This Colombia Travel Operator tour, which commenced only one year ago, can be exactly what you’re looking for in order to understand how Medellín went from being one of the world’s most dangerous cities to one of its most “innovative.”
If I had read that anywhere else, I would have scoffed. Much like I did when I heard about the escalators in comuna 13. Innovative? How? How do some escalators change anything?
I admit though, all I knew about comuna 13 was read (not very thoroughly) online. I knew about Operación Orión, about the conflict in Colombia, etc.
The first thing that Julio said when he picked me up for the SocialNnovation Tour was “before we start, let go of all your preconceptions.” Of course, he said this in his extremely paisa (as I like to say, so paisa that his s’s whistle) Spanish.
Julio is also bilingual as well as extremely welcoming and knowledgeable, but all this can be seen through Colombia Travel Operator’s reviews on Trip Advisor. They’re a hit!
It’s not the most affordable. $80 for a roughly five-hour tour. The reasons? First of all, it is a private tour. Second, more than half is going towards Escuela Kolacho, the urban art school to which Beyoncé gave her routine $50,000 donation when in concert in Medellín.
The dynamic is: the guide (in my case, Julio) picks you up wherever you prefer, takes you to Parque San Antonio where the idea behind the tour is revealed.
On one side, you have the broken sculpture of the bird sold by Fernando Botero to the city of Medellín, its core dispersed by the bomb placed there, like a matricidal egg, in 1995-two years after Escobar’s death.
On the other, you have the donated version of the bird, perfectly untouched. One represents the past, the violence, the fear. The other, the resistance.
That is social innovation. A space that speaks to people, that says, “this must change.”
Comuna 13 is one of the 16 areas that make up Medellín, meaning all who live in Medellín live in a comuna. However, the term “comuna” has evolved into a pejorative one.
People don’t refer to Laureles as part of comuna 11, they say simply “Laureles.” Comuna has almost become a synonym for poor, mountain neighborhoods, although that’s not accurate.
Comuna 13 specifically, though, has been a troublesome one from the very beginning. It has always been a type of refugee cluster of neighborhoods. Ex-slaves from Santa Fe de Antioquia moved to El Salado, one of the 31 neighborhoods that make up this comuna and founded it.
So, left to the edges of civilization, without a presence from the government, the neighborhood was taken under the wing of guerrilla groups who developed sewer and electric systems.
Pablo Escobar took special interest in the area as well because it involved the route to Turbo, a key port for exportation near the Colombia-Panama border.
This led to Operación Orión. The armed operation whose participants violently shot at anyone in the territory (civilians included) from tanks and helicopters as a way to take the delicate territory back from enemy’s hands.
“Really great things come from terrible events.”
This quote is something on which Julio places special emphasis during the tour.
Which is why the next stop is Parque Biblioteca San Javier.
The library is located next to the school and what used to be the local prison.
While we were there, we ran into one of the teachers from Casa Kolacho, teaching his student the importance of going to school and the library in order to stay away from the third option.
The library is fully equipped to receive handicapped persons, as well as children, elderly and anyone else who wants to enjoy the open, wide-window spaces it has to offer.
This Parque Biblioteca isn’t the only one of its kind, it was Sergio Fajardo’s (current governor of Antioquia and former mayor of Medellín) plan to change darker more dangerous spaces into productive, beautiful ones.
Graffiti with a side of social renovation
Up to this point, I was impressed, without a doubt. Julio can put things in perspective and offers historical input that makes the tour worth the cost.
As soon as we began observing the street art in comuna 13, however, I truly understood why this tour exists. There is something about a graffiti mural, perfectly placed, that changes a person’s mindset. It’s at this point that the local tour guide comes into play.
This is when social innovation becomes real.
When, what seems like a typical set of escalators can facilitate access to your home and combine with beautiful street art that speaks to your identity.
Around the escalators, and throughout the neighborhood, color spread like wildfire.
It’s understandable why Colombia Travel Operator teams up with Casa Kolacho (who also offer tours strictly about graffiti).
The social structure is undeniably tied to the urban art.
Interaction with the locals
Julio isn’t a stranger in the neighborhoods that he’s guiding you through.
He’ll stop and say hello to people, previously known and new, all the time. He’ll introduce you; you’ll get the feel for the people, the stories.
Overall, I was very impressed with the tour. I learned so much about, not only Medellín history, but also local and international artists that have marked our urban spaces and non-spaces, Casa Kolacho, the process through which this space has been.
Most of all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable tour. At the end of it, the only flaw is that you’ll want to see, hear and do more.
This post was written in partnership with Colombia Travel Operator.