Why you should care
Because this used to be one of the city’s most dangerous slums.
High above the rest of Medellín, a group of breakdancers pull off insane stunts. A top rock dissolves into air chairs. Crazy Face, the one with the braces, jackhammers around on one hand, elbow tucked in under his ribs, spinning himself dizzy. He finishes by popping a few flares while Method Man’s music booms out into the valley.
This is the Comuna 13, nestled up in the mountains of Colombia’s second city. Here you’ll find the Black & White troupe killing it at the top of the electric stairs — a set of orange escalators snaking up into the mountainside community. Your view from the Comuna 13 is the whole of Medellín: big, green and beautiful. And this is history. Not so long ago, 17-year-old Crazy Face and his pals Scooby and David Smooth might have otherwise been working as hired guns, lookouts or informants or killed. But now they practice breakdancing every day for as long as 12 hours, getting ready for batallas — competitions where they perform against other groups for awards and prestige.
In the 1990s, a young man growing up there could expect to live to maybe 15 or 17 years old.
Juan Sebastian Bustamante, an architect in Medellín
Comuna 13 was once one of the city’s most violent hoods, says Juan Sebastian Bustamante, an architect at EAFIT University in Medellín. “In the 1990s, a young man growing up there could expect to live to maybe 15 or 17 years old,” he explains, and that’s why the area was targeted for integrated urban revival and recovery starting in 2004. By 2010, public money poured into the poor neighborhoods, connecting them to public transport hubs. Add to that a broader national security initiative and the Comuna 13 actually became safe and livable again. The group formed at the Comuna’s cultural center in 2013, and by 2014 they were performing in front of tourists who felt safe enough to come up to the Comuna and, in Crazy’s words, “let us learn about them and let them learn about us.”
Before or after you watch a show, check out this spot called Café Aromo del Barrio — just one escalator down from the top — where you can get an iced coffee with lemonade for one buck. On a hot day in Medellín, this elixir is all you need to keep pushing through your long day out and about. Rest, chat up the locals and view Medellín’s cityscape splash through the Aburrá Valley.
Comuna 13 still has issues though. Bustamante explains that this and other neighborhoods like it are hubs of drug-trafficking and organized crime. But Crazy claims the gangs who control parts of the neighborhood further up the mountain have come to an understanding among each other. They respect the boundaries and there’s peace — for now.
The boys cypher, creating a circle around their multicolor mat. Matching the beat of Talib Kweli’s “Let Em In,” David Smooth down rocks before pulling a hand freeze. He kills it, just hanging there in the air, and like a Park Rat might feel as he rips up the pipe, you feel that anxious, tingly sensation spilling through your veins. In the slang vernacular of breakdance, this kid is raw.
I could become an adrenaline junkie just watching this stuff. But what about the Black & White boys? Do they get the same kick as me? Or does it make them nervous, all these tourists showing up to see them perform? “No way,” Crazy says. It’s good. It makes it all more real. It gets us ready for the next battle.”
Go There: Comuna 13 Breakdancing
- Location: Take Medellín’s metro from San Antonio station to San Javier and walk 20 minutes (or grab a cab) to the base of the escaleras electricas. Then just ask people to point you in the right direction. By day, it’s generally safe. Taking a camera? Bag it until you get to the escalators.
- Cost: A return cab ride from the metro station will cost around $5 – $10. Tips for the show are expected, especially if the boys are resting and you ask for a performance; $5 to $10 is generous enough.
- Pro tip: All up and down, the escalators are great for photo ops, to check out graffiti and to observe life.