Comuna 13 is known for its street art—but there’s more to this area than pretty murals and selfie spots. Here’s everything you should know before taking a Comuna 13 tour in Medellin, Colombia.
Just a few short years ago, Comuna 13 was considered the most dangerous area in Medellin, Colombia—itself the most dangerous city in the world.
Tourists didn’t dare set foot here—they had no reason to—and many locals, our Comuna 13 tour guide, Laura, told us, were too ashamed to admit they lived in the ramshackle suburbs that cling to a mountain on Medellin’s western fringe.
Now, it’s a very different story. Over the past seven or eight years, Comuna 13 has undergone a complete transformation—or so it seems. The area is no longer known for gang violence, police raids, cartels and illegal trafficking. These days, Comuna 13 is more readily associated with graffiti, street art performances and walking tours. New infrastructure, including a metro cable and six outdoor escalators, has made life in Comuna 13 a whole lot easier for residents and opened the area up to tourists like never before.
Many people view Comuna 13 as a symbol of Medellin’s (and indeed Colombia’s) urban transformation. Alongside the fresh food markets, it’s one of the most vibrant and intriguing places we visited in Medellin.
However, there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding Comuna 13, especially regarding safety. Part of the joy of visiting is discovering these contrasts and contradictions for yourself. But there are a few things I wish I had known before we signed up for a Comuna 13 tour.
Here are 13 things I think you should consider before you go.
13 things to know before signing up for a Comuna 13 tour
1. It’s not a place for dark ‘narco tourism’
Colombia’s own brand of dark tourism, ‘narco tourism’, is a thriving industry in Medellin. What many partakers don’t realise is just how offensive many locals find it. If you want to do paintball at one of Pablo Escobar’s former residences, then be my guest. I’m not here to judge. But Comuna 13 is not the place to gawk at the city’s past.
Transformation, rebirth and hope are themes that come up again and again in Comuna 13. These are the things your guide will focus on, not the violence of the past. Comuna 13 has undergone a physical transformation in recent years. But changing the way people think about the area has also involved a transformation of psyche. Most people choose to look forward, not back. Memories of past violence are still very raw for families in this area, with many thousands of people still unaccounted for.
Bottom line: Be respectful—and please leave your Pablo Escobar t-shirt at home.
2. Comuna 13 isn’t one neighbourhood
There’s a common misconception that Comuna 13 is one discrete barrio. In truth, it’s a commune (part of one of Medellin’s six larger zones) that incorporates 12 separate neighbourhoods spanning more than seven square kilometres. Comuna 13 is huge. Some neighbourhoods are safe for tourists to visit, while others should be avoided. Most tours focus on the Las Independencias and 20 de Julio area, where most of Comuna 13’s street art is located.
On top of this, it’s easy to get disorientated in Comuna’s 13’s labyrinth of narrow laneways and private entries—another reason why it’s a good idea to visit with a guide.
3. A Comuna 13 tour involves a lot of walking (and stairs)
Most companies instruct you to wear comfortable shoes when you book a tour. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much uphill slug is involved in visiting Comuna 13. Just getting to the street art area from the metro station takes a good 15 minutes of walking up a steady incline. Comuna 13 is set on a steep hillside, so stairs are an unavoidable reality. Comfy shoes are essential—as is drinking water, sun protection and an umbrella. Just be glad you don’t have to carry your groceries or push a stroller.
The saving grace is the six interlacing outdoor escalators that replace 350 of the steepest stairs. Free to ride, they run from 6am to 10pm on weekdays and from 8am to 7pm on Sundays and holidays. Once you reach the top of the escalators, the terrain evens out a little. This is where you’ll find concrete pedestrianised areas (like the one in the first picture above) that feature seating and lighting.
4. It’s better to go with a local
Dozens of companies in Medellin now offer tours of Comuna 13. As more and more people visit, the commercialisation of the community’s grief is coming to light as a serious issue. It’s something you should keep in mind when booking a Comuna 13 tour.
An ethical option is to go with a local guide. Zippy Tour guides all grew up in Comuna 13 and know the streets (and the stories) well. They incorporate personal anecdotes and authentic accounts without dramatising or romanticising things. And in our experience, they are truly grateful for the chance to host tourists. Our guide, Laura, taught herself English so that she could show visitors around the streets she grew up in. The photo above was taken on the balcony of her family home—how many walking tours do you know of that make a stop at the guide’s house!? That’s just how generous and open they are.
5. It feels a lot safer than you might expect…
I can only speak to our experience but we felt completely safe in Comuna 13, both when we were with our guide and at the end of the day when we were walking alone. Exercise common sense and caution as you would anywhere else in Medellin. But don’t let fear or hearsay stop you from visiting. Remember it’s easy to get lost, so it’s important to stay with your guide and not wander off.
6. …But that doesn’t mean there’s no crime or violence
Comuna 13 has changed a lot, but poverty and violence are still big issues. We were told that a few weeks before our visit, another group had to take cover from gunfire after fighting broke out between rival gangs.
7. People are welcoming
I get the feeling that foreign tourists are still a bit of a novelty in Comuna 13. Everywhere we’ve been in Medellin we’ve been greeted warmly—but the smiles and buenoses we received in this area were more animated and generous than anywhere else (so far). After our Comuna 13 tour ended at the top of the escalators, we decided to walk ourselves back to the metro instead of riding the bus with our guide. It was interesting to see how people’s reactions toward us changed once we were no longer travelling with a large group. It felt like people were even kinder to us than before.
Like in any residential area, most people you see in Comuna 13 are just going about their daily business. Be respectful of people’s privacy (especially be careful of accidentally trespassing) and use common courtesy when taking photos.
8. There are plenty of places to eat, drink and shop
We passed by dozens of restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and bars during our Comuna 13 tour. There is a large concentration of local eateries around the San Javier metro station, while plenty of ‘tourist-friendly’ venues (with English menus and bathrooms) have opened up around the street art zone. If you like ice cream, there are a few places that sell popsicles.
There are also several small galleries and market stalls dotted along the main pedestrian route where you can buy art prints and other souvenirs. I expect that many more will open up as Comuna 13 grows in popularity. Most tours include a stop off at at least one cafe or restaurant.
9. The street art in Comuna 13 is much more than just a decoration
You don’t need me to tell you that Comuna 13 is all about the street art. Not only does it look fantastic and form a perfect backdrop for tourist selfies (guilty as charged!), the graffiti is also symbolic.
There are dozens and dozens of large-scale murals throughout the area, manly concentrated around the escalators. Any and every surface can be used as a canvas. As Laura explained to us, graffiti is actually illegal in Medellin. For a local artist to create a mural, they first need to obtain permission from the area’s chief artists as well as the building’s owners.
Murals in Comuna 13 aren’t just for decoration—they also serve to memorialise the past and express hope for the future. Your Comuna 13 tour guide will point out the best pieces. Motifs to look out for include white cloths (a reference to a time when Comuna 13 residents flew white sheets from their rooftops as a request for ceasefire); red, yellow and blue, the colours of the Colombian flag and a stand-in for national price; and birds, another symbol for peace. My favourite motif is elephants, which represent Comuna 13’s pledge to never forget the events of the past. Many families have painted their houses in bright colours to match the murals, making the whole area feel vibrant and uplifting.
10. There are other kinds of art to look out for, too
There are plenty of other art forms visitors should look out for, including performance art, music and breakdancing. During our tour, we watched a short performance by Black and White, a local hip-hop crew. All these different artistic formats—some organised by community leaders, some organic and self-managed—are designed to provide an alternative pathway for youth in Comuna 13.
11. Visit Casa de la Memoria first
For a better understanding of Comuna 13’s art scene and how creatives grapple with sensitive and raw topics, I recommend visiting Medellin’s Museo Casa de la Memoria (Memory House Museum) first. My main takeaway from the museum was that art is used to interpret and make sense of past events, which often means it’s quite abstract. Our visit to the museum gave us a bit of background knowledge and prepared us for our Comuna 13 tour. Even if you decide against visiting Comuna 13, Museo Casa de la Memoria is a must-visit in Medellin.
12. Comuna 13 offers some of the best views of Medellin
It’s not exactly difficult to get a good view in hilly Medellin, but I was surprised by the vistas from Comuna 13. This area is high, and in my opinion offers the best outlook over the city. From Comuna 13 you can get an appreciation for the scale of the city and also look down over the colourful rooftops and beyond to the green hills that form Medellin’s western border. It gets better with each escalator you scale or set of stairs you climb, so persevere! There are lookout points with handrails dotted all along the way where you can stop for photos.
13. By visiting, you’re helping a community rebuild
Every family in Comuna 13 has been negatively impacted by violence. By taking a Comuna 13 tour, you’re not only supporting local guides and local businesses in financial terms, you’re also helping people shed the stigma. Our guide, Laura, was very open in telling us that families from Comuna 13 were openly discriminated against in the past. Hence why many people didn’t want to admit they lived there. That reputation is changing with every tourist group that visits, and now young people like Laura are proud, not ashamed, to call Comuna 13 home.
If you do decided to visit Comuna 13 and like us you have a positive experience, spread the word back home and encourage others to go, too.
How to get to Comuna 13
Comuna 13 is located in western Medellin, about 10km northwest of Poblado. The closest metro station is San Javier (the final stop on the east-west B Line). From the station, you need to walk approximately 1km further west to reach the escalators and the heart of the street art zone. Alternatively, you can ride bus 225i up the hill, or take a taxi for approximately 4,000 COP.
Most Comuna 13 tours meet near the metro station.
Recommended Comuna 13 tours
There are lots of Comuna 13 tours to choose from, each with a slightly different itinerary and focus. The most comprehensive tours you can book online include this neighbourhood tour, this combined Comuna 13 and Botero tour, and this extended, private street art tour of Medellin that includes a visit to the Comuna 13 neighbourhood.
Other recommendable Comuna 13 tour companies include…
Zippy Walking Tour | Free walking tours of Comuna 13 led by guides who grew up in the area. Tours are available in both Spanish and English and depart twice daily (see here for the schedule and to book). Remember to tip your guide at the end of the tour!
Toucan Cafe & Tours | The first outfit to start bringing groups to Comuna 13. Tours are guided by members of Casa Kolacho, the collective responsible for 90 percent of the street art in Comuna 13, and profits go back to the local community. The daily Graffiti Tour costs 80,000 COP (25 USD) per person and lasts about 4 hours. Book here.
Have you been on a Comuna 13 tour? What was your experience? If not, is it a place you think you’d be interested in visiting? I’d love to hear your thoughts!