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A big success story and graffiti everywhere

Visiting the Comuna 13 in Medellin

Last week I went to “Feria de Flores Medellin” (Festival of the flowers in Medellin) and during my stay I also visited my colleague Kabala in “Comuna 13”, a formerly dangerous district. He lives there and also works there as a tour guide. Always when I call him or send him a WhatsApp message, he calls me “Papi”, which means “Daddy”. I am still not sure why he calls me that.

I took a friend from Switzerland with me. Hitch is the same age as my dad and in the past we all played Ice Hockey together. I was on a Colombian holiday and traveling. We took the metro and arrived early. We had a coffee and met Kabala shortly afterwards in the station.

Kabala really looks like a little gangster, he’s got tattoos all over and I would have been a little scared if I were not two heads taller than him. He explained to me that he will lead a group of people today and we are waiting for some additional members. Minutes later more people arrived and we were about 10 people. Everybody was traveling in Colombia and it seems, as the Comuna 13 is already a hot destination.

Arriving in Comuna 13

Something that I still remember is the welcome speech and the introduction ritual. We all had to hug each other and introduce ourselves to each other. Most people didn’t know each other but nobody really felt uncomfortable. When we were done with the introduction we walked over to the street and waited to catch one off the buses to bring us uphill. After a fifteen minutes ride we arrived at the bottom off the district.

From there, the neighborhood did not look like anything special, but as we started to walk into it I realized how calm it actually felt. Also it was very strange that in such a remote place quite a lot of tourists were walking around. Mostly young people and many blond girls. This was kind of very funny to me as I know how Colombian men usually react to blond girls, but there nobody bothered them, which was great. This is the way one can enjoy a Colombia travel.

Kabala lead us to the first corner and started to explain the history of the Comuna 13 and how life was there some 10 years ago. He also introduced us to a shop which made the best empanadas in town. Of course everybody tried some and he was right, they were quite tasty. It was amazing how much graffiti was everywhere, almost every wall was a piece of art. Some were really stunning and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Fortunately I had my camera with me!

Escalators in the streets?

We walked further uphill and deeper into the district until we arrived at the first escalator. Yes, I just said escalator! Medellin has a smart government that also helps the poor travel into the city. They built escalators in poor neighborhoods and even cable cars so that the poorest living far uphill have easier access to the city.

Right away I noticed a sticker with “Schindler” written on it, a Swiss escalator company. I learned, however, that only maintenance was performed by them, and that they were actually built by a Japanese company. By the time we had another food stop, we were offered some homemade ice-cream, which was also delicious. It turned out, this was also a kind of food tour, as we stopped at many more food shops during the course of the walk.

Comuna 13: One of the best places to visit in Medellín

The further up we got, the better the view. There was also a kind of main road along the hill which the inhabitants used as a highway with their scooters. Although it was a great district with lots of beautiful graffiti and some good infrastructure, it was still a very poor neighborhood. But the combination made sense and was very interesting. Also the many tourists rushing into the zone was a very interesting development.

I think the locals are clever to make their district so attractive to tourists. The key is that many locals are included in the visitor’s experience. This means tourists that come to visit will have food in local restaurants or prepared in takeaways, or drink a locally prepared coffee or buy products that were made there. The local tour guides also encourage the visitors to do so. This leads to an increase in local sales, whereas not only the shop owners profit but everybody in the connected value chain.

Being better off through tourism leads to a common interest in receiving tourists and not letting them be bothered by thieves or other disturbances. For me, this is the explanation why in a formerly dangerous part of the city, today young blond foreign girls can safely walk around. For me, this is a real success story! Also one story the local guides like to share was that some month ago Bill Clinton paid a visit during his Colombia holiday, without a large security force with him. The funniest part was, actually nobody recognized him!

I really enjoyed my afternoon in Comuna 13, it is a great success story and also a different and easily accessible part of Colombia. I suggest to everybody who travels to Colombia and visits Medellin to make the tour around Comuna 13.

August 2017

Blog Frank Spitzer


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