Have you ever heard about comunas? They are the ghettos, projects and forgotten areas of the cities in Colombia, similar to the favelas of Brazil. Though they may be called different names, most big cities have such areas. They normally aren’t that special for travelers but the way Medellin manages to deal with them is what makes all the difference.
But before we continue, let me tell you that I am in no position to say what Medellin is doing to the full extent to help these comunas. I was only able to see a part of it.
I live in Guatemala and have visited some of these shantytowns around Guatemala City (which has a very similar layout) to learn about how the government is treating these poor areas. After doing this tour, I can clearly see the reason why Medellin won the most innovative city in the world award for 2012. From what I was able to see, they are making a lot of effort to make this city a better place.
In Guatemala I went to one of these ghettos called La Limonada for donation purposes and didn’t like it much. But after talking to Julio from Colombia Travel Operator, I felt like I had to do their tour of Comuna 13, not only to see what it is about but because it needs to be shared with the world due to all of the changes that are happening in these area of Medellin.
Comuna 13 Medellin – A Story That Must Be Told
My guide told me about the escalator project and about Kbala, a local from Comuna 13 who took a different route.
Kbala has a lot of talent and passion. He’s a hip hop performer and graffiti artist. He opened a community center for kids of all ages where they can take classes in rap, graffiti art, and hip hop for free. This community center is called Casa Kolacho. The name is tribute to a dear friend of his who died after living the warrior life common of most people living in these comunas.
Kbala’s wants to give kids an alternative outlet for their creativity and to keep them away from streets and violence.The only way I can describe meeting him and visiting Casa Kolacho is MAGICAL. Out of all the places I’ve been to, this is one of the most special and genuine. Plus, the talent, love and true belief in art as a way to make the difference that surrounds it is hard to describe.
Kbala ended up being my guide of Comuna 13. Even John, who was my original guide, became a visitor. Since he lives there and is so highly respected, we were welcomed as friends as well.
NOTE: Do not go to Comuna 13 on your own. It is not a dangerous place but you are considered an outsider. It is better to go with someone who knows the place and can really give you the inside scoop.
Why Comuna 13 (San Javier) Is Special
– It is one of the most distant comunas from town center.
– Many of its areas are extremely poor, badly organized and insecure.
– It covers an area of 700 acres of land.
– It has over 135,000 habitants.
– It is mostly residential.
– A metro station was built on it on 1996, and a metrocable station was opened in 2008.
– In 2011 a giant, public, outdoor escalator project was inaugurated to help locals. It is the only one of its kind and has truly made a huge difference to the surrounding area.
– The project shortened the 35 minute walk up to the top to six minutes.
– The World Forum, with over 130 countries, visited this area to see learn more about it and see how much difference such a project can make.
You can find all of these facts with a little research but what you may not find online is the colorfulness and care these people started to show once the escalator was built. It is a true sign of appreciation for this project.
The houses right next to the stairs are all painted in joyful colors and most have flowers hanging off their porches.
The streets are kept clean by neighbors and everywhere you look Casa Kolacho has had their hands on it. The murals are incredible and they all have a meaning and positive messages.
Over two years ago, Casa Kolacho started a project to paint the rooftops as well.
Another cool fact is that there are a lot of cultural activities being offered to its habitants.
Quick Notes on Comunas of Medellin:
– Medellin is divided into six zones that reflect the strata system, each divides into Comunas.
– Overall there are 16 comunas.
– Comunas are shantytowns that grow incredibly fast. Most keep going higher and higher on the hills that over look the center of Medellin.
– Each comuna has a local government.
– Comunas started to get more integrated to the local comunity after the metro cables were built, allowing the people who live high in these areas to have quicker and more convenient access to work and Medellin’s resources.
Library Parks – The Cultural Difference and the Real Change
What are library parks? In the words of the Mayor of Medellin: “The library parks are cultural centers for social development that encourage citizen encounters, educational and recreational activities, building groups, the approach to the new challenges in digital culture. And they are also spaces for cultural services that allow cultural creation and strengthening of existing neighborhood organizations.”
There is no entrance fee, subscription or membership. Each has numerous books, cultural activities and events. They are a series of libraries surrounded by green spaces that everyone can enjoy and take advantage of.
The idea behind creating these library parks is to give everyone, regardless of their age or economic status, a place to gather and stimulate the mind rather than be on the streets causing problems and doing drugs.
At the moment of publication of this article there are 12 library parks all over Medellin. They have been designed by famous architects like Giancarlo Mazzanti, Ricardo La Rotta Caballero, and Hiroshi Naito.
Escaleras Eléctricas al Aire libre las Independencias – My Take on This Tour
If you have been following me for a while you know that I have done tons and tons of tours in my life, so you can trust me when I say that this has been one of the best tours I have ever done because of all the unique, life moving experiences.
If it wasn’t for the alliance that Colombia Travel Operator has with Kbala and Casa Kolacho, I would have seen just another shantytown with painted houses and an electric stairway.
I am very grateful to Julio for recommending this tour. It was the most memorable part of my entire trip to Colombia.