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 Before coming to Columbia, we knew nothing of its history but what we learned through bad Hollywood and outdated fears of Columbia in general.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!