Over the last decade, one of Medellín’s most progressive and visionary infrastructure projects involved the construction of 1,259 feet of outdoor escalators that connect the citizens of the hillside shanty Comuna 13 to downtown. During the 1990s, Comuna 13 received the notorious distinction of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the planet. A battleground for criminal control of Medellín and the Aburrá Valley, guerrilla and paramilitary groups fought over the drugs and contraband that came in and out of Medellín on the San Juan Highway. When the Colombian military launched Operation Orion in 2002, in an attempt to defang left-wing rebels in the area, hundreds of residents of La Aurora were injured in the crossfire.

Today, the San Javier/La Aurora neighborhood has been transformed beyond recognition, with libraries, playgrounds, and cinderblock buildings freshly painted in a rainbow of colors (the local government provided the paint) and emblazoned with dramatic street art and murals. The best way to get to grips with the transformations within the comunas is to take a tour. Toucan Tours (Carrera 41A no. 10–28; www.toucancafe.co; tel. 4/586-9215) offers fascinating graffiti tours led by co-founders/volunteers of Casa Kolacho: a peace-promoting community organization of hip-hop and street artists who are responsible for most of the graffiti in Comuna 13. Tours (Mon–Sat, 2–6pm; COP$60,000) are in Spanish, but a bilingual tour guide provides English translation and historical context as needed. Comuna 13 Tours (www.comuna13tours.com) also offers a 4- to 5-hour daily walking tour, which departs Poblado metro station at 10am (COP$70,000, including metro/gondola ride). All tours should be booked at least 48 hours in advance. If you don’t have time for a tour, it’s worth taking the escalators (the equivalent of a 28-story building) to the top for impressive views of the city unfurling below. Security here is super-tight and the area is considered safe during the day/early evening for tourists. Still, unless you are going as part of a tour, do not venture a few blocks beyond the Metrocable terminal.