We just got back from a family vacation in Colombia. I find that traveling to any new place always leaves a mark on my soul in a way that I might not fully understand. However, I'd like to try to share about one of the most touching and inspiring encounters from our trip: Comuna 13, in Medellín.
We took a tour from a local tour guide that we encountered on the street and here's what we learned...
Comuna 13 is a Colombian neighborhood that, in the 1980's - 1990's, had such high murder rates, it was considered the most dangerous place in the world’s most dangerous city.
Back then, the Medellín Cartel (led by notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar) ruled Comuna 13. In the early 2000's, Colombia's government attacked the neighborhood in an effort to thwart guerrilla activity as part of their ongoing Civil War. During this horrendous time, many innocent civilians and children were murdered or injured and many people went missing.
White sheet motifs symbolize the time when the locals raised white flags above their houses during the attacks to plead for the violence to end.
A view from high up. The circled area is where victims were buried in a mass grave.
Once the conflict ended, the elected Mayor invested in the rebuilding of Comuna 13 through the installation of a cable car and multiple electric escalators, allowing for easier access throughout the mountain town.
Since then, Comuna 13 has transformed into a much safer, incredibly vibrant and optimistic neighborhood. Through the installation of murals and graffiti placed throughout the area, the inhabitants are able to tell their story, raise awareness and promote hope throughout the region. Every piece of street art here is symbolic and tells a story about the area’s past, and its hopes for the future.
The hummingbird and beetle represent helicopters and tanks that were deployed during the attacks. In other murals you’ll also see elephant motifs: a sign that Comuna 13 will never forget its past, and motifs of birds which symbolize peace.
Multiple murals depict bodies with muscle and organs revealed, symbolizing that underneath, humans are all the same.
New escalators up the mountainside provide easier access for locals and tourists alike.
What struck me the most (besides the fact that this devastation occurred so relatively recently) was the way the locals were able to take something horrific and collectively visualize, organize and execute its transformation into something positive, uplifting and far-reaching.
In every tour that we took, we were seamlessly handed off from one person to the next, creating an overall experience with many moving parts that supported many different people. From our tour guide in Comuna 13 bringing us through the streets and pausing at places where locals would sing or dance for us, then to a local ice cream shop, then to a restaurant at the top of the town for a lunch with beautiful views - I was so inspired to see how they all worked together, allowing us to enjoy and support many people throughout the district.
Like a phoenix, Comuna 13 has risen from the ashes to be reborn.
This kind of multi-faceted, smoothly organized, community supporting tourism was executed on all of the other tours we went on as well. While you might not encounter exactly what you expect, and while things might take longer than we as Americans are used to, the very friendly, community oriented vision and seamless execution of our experiences were a testament to the industrious and resilient culture of the Colombian people.
I am so grateful that we were able to have this short experience and contribute to the rebirth of this community, in our own small way. It brings an even more tangible meaning to the work that we do, roasting coffee grown on small Colombian farms, positively impacting real people's lives and helping to grow optimism and hope in a country that has endured so much loss.
If you're interested in learning more, there's a documentary on Netflix called "El Testigo" (The Witness) which goes into more detail. And serendipitously, our tour guide was actually featured in the film as a young girl - appearing in a famous photograph taken during the conflict.
Our tour guide in the film "El Testigo"
Our tour guide now!
Waiting on the streets of Commune 13.
If you're interested in trying our Colombian coffee, we have a delicious Colombian Tolima as part of our regular lineup and are currently offering the awesome honey washed Colombia Bella Vista as a limited release (from the Nariño region).
Thanks for reading and for your support!