Visiting the neighborhood of Comuna 13 in Medellin, Colombia was the experience I most looked forward to on our Colombian vacation in the summer of 2018. This spot was once the world’s most dangerous neighborhood and yet, by 2014 it was named the world’s most innovative city. I was so curious about how such an amazing transformation was possible! What happened there?
Considering there are so many very dangerous parts of the world, what made this special? What did they try here that actually worked and why aren’t we trying it in other parts of the world? I had to see for myself.
How Poverty Affects Neighborhoods
For starters, this neighborhood is very poor. By very poor I mean the severe poverty a lot of people have not actually seen in person.
Poverty has a way of killing dreams or never even allowing them to become a part of a person, to begin with. Kids who live in suburbia and have the money to travel the world are rarely exposed to poverty and have no real idea of what it is like. Kids like mine – and kids like yours.
Danger Becomes Normal
That was me, too, when at 22, I started teaching in a very dangerous inner city neighborhood in Houston. My commute was an hour each way from the safe suburbs where I lived. I entered this neighborhood and drove into the parking lot at the school and then the gates behind me were locked. The tall fences were topped with rolls of barbed wire. On the last day of school, we had armed police officers in the halls to protect the students and teachers from local gangs.
Tall gates, barbed wire, and armed police officers – at an elementary school. Teachers earned hazard pay on top of their salary for agreeing to work in such a dangerous spot.
Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience for me. One thing I learned was how, after generations of poverty, the kids didn’t know what they were missing. These kids had NEVER been anywhere and had NEVER seen anything other than the day to day of their lives.
No one had a job.
Only a few had a parent at home. Most lived with aunties who may or may not have been related.
Gun violence was part of life. You just got on the floor in your home when the shots began.
No one had dreams. No one had plans.
Once, when a child had been particularly difficult in class (and to be honest there were some really, really difficult kids) a mentor teacher suggested I threaten him with not being able to see the film, Bambi if he didn’t behave. The whole school was seeing Bambi on a day near the Christmas break.
So, after trying everything possible I could think of as a brand new teacher who was in total shock by the atmosphere and behavior at this school I took her advice and told him he couldn’t see Bambi. And he didn’t care. I was really surprised but after quizzing him I realized he had no idea what the movie Bambi even was. He had never seen Bambi or any other Disney show.
His world was so violent and so negative and so poor that he didn’t even know what he was missing. At that moment I made him promise to try to be good and then took him into the show and held him on my lap the entire time so he could stand a chance of behaving long enough to get to stay.
The Absence of Dreams
What a shock to me. The children in my classroom had no dreams because they had never seen anything worth dreaming about.
That’s what extreme poverty and violence will do to a child.
What do you think he would do when he grew up? The odds of him NOT joining a gang like everyone else around him was slim to none. He just didn’t know of another way.
I think of those kids often. They were 6 in 1989 when I taught them. How many have had happy lives?
Why visit the World’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood?
Why visit Comuna 13 and why visit with the kids? To show them the world is not all suburbia where they live. The kids who are privileged enough to travel, and it IS a privilege, are not growing up in a rock-bottom poor neighborhood.
Showing them the world means all of the world – not just the pretty parts. Kids need to see places where hard work and helping one another can make a difference.
So, how does the world’s most dangerous neighborhood get to be that way and stay that way?
Because there just isn’t any other way – it is everyone you know and all that you see. Kids who grew up in this neighborhood saw violence and murder and those who tried to stay away from it were bullied – or worse. The people who get swept up into it don’t all want to be there for sure but what else do you do?
This is a big part of why you should take your kids with you when you travel the world. Show them other people – other ways, other cultures – the good and the bad.
Let them see things and think.
Our kids are the ones who will make the world a better place.
So, during our adventure to Colombia, the world’s previously most dangerous neighborhood was at the top of our list of things to see in Medellin, Colombia.
I wanted to see Comuna 13 and I wanted to learn a few things:
Why was it so dangerous to begin with?
What happened to turn this around?
Why is art such a prominent part of the neighborhood?
How did art, granted an unusual idea to counter violence, play a part in the transformation?
The World’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood
Sam Javier, known also as Comuna 13 in Medellin was once the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. Murders were commonplace – as many as 162 per 100,000 people in just one year. This neighborhood was home to powerful criminal gangs who fought for turf and allegiance, drug lords, and leftist rebels, but most of the violence was about control of a highway. The number of violent gangs is estimated to be as many as 250 – separate gangs.
The San Juan highway leads to the coast and northern cities. Since Medellin is in a bowl surrounded by mountains, this highway is the only way in or out. If you control the highway, you control what comes in and out – people, drugs, and guns namely. This highway was the way to move illegal products in and out of the city. The infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, set up his own armed gang to police this highway. When that group splintered each side fought for control.
Illegal activities in the Comuna 13 (Medellin) were multi-layered and intense:
control of the highway
control of shipments of illegal products like guns and drugs
‘security services’ for local businesses
extortion from public transportation
and on, and on, and on
So, why on Earth, would you want to visit such a place on vacation? With the kids?
Because all that has changed. From the world’s worst and most dangerous neighborhood in as recent times as 2011, it became the world’s most innovative city in 2014.
We thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for the kids to learn and see:
Parts of the world are VERY different from the one we live in.
Poverty is real and kids need to know what that looks like.
Hope and change are real, too. This neighborhood went from the worst to the best.
HOW in the WORLD can you go from the absolute worst to the absolute best?
How does that happen?
More tattletales or narcs?
Closing the highways to keep out necessities like food?
Turning off the water and electricity to ‘smoke’ out the bad guys?
No. No, and no. None of the above ‘solutions’ are the reason that Medellin was named the World’s Most Innovative City in 2014.
Medellin was transformed by infrastructure.
The people of Comuna 13, who lived in a neighborhood where walkways and long strenuous hikes were the only roads. This made getting around the neighborhood extremely time-consuming and physically difficult. Getting out of the neighborhood was even tougher and rarely done.
Giving locals a way to move around gave them options for education, jobs, and enjoyment. Now, the Medellin Metro is the only rail-based system of transportation in the country of Colombia. It includes rail, cable cars, and busses.
The neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain. Getting around was once only possible by very narrow stairwells. Imagine climbing up and down those every single day. Then, imagine the dangerous area and add that feeling into the idea of getting around by very, very steep stairways every day.
A series of escalators makes moving up and down one section of the neighborhood easy and fast. Imagine trying to carry things like groceries or school bags up and down the hill without an escalator!
This highway in the sky is a fantastic way to get around the neighborhood and is an experience not to be missed. Looking down into this crowded area it is easy to see how hard it would be to move around.
Riding the rails gives you a safe and clean way to get around Comuna 13 and Medellin.
Medellin was transformed by art.
Street art plays a huge part in the culture and transformation of Comuna 13. Artists are proudly expressing themselves literally everywhere you look. It is colorful and interesting to see the many murals.
Our guide, from Colombia Travel Operator, gave us lots of information on the artists and their works. The colorful art gave people a reason to smile and a way to express their feelings – the good and the bad.
See Comuna 13 with a guide.
Comuna 13 is so much safer than it once was. We took our children and felt completely 100% safe during our visit.
BUT, be smart.
We don’t speak Spanish and we don’t know our way around. There are probably still some spots where it isn’t the best idea to wander. Just like there are at home!
So, we used a guide to show us around this interesting neighborhood. We loved his take on the culture and the transformation of Comuna 13. He showed us around and explained details about the art and neighborhood we would never have known without his help.
You may think you can get around this maze of a neighborhood without help. You may think you can just ramble and explore by yourself and have the maximum experience possible. But, you are wrong. Don’t go to Comuna 13 without a guide unless you are COLOMBIAN and FLUENT in Spanish.
He also helped us find a restroom and snacks when we needed. I think we had the best food ever from street vendors he introduced us, too.
There are many guides and tours to pick from and we chose Colombia Travel Operator. I highly recommend them for this tour.
In general – we HIGHLY recommend Marie Claire from ZoOming for any of your needs in Colombia. Not only was she an amazing guide, but she was helpful when we had serious problems with our accommodations in Cartegena. (We do NOT recommend Cartegena but I digress.) Mind you – WE set up the accommodations in Cartegena and she helped us anyway, even though she was not affiliated with the property at all.
Medellin was transformed by education and opportunity.
Now, the residents of Comuna 13 can get around the neighborhood easier and can get out and enjoy other neighborhoods, too. Now, they have access to parks and libraries and museums outside the neighborhood. Job opportunities are more available now, too, as people can get to the jobs.
When you travel, make it a point to see things that are outside of your everyday experiences. This is especially valuable for children who are constantly learning about the world around them. The skills you teach them now – how to relate to people and things different than they are used to, will help them feel comfortable interacting with others which is a fantastic job skill.
Your child might be the one who changes the world. Your child might be the one who cuts the hair of the one who changes the world. Your child might be the one who fixes the computer of the one who changes the world. Everyone – everyone is important and every job is important. Help your child be the one who can relate to others and make their contribution in their own personal and unique way.
We found visiting Comuna 13 in Medellin was a top experience during our visit to Colombia. I’d recommend it to anyone – especially those traveling with kids.
If you are headed to Colombia, read before you go to get ready for your fantastic Colombian adventure!
Natalie, The Educational Tourist