Exploring the legendary Comuna 13 with local guides

By Samuel Brake Guia September 17, 2019

Having volunteered in Comuna 13 for three months, I rode the barrio’s escalators to the community center every Sunday and grew accustomed to the vibrant graffiti and constant flow of tourists.

However, this visit to the comuna would be different, as it was my first time visiting with a local resident who was born and raised in the barrio. The tour company, Impulse Travel, also arranged for a city guide and translator to accompany me if my Spanish wasn’t up to scratch. During our journey on the metro, followed by a short bus journey, the city guide, Fransico, began explaining the history of Comuna 13.

Fransico explains the history of Comuna 13 during the bus journey

At the foot of the barrio, we were greeted by Andres, our local Comuna 13 guide. 

In Comuna 13, graffiti is everywhere
Andres explains the previous occupation of Comuna 13 by gangs and guerrilla

Andres began the tour by explaining how Comuna 13 became a home for those displaced in other parts of Colombia. It was government land under the control of gangs and guerrillas.

And color can be found throughout
During the raids of Mariscal and Orión citizens threw out white flags begging for peace

In 2002, when Andres was just a child, the army stormed the neighborhood in two separate military operations–Mariscal and Orión–pushing out the gangs and guerrillas who controlled the neighborhood. During the attack, Andres and his siblings hid under their bed. From there he could hear gunshots, screams for help, and people running throughout the 12-hour ordeal, which he described as, the most brutal example of the urban conflict in Colombia’s history.

As Andres recounted his childhood memories of the event, it hit me just how recently this took place: Andres, a young man in his mid-20s, and I was the same age. To hear these stories first hand made me realize how much this neighborhood has changed within such a short space of time. Despite walking these streets many times before to get to class, I had never understood the gravity of what took place here less than 20 years ago. 

Graffiti demonstrating that we are all the same inside.
Andres presents a piece of graffiti that represents how race is only skin deep

But times have changed. Now it is buzzing with energy, color, and tourists. At the heart of the community are the famous escalators that carry citizens and tourists to the top of the barrio.

The community center, offering classes such as English and yoga.

About halfway up, there is a community center where classes are taught to locals.

Francisco tells me about his work as a tour guide in the city.
Tourists riding the escalators.
Music can be heard everywhere.
The numbers on the dice represent the dates of the operations.
Andres explaining the dates of graffiti.
These birds represent US helicopters used in Orión.
Another piece of graffiti shows two birds representing US helicopters used in the operation.
Tourists from all over take selfies with the graffiti.
Andres explains Comuna 13’s change began with youngsters and their love for graffiti culture.
Hip-hop dancers captivate tourists.
A sound bite of the energetic hip-hop music.

We reach the top to find a hip-hop dance crew showing off their skills.

Tourist enjoying the slide memorial
The sound of tourists sliding down.

This slide stands as a memorial for a young boy who was killed by a stray bullet.

Andres takes me down a narrow street.

On the final part of the tour, Andres took Francisco and me down a narrow alleyway, convincing us that it was a hidden secret that only the locals know about. 

The tour comes to an end and we arrive at the starting point.