been to since I started my full-time travel adventures in 2016. It’s an incredible transformation to see a neighborhood that was once struggling and torn apart by violence, terrorism, and drugs become a place where the quality of life has improved immensely over the last 20 years, and with so much colour being brought back into the lives of the families that live there – both literally, and figuratively.
Rachael is a full-time digital nomad and freelance copywriter for B2B and SaaS companies. She’s worked with brands like Unbounce, Biteable, Datacom, Viddyoze, and Owler.
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