SocialNnovation Tour: Innovation and Memory in Comuna 13

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Street art
Paola Delfín's work at the foot of the escalators.

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!

Pájaro Editado
Pájaro Editado

The Tour

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.”

View of comuna 13 from Parque Biblioteca close to San Javier Metro Station
View of comuna 13 from Parque Biblioteca close to San Javier Metro Station

Comuna 13

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.

Parque Biblioteca San Javier
Parque Biblioteca San Javier

“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.

Seen on the way to the escalators in Comuna 13
Seen on the way to the escalators in Comuna 13

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.

Before and after the escalators in comuna 13
Before and after the escalators in comuna 13, much like the before and after of the bird in Plaza San Antonio.

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.

Paola Delfín's work at the foot of the escalators.
Paola Delfín‘s work at the foot of the escalators.
Street art
Street 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.

A child, resident of comuna 13, posing for a photo after school.
A child, a resident of comuna 13, posing for a photo after school.

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.

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This post was written in partnership with Colombia Travel Operator.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Me impacto sobremanera este delicioso tour por Medellin, pero lo que mas me impreisono, fue el plasmado en los grfitties hechos por verdaderos artistas de las comunas de la capital de Antioquia, es un hecho relevante por aquellas clases desprotegidas. Dixi.

  2. We took the tour last year with a different tour company Comuna 13 Tours and were very impressed with the innovative investments made by the local government to improve the lives of the residents of this troubled community. It is a great example of how society should never give up on people struggling to survive each day. There were a group of University students from Brazil visiting the community on the same day we were there and they had about 15 police officers following them around the community. It’s still one of Medellin’s no go zones especially for foreign travelers.

  3. Gracias a Ximena por esta magnifica descripcion de lo que hacemos. Estamos orgullosos de poder ayudar a una comunidad que lo necesita. Este tour no es solo para extranjeros, los mismo habitantes de Medellin deberian hacerlo y saber mas de su historia.

  4. My husband and I took a similar tour of the same neighborhood yesterday. Coming from New York City and Chicago, the area was perfectly clean, the residents there ignored us altogether or were friendly and the views/artwork were beautiful. We were there just before sunset. I’m typically a nervous traveller, but I never once felt anxious or unsafe. Definitely worth a visit, even if you’re coming alone. Thank you for the wonderful website.