What Hiking Medellin’s Most Notorious Neighborhood Taught Me About Colombia

If you were alive at the end of the 20th century, chances are you still have a decades-old stereotype about the Colombian city of Medellin. Because, if you’re old enough to remember dropping a coin in a payphone or inserting a floppy disk into a computer, you’ll probably remember that Colombia’s second largest city made the one of the newspapers as the most dangerous and deadly city on the planet.

But just as faded Jordache jeans and big hair were replaced by Lululemon leggings and beach waves in high schools across the country, in a generation, Medellin has transformed. From one of the most perilous places on earth to one of the most promising, it has replaced danger and violence with culture and innovation.

everyday wanderer

What is Community 13?

A few decades ago, Comuna 13 was a community of tin-roofed shacks with no running water or electricity that covered the lush mountains on the west side of Medellin. Located between drug lord Pablo Escobar’s lavish city home and the Pacific Ocean, it shipped billions of dollars worth of cocaine to the United States. The poor neighborhood was filled with machine-gun-wielding guerrillas and machete-wielding gang members violently defending one of the biggest drug cartels in history.

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But after Escobar died in a shootout with the police in 1993, the extradition of other drug lords to the United States, and Operation Orion – a deadly military raid on Comuna 13 – the Colombian government has spent a decade improving this hillside community. The rickety cardboard structures with dirt floors were replaced by sturdy brick houses with tiled roofs and indoor plumbing. A series of six outdoor escalators take residents 1,260 feet up and down, allowing them to easily connect to the city below. The dangerous community has blossomed into an unmissable arts community where drum music fills the air and awe-inspiring murals – many of which share Comuna 13’s history and hopes for the future – fill the steep streets with color .

When I visited Comuna 13 as the only American in a group of Colombians, I heard various stories about life in Colombia since the 1990s. All the Colombians I spoke to – Comuna tour mates 13 to colleagues – have had first-hand experience of the violence that once plagued their country of origin, whether they grew up in Medellin, Bogota, another Colombian city or in the countryside. They shared with me their collective stories of a kidnapped grandmother, a murdered uncle, and a family farm overrun by guerrillas.

And so I asked this question, “How can an entire country overcome such a heartbreaking and violent history in a relatively short time with such force?”

Hugging mural in Comuna13.
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1. Family Means Everything

Generally, Colombians have close-knit families. Although I don’t have any American friends or colleagues who live in multigenerational homes, several of my Colombian colleagues share homes with their adult siblings, parents, and grandparents. Colombians who live independently still spend a lot of time with their families. One colleague regularly meets her mother for yoga classes, and another travels several hours each way to visit her parents every other weekend.

Another Colombian tour mate made this observation: “When we celebrate holidays with our families, we don’t just stop for a few hours. We spend the whole day, even the whole weekend, as a family.

Pro tip: If you have seen Disney Encantothe 2022 Oscar-winning film for Best Animated Feature, it does a fantastic job of illustrating family life in Colombia.

Author Sage and team with Comuna 13 artists
Author Sage and team with Comuna 13 artists (Photo credit: Zippy ride joint 13)

2. Education is important

In Comuna 13, which remains a low-income neighborhood compared to El Poblado and others in Medellin, the focus is on education. Our Comuna 13 tour guide shared a popular saying, often repeated by parents, educators and other authority figures in Comuna 13: “If you drop out of school, your future has two options: jail or a premature death. But if you stay in school, your future holds endless possibilities.

And the focus on education seems to be working across the country. the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international political organization based in France for 60 years, reports that the Colombian education system has made impressive progress over the past 2 decades. Enrollment in early childhood and post-secondary education has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and Colombian children today spend 2 or more years in school than they did at the start of the 21st century.

Community center in Comuna 13.
Community Center (Photo credit: Wise Scott)

3. Keeping Kids Busy Keeps Them Out of Trouble

At the foot of the hillside neighborhood of Comuna 13 is a community center offering a long list of free after-school programs and other activities. By focusing on soccer games, ballet performances, art lessons, computer programming competitions, English lessons, etc., children are less likely to get into trouble. And by providing the younger generation with these additional opportunities to develop their body, mind and creative spirit, Medellin will continue to be one of the smartest and most innovative cities in the world.

Mural with date of Operation Orion.
Wise Scott

4. Living in hell helps you find happiness

If you’ve ever spoken to a cancer survivor, war refugee, or anyone else who’s had a truly hellish experience, chances are they have a deep appreciation for life. Or, as someone once told me, “It almost takes death to make you realize how much – and how much – you want to live.” And it is this sentiment that, according to a Colombian colleague, is at the heart of her country’s regular recognition as one of the the happiest in the worlddespite everything they’ve been through.

Fun fact: As the President of the United States from 1993 to 2001, Bill Clinton was in power when Pablo Escobar was killed and Colombia began its transformation. Visiting Comuna 13 in 2017, the former president said: “A once violent community is now a thriving and peaceful community.”

Exterior escalators at Comuna 13.
Exterior escalators (Photo credit: Zippy ride joint 13)

Final Thoughts on the Comuna 13 Tour

Although Comuna 13 is just a small corner of South America’s northernmost country, it’s one of the best ways to see how far Colombia has come in the past 20 years and get a glimpse of its bright future. I recommend climbing the mountainside on the outdoor escalators of Comuna 13 and experiencing this colorful community with a guide. This option gives you additional information that you might miss if you are exploring on your own.

We visited Comuna 13 with Lizeth from Zippy ride joint 13. She met us at the San Javier metro station and ended our tour by taking us back to the same location. Not only was Lizeth’s English impeccable, but as a resident of Comuna 13 she brought the neighborhood’s history to life and shed light on its bright future. If you choose to visit Comuna 13 on your own, I recommend visiting during the day and exploring the area closest to the escalators.

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