Transformation is a complicated word here.

For most visitors, the words “barrio transformation” conjure up Comuna 13, a district in the San Javier barrio (neighborhood) that has become one of Medellín’s most famous tourist attractions. But in diverse neighborhoods all over the city, citizens have struggled to overcome Medellín’s violent past and build a community that serves and represents toda la gente (all of the people). For the most part, these barrio transformations have succeeded spectacularly – but, as we said, it’s complicated.

The Barrio Transformation Tour offered by Real City Tours shows just how complicated, and how fragile, transformation can be.

For a year now, we’ve ridden Metro trains past a huge hill that seems to be terraced in a beautiful patchwork of landscaping. We always assumed it was a community garden of sorts, until Daniel, our Spanish teacher, filled us in: this hill was once Medellín’s largest trash dump.

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The trash mountain, pre-transformation. (Photo from Centro de Desarrollo Cultural de Moravia)
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The trash mountain today.

How this mountain of trash and surrounding area were transformed from one of Medellín’s poorest and most dangerous barrios, to one of its safest and most vibrant, is a powerful story.

The story begins in the 1950s, when people fleeing paramilitary violence in the Colombian countryside moved into what was then the outskirts of Medellín. Lacking the skills for “legitimate” employment, they built their homes on the growing trash mountain and scratched out a living scavenging items they could sell. As you can imagine, the living conditions were filthy, dangerous, and generally appalling (to this day, fruit and vegetables grown on the hill contain unsafe levels of toxic metals).

Enter reformist mayor Sergio Fajardo, who in the early 2000s declared the area a public health crisis and launched a program to relocate the families to brand-new apartment buildings across the valley and high on a hill. Sounds like a great plan, but like so many others, they didn’t really think it through. Case in point: even after the trash dump was decommissioned, many people still relied on informal incomes. A good example is the people we see in Medellín Centro who push carts selling all kinds of items from fruit and snacks to cell phone covers to bootlegged movies. How were these people supposed to get their carts up and down that mountain? And furthermore, they would now be subject to real estate taxes, since they’d be living on land instead of a mountain of trash. The city tried various things to make the relocation more palatable, but it’s easy to see why it didn’t sit well with a lot of folks.

The barrio transformation has been a rocky road, but eventually, 80 percent of the families were (mostly successfully) relocated. Over the ensuing years, the trash mountain has been landscaped over with plants that have the ability to absorb pollutants, and today there’s a pretty walkway to the top with informational signage and public art. Meanwhile, the surrounding barrio has thrived and grown to 48,000 souls, one of Medellín’s most densely populated neighborhoods.

Of course, the story is much more complex and nuanced.

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Diomer breaks down the complex history of the barrio.

Our guide, Diomer, offered an unvarnished and educational look into the many political, social, and environmental issues that have roiled and shaped not only this barrio, but Medellín as a whole. We walked first past the ramshackle houses of the “resistancia.” These are the people who refused to leave the trash mountain and go to the shiny new apartment buildings and, to this day, still live on the hill. Then we strolled through the surrounding neighborhood, now a full-fledged Medellín barrio complete with paved roads and utilities.

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Many of the streets reminded us of Havana.
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I love this shot of John’s!
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A shop for herbs and natural remedies
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The local fish guy
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Organized clutter

We finished the tour by climbing the hill itself to take in the city views and reflect on the true meanings of community and rebirth.

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The path up to the top
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What time is it? Junk-inspired art
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The top of the hill has panoramic city views.

Author’s note: At this point, you’re probably wondering why we haven’t called this barrio out by name. Real City Tours has generically named this tour “Barrio Transformation” out of respect for the local people and to protect the barrio from becoming another Comuna 13, which is now beginning to suffer from over-tourism.

A Spirit of Community

Everywhere we turned, we saw a community filled with pride. One of the things that impressed us the most is the leadership role that women haven taken to make their barrio a better place to live. Diomer had plenty of examples:

  • At a time of heightened violence years ago, the military was repeatedly coming into the barrio and destroying homes. Finally, a group of women petitioned the city and demanded they cut it out – and they did.  Girl power!
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The greenhouse
  • At the top of the hill is a large greenhouse filled with plants of every description. It’s operated by a cooperative of women from the barrio who sell the plants to various markets in the city and then return a portion of their profits to neighborhood programs.
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Jefa at work on another creation (Photo: La Mesa Latina)
  • In a city primarily known for its male street artists, Jefa is a stand-out. Her colorful and heartfelt murals are found all over the barrio. Visit her on Instagram: @jefa.art.medellin.
  • Mamá Chila is the beloved “abuela” of the barrio, a dedicated community leader who has worked tirelessly for children and others. Now in her mid-80s, she is still an active volunteer. The barrio’s modern and beautiful kindergarten/early education building is named for her.

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    Jefa’s stunning mural honoring Mamá Chila. Side note – Real City Tours sponsored this mural.

Dazzling Street Art

The barrio is filled with murals that easily rival much of the more famous street art you’ll find in Comuna 13. Here’s a sampling (click on the first pic to see each one by one).

The Takeaway: Hope and Optimism

There’s so much more we could say about this fascinating Medellin barrio, but the best way to get the full story is to take the Real City Barrio Transformation Tour. It’s a story filled with poverty, strife, violence, and government ineptitude, but ultimately, it’s about hope. As we stood atop the hill, admiring the greenhouse and the community spirit it symbolizes,  Diomer put it well: “We’re standing on the brutal history of Medellín. What has happened here is a fragile, but real, transformation. This is now a safe barrio because of the resiliance of the people here and their love of community.”

Thumbs up for Real City Tours

We highly recommend you take the Real City Barrio Transformation Tour. Another good one is the Real City Free Walking Tour, if you’re looking for an in-depth understanding of the cultural influences that have made Medellín one of the world’s most remarkable cities.

RCT-tag-2016-1024x1024 A Barrio Transformation in Medellin Colombia Medellin South America There are three reasons we love RCT:

  • All of the guides are born-and-raised Medellín natives. They know the city inside and out.
  • They won’t sugar-coat this city’s checkered history. You’ll hear the good, the bad, and the ugly, but ultimately you’ll leave with a new respect for the amazing people here — what they’ve endured, and how they’ve persevered.
  • They really care about the communities they visit, and they give back. A prime example is how protective they are of this barrio and its people. And throughout the tour, we saw how RCT has contributed: sponsoring public art, a community garden, and an eco-minded community center.
Have you visited a city that has had a profound transformation? Let us hear about it!

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60 Comments

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! It’s such an inspiring story. And the art is divine.

  1. This is a lot like Cuba right?? Loved all the photos and the education about the city. The transformation of the dump is unbelievable. Thank god for women….we are the only ones who get things done. LOL

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Right?? Girl power. John says all the time that more women should be in charge 🙂 Funny you said it looks like Cuba. It really felt that way to us too. Thanks for reading!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks – it was such a fascinating tour of an amazing barrio.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Yes!! Well, it’s not really a secret. Pretty easy to figure out where it is. But we really appreciate a tour company that’s more interested in protecting the community than in making money. Another reason we love RCT!

  2. Your in-depth posts on Medellin show a city that is the true definition of “progressive.” Medellin’s refusal to bury the past but rather learn from it and *transform* areas of the city from ugly reminders to places of hope and optimism is truly inspiring! Anita

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Anita! That can-do spirit is one of the things we love about this city 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! The barrio, and especially its people, really are special.

  3. This is the best post you’ve ever put up, no foolin’. Great information, wonderful pictures, and a real heartwarming story about real people. We can imagine folks in Medellin making this happen. They don’t seem to be bothered by long odds. Great post! Keep ’em coming!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ahh, muchísimas gracias! As I said, this one was a labor of love. We continue to marvel at the resilience and grace of the Paisas.

  4. Much respect to the people of this barrio! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that photo of the trash mountain and what it has now become. Such a stark contrast those plants made! However, as your guide skillfully told you about the story of the people of this barrio, real urban transformations can only take place when the local people are involved. Fascinating story!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Bama! The tour really was inspirational, but also sobering when you consider what these people had to overcome, and how fragile this community remains to this day. But it really is about people power! A good lesson for the world.

  5. This is an uplifting post. What people can do to improve, if given the means and the opportunity, warms the heart! My own little corner of the world has/is undergone/undergoing a similar transformation. When I first moved to my little part of our bigger city, the downtown and surrounding areas were worn down and decrepit, and you could shoot a cannon down the street and not hit anybody except for drunks, punks and motorcycle gang members. Now the downtown is much more vibrant and families are on the street day and night. Building owners (including me) are investing in making their buildings beautiful again, and the surrounding houses are being improved too. Some might complain of gentrification, but the town was dying before my eyes and now it has come back to life.

    Deb

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Deb! I believe in “good gentrification” – a well-thought-out plan that’s geared towards creating a safe and thriving community with opportunities for everyone. Sounds like that’s what you’re going for there. Keep up the good work!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! Lots to ponder indeed. I’m still processing everything we learned from this tour. Thank you for reading!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Ah, thanks! We travelers all learn from each other, don’t we? Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. I mean, I didn’t think it possible for me to love Medellin and Colombia even more! What an amazing story. Those Paisa are awesome and we cannot wait to return!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      The Paisas are awesome in so many ways: hard working, resilient, and generous. A huge reason we love living here. Thanks for reading, amiga!

  7. I honestly gasped when I saw the transformation. Thank you for sharing this amazing story. There is no doubt we will take this tour when (not if) we visit Medellin.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      So glad you enjoyed the post. Let us know when you’re coming to Medellin!

  8. What an interesting and insighful post Susan. To see the transformation from the rubbish tip to the landscaped terraces is incredible. I loved seeing the street art, so vibrant and expressive. thanks for sharing.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you for visiting! The barrio really is a fascinating place.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! Hope you can visit Medellín someday – it’s an incredible city. And yeah, Girls Rock 🙂

  9. What a great post – it shows how much good tours can enrich a travel experience too. As you say it is a nuanced and complex story but I’m glad to see that RCT sponsored some street art and are trying to protect the anonymity of the area whilst telling its story.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you for your comment! Yes, it’s one of thing things we love about the tour company – they’re more interested in telling a story than in making money. And doing it in a responsible way.

  10. Although I’ve never been to this part of the world, I feel as if I were exploring with you thanks to your detailed write-up and beautiful photos. I also appreciate the time and effort that went into sharing the history, as that’s one reason why I love to travel.

  11. This was a fabulous read. And some great photos. I really felt like I got a feel for it. So full of hope and the resilience of the human spirit. We can make things better! I’ve know about your blog for ages. I don’t understand why it took me so long to follow! Slow learner I guess.
    Cheers, Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Alison – welcome aboard! And thanks for reading the post. This neighborhood is so inspiring, and it’s just one example of how resourceful and resilient the Colombians are. Cheers!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Welcome to our blog, and thanks for the comment! Sorry about our belated response 🙂

  12. An amazing transformation story from heartbreaking to promising. I wish we’d taken this tour, but am delighted to have done so through your lens. I think you’ve really found your voice with this post. I was so moved by the story that I needed to sleep on it before I could comment here. Especially love Jefa’s mural honoring Mamá Chila and John’s image of the lady, child and laundry.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you so much, amiga. This post was a really special one for us. Few things in Medellin have moved us like this tour did. I love how John is developing his photographer’s eye 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hey, I missed this comment somehow. Finally someone noticed 🙂 We added the sidebar with our photo and “about.” That’s the most obvious change. Plus, we put in some pull-down menus for the countries we’ve visited.

  13. Well that is an inspiring way to start the day. Almost unbelievable to see the photos of before and after side by side. I also applaud the tour company and yourselves for not naming the area. Over tourism is such an issue world wide. Wonderful to see that sensitivity.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much – this really was a special and moving experience. We love discovering some of the lesser-told stories here, and there are so many!

  14. I absolutely love this post! Medellin is so impressive. I have never seen any place in the world where both citizens and officials worked together and transformed their own city. You are so right, it is complicated, it isn’t easy and many mistakes happen, but I am still so impressed and will always hold a special place in my heart for Medellin.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Bonnie! This one pretty much wrote itself. We were so knocked out by the story of the barrio and the turnaround the people have made. Hope you can come back to Medellin and see us one of these days!

  15. So incredibly inspiring and heartwarming to read. Love all the street art and your photos and accompanying description. The before and after photos are auite remarkable.

    Peta

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much – it really is a memorable place! The people are an inspiration indeed.

  16. aisleseatanywhere Reply

    This is so fascinating and heartwarming. Thanks for the tour recommendation – it’s so important to find the folks who aren’t going to sugar coat the story for the tourists. It sounds like they’re nailing it!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, we have so much respect for the Real City Tours guides. They really care about the communities they’re representing.

  17. This is a fascinating tour, something I would like to do when I visit Medellin. Transformation is hard for sure and it takes time, work, dedication, willingness. Relocating a whole community is no doubt a minefield. Great post and photos.

  18. spankynet1 Reply

    Love the street art/mural photos (including the Junk inspired art) and reading a barrios’ determination for transformation is inspirational. Not sure when, but we do hope to return to Colombia one day.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      And Colombia will be here waiting for you! Thanks for visiting our blog. We can’t recommend this tour highly enough when you’re finally able to come to our fair city!

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