If you asked someone who had explored Medellin to make a list of the top five things you simply have to do, a visit to Comuna 13 would most certainly be on the list.
Comuna 13 is one of the sixteen neighbourhoods of Medellin, infamous for being the most dangerous place in the city in the late nineties, early noughties.
The area developed as a sprawling, over-populated neighbourhood crawling up the mountainside of the city and became a hotbed of gang, guerrilla and para-military activity at the peak of the crisis in Colombia.
From the late nineties onwards the area was controlled by groups loyal to Pablo Escobar forcing thousands of residents to migrate as many people lost friends, family members and partners in the violence.
In 2002, the government launched a controversial air strike on the community to wrench power from these groups (though residents suffered greatly in the process). The government took no responsibility but locals took the opportunity and persevered to overhaul the neighbourhood through music, culture and art.
Now the community proudly boasts some of the best street art and performance art in the city and welcomes visitors with open arms.
So we know it is a must to visit but ask anyone whether you should visit by yourself or to take a walking tour and you will get a mixed response.
Some will tell you to venture it alone while others will insist that you should do it in a group. This is because it is obviously possible to do both but no one has quite figured out which is the best option.
There’s positives and negatives to both so here is what to expect when visiting Comuna 13 solo and in a group.
Visiting with a tour group
Many companies offer walking and graffiti tours in Comuna 13. For a budget-friendly option I recommend doing Zippy’s free walking tour (note that you are expected to tip on this tour).
Starting at San Javier metro station, the tour involves a fifteen minute walk to Comuna 13 with a local guide (most of whom actually grew up in the neighbourhood).
The tour starts with a stroll through the streets before ascending the public escalators to an impressive viewpoint to enjoy stalls, performances and street art.
The obvious benefit of taking a tour is the insight you gain into the history of the area especially if your guide actually grew up here during its peak years of crime.
You will also find out more about each piece of art and potentially find parts of the neighbourhood you would never have found on your own.
You feel very safe on the tour especially as there is usual several tour groups around and they all visit the same places. It is hard to believe that this area was once as dangerous as it will be described to you.
Visiting on your own
Venturing to Comuna 13 by yourself is relatively safe during the day and will obviously cost you nothing.
Again you will take the metro to San Javier to get and walk ten minutes to the escalators. I recommend sticking to the areas around the escalators as these have been developed for visitors.
Enjoy art galleries and coffeeshops along the way as well as plenty of street performers. Take in the spectacular views and endless graffiti art.
If you plan to go to Comuna 13 without a tour I recommend going in a small group or with another person, especially as a female. Though you are quite safe here, you do tend to get extra attention in general in Medellin as a female gringa.
I would also recommend heading here between 10am and 2pm as this is the time that all of the tours hit, meaning the place will be full of other visitors.
I left my tour around two and went back to the neighbourhood alone and noticed that it was significantly quieter than before thus attracting more attention to myself though I still felt safe.
All in all Comuna 13 has been revamped to display progress and culture and is incredibly proud to be able to welcome visitors (something unheard of less than two decades ago).
Whether you go it alone or go in a tour group there is plenty to enjoy in this inspiring community.