The best way to explore Comuna 13 in Medellin is no doubt with a free walking tour of Comuna 13. This also turns out to be a great Medellin graffiti tour.
Medellin is a city that has gone through an incredible transformation and nowhere is this more apparent than on the tour of Comuna 13 (pronounced co-moo-na tray-say). Comuna 13 is a district of Medellín that was a nexus of violence just 8 years ago, and is now relatively peaceful, although with many lingering issues and painful memories.
There are a number of free walking tours of Comuna 13, but please be sure to take one that uses local guides. We went with Zippy’s Comuna 13 tour and our guide was a lovely woman who took us to her home and told us stories from her childhood.
The tour is called “free”, which means you don’t pay upfront but you do tip the guide at the end. Free walking tours are the best and have consistently been some of the most fun and informative city tours we’ve taken.
Zippy’s Comuna 13 Tour
The tour starts at the San Javier station with the bright blue-clad tour guides. Since the guides are locals who have lived in Comuna 13, a lot of their passion comes from the heart.
Not too long ago, there was a stigma associated with living in Comuna 13, so being able to tell a group of foreigners about their district is a huge turnaround for them.
As you climb the hill (Comuna 13 is set into the hillsides of Medellín), watch out for this view of the neighborhood. If you squint, the two bumps in the horizon, can be followed down to a point, making the comuna a colorful heart shape.
The main focus of the tour is the variety of street art that you can see around the area, It’s beautiful, vibrant and full of symbols – elephants to represent the long memories of the people here, large eyes to represent all that the people have seen.
By the way, remember that some of these images are powerful reminders of a painful past. Don’t pose with them in insensitive or disrespectful ways. Some are just art, but ask the guide the meaning before you take any funny photos.
The symbolism of the street art in Comuna 13 is a powerful reminder of a painful past.
There’s a lot of angles to shoot street art from, but you want to watch out for everything else in the frame. One bag of trash can ruin your shot.
If you have a bunch of Teva-wearing tourists milling about, your best chance might be to shoot dead-on and capture just the art. By this I mean, stand right in front of the image to shoot it, not too close or you’ll get distortion. Then, wait for your moment, and shoot the art perfectly level.
But it is street art, so if you have interesting foreground elements, or can capture some aspect of neighborhood life, you can make a way more powerful image by providing the viewer some context.
Comuna 13, Medellin History
So why was Comuna 13 so violent? The sad fact is that regular citizens struggled to live normal lives while competing guerrilla and paramilitary groups fought for control of the drugs, guns and other illegal activities.
In October 2002, the government of Colombia, having vowed to crack down on the guerrillas (FARC) carried out a week long security operation in Comuna 13, called Operation Orion. Heavily armed soldiers and police descended into the neighborhood with tanks, police and military helicopters, busting down doors and detaining residents.
The government claimed the operation was executed by official security forces, but many have testified that the government worked with a paramilitary group (BCN)that had their own motives to gain control of the area.
Many civilians who were detained, disappeared, with no due course and to this day, no information to their families of their whereabouts or more likely and painfully, their remains.
Since then the government has attempted to improve the lives of Comuna 13 residents in various ways. Various art projects, a set of escalators built into the sides of the hills, spaces for children to play – all this has slowly led to a revitalization of the area.
I’ll admit, I was a little nervous to head on this tour, but sights like these made me feel a little silly. Everywhere we went, children were playing, biking, roller skating.
To capture a streeet art photo like this, sometimes you have to hang out in front of a nice work until someone comes along and then take the shot.
Patience is the most underrated skill in Photography
Hip Hop Troupes
Another thing you might catch on this tour is a performance from a local community initiative, Casa Kolacho, that organizes breakdance and hip hop classes and also funds most of the murals.
The performance we saw had an extremely talented kid who looked to be just around 11 years old. That’s him in the front below, backflipping like a pro.
To get a good shot of street performances, it goes without saying that you should position yourself well. Here, I was sitting on the ground right in front of them. Then, turn on burst mode on your camera so you can capture the perfect moment.
Read More: The story behind Casa Kolacho
“Medellin isn’t a model of a perfect city, Medellín is a laboratory city, where we experiment on a daily basis, because we’re tired of suffering, because we’re tired of living what we’ve lived.
– Jehihco (Casa Kolacho, Comuna 13)
It’s always interesting as a photographer how to wield one’s camera responsibly. I hate to be a voyeur to someone else’s misfortune and so I was unsure about this tour beforehand.
But the guide we spoke to, and the locals we saw, were all proud of the changes transforming the neighborhood. They were also interested in getting their message out – not only that Medellín, Colombia is changing everyday for the positive, but also that many wounds still remain, in memory of the people who were ‘disappeared’.
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