Saturday, October 30, 2021

[MEDELLÍN] The Transformation of Comuna 13


Colombia is often associated with drug cartels. Medellin is usually linked to the name Pablo Escobar. It’s been three decades. Perhaps we should all move on. After all, Medellin already did. From having the unenviable distinction as the most dangerous city in the world in the early 90’s with a 6500-murder count in 1991, the city was given the Innovative City of the Year award in 2013 by the Wall Street Journal, beating New York and Tel Aviv. At present, it’s Colombia’s second largest city after Bogotá and often touted as the country’s best. Give Medellín a break. Visit it and see for yourself.


If we were to search the world for the perfect urban transformation success story, it would probably be hard to top Medellín. Leaving its shady past behind, it is now a city bothered by the most common urban issues you could think of such as bad traffic and the like. That was the first thing I noticed as my Uber snaked through the hillside roads on the way to my Airbnb. As is the norm in Bogotá, there are brick buildings here aplenty too, but the cityscape is a good mix of the traditional red-orange and concrete.


The city also holds the distinction of having the country’s only subway system, with the subway itself and the cable car system sharing two lines each. I never really got to enjoy the cable car system, even in Bogotá, perhaps because it is so easy to get an Uber here. If you have the time and the cash, riding Medellín’s Metrocable or Bogotás Teleférico is an experience on its own, though they are mostly considered as mere alternative transport options by locals to reach the upper hillside areas.


The two days I had free were supposed to be split between Comuna 13 and Arvi Park. The former is a residential area on the hills that used to be the hotbed of cartel-related violence in the city. The latter is a huge green park that is supposed to give you awesome panoramic views of Medellín down below. I had to let Arvi Park go because my mobile phone decided to play Twinkle Twinkle Flickering White Screen. With all my jobs linked to that device, I had to prioritize fixing it first, which took half a day.


It’s fine, though, because I think my DIY Comuna 13 tour already gave me a pretty good impression of Medellín, a mix of its cityscape as well as its 180-degree turn from being the world’s homicide capital to transforming its urban landscape into something defo more promising. And so, albeit short, I would say that this Medellín trip has been worth it. If most of us often feel second-hand shame, what I felt about Medellín's success story has been more of second-hand pride, if that is even a thing. And I’m not even Colombian.


To get to Comuna 13, hop on an Uber or a taxi and just tell them to bring you to the Escaleras. If you are feeling more adventurous and want to stumble upon the area, then hop on the subway and get off at San Javier, the common station between the subway and the cable cars to the west. From there, it is not that difficult to find the area because of the many tourists and lively atmosphere waiting for you. You can opt to join a group tour or pay for your own personal guide. There are many of them at the foot of the hill.


Or just do it yourself and follow the crowd. The government installed five escalators a decade or two ago in an effort to uplift the lives of the locals residing there as well as to draw in tourists, who all appear convinced because this is still considered as one of Medellín’s primary tourist hotspots. The alleys which I imagine to have been drenched in blood three decades ago are now vividly alive with a splash of neon colors of the graffiti on the walls, with many an art gallery flanking them. The residents have also fully adopted to the tourist influx by establishing their own hole-in-the-wall restos, bars, and souvenir shops.


It is also not uncommon to see the youth engaged in freestyle rap or hip-hop as a form of entertaining visitors. Along with the inspirational texts and quotes joining the graffiti on the walls, seeing young people turn to the arts instead of drugs just makes you want to beam like a proud uncle or aunt witnessing the beautiful metamorphosis of an entire community once considered to be the most dangerous in the world.

[MEDELLÍN] The Transformation of Comuna 13

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