Barrio La Sierra: Building a Hopeful Future
How do you get to the essence of a city, in a culture that’s foreign to your own? And especially a city like Medellín, whose vibrant and hopeful present was forged from such a troubled past? After living in Colombia going on three years, John and I keep working on the answer to that question. For us, it’s about exploring neighborhoods that might be off the beaten tourist path, but tell the real story of the resilience, resourcefulness, and optimism of the Colombian people. Here’s one example: the inspirational Barrio Transformation tour we took with Real City Tours a couple of years ago.
Early last year, just before the COVID storm hit, we toured another lesser-known neighborhood: Medellin’s Barrio La Sierra. We started a blog post then but decided to hold off until the pandemic passed and the tours could resume again. “Oh, surely it will only be a few weeks,” we told our hopeful and naive selves.
Well, here we are over a year later, and Colombia is in the throes of yet another huge COVID surge. The Barrio La Sierra tour operator, Arthur Tapia, had just restarted the tour a few weeks ago when the COVID numbers started to climb rapidly and Medellín returned to strict quarantine measures. We’re cautiously hopeful that we’re finally peaking in this third wave, which has been more devastating and has placed more stress on the healthcare system that at any other time in during the pandemic. In the meantime, here’s our experience, and here’s hoping Arthur can resume the tour soon.
NOTE: Most of the photos are in galleries. Just click on the first one to see larger images, one by one.
For Medellin folks of a certain age, the names Barrio La Sierra and Comuna 8 conjure up another time in the city’s past – a time they’d just as soon forget. Only a couple of decades ago, this area was one of Medellin’s most violent, gripped by the bloody civil war that had plagued Colombia since the 1960s.
But a visit to Barrio La Sierra today tells a completely different story. It’s a vibrant neighborhood filled with thriving small businesses, happy kids scooting around on their bikes, impressive public works and community facilities, abuelas hanging out their wash and enjoying each other’s company, and flowers – lots of flowers.
Barrio La Sierra’s history mirrors Colombia’s violent past.
To appreciate how far this thriving neighborhood has come, it’s important to understand its history. We had heard variations of this story a few times before, most recently on the Barrio Transformation tour. Some say the trouble goes all the way back to April 9, 1948, with the assassination of the popular and charismatic liberal leaderJorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogota.
By the 1960s, simmering political unrest had exploded into a full-scale civil war being waged in the Colombian countryside by left-wing guerrilla organizations and right-wing paramilitary groups. Up to 40,000 innocent civilians were killed or disappeared, and many, many others fled their rural towns and into the hillsides overlooking Medellín. There, they built makeshift homes and came together to form the urban barrios that today are so much a part of Medellín’s culture: neighborhoods like San Javier/Comuna 13 and Moravia.
By the late 1990s, many of these poor neighborhoods were in the throes of yet more violence as street gangs aligned rival paramilitary groups fighting for their turf. And once again, innocent people were caught in the crossfire. By the early 2000s, La Sierra was known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín, a place where even cab drivers feared to go.
A miracle fueled by public transit
So how did the La Sierra of 2003 – one of its most violent years – transform into the peaceful and hope-filled La Sierra of today? The answer is much more complicated than we can lay out here (that’s why you need to take the tour!). The short version: a two-decades-long peace process, disarmament of the paramilitaries, and significant levels of public and private investment. That investment has centered around improved infrastructure, building schools and other public facilities, and installing one of the world’s most innovative and acclaimed city transit systems.
It’s that last one – public transit – that has probably done more than anything else to transform Medellin’s poor neighborhoods. One of the big reasons these neighborhoods were formerly so vulnerable to gang warfare and violence was their isolation and inaccessibility; La Sierra, for instance, had basically one entrance in and one exit out. Over the past couple of decades, Medellín’s growing system of bridges, cable cars, stairways, paved roads, and the streetcar line known as the Tranvia have joined together Comuna 8’s formerly disconnected neighborhoods into an integrated community. The Metrocable system in particular, with its ability to scale the barrios’ steep hill faces, brought new hope to the people by giving them an easy and affordable connection to the business district and city center below – and with it, greater access to jobs, education, medical care, shopping, and social outlets.
For all of those reasons, the transit system is an integral part of the La Sierra Tour.
We began the tour at the San Antonio Metro (light rail) station and met up with our guide, Milena. From there, we boarded the Ayachuco Tranvia streetcar and rode up through Medellín’s colorful Buenos Aires and La Candelaria neighborhoods to the Villa Sierra Metrocable, which took us the rest of the way up to La Sierra.
Out of oppression, beauty
As we gathered at the top of the sleek and modern Metrocable line, Melina made a statement that would be the theme of our walking tour of La Sierra. “Turning something oppressive into something beautiful is a quality we Colombians have always had,” she said. “It ensures that we will also walk in the right direction as a nation, but it’s also very fragile.”
La Sierra is a prime example of Medellin’s pioneering concept of “social urbanism,” an approach that uses urban design and landscape architecture to reduce inequality and heal environmental damage. At its core, social urbanism involves participation and input from underserved communities to change the social dynamic and foster citizen ownership in investments like public transit, libraries, sports facilities, and beautiful green spaces.
We saw example after example of these ideas as we proceeded up the winding streets through the dense neighborhood, ending up high in the green hills overlooking La Sierra.
To REALLY get a sense for La Sierra’s miraculous transformation in less than two decades, check out this 2005 documentary. This award-winning film depicts the paramilitary/gang violence at the height of the conflict, and it had such an impact that it was covered by the New York Times here. BE WARNED: This video is very hard to watch and contains graphic scenes of violence. But we feel it’s important for telling the whole story.
- The La Sierra Tour takes about four hours and involves quite a bit of uphill walking – 577 steps, to be exact – to the green hills above the barrio. Wear walking shoes and bring water, sunscreen, and rain gear.
- The current price is $90,000 COP (about $24 US). A portion of that is donated to Comunitario San Jose Foundation, a food kitchen in La Sierra that helps feed local school children.
- Visit https://www.lasierratours.com for more information and to make a reservation, or send a WhatsApp to +57 304 596 6599.