On our second morning we got an opportunity to explore Laureles, the area where we were staying, in a little more detail. It had similarities to El Poblado, with bars and restaurants, but it was a little quieter and more residential.
We walked through affluent streets that seemed extremely safe and would not have been out of place in the more upmarket areas of cities in the USA or Europe.
Laureles is officially the 11th district of the city, (there are 16 in total) and lies just to the west of the main centre. We were walking further west towards San Xavier at the centre of the infamous 13th district.
From San Javier metro station we caught a bus to the bottom of the escalators; a part of Comuna 13 that used to be a no-go area.
The hillside barrio started out back in the 1960s as an illegal settlement. Displaced families built basic houses here, often with no running water or electricity.
During the drug war period of the 1980s and 1990s, the area developed into a transit spot for traffickers, with rival gangs fighting it out for control of territory. It became one of the most dangerous areas in one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
In the early 2000s the first steps were taken to clean up the neighbourhood and improve living conditions for the residents. The city poured money in. Accessibility to the rest of the city became a key issue and as well as the new metro station, a series of outdoor escalators, escaleras electricas, was inaugurated in 2011.
Today, Comuna 13 is a changed place. No longer marginalised, it has become a lot safer and is now home to artists and open to tourists.
The area is filled with impressive murals. They have been created by artists both from the local area and from further afield. They have become a tourist attraction, commemorating the terrible past and celebrating a more hopeful future.
We walked up the street from the bus stop towards the start of the escalators. The murals were certainly stunning, but if anything, we found the atmosphere almost a little too touristy.
We rode the set of six escalators to the top and then walked along the narrow street at the top enjoying the views of the city below.
This was the only time in our whole stay that we saw a lot of foreign tourists in one place together. Naturally, a lot of the local businesses were aimed at catering to them. There were also countless guides offering tours of the area.
It is said that many locals are, perhaps understandably, offended by the ‘narco tourism’, here in Comuna 13 it seemed there was more a feeling of trying to look forward rather than dwell on the past.
Cuarta Revolución Industrial
On the way back down towards San Xavier we walked past the impressive building that houses the Ciudadela para la Cuarta Revolución Industrial. This university is dedicated to the 4th industrial revolution and is part of the local government’s project to increase innovation and attract technology-based companies.
Although the building itself looked impressive perched on the hillside, the atmosphere inside was even more so. We ventured inside the library for a wander around and found it, filled with students, light, vibrant, and fresh.
By the time we got back to Laureles, it was time for a beer.
We deliberately avoided the more boisterous type of bars on the main boulevards and chose instead to drink at the little bars of the back streets.
Whilst one or two of these approximated western-style bars, most of the places we went were more akin to little stores with a few plastic chairs pulled up outside.
There were typically five or six tables set outside just in front of the shop front. Sometimes someone from the shop waited on us, more often we just went into the shop and helped ourselves to beer and snacks, whilst the person behind the counter watched and totted up our purchases on a pad.
Some of the places sold little else but alcohol and snacks; others were effectively the local grocery store, and we could be sitting there having a beer whilst somebody was buying their fruit and vegetables.
It was quite a cool and relaxed way of drinking. It was popular too: the places we went to were full of locals and sometimes it was difficult to get a seat. The bottled beer we drank wasn’t outstanding, but it wasn’t bad either. The most common Colombian brands were Poker, Club Colombia, Pilsen and Aguila, all of them mild tasting pilsners.
For the most part we enjoyed crisps and nuts with our beer, but I thought the local Chontaduro (Peach Palm) fruit was also a worthy accompaniment.
Chontaduros are native to tropical forests throughout Central and South America. The flavour and texture being somewhat akin to a chestnut or perhaps an artichoke.
Boiled, cut into chunks and sold in a plastic cup at little stalls all over the city, they are traditionally served sweetened, they go equally well unsweetened with beer.