Question Number 1: Have you seen Instagram photos of people on top of a rock with a lake, tropical green islands and celestial blue skies in the background? If the answer to the question is ‘yes’, then you’ve probably seen photos of Guatapé. Or, to be more precise, you’ve seen photos of La Piedra del Peñol, the giant rock outside the town that’s increasingly becoming a fixture on trips to Colombia.
Question Number 2: Have you seen photos of a Colombian town with vivid colours and designs that wouldn’t seem out of place in a children’s nursery? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve almost surely seen photos of Guatapé. The town itself is also developing its own Instagram niche.
A battalion of selfie stick-wielding millennials in a South American kitsch fantasyland didn’t really inspire me. However, despite my reservations, I decided to go for a day trip. Big mistake!
I could have stayed far longer! Find out why…
La Piedra del Peñol
Most trips to the town start at the base of this rock. From the gas station where the Medellín buses disgorge excited visitors, many with their selfie sticks at the ready, there are a few ways to reach La Piedra del Peñol. Firstly, there is the option of a short but steep climb up a few sets of steps followed by a walk along a mudtrack. Secondly, there is a long but winding road on a gentler incline. Finally, those who want to save their energy can take the second option using a tuk-tuk or they can join the natives on horseback.
Once past the ticket booths, the real adventure begins. Let’s be clear- it’s vertical. The steps seem endless. Indeed, all but the fittest of climbers will have to stop for a rest, some many times! Bring a big bottle of water (you’ll thank me for this piece of advice).
Arriving at the top, there is a building with yet more stairs inside (ouch!). This is the access to the mirador where so many of the Instagram images are shot. The views are dramatic: picture the sun dancing on blue-green waters studded with emerald islands and set against a clear blue sky. Does it all sound too good to be true? Add in blaring music, an off-beat party atmosphere and plenty of whooping backpackers. Let’s say that La Piedra del Peñol isn’t exactly a secret. In truth, this is the spot on the South American trail where selfie lovers finally reach nirvana. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Still, with those views and the quirky atmosphere, La Piedra del Peñol is well worth the penance that is that climb to the top!
What Makes Guatapé Special?
My arrival into Guatapé proper came courtesy of Diego, a charming Caleño who left his native city to work in Guatapé where he now ferries visitors around by tuk-tuk. Judging from his relaxed demeanour and friendly chat, he certainly didn’t seem to regret his choice. After a short time there, I would understand why.
Flowers and buildings alike wore vivid hues throughout the town centre. Frankly, even the colourful towns of the Coffee Triangle seemed positively bleak in comparison. Wandering from street to street felt like walking from picture to picture in the pages of a tourist brochure. Indeed, I soon grasped what had turned Guatapé into an Instagrammer’s wet dream. The zocalos…
Yet, it wasn’t this architectural detail that bowled me over. Rather, it was the friendliness of the locals. Despite streets full of domestic and international tourists, people liked to take their time.
‘Six days in Medellín!’ one woman exclaimed to me in a t-shirt shop.
She and her daughter had come to Guatapé from the city two years previously and they clearly had no intention of returning anytime soon. Lulled into a trance by the sociable locals, it didn’t take long before I started seriously considering staying overnight.
The Zocalos of Guatapé
What are zocalos? They are the colourful decorations that adorn the lower section of each building in the town. Each one is unique and, apart from the Piedra, they explain the popularity of Guatapé with visitors. Deep greens and rich yellows sit beside baby blues and intense pinks. Ordinary buildings acquire a fantasy element. A simple hairdressing salon, for example, looks like it belongs on the set of a children’s movie. Dreamlike…
The Coffee of Guatapé
Black Hole Café
Just down the street from the main plaza, Victoria and Juan, a local couple, have set up a third wave coffee shop called Black Hole. The name fascinated me since it seemed a little out of place amidst the vibrant splashes of colour throughout Guatapé.
‘It encapsulates the mystery of space and the surprising flavours that we find in each cup of coffee,’ Victoria informed me.
Despite the provincial setting, they sell everything a coffee lover could dream of- flat whites, espressos, cappuccinos, and a variety of filtered coffees. All their coffee comes from a local producer, Finca La Rivera, and it has a chocolatey taste that contrasts with the fruitiness of many Colombian coffees. In addition to selling coffee beans, they can also arrange tours to the finca.
Kaffa is located in a plaza that would put a rainbow to shame. On their outdoor tables recycled milk bottles containing flowers in shades of bright pink, purple, orange, yellow and green only served to complete the effect. Unlike Black Hole, they source their coffee from near Salento in Quindio. The café latte was silky smooth. After all, how could anyone have a bad coffee in such a beautiful place?
Why Guatapé is One of My Biggest Travel Regrets
Towards the end of the day I decided to relax in the main plaza. A trio of musicians filled the air with their Latin sounds- a combination of saxophone, guitar, percussion and voice. Singing of los sabores del amor, their nostalgic soundtrack captivated the visiting Colombians and foreign travellers. As dusk approached, a cool breeze announced the end of near perfect day in Guatapé. It was time to go back to El Poblabo in Medellín.
Waiting for the bus, I could see visitors happily zip lining across the lake.
I knew I had made a mistake.
Guatapé could easily have brought days of fun and relaxation.
Travel Warning: Guatapé is far more than a mere day trip!
Alternative/ Add-on to a Guatapé Trip
Two hours from Guatapé by bus, Spanish Adventure runs a school with a difference for those who want to combine language learning, local culture and community involvement.
San Carlos, the small town where the school is situated, is already popular with domestic tourists for its unspoiled environment. However, it’s off the radar for most international travellers at present. Those who go there give it rave reviews.
It could be the perfect add-on activity for anyone already in the area. Lily, a Canadian traveller, has volunteered to share her experiences.
Spanish Adventure in San Carlos
Spanish Adventure is truly a unique and authentic travel experience. At this Spanish school/adventure hostel you are immersed in local Colombian culture, in a beautiful small town, where almost none of the locals speak English.
Once plagued by violence, the town of San Carlos is now a peaceful and stunning nature lover’s paradise. There are 9 waterfalls, 6 rivers and many swimming holes within walking distance from the school. Canyoning, cliff jumping, hiking… it has it all!
I immediately felt at home here as soon as I’d arrived, a very special feeling after travelling for many months. The two owners and teachers Daniel and Camilo are extremely passionate about this project and it shows not only in their teaching but in the family environment they have created. You will eat sleep and breathe Spanish Adventure and no doubt want to stay longer than planned.
I came for two weeks and spent four months as a volunteer and student, and can honestly say it’s been the most rewarding time of two years of travel. Learning Spanish is easy when you’re truly immersed and comfortable and most of all having fun with friends along the way!
-Lily Stanley (Canada)
Buses regularly leave Medellín from Terminal del Norte. To get there it’s necessary to take the metro to Caribe, which is linked to the bus station by a tunnel. A number of companies run buses to Guatapé that leave as soon as they fill up. The trip to La Piedra del Peñol costs 12,500 Colombian pesos and, as noted above, passengers will be dropped off at the gas station at the foot of the rock. The little restaurant opposite, not a bad place to take a rest, sells return tickets to Medellin.
As for accommodation, Mi Casa, near La Piedra, is popular with backpackers due to the range of activities that they offer. Nearer the town itself, El Encuentro has an ecological slant that’s also popular. Galeria Guatapé is another option that will appeal to those who like an out-of-town backpacker feel.
In practical terms, it should be relatively easy to find accommodation around the town during the week. Note that Guatapé fills up with visitors from Medellín at the weekend.
Looking for more ideas in Colombia? Get more inspiration for your Colombian trip.
Have you experienced a place where you just wish you had stayed for longer? Have you got tips or experiences to share? If so, share them here! Leave a comment below or send your story to me by email at Unlatinoverde@gmail.com.
Next Post: Tuesday, February 20th, 2018