The next day we woke again for another free tour, this time it was a graffiti tour of Comuna 13, once known as the most dangerous neighbourhood in Medellin, now a neighbourhood of hope and community. It’s turbulent past was explained to us by our tour guide as we passed through the area stopping at several different graffiti’s. This was another walking tour heavy on recent Medellin history in this very particular neighbourhood. Comuna 13, located in the West of Medellin, was notoriously known as the most dangerous neighbourhood in the most dangerous city on the planet. It started growing astronomically when country folk were forced to move to the city with nothing to their names. This was the only area they could go to and yet it still remained illegal to do so for many years. It became so uncontrollable the government caved in and let riot reign. It was the centre of drugs, guns and violence, all under the control of Pablo Escobar. After Escobar’s death in 1993 things did not change with other cartels moving in aiming to control the area. The cartel to succeed the most in controlling the area was the Cali Cartel.
In 2002 under President Uribe, the government realised that the area was no longer something they could avoid and wash under the carpet, action was required. On October 16th 2002 operation Orion was launched. The aim was simple – eliminate all guerrilla forces in Comuna 13. To this day this operation remains one of the most debated in Colombia. Whilst official figures show only 9 people were killed that day, our guide explained that this number was only the amount of people to die in hospital. It did not take into account those who lost their lives in comuna 13 during the conflict or any civilians. The number is most likely closer to 100. Civilians were given no warning that over 1000 armed forces were going to start open firing from land and air upon them leaving many caught in the crossfires. In the aftermath of the conflict, on the one hand you have President Uribe claiming Colombia’s most successful military operation against paramilitary groups (hard left in this case), and on the other hand, you have human rights organizations and locals claiming that many many more people disappeared, civilians were tortured by the police and that all that happened was one guerrilla group was replaced by another.
Since 2002 however the quality of life has drastically improved in this neighbourhood as we saw with our own eyes during the tour. Nowadays you can see some amazing graffiti art with plentiful meaning and portraying the history and future of Comuna 13. You can find many young adults big into hip hop and dancing on the streets, there were plenty of street food stalls all over, ice cream shops and even small art galleries. It really has transformed itself as a community in little over 20 years which is a remarkable feat. One thing at the centre of this transformation is the Comuna 13 escalators. This series of 6 escalators interconnects the whole community ensuring that anyone can get from A to B in a matter of minutes and showing everyone that even the most violent area of the most violent city can transform itself in a short period of time.
For lunch we went to El Rio market where there are over 30 different stalls selling every cuisine you could think of. We settled on Indian with tandoori chicken and a vegetable potato croquette curry. The modern art museum was close by so this was our next stop. This museum is based over 5 floors with both temporary and permanent exhibitions. The main focus is on the turbulent past of Colombia and the struggle with violence, remembrance and the past is depicted in a lot of the art.
The next morning we got the cable car up to Arvi Park located high above Medellin. The park is an ecological nature preserve and Pre-Hispanic archaeological site, covering 16,000 hectares. The cable car up offers views across the whole valley, so the eye can see from one side to the other of Medellin. The park itself is free however they suggest that booking a tour on one of their walks would be better. We decided against this which turned out to be the wrong option as the map was wrong and there were no signs anywhere. After walking for about 30minutes we decided to head back and join one of the mountain biking tours instead. For this they needed 3 people minimum so again another fail. Instead of hanging around for another couple of hours we decided enough was enough and returned on the cable car back to the city. We later found out that the local buses running on the roads up there bring you to the start of the trails. Unfortunately we were not told about this. At least we got cool views from the cable car! For the rest of the day we visited Parque Explora an interactive science museum where we had a lot of fun and learnt quite a lot. Before heading back for the day we walked around the botanical gardens that hosts a butterfly house, orchid garden, cactus garden, concert area, library and pond. On the plus side it’s all free!
For our final full day in Medellin we set off on a day trip to the beautiful town of Guatapé that is famous for three things. The first being the colourful houses decorated in bas-reliefs, the second being the man-made Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir and the third being El Peñón de Guatapé.
El Peñón de Guatapé is a giant granite rock that has resisted weathering and erosion, so therefore this great mass of rock has been formed. For an entrance fee of 18,000COP you can climb the 740 tiring steps to the top and look out at the 360 view of the surrounding reservoir. The Peñol-Guatapé is an area (6,365 hectares) that was flooded in the late 1970s to create a hydropower plant. This area was occupied with many homes and the government had to relocate everyone whose home was in the flood area. This is now one of the most important electric production centres in the country. The town itself is beautiful as many buildings are not only fully painted with colour but many are decorated with bas-reliefs, the most common depicting farming life, religion and a lot of donkeys. We walked around admiring these for a while and tried the local delicacy – Buñuelos. These are essentially fried dough balls however they are adapted in different countries. In Colombia they are made from white curd cheese and are typically dipped in coffee. Stu was a massive fan! We finished our day with some lunch and jumped on the bus back to Medellin.
By the next day we had come to spend 9 days in this amazing city. This will likely be one of our longest stays in one location throughout our trip and we could not recommend it enough to everyone. We had the most incredible stay here and we are already looking forward to planning a trip back at some point in the future.