IMG_1514-1024x638 Touring Medellin's Barrio La Sierra Colombia Medellin
“La Sierra is another story.”

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.

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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.

9C456B55-9F37-46C1-B4DC-599A4A89FFDD_1_201_a-1024x542 Touring Medellin's Barrio La Sierra Colombia Medellin
This graffiti-covered building is the former La Sierra high school, which closed after a bloody shootout at the height of the paramilitary struggle.
IMG_1491-1024x768 Touring Medellin's Barrio La Sierra Colombia Medellin
La Sierra’s modern and beautiful new school, perched high on the hillside overlooking the barrio.

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.

The Documentary

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 hereBE 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.

Our Pointers

  • 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.

Have a Great Day and Get Vaccinated, People!

31 Comments

  1. Wow, Susan! Great photos, your blog makes me feel like I’m there, and interesting to learn about social urbanism. Thank you!! Cindy Z

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Cindy! Hope you’re well 🙂

  2. La Sierra looks like another interesting Medellín neighborhood to experience. Nice photos. Also glad.to see John making friends with the locals–diplomacy in action. 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      That’s John – ha! He never met a stranger and he loves talking it up with the local kids. Thanks, Henry – hope you’re well!

  3. I love to go exploring through your camera views. The art has captured my heart and gives me a warm feeling about the spirit of community in this country. Such a resilient people who have come so far. Thank you for keeping the memories alive❣️

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, lovely tia! Come see us again 🙂

  4. This is really cool you two. I want to watch that video but not sure I can hack it. lol. Love all of the art and textures in your images!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Pam. The video is tough, but it has a hopeful ending. Hope you’re doing well!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much for visiting and commenting – glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. What an inspiring story of Medellin’s transformation! I love the concept of social urbanism as it is the direct opposite of gentrification that has been somewhat the approach many cities took to “improve” their urban landscape. The problem with the latter is that it often favors people with money over those deemed undesirable (the poor, or those from minority groups). This essentially moves the problem elsewhere. But Medellin’s approach ensures participation from different parts of the city, involving the residents as opposed to alienating them. I’m sure there must be still room for improvement, but it sounds like a good place to start.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you, Bama! I think the community involvement – getting the buy-in and participation from the people, so they truly have ownership – is what makes this approach so effective. It’s not perfect at all, and it’s a slow and fragile process, but things ARE progressing. Be well, amigo!

  6. What an awesome post on the history of that community. I really love the vibrant photos and artwork, thank you so much for your hard work and sharing. May I ask how vaccinations are going down there? My husband and I are both now fully vaccinated.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Barbara! Vaccination is going very slowly here, since Colombia isn’t one of the “rich” countries with a big supply of vaccines. That said, people are getting jabbed little by little. John will get his second Pfizer shot on May 8, and they just opened it up to my age group yesterday. It’s a ray of hope! And congrats on being fully vaccinated, both of you 🙂

  7. Fascinating how they have managed to turn a violent place into a neighbourhood that people actually want to visit. Doing the tour is such a great idea, since you really get a more in-depth knowledge about the history of La Sierra. The tour price is actually very reasonable. Loved your colourful photos and the amazing street art.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Gilda! One of the best parts of the tour was knowing we were helping benefit the food kitchen and help the barrio kids. It was so inspiring!

  8. I love the stories of the transformation of Medellin. We took a similar tour, in fact I don’t remember which neighbourhood it was but some of the grafitti art looks familiar so maybe it was the same. We were so impressed with all of Colombia and would love to return. Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Come back someday – we’d love to meet you!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We hope you can visit someday! Please keep us posted – we’d love to meet you.

  9. Great pix, great story, as usual, thanks…I think. Every time I read your posts I miss that city even more. We had a wonderful life in Medellin, and it was mostly because of the kind, courteous, resilient people. Keep ’em coming, I’ll read them no matter what. Thanks.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      I just KNOW you two will come back someday – even if only for a visit (and our guest room is always open)!

  10. Love this! Reminds me of our trek up through Comuna 13 in December 2019. Love the spirit of the Colombian people and what they have created!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      You would be fascinated by La Sierra, Les. Time to plan that return trip 🙂 Hugs.

  11. I am constantly astounded and heartened by humanity’s resilience and ability to rebuild. What an inspiring story this is. I hope to revisit Columbia again one day (I was there in 1978!). And meet you guys!
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We would love that, Alison! Our guest room is always open 🙂

  12. Very interesting, especially after having visited Medellin twice.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Larry. Hope you two can make another trip here someday! 🙂

  13. Really enjoyed this article and learning more about how Barrio La Sierra transformed, Susan. Infrastructure is something I take for granted but it’s amazing how much of a difference it can make to an isolated community. I think I’d really enjoy taking this tour. Also, love all the colorful murals in the neighborhood and that cable car reminds me of the one we have in Hong Kong. Though ours is more of a tourist attraction since it’s quite expensive and goes up to another tourist attraction. Is the one in Medellín reasonably priced for locals?

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Becky – glad you liked the post! All of the cables in Medellin are part of the public transport system and are meant to give mobility to the locals, so they’re priced very reasonably. That said, we’d love to ride those cables in Hong Kong. Maybe someday . . .

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