Twenty years ago Comuna 13 Medellín was one of the most dangerous places in the world. Run by cartels, rife with violence and crime, overpopulated and unsafe just to live there.
But today, it’s completely transformed. The streets once controlled by drug and weapons traffickers are now full of artwork, street performers and food and drink stalls. And everyday visitors flock to Comuna 13 to learn about its history, immerse themselves in the culture and support the local economy.
Taking a Comuna 13 tour with a local guide is the most popular way people visit this neighbourhood. And you’ll find recommendations for the best here – as well as how to visit by yourself on a Comuna 13 self-guided tour.
Read on for an overview of the history, what to expect in this neighbourhood, how to get to Comuna 13 and the best tours…
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What is Comuna 13 Medellín?
Comuna 13 is one of 16 communes in Medellín. And while most people believe it to be one neighbourhood, it’s actually a whole district with many neighbourhoods across the steep hills.
Today, the area may be popular with tourists enjoying the artwork, street performances and bars. But, Comuna 13 was once known as one of the most dangerous places in the world.
And, the story of that transformation is fascinating…
A Short Comuna 13 History
I’m summarising because the best way to learn about the area is to take a Comuna 13 tour and hear the story from a local. The next best is to read a dedicated and thorough history guide compiled by an expert, not a travel blogger.
Located on the western hills of Medellín, Comuna 13 soon attracted the attention of traffickers. With its location near a main highway, these traffickers realised they could use the area to easily transport weapons, drugs and money in and out of the city.
This was an action that largely went unchallenged. Because the district was home to many migrants from across Colombia with little money or influence.
And quickly, the area became controlled by the gangs who recruited people living there with the lure of money that they couldn’t earn any other way.
Violence and stigmatisation of those who lived there ensued. In fact, many people are still missing today, and their relatives will never know what happened or where their remains lie.
But after years of cartel rule, the Colombian military entered Comuna 13 Medellín in October 2002. And in a multi-day siege – called Operation Orion – began to overthrow the rebel groups. Bullet holes from that pivotal point in the area’s history remain visible today.
Evolution into One of Medellín’s Most Popular Tourist Spots
Today, you might associate Comuna 13 with vibrant art or confident street performers. But, it still remains an area of low socioeconomic status.
The area has very few roads, requiring residents to walk long distances uphill to reach their homes. The addition of 6 outdoor escalators in 2011 improved the situation only slightly.
Additionally, many of the houses are unfinished – though, this is on purpose to pay lower taxes. However, the corrugated iron roofs are typically pinned down with bricks to prevent them from being washed away during heavy rain.
Despite this, visiting Comuna 13 isn’t a trip to view poverty or feel sorry for the residents. Instead, it’s very much a celebration of the transformation over the last 20 years.
Today, the people are proud to say they’re from this neighbourhood.
Financial investment and the reduction of crime have made the area more appealing to tourists. And now, the locals dance, rap or display and sell their art in galleries to earn money.
Comuna 13 might not have the money, status or towering buildings compared with other neighbourhoods. But, it has soul, purpose, community and a vision for a better future.
Why You Should Visit Medellín’s Comuna 13
A trip to Comuna 13 is an immersive experience taking you through the streets of a place once dubbed the most dangerous place in the world. It was in many of our lifetimes that crime, poverty, violence and discrimination plagued this part of Medellín.
Yet, in a relatively short amount of time, Comuna 13 has been transformed. Tourism has created jobs, boosted the economy and made the area an attractive place to visit.
As well as being a historically fascinating place to visit, you’ll come face to face with the culture of Comuna 13. It’s vibrant, it’s busy and it’s where real people live and work.
This is no show home, it’s gritty and soulful. You’ll love it.
From a personal perspective, visiting Comuna 13 felt like the most authentic look into life in Medellín, especially being accompanied by a local guide.
As well as his knowledge of historic and recent events told with his memories of each, we bumped into so many people he knew during the tour. Someone setting up a new art gallery, a street performer, someone working in a shop.
And yet, despite being popular with tourists, it feels much more real than the soulless high-rise buildings of El Poblado. Or the grey buildings of the downtown area.
But, Comuna 13 was definitely a highlight of the two weeks I spent in the city. It’s unlike anywhere else in Medellín. The personal touch is really what sets a Comuna 13 walking tour with local guides apart.
Is Comuna 13 safe?
Yes, it’s safe to visit during the day and early evening. Although – like much of Medellín – it’s recommended to not visit at night.
The previous threats of violence, gang warfare and drug trafficking might have gone. But as this is a tourist hotspot, you still need to watch out for pickpocketers and use general common sense methods as in any major city.
What to do in Comuna 13
The district is huge and there’s lots to see, do and experience. And no two visits will be exactly the same.
There are plenty of ways to get off the typical route. But, here’s where to go in Comuna 13 to see the best bits…
Street Performers, Graffiti and Street Art
From afar, you’ll hear the music from dance groups and rappers. Audience interaction is almost a given, so sit at the back if you don’t want to participate!
The street dancers we watched got a few people up to have a dance-off. The rap group asked us to each say our favourite Spanish word as well as what country we were from. Then, they freestyle rapped with all those words in!
Graffiti art and street art are also everywhere!
On the viaduct, along the escalators and on the side of almost every building! Each has a unique story and meaning, with tour guides typically stopping at various different ones during your visit.
Some of this artwork is also replicated onto canvases, prints and souvenirs that you can take home with you.
Comuna 13 Escalators
The escalators – somehow – are both the least and most interesting thing about Comuna 13. Honestly, these escalators are just like every other one you’ve seen before, except they’re not.
They were installed after the siege in Comuna 13 to regain control from the gangs and cartels. As the government’s way of providing compensation to the community.
Because one of the biggest inconveniences to people living in the area was the difficulty in travelling around. Since the only way was up and down narrow stairs, with no roads for vehicles.
The installation of 6 escalators (3 going up and 3 going down) reduced a 25-minute uphill walk to 6 minutes travelling on the Comuna 13 escalators. This was transformative for those with reduced mobility, young children and carrying heavy shopping!
However, in a neighbourhood the size of Comuna 13, 3 pairs of escalators only solve the ease of access issue for some people.
And, of course, there’s the fact that the 6 Comuna 13 escalators do not make up for years of gang rule, sky-high murder rates, a siege and the transfer of power to paramilitary groups! It’s a controversial subject, for sure.
Art Galleries and Souvenir Shops
Speaking Spanish might be the way people in Comuna 13 communicate but art is the real common language here. As well as the huge amount of street art, Comuna 13 is also home to a large collection of art galleries and art shops.
Around the escalators, there’s some immersive, neon galleries that you can walk inside for a bedazzling experience! Plus, there’s the more traditional art galleries and shops that display canvases and prints available for purchase.
As well as artwork in the more traditional form, some of the most popular designs are also available on souvenirs. T-shirts, tote bags and the like are easy to come by featuring the best of Comuna 13’s artwork.
Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bars and Restaurants
Not often thought of as a place for a drink or a meal. But as a popular tourist destination, there’s a good number of bars and restaurants around the central area (i.e. near the escalators).
Stalls and small shops selling ice cream, coffee, beers and soft drinks are also commonplace. If you’ve never tried avocado-flavoured ice cream, this is your chance…
Comuna 13 Tour Recommendations (And How to Visit By Yourself)
For exploring Comuna 13, you have three options:
- Paid-for tours (pay upfront)
- Free walking tours (where you tip at the end)
- Going and walking around by yourself
Each has its pros and cons and each will suit different people.
For example, free walking tours have local guides to give you unique insight and a personal touch. Whereas going self-guided, means you can explore different areas away from the main roads.
Best Comuna 13 Walking Tours
- BEST OVERALL: COMUNA 13 HISTORY & GRAFFITI WALKING TOUR
- BEST PRIVATE TOUR: COMUNA 13 & DOWNTOWN WALKING TOUR
Free walking tours aren’t exactly free when you consider the tip. So, if you’d prefer to pay upfront or online (and in your own currency) then a tour where you pay in advance is for you.
A paid-for Comuna 13 Medellín tour is also for you if you prefer the comfort of having transport included to and from your hotel or hostel, typically in El Poblado to Comuna 13. Although, do check carefully as not all include this.
But other than that, the paid tours don’t include anything you wouldn’t get on a free walking tour. So make sure you don’t get overcharged.
These tours are typically priced around the 20 to 25 USD mark (80,000 to 100,000 COP).
My top pick is this Comuna 13 history and graffiti tour with a cable car ride. It offers great value and can be booked online to secure your date – with free cancellation up to 24 hours beforehand should your plans change.
Check out prices and availability for your travel dates…
But, if you’re after a private or small group tour, then there are some pretty economic options. These typically include hotel or hostel pick-up so are suited to new or first-time travellers…
Free Walking Tours of Comuna 13
The Comuna 13 free walking tours typically start at San Javier Station. Here, you’ll meet your guide and group before heading into the Comuna by bus, the price of which (2000 COP) is not included in your tour.
Almost all the Comuna 13 free tours are led by guides who themselves grew up and continue to live in the district. Meaning they provide a unique and personal insight into the history of the neighbourhood and the current tourism boom.
Each company and guide takes a slightly different route and approach to showing you the best of the area.
However, you can expect your Comuna 13 tour to include watching rappers and street dancers and visiting art galleries and coffee shops (with free samples). As well as learning more about the different pieces of street art.
The free Comuna 13 walking tours are the best all-around value option, as the guides work on a tip-based model to get paid.
25,000 COP is the recommended tip amount. But it’s optional and you can tip what you think it was worth or what you can afford.
The tours typically last around 2.5 hours and end in Comuna 13. So you’ll need to make your own way back to the metro.
Comuna 13 Self-Guided Tour
Not everyone enjoys tours and that’s ok. If you fall into that group, then you’ll be thrilled to know that you can explore Comuna 13 by yourself, easy peasy, lemon squeezy!
Yes, that’s right, you don’t need a tour or guide to visit Comuna 13. You can simply go there, walk the streets, drink in the bars, photograph the artwork and more, all by yourself.
Yes, it’s completely safe to do so and during the day and early evening, you’ll find plenty of tourists doing the same.
As in cities across the world, you should take extra care after dark. And make sure you have a way to get back to where you’re staying safely.
While you might miss out on some information, insight and anecdotes from a guide. You can always ask your questions to the many friendly and welcoming people working in hospitality and tourism in the neighbourhood.
Of course, the more Spanish you know, the better. Don’t expect English to be widely spoken here.
Additionally, you don’t have to choose between a walking tour and a Comuna 13 self-guided tour. The walking tours can be great to get your bearings as off of the main street, it’s a maze. You can take a walking tour and then spend a few more hours walking around either the same day or another day.
Recommendations: Visit early in the day to beat the crowds. Morning tours meet at San Javier around 10 am and get to Comuna 13 Medellín around 10.30 am. The afternoons are even busier.
What a Comuna 13 Tour is not…
Pablo Escobar or Narco Tourism
Of course, there’s an undeniable link between Comuna 13, Pablo Escobar and the narcotics trade. But, tours of the district do not focus on the drug lord specifically nor the drug trade.
Pablo Escobar tours are available in Medellín. Although these are very unpopular with locals who would prefer their city stopped being associated with a man who caused so much damage and pain.
These tours typically visit a museum curated by a family member, which I’ve heard from many people to be overpriced and underwhelming.
For a more morally sound education on the role Pablo Escobar had in making Medellín what it is today, take the Real City Tours downtown walking tour. It’s free and you’ll get a complete introduction to the city.
A few tours advertise themselves as ‘Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours’ but they don’t just focus on the graffiti. In fact, they’re no different than the ‘standard’ Comuna 13 walking tour option listed above.
These self-proclaimed graffiti tours still watch street performers, still visit the escalators and still see the shops and stalls.
Of course, like the standard walking tours, they do take you to various pieces of graffiti and street art. But importantly, that isn’t the only thing you’ll see on a graffiti tour of Medellín.
How to Get to Comuna 13 Medellín
Getting a taxi is the most direct option, but Medellín traffic can add unexpected time and cost to your journey all throughout the day.
Instead, take a metro to San Javier Station. From there, you can either walk (uphill, I don’t recommend it), take a taxi or take a dedicated bus running from the station to the lower part of Comuna 13 (2000 COP per person).
How to Get to Comuna 13 From El Poblado
Travelling from El Poblado to Comuna 13 is simple and cheap. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need to buy a Metro Card from the kiosk at the metro station for 10,000 COP.
When buying the card, you’ll also be able to put credit on it for your upcoming journeys.
However, you can have one Metro card for multiple people. You’ll just need to pass it along as you pass through the gates and ensure it has enough credit.
All metro journeys in Medellín cost 3280 COP for tourists, including changes as long as you don’t exit through the barriers.
From Poblado Metro Station, take Line A in the direction of Niquia. After 4 stops, change at San Antonio Station for Line B to the last stop: San Javier Station.
From San Javier, you have three choices to take you into Comuna 13:
- Walk. But it’s all uphill and you’ll be doing plenty of walking around when you arrive, so I don’t recommend it.
- Taxi. Uber or Cabify typically charge around 7000 to 8000 COP but metered taxis will be more.
- Bus. There’s a special bus service from San Javier Station to Comuna 13 for visitors. A one-way fare costs 2000 COP and you can pay with cash or a Medellín Metro card.
Remember, if you’re joining a Comuna 13 Medellín tour most of these have San Javier Metro Station as the meeting place. So, you only need to travel to the station and then you’ll travel as a group into the district.
Got Everything You Need?
Now you know a little bit about Comuna 13, you’re ready to learn more when visiting. And honestly, the locals are the best people to learn from.
Don’t forget to book your Comuna 13 Medellín tour online – secure your date with free cancellation up to 24 hours beforehand.
Do you have any questions or want any more information? If so, drop a comment below and I’ll get back to you!
Information and prices are correct as of December 2023 but are subject to change in future.
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