“Comuna 13” was formerly known as a notorious slum area with the highest murder rate in Medellín. At the time, the city itself was ranked as the murder capital of the world. Now “the epicenter of the murder capital” is a growing its reputation around the world and its success story is imitated in troubled cities, such as Rio de Janeiro. Recently, a number of “Comuna 13” tours have been launched, and hesitant tourists are trampling the colorful streets in the steps of the local guides. We decided to visit Comuna 13 independently to find out what’s it all about.

The Dark Past of Medellín’s Comuna 13: Drugs, Gangs, and Power Struggles

The area used to be controlled by gangs, paramilitary groups, and infamous drug lords. Police had no control of the area because every gang had its own lookout so that they could escape well in advance if the cops even dared to enter the neighborhood through the narrow staircases. The main highway of Medellín (San Juan Highway) penetrates the slums, lifting the cartel who was in charge in control of all illegal import and export business of Medellín.

Pablo Escobar controlled the area in the 1980s, and other gangs fought over control after his death in 1993. The murder rates in Comuna 13 tripled during 1997-2002. Police and national security forces tried to intervene violently 10 times without success.

In 2002, the Colombian military led a controversial Operation Orion with an ambitious goal to clean the most dangerous neighborhood of Medellín. The result? The left-wing guerrillas – FARC, ELN, and CAP ­– were removed. When the army, Police special forces, and air forces fought over guerrillas, 100 000 inhabitants of Comuna 13 were left in the middle of the heavy combat and siege and innocent people, including children, were killed, injured – or officially just disappeared. But only the masters changed. Operation Orion gave control for paramilitary groups, which led to paramilitary hegemony over the whole city of Medellín. Later, paramilitary leaders have confessed an ally with the police.

What about the murder rates, then? Officially, things brightened up after Operation Orion. But we were told that instead of throwing corpses to the streets, they were more discreetly carried to the dump site of La Escombrera hill.

The Revival of Comuna 13: Paint, Escalators, and Communal Spirit

Then suddenly things started to change. Local government provided youngsters free paint to strengthen their sense of community and channel frustration into a creative force. Soon schools and shops followed their example. Then an architect suggested a creative public transport option, the world’s first outdoor escalators that would connect neighborhoods. The idea has since been copied by the several other cities, like Rio de Janeiro and Ankara.

As a result, on our visit in Comuna 13 we saw beautiful murals, tons of flowers, happy faces, and hope. Though we visited Comuna 13 independently, unlike most tourists, we felt safe. But, for sure, things aren’t that black and white. The official stories of the troubled past and current bloom of Comuna 13 seemed to be drastically different than the stories of locals. We recommend that you explore Medellín’s Comuna 13 on your own terms to draw conclusions.

The red-bricked and cement houses of Comuna 13, Medellin
The corrugated iron roofs of Comuna 13, Medellin

Riding the Escalators of Comuna 13

Medellín’s Comuna 13 is scattered upon such steep hills that it used to be accessible only by stairs. Climbing atop equals of climbing 28 stores. When the six covered outdoor escalators were assembled in 2011, the sweaty 30-minute climb was reduced into 5-minute escalator ride. A massive improvement of life quality for more than 100 000 inhabitants of Comuna 13 – feel free to compare it yourself. We visited on a hot summer day and opted to take the free ride.

The starting point of escalators offers a splendid view towards the hills filled with red-bricked houses and speckled with occasional bright walls. Comuna 13 is still one of the most heavily populated – and poorest – neighborhoods in Medellín. From the starting point, you can witness how small cement and brick houses are squeezed tightly together. At the top, the corrugated iron roofs showcase the slum-like architecture. Some call Comuna 13 still a slum – we saw it as a vibrant, quickly changing and creative neighborhood sparkling with hope and community spirit.

When you hop on the escalators, you’re offered quickly passing glimpses of homes and backyards. The old cement stairway mirrors the escalators, offering canvas for both budding and famous street artists – and entertainment for visitors. Bright paint, skillful murals, and omnipresent flower pots make Comuna 13 a cheerful place to visit.

While changing escalators (or tramos aka sections), use the photo opportunities to capture changing views towards city center – and upwards towards the hills. The landing areas offer splendid shots of the surroundings murals, as well.

The escalators ascent the slope 384 meters, so naturally, the most breathtaking views are available at the top. Pose with a city view, walk around and taste local street food or enjoy ice-cream if you please.

View towards the city center of Medellín from the top of escaleras electricas, Comuna 13

How to Get to Medellin’s Comuna 13 & Escalators Independently

You can arrive at the Escalators of Comuna 13 (Escaleras electricas in Spanish) either with a taxi or public transport. It’s easy to take a metro from the city center or Poblado to San Javier, from where you can take a bus or taxi to the escalators. We chose to walk from San Javier to the escalators, as Google Maps showed the walking route and it was just 20-minutes leisure walk (search Escalator Comuna 13 in Google Maps: the starting point is located at the square/crossroads, the other location on map is the ending point). The bus line is 255 and buses even have “Escaleras” signs in their windows. Taxi trip should cost the minimum (5000 pesos) or a little bit more, depending on your luck.

The whole area around San Javier’s metro station is called Comuna 13, so feel free to explore deeper if you have time! Parque Biblioteca San Javier, modern multi-level library and culture center, is well-worth of visiting and stands as a public sign of brighter future for the troubled area.

Is It Safe to Visit Comuna 13 and the Escalators?

The area immediately around San Javier metro station is considered safe, as are the escalators. There are several policemen stationed around the escalators. Nowadays, tour groups flock the area during the daytime. Though our hotel advised against independent visit, other locals claimed it safe, still advising against wandering too far from the escalators themselves. Though our independent visit in Comuna 13 was safe and sound, I cannot guarantee that yours will be – ask the current security situation from locals or consider guided tour (there are also private tours available).

Please note that Medellín’s Comuna 13 is still low economic zone and watch your belongings. While homicide rates have sunk, street robberies are more than common. Don’t carry expensive cameras or other valuables if you decide to wander further from San Javier metro station or the escalators.

Have you visited Medellín’s Comuna 13 and the escalators – or would you dare to explore the area on your own?

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Explore Medellín's Comuna 13, the former murder capital of Colombia, now turned into colorful neighborhood filled with hope.