Today I finally get to know Medellin. I’m taking a walking tour of Comuna 13, notorious in Medellin’s recent history and the center of the Medellin Drug Cartel headed by Pablo Escobar.
I walk down to the meeting point at the Poblado Metro Station via Carrera 43A, a main boulevard here in Medellin. Opened in 1995, the Medellin Metro is the only metro system in Colombia. It’s Sunday, which means half of the boulevard is closed to motorized traffic so people can walk, run, bike, rollerblade or use any other means of non-motorized transportation they wish to enjoy a healthy Sunday in Medellin. Hell, I see one woman running and juggling (obviously training for the new Olympic event similar to cross-country skiing and shooting). These Sunday closures are all about health and I see signs of that all around. Besides the runners, walkers, bikers, and rollerbladers, I encounter a couple of medical type people set up on the sidewalk taking people’s blood pressure, as well as a fitness trainer holding a class involving jump ropes.
Arriving at the Poblado Metro Station just before 10:00 am, I easily find the meeting point for Comuna 13 Tours. Twenty-or-so people are gathered and within a few minutes, we have at least thirty. Our guide, Oscar, introduces himself and shows us the metro map indicating where we’ll be visiting during our four-hour-tour.
We enter the metro station and walk through the turn style, following Oscar’s direction. We’ll be taking public transportation on this tour, all of which is included in our COP70,000 fee (US$23.47). This is a great introduction to the city’s public transportation system and will help when I‘m taking it on my own. Our train soon arrives and we all follow closely, fearing we’ll get separated from our group. The trains here are wide, much wider than any other city’s public transportation I’ve taken, and very clean.
While on board I meet two twenty-somethings from the U.S. They’re very nice but exhausted and a bit hungover from a long night of drinking and dancing. While they say it was a great night, perhaps today’s plan should have simply been a late breakfast of pancakes while wearing sunglasses. (Unfortunately for them, there’s no Denny’s here.)
Stopping at the San Antonio station, we switch trains and, 25-minutes later, exit at the San Javier station where Oscar gives us some information about the neighborhood, before taking us to eat some typical Colombian street food; empanadas and arenas de choclo con queso (flat corn cakes with fresh cheese). The French people in front of me order seconds before I order my first and are totally “me chiant” (pissing me off, in French, according to Google Translate).
From here, we board a private bus (remember I told you about these when we were in Cartagena?) and, as I board, an old man sitting in a seat by the door takes my water bottle from me. As it’s not my reusable bottle, but one supplied by Oscar, I don’t fight him and think, though strange, well, who am I to deny a thirsty person water? The bus is crowded and I’m standing when we not so much depart, as enter a race through the street of Medellin. The trip is mostly uphill and the bus, being a manual shift, with the driver apparently been trained on an automatic, we jolt, bounce, thump and bounce up the hill, while careening around corners, my hands gripping the above bars and feet swinging like an Olympic parallel bar champion. By the time we arrive at our destination, I feel as if I’ve just completed a gym boot camp (I need a drink). As we exit, the old man who stole my water hands it back to me. It turns out he knew what the ride would be like and that I’d need both hands to hold on.
We step out and head up the cable car. The cable cars were installed in the aughts (mid-2000’s) as an official part of the Metro, or mass transit system. Medellin is a city of hills and mountains and, before the cable cars were installed, it could take up to three hours and a variety of buses, to commute to work. Now it takes an average of 25 minutes. And while the original idea was simply another form of commuting, the cable cars have become a major tourist attraction.
Next, Oscar introduces us to the Escalator Project. This series of five escalators covere in distinct orange and glass coverings, opened in 2011 and was designed by Carlos Escobar (no relation Pablo). Prior to its installation, the citizens of Comuna 13 had to climb the equivalent of 28 stories when commuting from the city to their homes in this poor neighborhood. And these people had surely been through enough.
In the early 1990’s and into 2000 this neighborhood experienced 8,000-10,000 murders per year. Think about that for a moment; not a city, but a neighborhod. Comuna 13 was controlled by the infamous drug-kingpin Pablo Escobar. People here wouldn’t dare exit their homes after 5:00 pm and friends and family wouldn’t think about visiting. Guerrillas stationed themselves in houses high on the hill and fired bullets at anyone who might be outside. Many innocents were killed as targets on the streets and
bystanders in their homes. In addition, anyone who the guerrillas felt might be speaking up against them, or even family members of those, Escobar ordered killed at a cement wall which came to be known as the Wall of Execution.
Escobar was caught and imprisoned in 1991. The prison wasn’t so bad though as he built it himself. Oh, and he went home on the weekends to visit his family. In 1992, he “escaped” as extradition to the US was being negotiated. He had plastic surgery and, when he was hunted down and killed in 1993, many weren’t convinced it was actually him. (Side note: you can now go to the former prison as part of Pablo’s Paintball Tours to shoot paintballs at each other.)
Following Escobar’s apprehension, imprisonment, and ultimate death, things didn’t immediately change. Now that Escobar was dead, various drug cartels and gangs fought for control of Comuna 13. Finally, in 2002, the government led an operation to take back the barrio. The rebels were so heavily armed that a police car was destroyed by a grenade. Over the three days of the operation, 400 people were killed.Finally, the citizens of Comuna 13 felt as if they’d escaped from prison as things began to turn around with the help of Mayor Alonzo Salazar and his efforts to enact change. Comuna 13 is now full of life. Graffiti decorates walls throughout the barrio. This is not gang tagging, it’s art expressing the history and voices of this community. And though these murals are up for interpretation, some of the artists have spoken out explaining the meaning of their murals. Elephants can be found on some walls. Oscar explains that elephants have long memories and, while the people here have chosen to forgive in order to move on, they say they will never forget the horror which happened here. Some other paintings depict scenes from nature signifying that we take from Mother Nature but give nothing back.
Today, the streets are filled with the sounds of music, the smells of home-cooked meals, and the bustle of people working and children playing. On our arrival in Comuna 13, a woman walking up the street tells us, “Bienvenido a mi comunidad!” (Welcome to my community!) The people of Comuna 13 are very proud of the revitalization of their community.
At the top of the last escalator we come to a staircase, next to which is a three-lane slide. Fifteen years-ago parents would hardly allow their children to leave home. Now there’s a built-in slide for them to play on. I, of course, can’t resist playing and take a trip down the slide.
We enjoy some more street food – yummy churros (fried doe with a choice of sweet syrups) and paletas (fruit-filled popsicles made in a cup with a wooden stick in them) before heading back down the escalators, where we’re picked up by our bus, along with its crazy driver. I rush on to grab a seat this time and we’re taken to the Metro. After just over four hours, we’re back, almost to where we began.
Oh, and the two tired and hungover American girls? They disappeared somewhere during the tour. When traveling, it’s difficult to be both a night and a day person for very long.
This tour is a must-do in Medellin in order to know the city and appreciate what they’ve been through and why they seem so joyful. I am now in love with this city and considering staying longer than planned.
Note – While Comuna 13 Tours was nice enough to host me on this tour, this did not sway my opinion at all. And, at COP70,000 (about US$23.50), this four-hour tour which includes some local street food, is a bargain.