The past scares people, and even the present, despite the stream of tourists that pass through Comuna Popular.
You know you are in one of Medellín’s poorer areas when you are here, evident by the old and worn houses bunched together like boxes in a storage room, and — if you’ve done a little research — the murder rate that is five times higher than New York City.
Great changes have been made and friendly residents abound but it will be a while before Comuna Popular, also known as Comuna 1, becomes the kind of place you can go without looking at your watch first.
The district, especially the Santo Domingo Salvo neighborhood, has been known as one of the city’s most dangerous places. People used to hide in their houses after 5 p.m.
While this is no longer the rule, the area has a long way to go.
A city redevelopment plan shows that Popular lags behind prosperous places. All the neighborhoods in this district are Estrato 1 or 2 on a scale of 6.
Education levels are historically low as well, with less than 2 percent of residents having achieved a degree beyond high school.
The hope is that the city’s investment in the area will improve those numbers in the future.
Points of Interest
Despite the prevalent poverty, Popular serves as a symbol of the city’s commitment to helping its poorest residents.
In 2004, the city opened the Metrocable to the district, giving residents an easier way to commute between their neighborhoods and the rest of the city. You take the Metro to Estación Acevedo to access these cable cars.
Prior to its installation, residents would spend more than two hours commuting to work, much of it walking to a nearby bus line, which did not connect to the area for lack demand or profit.
The government recoups some of its $26 million-investment in the project through tourism as well. For an extra 4,000 pesos (about $2), a connecting line takes you to Parque Arví, almost 1,800 acres of protected land that city residents and travelers enjoy during their leisure time.
On the weekends make sure you get up there before noon. The park closes when it starts to get full.
If you do the Metrocable/Parque Arví trip in the morning, you could see the other major attraction in the comuna in the afternoon: Parque Biblioteca España.
It’s impossible to miss the giant black structures from the Metrocable, and they are worth seeing.
Now seven years old, it continues the city’s efforts to provide its youth with activities and education, to give them opportunities for a better future.
You can walk to the library park from the Santo Domingo Salvo stop on the Metrocable.
This is the kind of neighborhood where typical Colombian food rules.
If you take the Metrocable to Parque Arví in the morning, and visit the Biblioteca España in the afternoon, you could stop for lunch in between, maybe for as little as 5,000 pesos (about $2.50) for a set meal that includes soup, a main dish of meat, rice and salad, and juice.
While you’re there, talk to the people around you. They’re nice. They’ll ask you a lot of questions about why you’re in Colombia, what you think of Medellín, where you’re from, how long you’re traveling.
Two words: don’t go.
It’s not a place for tourists, or even residents from other areas of the city, at night.
Needless to say, you won’t find shopping malls in an area like this. Maybe someday, but not today.
In 2013, there were 21 murders in the comuna, according to data collected by Colombia Reports, nearly all of them concentrated in the Santo Domingo Salvo neighborhood.
That means there were 14 murders per 100,000 people, down from 94 per 100,000 four years ago, similar to today’s total in Comuna 13, where there were 90 murders per 100,000 people, making it one of the city’s most dangerous districts.
Don’t use that comparison, however, to argue that Popular is safe.
Last year, there were less than 4 murders per 100,000 people in New York.
There is a chance Popular’s homicide numbers could fall again, now that two of the city’s rival gangs, La Oficina de Envigado and Los Urabeños, have called a truce.
But my recommendation is that you stay out of Popular once the sun goes down. Everything you want to see, you can see during the day.
Cost of Living
If there’s no reason to visit at night, you probably don’t want to live there either.
You can easily make a day trip to visit Popular from those locations, or anywhere in the city, really, thanks to the improvements the city has made.