Many travelers, including myself at times tend to stay in the more posh, safe and mainstream areas of a foreign city. I like to go out of the box and explore the grittier side of life in the areas that I visit. I want to see the ‘REAL’ side of Medellin…the gritty side of Lima.
To do this takes some caution and exercises in maintaining safety. Usually this is via a tour group or a local contact. I don’t advise exploring outside the main tourist areas without a huge amount of caution.
This was initially intended to be an inclusive post of both my time in Medellin and in Lima, however I think each city is unique in it’s current situation and each deserves it’s own focus. Part II The Gritty side of Lima (coming soon).
Medellin Colombia – Comuna 13
In Medellin, I visited Comuna 13 in the western hills of Medellin. This area is known to have been one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city during the days of the drug wars. The city has done a lot of improvements in efforts to bring this area to a prosperous and safe community. They’ve done a great job, although it’s told that you should not visit this area at night.
The mayors have done an amazing job in transforming this area of the city by bringing accessibility. In 1996, they opened the metro-cable system which allowed members of this community much easier accessibility to jobs, healthcare and educational facilities.
The metro-cable was only part of the transformation in accessibility for this community. The star of the transformation is the 384m orange-roofed outdoor escalator system. It’s comprised of 6 sections allowing residents to access multiple areas of this community.
The impact of this system was ingrained in my mind as I stood at the landing of the first set of escalators and watched as an elderly woman climbed the hill leading to the first of the electric steps. Her steps were labored, her back hunched with hands full of the days market goods. For her to have had to climb the hill without the escalator would have been quite difficult given her age and physical state. Today, she is able to make her commute with relative ease.
Street art in any city is a huge draw for me personally. There is something about the color, vibrancy and the creativity that has an emotional impact. Many times, it portrays the political and social issues of the area. This could not be more true than in Comuna 13.
One of the most pivotal events was on Oct. 16, 2002, when the Colombian military carried out the controversial Operation Orión, a strike to overthrow all rebel groups in Comuna 13. Over 1,000 policemen, soldiers, and aircrew in helicopters attacked the area (comprising of roughly 100,000 inhabitants). Nine people were killed (three children), and hundreds were wounded. The siege made it impossible to seek medical attention for the wounded, and the community took to the streets in solidarity flying white rags. With that action, the fighting stopped.
Residents voiced their discontent and anger with the violence that occurred in 2002 through art and community events. Striking street art around the neighborhood depicts scenes with the white rags raised for peace and solidarity.
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The street art in Comuna 13 is astounding in it’s political and social references. I was presented with an opportunity to tour the area with one of the more renown artists Chota Trece.
I have to say that this was the highlight of my time in Medellin. This young artist portrays the political strife of this community combining it with the hope that the community exudes in beautiful displays of art.
You can see the white flag for peace and solidarity, the elephant to signify remembrance, the tears to represent the sadness and strife, and the many references to growth, and hope.
I’ve always said that every city, town, neighborhood has an aura, a feeling that it exudes, a personality of sorts. This was so clearly evident in Comuna 13. The neighborhood is full of hope, happiness and pride.
The community members are excited to see tourists passing through. They are proud of where their community stands today. Their friendliness outshines even the beautiful art that lines the walls. I wanted to hug them all! I wanted to tell them how happy I was for their transformation, I wanted to be a part, to share their pride and happiness. I can only imagine the uniqueness of their experiences going from a level of fear that I’ll never understand to the peace and safety that they have today. Children play on the streets in the community, families gather and neighbors meet with smiles and embracing one another.
Commune 13 now a community of hope, happiness and one of impending prosperity.