Just a couple of years ago Comuna Trece (13), in the San Javier district, was known as the most dangerous place in Medellin, Colombia. Shrouded by guerrilla and paramilitary activity, drug cartels and local gangs, Comuna 13 was built on the side of a very steep hill so that it could protect itself from the police and other unwanted visitors.
In 2011, the Medellin government used an urban regeneration initiative to help transform this area and other parts of the city. Installing six outdoor electric escalators in a bid to transform Comuna 13 and to help the locals, has proved to be a huge success. Taking the escalator is now much easier than hiking 385 meters, the equivalent of 28 flights of stairs. This was a catalyst for this area and has since seen such an impact that other Governments have paid a visit to Medellin to understand how this project, along with some others, has made this one of the most progressive cities in the world.
This government initiative coupled with a very passionate community, have made Comuna 13 become a vibrant and prosperous barrio (neighbourhood), that now welcomes visitors with open arms.
Toucan Cafe operates a graffiti and hip hop inspired walking tour that offers an in-depth look into a previously extremely dangerous area.
Kbala Censura from Casa Kolacho takes tourists around his barrio. He is a great ambassador for this progressing environment and passionate throughout the experience. He has all the knowledge as he grew up in the area and explains the significance of the murals as tourists weave up and down the very steep hillside that Comuna 13 was built on.
After a brief introduction, one of the first stops in Comuna 13 is Casa Kolacho, Kbala’s base. Here Kbala teaches about graffiti and hip-hop and how it’s significance has changed the community. Participants are also invited to ‘tag’ a board, in any way that they want too. It is Kbala’s way of integrating the group as part of the community.
Casa Kolacho is an important initiation for the visit. It is here that the scene is set for the tour and the story is told. As well as an in-depth introduction, they offer items for sale such as locally made clothing, shoes and spray paint with all proceeds going back into the community. Local artists are painting and working in the small recording studio on site. This is the first pit stop in a flourishing neighbourhood and they want more people to share their vision. There is a huge appeal for visitors to share their findings and experience on social media, Casa Kolacho wants more visitors to the area and want their voice to be heard. It is important that it be known that Comuna 13 is no longer a scary place to be. The message that Kbala conveys is LOVE. The community has gone through so much pain and violence, and it is very important to inform visitors of Medellin that this area is no longer like that, and if everyone in the community shows love one another, it can only move forward in a positive way.
Like any city in the world, there are places in Medellin where it does not feel safe to take photographs. Photography is actively encouraged along the tour. The hashtag #graffitour is also offered to share the experience across social media.
Leaving Casa Kolacho it is time to start navigating the very steep streets to catch a bus, just like the locals would. After a short bus ride up the steep hillside, Kbala takes the group through narrower streets where graffiti is more prominent. The area is worlds away from previous years with kids play soccer in the street laughing and cheering, rather than cowering and hiding from those that may cause harm.
At escalator one, it is instantly noticeable to see how the escalators have made life so much easier for the residents. The hillside is ridiculously steep. Walking up and down the steep hills, to and from work or school every day would have been a necessary chore. The escalators are the equivalent of travelling 28 stories from top to bottom. A bit further up the hill, a slide has been installed for kids and tourists alike to get down some steps a little quicker.
The graffiti surrounding the area is incredible. Initially, to get the project started, graffiti artists were brought in to produce the colour adorning the walls. Now, young and old local artists have taken over the walls. All the pieces have different meanings but share some common themes: Friendship, love and unity.
When the government invested the $7 million into the area, most of it was for the electric escalators, but a little was given to the residents for paint to paint their houses and make them stand out and be more aesthetically pleasing. The brightly coloured houses and electric escalators have made Comuna 13 a tourist destination in Medellin. There are groups of people littered in the area taking pictures and exploring.
As it was getting dark, and my tour was coming to an end, we happened to meet another tour group from Cali, Colombia. The two groups converged at the top of the last escalator in a big circle, surrounding the tour guides and translators for the hip hop part of the experience. All participants are told to shout his or her favourite animal at the top of their voice. A beat is then made, by clapping hands and stamping of feet, people take it in turns to come into the centre of the circle to dance and feel the rhythm of their chosen animal. Locals stop and start clapping, people look out of their windows, smiling and cheering. It is a great way to end the tour.
After dancing and singing with strangers, it is time to take the escalators back down. Kids are still playing out on the street and the community feel is evident throughout. There is a lit football pitch that see’s activity most times of the day. Kids of all ages were playing and cheering one another on, and that is the memory I left with.
If your Spanish is limited, or you want a local to show you around, the Toucan Cafe graffiti walking tour is a great way of delving into this previous no-go area. It is still regarded as a dangerous neighbourhood by a lot of people, but it’s not that bad anymore and a visit will enhance your Medellin experience.
Also check out Casa Kolacho on social media:
Toucan have a Facebook page you can check out here: Toucan Cafe Facebook
Have you been to Comuna 13, or would you like to go?
And remember to follow my journey 🙂