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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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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