Comuna 13 is known for its street art—but there’s more to this neighbourhood 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, plus my top recommended Comuna 13 tour itineraries.
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Recommended Comuna 13 Tours
– 4-hour graffiti tour with a local guide – Includes snacks and invaluable insights from a local guide.
– Full-day city tour with cablecar and Comuna 13 walking tour – See the best of Medellin in a short period.
– Private tour including hotel pick up – A Comuna 13 tour tailored to your needs.
What is Comuna 13? A very brief history of Medellin’s most notorious neighbourhood
One of the most important things you can do before visiting Comuna 13 is take the time to read a bit of background information. You’ll learn lots on the tour – but it helps to have a general understanding of the area and its turbulent past.
Comuna 13 rose to notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of Colombia’s drug and gang era. Because of its location on the edge of the city and the way its constructed (winding streets, an awful lot of places to hide), the barrio became a transit point for drug traffickers, guerillas, gangs, and otherwise unsavory characters.
Come 2002, a government raid spearheaded by then President Alvaro Uribe was launched to clean up the area once and for all. What unfolded was an incredibly violent assault on the neighbourhood that saw at least 20 people killed and almost 250 arrested.
As you can imagine, residents of the barrio – regular working families – also got caught up in the violence.
The next milestone for Comuna 13 came in 2011, when the government installed a series of outdoor escalators – escaleras electricas – to make the streets more accessible. This approach turned out to be much more effective. With greater accessibility came less stigma, and the narrative surrounding Comuna 13 started to shift. The streets became safer, and the neighbourhood turned into a playground for children and artists alike.
Since then, it’s a been a slow journey to revitalising the area for the benefit of locals and tourists alike. When you visit Comuna 13, you can witness this incredible transformation up close. It really is a remarkable story.
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, as documented in memoirs like this one. But what’s even more important than the aesthetic changes is shifting the way people think about the area. And that has involved a transformation of psyche. There are countless books about Colombia (fiction and non-fiction) that can give you a deeper insight into this chapter of national history before you arrive in Medellin.
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, lightweight shoes are essential—as is drinking water, sunscreen, and a good hat or 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. But don’t let fear or hearsay stop you from visiting Colombia. Remember, it’s easy to get lost in Comuna 13, so stick with your guide and don’t 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 very 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 for souvenirs
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 do you get to Comuna 13 from El Poblado?
Comuna 13 is located in western Medellin, about 10km northwest of El 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.
Is it safe to go to Comuna 13?
In 2020, it’s safe to visit Comuna 13 provided you use common sense. Take care of your valuables (as you would anywhere in Colombia), and if you have a backback, consider wearing it on your front.
The biggest thing to remember when visiting Comuna 13 is not to wander off-track. The streets are a bit of a maze and it’s easy to get disorientated and accidentally walk onto someone’s private property. Stick to the main walkways.
An added element of safety comes from being with a tour group and having a local guide with you. This is another reason I highly recommend signing up for a tour rather than visiting independently.
A note on accessibility
Comuna 13 is located on fairly difficult terrain, with lots of steep hills and streets pitched at precarious angles. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of stairs. Even with the escalators and cable system, it’s still fairly difficult to get around.
Comuna 13 is not wheelchair friendly. Accessible travellers can still visit the area – if that’s you, I highly recommend contacting one of the recommended tour companies above (ideally the private tour) so they can plan a more appropriate route.
More Comuna 13 tour companies
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.
Where to stay in Medellin
As you can probably gather from my photos of Comuna 13, Medellin is a pretty big city! It’s very spread-out, so you need to be strategic about where you base yourself. And just a heads up, you probably don’t want to stay in Comuna 13.
We spent just over 2 weeks in Medellin and stayed in the lovely Laureles neighbourhood. It’s leafy, it’s very walkable, there are hundreds of amazing restaurants and cafes – and it’s away from the busy downtown area, giving it a local feel. The northern part of Laureles is especially good because it’s close to the metro line.
One of Medellin’s best hostels, Backpackers Inn, is located in Laureles. For a boutique option, Inntu Hotel (from $40/night) has comfortable, modern rooms and an incredible rooftop pool and terrace with views over the city.
If you prefer to be in the thick of it, El Poblado is the beating heart of Medellin. It can be a bit touristy, but on the flip side, that means lots of options for eating and drinking. Art Hotel is my top choice of hotel in Poblado. From the exposed brick walls to the soaring atrium to the designer fit-out, it’s everything you expect from a first-rate boutique hotel.
Sites Hotel in Poblado is a great luxury option – it’s plush, but it still has a lot of character.
For an iconic Medellin experience, I highly recommend staying at Hotel Nutibara. The 1940s Art Deco building is an architectural masterpiece.
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!