Unsettled Partners: How Colombia’s Most Notorious Neighborhood Has Now Become Its Pride

By Liza Schmidt, Operations Manager, Unsettled

The story of Medellín’s remarkable transformation can be revealed through many lenses. But ours starts with Comuna 13, and the story of a young, local Colombian man named Stiven Álvarez Garro, who always begins at the very end:

“After we finish this walking tour, I want your final emotion to be that there was a change, and that change is possible”.

Photo by September participant Taimoor Tariq

Photo by September participant Taimoor Tariq

Stiven is telling a group of visitors the story of his local neighborhood in Medellín, Comuna 13, the site of years of conflict and the largest-scale urban battle in Colombia’s long guerrilla war. Behind him is a sweeping view of mountain sides and valley floor covered in brightly painted houses and illuminated by the warm, late afternoon light.

Stiven sweeps his long ponytail out of the way to pull off his backpack and pass around photos of the battle. As he points to landmarks in the photos, also visible from the winding pedestrian path, it becomes clear how far this resilient community has come in the few years since the battle in 2002.

Today, tourists visit the revitalized neighborhood daily, riding the outdoor escalators up the mountain to snap photos of sprawling valley scenes and the energetic graffiti decorating the cinderblock walls of private homes and public structures.

Every month there are new tour companies emerging, some with extensive budgets and marketing machines. But for the Stairway Storytellers, a group founded by Stiven who also call this neighborhood home, the work is a labor of love.

 

The Roots of Stairway Storytellers

Stiven started giving free walking tours in mid 2016, and only after eight months of studying English.

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“I learned English by accident,” he said. “Chota, the graffiti artist, was taking free classes and invited me along. I went and didn’t understand a thing, but I decided to take them all.”

He attended 10 hours of classes per week, practicing with tourists at every chance he got. For his first tour, he wrote his script in Spanish and used Google to translate it; a memory that makes him chuckle now.

When he started, there were no other groups giving tours of Comuna 13 in English. Eventually, he joined forces with a friend, Zulay, but still days would go by with groups of only two people, and that’s if anyone came at all.

However, by August of this year, up to 40 people a day were showing up to enjoy mango popsicles (a local favorite) and a deep history lesson.

 

A Communal Success

Today, there are five Stairway Storyteller guides, all in their late teens or early 20s. They have all spent their whole lives in Comuna 13, and, in addition to telling the community’s history, they are helping to shape its future. This year, they’re planning a children’s Christmas festival and collecting gifts for local kids.

Though the guides don’t charge for their tours, the voluntary tips they earn have given them new opportunities. Thanks to his tour earnings, Stiven plans to travel with his mother to the sea for Christmas for the first time in their lives.

Most importantly, the tours have infused economic life into the neighborhood. Dozens of new small businesses have opened in response to the flow of visitors. Lia, the owner of a recently opened coffee shop, estimates that 90% of the businesses in the immediate area have opened in the past eight months.

Photo by September participant Taimoor Tariq.

Photo by September participant Taimoor Tariq.

One of those is Don Julio’s juice stand, operated from the patio of his home, at the foot of one of the escalators. Dressed in his green smock and traditional Colombian straw hat, Don Julio asks tourists to teach him greetings and goodbyes in their native languages, and has collected these simple phrases in over 20 languages since he opened last April.

“Arrivederci! Goodbye! ¡Qué Dios les bendiga!” Don Julio waves to the tourists as they follow Stiven down the escalators.

Juice in hand, they finish their tour of a neighborhood transformed, and, as Stiven reminds them, of the power of a positive attitude.

Stairway Storyteller is one of the many local Colombian businesses we proudly support on an Unsettled Medellín retreat.

 

If you want to learn more about them, or explore all the beauty that Medellín has to offer, consider joining us in Colombia this January or February!

APPLY HERE