By Luke Saxton
When you think of Colombia the chances are you think of drug cartels, robberies, kidnappings and danger in general. Essentially the western worlds views are based on what we are fed from the media and the foreign office. It would be foolhardy to ignore what can be a dangerous place and walk around in total ignorance. But as far as I’m concerned the same applies to any country in the world. Wrong place, wrong time in Paris, London and New York isn’t going to do you any favours. If you do visit Colombia you’ll quickly realize that if you hadn’t, you’d have missed out on the opportunity to visit one of the most incredible countries in the world.
Colombia is simply stunning, with so much to offer. It has the second highest biodiversity in the world, behind Brazil. Over 56,000 species are registered including over 9000 that are endemic. It has the Amazon, the start of the Andes, a Caribbean and Pacific coastline, incredible coffee, beautiful colonial architecture and 1000’s of years of indigenous history. It’s the geographical glue that binds Central and South America. It borders Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. The people are lovely…and no it’s not a myth, its inhabited by some stunningly beautiful people. I found myself trembling in front of the lady at the immigration desk as I flew in to Medelliń and it had nothing to do with contraband!
Medelliń (Pronounced ‘MEH-DEH-JIN’) is the capital of Colombia’s mountainous Antioquia province. It is Colombia’s second largest city behind the capital Bogotá and is positioned in the Aburrá valley in the Andes foothills at an altitude of 1500m, with a population of approximately 2.5 million people. It is nicknamed the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ due to its temperate weather. As a result many houses have neither heating nor air conditioning.
I could go on and on but I’d like to share a ‘must do’ experience which also happens to be a poignant factor to debunking the myth that it’s as violent and dangerous as it once was.
It has fast become one of the jewels in Colombia’s crown, yet as little as 15 years ago and for the 20 before that, it was known as the most dangerous city in the world. This was due to the fact it is where Pablo Escobar formed the ‘Medelliń Cartel’. Medelliń is made up of 16 ‘communes’ or ‘comunas.’ Comuna 13 also known as San Javier was home to the Medelliń cartel. Sat on a steep foothill away from the city it had very easy access to the San Juan highway, which was the perfect route for the transportation of drugs, guns and money in to the city. The residents there were very poor, had little opportunities and could ill afford to get to the city for work and so were trapped there under the cosh of the cartel.
To give it perspective Comuna 13 was the most dangerous district in the most dangerous city in the world.
Pablo Escobar was shot and killed in 1993 but the Cartel still operated in and ran Comuna 13. In 2002 the Colombian military attacked with 1000 troops and helicopters. The 100,000 residents surrendered, as they couldn’t get treatment for their injured.
In 2011, 6 consecutive outdoor escalators were built ascending nearly 400m to ferry residents and up and down the steep hillside. Now as a liberated community the residents took to music and street art depicting scenes for peace and solidarity.
Medelliń has changed dramatically. To put it in to perspective its violent crime rate is statistically twice as safe as New Orleans. (Yet we all go there without a second thought.)
For me Comuna 13 was not just one of my best experiences in Medelliń, but also in Colombia. It’s now correctly promoted as a great place to visit as a tourist. I’m a solo traveller, albeit very seasoned. Nevertheless I’ll admit even I was a little daunted when I reached the base of the Comuna. People rushed up to greet me. I did my normal, polite but assertive. ‘Muchas gracias, pero nada para mi. (‘Thank you very much but nothing for me’) I then wandered up the hill towards the escalators and it began…the most beautiful murals and artwork everywhere. Huge splashes of mesmerizing colour.
It was hard to know where to look and as a keen photographer what to photograph. (Your camera will be perfectly safe, again discretion is polite, and always ask people if you can take their picture) I soon found myself at the bottom of the escalators and began to ascend them. The residents have turned this Comuna in to a community that thrives off the tourists, there are lots of cute little shops selling their wares and I’d advise you to spend money there. They have worked so hard to totally transform a place that one way or another has negatively affected them all. They welcome you with open arms and as a visitor you cannot help respect them and their ingenuity. The further up I went the more comfortable I became and the more stunning the artwork was. Then there is the music and the dancing.
The hip-hop culture is big and about halfway up I came across a group of guys very professionally set up called ‘Black & White C13.’ All in matching T-shirt’s. There was a large crowd of tourists there cheering them on and applauding them. They had a bucket in the middle where donations could and should be made. These 12 or so guys worked tirelessly at entertaining the crowd, improvising new routines and pulling off amazing dance moves. Think Breakdance, hip-hop style. They have found a passion, a belief and something that metaphorically keeps them off the streets. Moving further up the hill you get incredible views of the city and the reality of the places they live in. To me very much akin to the favelas I’ve seen in Brazil.
Make no mistake these people are still very poor. Everywhere you walk you get smiles. Don’t be afraid to smile, they’ll mostly smile back. Expect to come across people with sound systems doing impromptu dancing in the street. Many of them want their pictures taken and in return they’ll be desperate to put their number in your phone. Not once did I have any kind of perception that they were going to run off with it. They never asked me for money but if they were dancing and there was a collection bucket I’d always give some out of respect.
Nearer the top I even found a bar that some residents had built, with a stunning view. They had a selection of what I can only describe as craft beers. Yes they were relatively pricey. But whose going to complain for the ingenuity and the fact they have to get them up there, set them up and then pack them away to a secure place at the end of the day.
In summary, its brilliant, bright & vibrant, albeit edgy, however the residents welcome you with open arms and seem really proud of what they have achieved there….and so they should be!
Miss Comuna 13 and you’ll have missed an integral part of Colombia’s changing history.
Tip 1: When you get to San Javier station on the way to Comuna 13 you can then get a bus or Taxi to the ‘Escaleras Electricas’ People are concerned about the safety of the walk…don’t be, its totally safe. Takes about 10 minutes from memory. Plus you’ll probably pass a great ‘Empanada’ Street food stand. (on right as your walking towards Comuna) They are delicious and cost about $2000 pesos (45p)
Tip 2. I always carry a pocket with loose change and small bills in. That way you are not flashing large amounts of money when you pay for stuff. Which I think is firstly disrespectful flashing your wealth. Secondly it does make you more susceptible to crime and thirdly they often find it hard to give you change for large bills. Finally they are less likely to over charge you (not that I ever found dishonesty a problem here)