The security situation in many of Medellin’s hillside barrios is often fluid. Neighborhoods that were at a time quite dangerous have been dramatically improved through city planning initiatives and community organizers. More sinisterly, sometimes the peace comes from a heavy-handed gang insisting that citizens live together peacefully so that they can run their drug trafficking operations with as little attention on them as possible. The situation tends to deteriorate when a person or group who had a lot of control loses power, and the subsequent power vacuum causes conflict.
This has been the case before in Medellin’s now famous Comuna 13 (San Javier), as it has traditionally been one of the most dangerous parts of the city. However, in recent years, the area has transformed to become something of a tourist destination. The Alcalde de Medellin (Medellin City Government) installed outdoor escalators into the side of the mountain, and provided economic subsidies for residents that wished to paint their houses.
Visiting San Javier is an excellent way to spend an afternoon in Medellín, as the entire area is interesting, and the top of the escalators provide a gorgeous view of the city.
As tourists discover that San Javier is a great place to visit, many companies have begun to offer tours of the area. When I first arrived, I paid 40,000 COP with Toucan Spanish School to do a graffiti tour of the area. They’ve since raised this price to COP 70,000. At just $22 USD, this might seem like a good price, but it is actually very high by local standards and quite opportunistic of the owners.
It’s free to go to Comuna 13, ride the outdoor escalators, and look at all the graffiti. Toucan says they will provide transport, but this is just a 2,100 COP metro trip there and back. The other 65,800 is profit. Likely, ten or more people will go on the tour with you, and they will pay one employee about 20,000 COP for the two hours to accompany you. Toucan is making a killing off these tours.
Proponents of going with a tour will tell you that you get to learn a lot about how graffiti transformed the area. I can give you a summary of what my guide said, over and over, for several hours while leading us:
“This area used to be dangerous. Then, the kids found art. They started painting graffiti. It gave them something to do besides selling drugs and being in gangs. Now, the area is much safer.”
The area is very cool, undoubtedly, but there is simply no need to go as part of a tour and pay 70,000 COP. (Here, that’s the equivalent price of 7 meals, to walk around a public area that is open, safe, and free). Be adventurous – go visit it on your own!
HOW TO GET THERE:
1) Take an uber. Type in “Escalaras Electricas”. Should only cost about COP 13,000 from El Poblado.
2) Take the metro to San Javier station. If you’re starting from Poblado, you’ll need to first catch the metro going north (towards Niquia) and then get off at San Antonio station, which is the main terminal in El Centro. There, you’ll need to change to the Linea B (orange signs) and hop on a train. From San Antonio, Linea B trains only go in one direction: towards San Javier.
SIDE NOTE: While you’re in San Javier station, you can ride one of the Metrocables. In fact, the MetroCable from San Javier station is my favorite, because it goes up, then down, then way back up again, providing all sorts of different vantage points of this part of the city.
Once you’ve arrived at San Javier station (end of the line), get off and either:
(1) ask one of the many taxis that wait outside the station to take you to the escalaras electricas (should be COP 6,000, unless he takes you for an unnecessary fair-increasing detour) , OR
(2) walk 20-30 minutes up the hill to where the escalators start.
The walk from the metro to the escalators is safe. I have done this walk many times, including at night, and have never seen anything that made me feel uneasy. Finding the right street (Carrera 96 which turns into Calle 39) is important.
Use the point on the map below to show you how to walk there from the metro. While the route along Carrera 96 and Calle 39 is one minute longer, I recommend it because it is simpler and the streets are quite busy. It’s best to find the right street and then put your phone away, as, although the walk is safe, walking around with your cell phone out is one way to dar papaya. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, you need to brush up on your Paisa slang.
From this spot on the map, you should be able to see the giant elephant mural (pictured below). The start of the escalators is very close.
Along the way, you are sure to pass other travelers, who will be easy to spot with their shorts, flip-flops, and SLR cameras. You can confirm with them, or a local, that you’re headed in the right direction. From the spot on the map (above), you’ll see the graffiti of a large elephant (see picture) and know that you are close. Go another block up that street, and you’ll be at the base of the escalators. Ride them to the top and enjoy a fantastic view of the city. It is a perfect place to go for sunset.