Category Archives: travel

Our special tour of Comuna 13, Medellin, Columbia

We are lucky to have met artist Topo (John) our host through our Medellin Airbnb stay. He offered to give us a tour of Comuna 13 where he lives below his studio and school for teaching kids arts and life skills. Before coming to Columbia, we knew nothing of its history but what we learned through bad Hollywood and outdated fears of Columbia in general. Through understanding Comuna 13, a person can grasp human potential.

Topo is an artist who like Chota, sees art as a way to lift people in Comuna 13 from the history of violence and extreme poverty here. The culture is born out of making from what is around you, using your mind to see differently, imagining a new world, clawing life from a violent past.

Shameless plug for John’s place: Favorite Airbnb is John’s in Sabaneta, Medillin, stay here because it’s so good and because it supports the arts of Medellin.

John and the fam.

Comuna 13, Medellin, Columbia is exploding with color and action, however this is new. Tourism has come in response to the artist culture blooming here.

The Comuna 13 neighborhood of Medellin, Columbia was originally agricultural land on the hills of Medellin. In the 1950s it was occupied by factory workers. Like now, in times of peace, a large population of working people descended the hills to Medellin’s neighborhoods with more opportunities and returned in the evening.

Then the Escobar era dominated Comuna 13 from the 1980s and early 1990s. The area continued to be used by organized crime to move people and drugs after his death into the early 2000s because the homes are without a map. DHL and FedEx can’t deliver here. People can get lost and never found in Comuna 13.

Rural people fled from the drug trade hot spots throughout Antioquia, Columbia to Medellin to avoid being killed. John described that the landowner of the Comuna 13 area did not have an heir so, people started taking small sections out of desperation for a home.

Comuna 13 was ruled outside the laws of Columbia. Street justice included marching people at gun point for public execution, because the police could not enter the neighborhoods. In 2002, the army fought for control of the area by shooting from helicopters (Orion) into the homes of people. Many innocent people died. Artists now in their 20s and 30s lived during these times and are attempting to build a new future for the kids by putting art in front of them every day.

Chota captures the indigenous people, nature, hope, and the neighborhood rising from the violent history.
Rough transition: “My memory tells me the step to follow” by Chota.
Escalators were installed in 2012 to assist access to the lower parts of the neighborhood. Imagine growing old in the neighborhood and having to be carried down the hills by relatives to see a doctor. That’s how it was until recently. Of course, the escalators also help with tourism.
People who came first, live at the bottom, newcomers build at the top. This photo is about mid-way up the neighborhood. Those lucky enough to have a home on the new road are rising economically through business rents and tourism access.
Young men from the Pacific Coast of Columbia make a living by personalizing rap on the spot for visitors. The Comuna 13 music scene is mashing new sounds together to create a new Hip Hop genre. Our rap was about our family, mom, dad, daughter, love and travel. Sums it up. Topo’s school hopes to have an open access recording studio for musicians like these.
Businesses are booming along the narrow improved road being installed with public money. Where the road stops, the business stops. There is a race by locals here to improve their lives while also not being eaten by changing too fast.
Florescent 3D artist, Jeison waiting for Topo’s school to open where he will give art class.
Art class at the school taught by established artists from the neighborhood. A heavy rain prevented some mothers from sending their kids down the hills to the school today but, the kids who did come practiced making a monkey face. The atmosphere was calm, music played gentle songs, kids loved their teacher. The kids will also be fed with food cooked in the school. The lessons and food are free, the school runs on donations and volunteers. Kids are taught to develop skills rather than learn to beg. Culturally, kids who beg have little option but to join some form of crime. “Don’t give papaya” on Jeison’s T-shirt means roughly, don’t be an easy victim or “nunca des papaya”.
Jeison’s art uses florescent paints. The woman is his mother who funded their family through sewing repairs.
Here you can see her sewing machine. There is care to honor the women in the Comuna 13 through art and employment in the cafes, stores and bars. Topo specifically pointed out that he hires people from Venezuela at an equal pay rate as Columbians. In the art economy, there is care to lift people.
The neighborhood is expansive. Because the buildings were built without codes during hard times, infrastructure is needed. The government is responding through hospitals and roads. As women prepare to give birth, they stay low in the neighborhood as there is no clinic in Comuna 13.
Columbian teens who have come to Comuna 13 to dance and make music here, find a future. The school assists with dance instructions, events and life skills.
Topo’s studio above the school.
Inside Topo’s studio you are invited to look out into the neighborhood to see art on the walls that aren’t accessible by road yet.
Topo (John) outside his studio showing how he takes the used toys and shoes of the kids and transforms them into art objects so they feel belonging at the school. His larger pieces are cast from molds and then finished with spray paint. He is preparing his studio for a newspaper interview tomorrow and plans to stay up late creating to fill the studio with larger pieces. He can ship worldwide. Wife Camila is inside, tending the till.
Kid playing on the stairs going down to the classroom from Topo’s studio.
Students can take their art home or show it in the school gallery.
So much life, so much life to live, so short and long this time together. Thanks John!

Magical Spanish Language Adventure School in San Carlos, Antioquia, Columbia

Spanish Adventure School upstairs porch with the view
Students from all over the world
Open areas around the school are beautiful. Students can use the bikes to get around. The school has a van for adventures and public transportation is easy to use.
Manual at his night club/gym/Eco Guia business. We all benefited from his blend of businesses through nightlife, tubing, canyoning and river spots.
Shared a room with Vivian, Gypsy and JoJo (Frodo)
Example lunch, so yum! Included with lessons and adventures.
We all walked the red carpet to celebrate our acting debut with Milton our project leader. Here is a link to what the group created with the help of Milton, the editing magician.
Anticipation of our NotiFalsas Debut
A group from Spanish Adventure with students of San Carlos
Beranice (mom Camilo and Juan) doing her magic in the kitchen. She is the matriarch of this space. Loved her extrodinary energy.
Don’t have these roadsigns in Montana. We did see a monkey on one of our adventures hiking.
Mike and Sarah at the Atipico bar. Favorite shot was Ruso Negro.
Before the last Saturday Spanish Adventure. Gypsy went with Viv and me to a high waterfall. She has been rapidly socialized by being in so many situations: flying, new people, new cat, cows, Columbian dogs, horses.
Water was mountain cold, felt great.

Columbia is no place for Cruise Control: an Americans insights on driving in Columbia

So, you are planning on driving in Columbia! It is possible but it may not be for everyone. Our family rented a car in Bogota and we have been driving to sights of interests with our children and dog. Here are our observations.

If just arriving in Columbia, pick a couple busy street corners to watch traffic patterns. Watch how drivers behave when the streets are congested and when the streets are clear. How do they avoid bikes, pedestrians, other cars, buses, Semis? Do this before you drive, especially in a bigger city.

Remember, the Columbian drivers are driving correctly and it is you, the American, who will need to change to survive your trip without accident.

So, how do you drive in the multiuser roads of Columbia? One Columbian friend said drivers in Columbia are always alert, you can’t use cruise control. You need a foot ready for a brake at any moment. In general, bikes, pedestrians, dogs and horses are going to keep their path of travel with a gentle swerve to avoid being hit by your vehicle. You, too, will give a few inches so passing is safe.

Motorbikes move around you like rivulets. Motorcycles will fill any gap in traffic on your right, left, on your bumper, and you will be jealous of motorbikes in traffic jams. Motorcycles sometimes travel in packs on highways to help signaling the time for safe passing around cars and trucks. Sadly, the one fatality we witnessed was of a motorcyclist in the highway so, the impression that motorcycles always know what they are doing can be wrong. As a driver of a car you must always be alert to the possibility that a motorcycle is close.

Turning into traffic: you need to see the flow of vehicles like a river. As soon as the current slows, you join the river. In the States, you might wait for complete permission to merge by someone stopping or moving over. That’s just not going to happen in Columbia. It only takes once waiting to merge like an American to know you can’t go anywhere like that. You can trust that other drivers do see you and expect you to make a move to merge after you have made your intentions clear by signaling and moving in the direction you want to turn. It’s not aggressive, just join the flow.

Passing on the highway: The slowest vehicles on the highway are the Semis.  A left turn signal when you are behind a large truck on the highway means it’s probably safe to pass. The truck driver needs to know you are wanting to pass by seeing you in his mirror. If you do not take the opportunity, the driver behind you will likely grab it. Or, also you may get honked at as if to, “What are you doing? Idiot?” The motorcycles below might pass the smaller bus if the smaller bus doesn’t make his move to pass when signaled.

A small bus waiting to pass a Semi on a mountainous highway in Columbia. The motorcycles are in position to do the same. After they pass, we will tailgate on the left bumper of the Semi and wait for a left turn signal from the Semi.
People catching a ride after the Semi slowed through a toll booth. A group of people ran to catch this ride by throwing their bags up and catching the rope across the bed of the truck. The driver seemed not to mind, he even stopped to buy a drink from the vendor standing in the street as if to let the riders settle before getting up to speed.

We took toll roads when traveling longer distances between cities. Tolls ranged from 10,000 COP to 13,500 COP. It’s not essential to have exact change but it’s smart to have smaller bills and coins to make change easier. We didn’t see a credit option, so bring your cash.

Navigating: If you are using Google to navigate Columbia, you are in good hands with a few exceptions. When navigating to smaller towns, ask a local which road to take into town. Google maps will send you up crazy roughs roads that fool Google as drive-able because motorcyclists with phones pass over them quickly and drive the data to appear safe. 

Also, Google maps time estimates are very optimistic even on highways. We learned to double the travel time due to accidents, rough roads, toll booth slow downs, construction and other more random events. All that being said, the highways are really nice except for the sudden deep potholes. Again, Columbia is no place for cruise control.

One of the nicest highways is Highway 45. We also drove 50 and 60 which had smooth pavement.

If you have the experience of driving at night, perhaps because you trusted Google’s travel estimate, you will find no lights on smaller roads. So, if driving small mountain roads at night, it’s good to try to stick to the back of a commuter bus like the red one below. If you do, you will have better vision around corners and will go faster. Also, traffic coming the other way stops for the bus on narrow passes. You will be amazed at how nimble these buses are through rough roads and sharp curves.

On small mountain roads, large vehicles make their way. Passing requires stopping and inching to pass. In person, it’s very loud with pumping air brakes and shocks working hard.

So, yes, it’s possible to drive all over Columbia. It takes a driver who can be alert at all times and a second person to navigate. In our case, it sometimes took 2 people finding better routes on Google and one driver making as much time as possible. So, plan well and go enjoy!