If someone had told me 20 years ago that Comuna 13 would become the most visited tourist attraction in Medellín, I would have told them crazy. 

But today, this neighborhood, which before seemed like a forbidden site even for locals, is not only the most visited place by travelers who come to Medellín, but also one of the most transformative experiences that anyone could have anywhere in the world.

If you are thinking of visiting Comuna 13, I am going to explain what makes it so popular and everything you need to know so that you can get the most out of this mandatory tour in the Paisa capital.

What is Commune 13?

Comuna 13 is one of the 16 districts that exist in Medellín and is made up of 20 popular neighborhoods, most of them located in the mountains and with the typical “favela” appearance that is so common in Latin American cities.

This Comuna is also known as “San Javier” and is home to almost 200,000 inhabitants. Historically, Comuna 13 has not been a tourist site nor a crowded place for local visitors.

In fact, it is unlikely that those who live in Medellín have visited this place before attractions such as the Metrocable, the escalators and the “Gragffitour” appeared.

Why is Comuna 13 popular?

The main reason that Comuna 13 has received so much recognition is that it has become a world example of urban transformation. A magical place where you can connect with the life and history of humble people from Medellín who have found in art and culture a way to change the face of their neighborhood.

But this transformation didn’t happen overnight. One of the main sources of change was the construction of a Metrocable in 2008: a public transport line through aerial cabins that was created to make life easier for mountain dwellers.

Before the Metrocable, people who lived in Comuna 13 and had to go out to run errands or work in other parts of the city, had to undergo long walks or wait for hours for the arrival of a small bus that would take them to the metro. 

When the Comuna 13 Metrocable appeared, a double effect was generated. Not only did the inhabitants of the sector found an easier and more flexible way to connect with the rest of the city, but it also created an effect of “intra-urban tourism” of other Medellinians who wanted to browse what at that time was a novel system of transportation for many.

But what  ended up exposing the commune to Medellín and the world was the inauguration of a system of escalators, which replaced 350 steps in the 20 de Julio neighborhood. 

This work, unique in the world, encouraged a cultural movement of graffiti artists, rappers and local merchants who ended up turning the place into what is now known as the “Graffitour de Comuna 13”.

How to get?

The 2 main ways to get to Comuna 13 are by Metro, Taxis or mobility applications. My favorite option is the Metro, since it will allow you to get to know the two key points of the Comuna: the Metrocable and the escalators (Grafittitour).

To get to the commune by metro you must take metro line B and arrive at the San Javier station. If you are located in the south of the city (El Poblado, Envigado, Sabaneta or Itagui) you must first take the metro on line A heading north and then transfer to line B at the San Antonio station.

If you are located in the western part of the city, sectors such as Laureles, Estadio, Floresta, you can go to the Estadio station and take the train towards “San Javier”, which is the last station on the line.

Once you arrive in San Javier, I advise you stay at  the station, go to the second floor and take a tour on the MetroCable. You don’t have to pay an extra ticket.

A few months ago I did exactly this with some Brazilian friends, who were quite surprised by the ease of transportation in Medellín and how safe it was to take a metrocable ride through the popular communes. 

The metrocable is a “circuit” so you will not have to get out of the cabin at any time and you can return to the original point where you took it (the San Javier station).

Once you are back in San Javier, you can leave the Metro station to go to the Electric Stairs, which are the starting point of the Graffititour. If you have previously booked a tour, it is most likely that the Metro station will be your meeting point and your guide will take you to the place.

But if you want to get there on your own, you can either take a taxi or take one of the green bus routes that are at the station exit. You just have to ask the bus if it goes through the escalators and kindly ask the driver to let you know once you get there.

A pice of advice here: If you don’t speak spanish is better for you to go with the help of tourist guides, since local people doesn’t have the ease to communicate with you.

Graffitour: the best plan in Comuna 13

The Graffitour is a tour between the 20 de Julio neighborhood and the Las Independencias 1 neighborhood of the commune, where you can appreciate more than 300 graffiti drawn by local artists, which tell the story of violence, displacement and rebirth of the neighborhood.

What I like the most about this tour is that it is a cultural immersion where you not only see beautiful works painted on a wall, but you can experience up close the daily life of the people who made it possible to transform the neighborhood.

The Graffitour is not about seeing painted walls and taking photos for your Instagram, but about going to listen to the history of the inhabitants of the commune, appreciating cultural expression through music and dance and tasting a little bit of the gastronomy of  the neighborhood.

Speaking of food, two things that I love about this place are the “mango icecream” (made with green mango and a little salt) and mangochelas, some preparations of beer, salt, lemon, mango and from then on what you want to throw.

Although doing the graffiti tour is free and you don’t need to pay any entrance fee either to appreciate the graffiti or to enter the escalators, I recommend that at least the first time you go, you pay for a guided tour, which can cost between $40,000 Colombian pesos and $60,000 Colombian pesos per person (between $10 and $12  USD dollars).

These guided tours can last from 2 to 3 hours, and you can hire them at different points in the Comuna. The first point is at the San Javier Metro Station, where several tour guides will offer you the service once you leave the station. The other point is at the beginning of the route, just where the escalators start. For safety, I advise you to take the second option.

But if what you want is to ensure a place with trusted guides, I recommend that you make a reservation online. When I first did the tour, we did it with Parche Experiences, which has a more political and historical focus on what has happened in the neighborhood. 

There is also the option to book with Casa Kolacho, which is a youth cultural group and which, in fact, are the original creators of the tour.

My last suggestion so you can enjoy the walk is that you do it early, ideally before noon. And if possible, avoid the weekends, as the place is quite crowded, to the point where it is difficult to walk. Oh and bring an umbrella, just in case!

Comuna 13 History

Comuna 13 began to take shape in the 1940s in a planned manner by the municipality of Medellín. The first buildings were in the lower part of the commune, in the area known as San Javier.

However, due to the Colombian armed conflict and the height of the industrialization of the city, in the 1950s informal settlements (known as invasions) began to take place, made up of people from different regions of the Colombian countryside who fled from the war. 

Many of the houses built in the area were initially made of tins and wood and over the years there was an unstructured growth of the 20 neighborhoods formed from narrow streets and brick houses.

Along with population growth, Comuna 13 became an epicenter for the operation of guerrilla organizations that fought for territorial control of the area, the management of the extortion business, and drug trafficking. These groups were called “militias”; urban guerilla cells such as the Farc and the ELN.

For decades the population of the Comuna has been a victim of the struggle of these groups for territorial control. But without a doubt, the darkest period for its inhabitants was in 2002 when the Orion operation was carried out there.

This has been the largest military operation in the history of Colombian cities. And it was organized by the National Army and the government of then President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Orión was a bloody operation for Comuna 13, since in order to eradicate the guerrilla groups in the sector, the Colombian Army established alliances with paramilitary groups to carry out the operation. This left dozens of civilian deaths and hundreds of missing people as a result. 

One of the images that portrayed the horror of this event was the photograph taken by photojournalist Jesús Abad Colorado. It shows a hooded man wearing rubber boots (paramilitary) giving instructions to the Colombian armed forces. Clear evidence of complicity between illegal groups and the official army.

If you are going to visit commune 13, the inhabitants of the sector will be able to share their personal experience during this operation that marked their lives. Listen to them with empathy and appreciate the value it has for a community to have revived from sordid moments and become a symbol of resilience from culture and roots.

Commune 13 and Pablo Escobar

Before you go let me demystify something. Pablo Escobar has nothing to do with the formation and growth of Comuna 13. He was not born, raised there, nor did he sponsor the formation of the neighborhood. Nor is it true that the epicenter of his hitmen was this neighborhood.

The guerrilla and paramilitary groups that have inhabited the area actually had historic confrontations with the leader of the Medellín cartel. When the paramilitary groups occupied control of this territory, Pablo Escobar had already been dead for almost 10 years.

During your visit you will find multiple hallucinatory shirts to this figure of terrorism and crime in Colombia. Although this is a method that many locals use to survive, taking advantage of the interest that the image of the “capo” arouses among foreigners, it is a symbol of terror, death and a lot of pain for Colombian society.