People kept telling me “You’ve got to go to Guatapé.” Stay a night! Take a tour! No, take the bus yourself it’s easy. I’ll go, I’ll go, I thought. But the time had flown by so quickly that it was my last weekend in Medellin—and Sunday to boot!—that I finally made the trip two hours East of the city.
Perhaps the biggest draw for visiting Guatapé is La Piedre el Peñol—a massive granite rock that sits at the edge of the town and can be seen for miles. Climbing the Peñol’s 700 stairs will get you to the viewing perch on top, where you’ll find stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including a giant man-made reservoir that serves as a base for boating and water sports.
The actual town of Guatapé is ten minutes down the road by bus or 30-40 minutes walking. It’s a town that caters to a heavy influx of tourists, but still maintains its traditional façade. I’ve heard it called the most colorful town in Colombia—which I would love to be able to fact check with more experience! Visiting these two landmarks can be done in a few ways as mentioned above. For the short time I had available, I opted for a day trip rather than staying overnight. And after speaking with classmates from school, it sounded like taking the trip solo via public transport would be a super easy and much cheaper way to do the thing.
Having opted not to take a tour, I had no desire to get caught in their crowds. I decided I’d make the trip bright and early. I set my alarm for Sunday morning and was up, caffeinated and at the North Bus Terminal by 7:30 am. I Ubered there because a 30 minute walk, followed by a trip by train, then switching to a two hour bus ride sounded a bit much for a Sunday morning. Wouldn’t you agree? In North Station, ticket booth number 14 is where you purchase your tickets to Guatapé. The tickets cost 15,000 pesos or about $5 USD. Seats are assigned, which alleviates any awkward tension of having to choose a seat. At 8:05 we were rolling out of the bus station and beginning the scenic two-hour ride.
Because I’d already had two cups of coffee and because my hangover the day prior caused me to sleep through almost the entirety of Saturday, I was up and alert and enjoyed watching the mountains and quaint towns along the winding, rolling road on our journey. But maybe you like to sleep instead, in which case I’ll let you know that the seats were comfortable and recline. I had a very nice seatmate who made conversation with me for a bit of the ride and didn’t make fun of my infantile Spanish.
(Side note: Americans who speak only one language really need to cram it with making fun of people’s accents. Language learning is really fucking difficult.)
Along the way the bus stops to pick up people who are going in the same direction and others who hop on for a few kilometers hoping to sell their goods, usually light snacks or fruits. One man selling some type of bread product walked up and down the aisle giving free samples to everyone on the bus. We had an arepa salesman on the ride home. And last time, on the bus to Cocorná, a man brought a giant bucket of strawberries to sell. I have to say in these situations people are generally pretty cool. I’ve never felt hassled or pressured to buy anything on one of these buses.
Just short of two hours later, we pulled up to a little gas station on the right side of the road, which is the drop off spot for El Peñol. I said bye to my new friend, hopped off the bus and started my journey up to the big rock. I stopped in the bathroom at the bottom, paid 1,000 pesos to do so, and while I was in there decided to get rid of any trash in my backpack. Stupidly, I threw away my bus ticket, and so on the way from the rock to Guatapé I had to pay the new bus 2,000 pesos for the ten minute ride. But never mind that for now.
Hopefully you enjoyed the cushy bus ride, because the work starts immediately. You must walk up stairs and a steep hill to get to the base of el Peñol. Two girls who had been on my bus perched themselves on some cinder blocks six minutes into the walk. I heard one of them say she was dying. She had a bit of a dramatic flair or maybe was just out of shape. It’s work, but it’s quick and old people and children do it all the time. Wear appropriate shoes and dress. Sneakers are a good idea as some of the stairs on El Peñol are small and steep—especially on the staircase back down the rock. In ten minutes I found myself at the top of the hill and the base of the rock. Tourist shops selling hats and ponchos, Colombian specialty food items, and various trinkets line the path to the ticket booth, along with some restaurants, whose food I can’t vouch for, but which boast some serious views.
The cost for entrance to climb El Peñol is 18,000 pesos, roughly $6 US. And then you climb. Again, the stairs total 700. You feel it when you’re walking, but if you’re healthy and active it’s certainly not too difficult. I’d say the walk up the stairs took me 15 minutes, max. If you need to stop, there are places along the way where the stairs are wider or an opening in the rock allows you to stand out of the way.
Once you’ve reached the top you’ll be greeted with more shops people selling food and drinks, which shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve traveled in Colombia or frankly to any other tourist attraction in the world. I was there for the views so I headed straight to the overlook on the very top. And it’s really beautiful to look at. The water in the man-made reservoir that surrounds all the land is this brilliant turquoise, which compliments the lush green of the patches of land you’ll see for miles and miles. After about ten minutes, once you’ve looked from each angle, gotten your panoramic photos and maybe a selfie, you’re done. What to do now?
I recalled the vendors advertising cerveza michelada con mango verde, and though it was not quite 11 in the morning, I said what the hell. I love michelada, but I’d never seen it with green mango before. How could I not? So I sat there in the shade under the awning of the little snack stand and sipped my cerveza and nibbled on my green mango and enjoyed the relaxing music and the gorgeous views that Sunday morning.
Now you see why I don’t take selfies.
By the time I was heading down, I noticed the crowd at the top had grown and there were far more people making the climb than had been when I walked up the stairs. I hopped on the 11:30 bus to Guatapé from the same gas station at which I’d been dropped off, and was in the little town ten minutes later. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do once I got there. So I began strolling the streets.
The town of Guatapé is just begging to be photographed. The streets are quaint, homey, lined with houses, hotels, restaurants and little tiendas in vibrant colors. Some of the ornate wooden facades depict traditional scenes or animals, some are just beautifully carved and painted, and all are a treat for the eyes. I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to have arrived early enough to have many of them to myself. By the time I left Guatapé that afternoon, the streets were packed with tourists, both Colombian and foreign. The little town square was bustling with activity, and it looked suddenly less like a sleepy traditional town, and more like an attraction in the full throws of the flood of tourism that occurs daily.
But in the calm before the storm I walked at a leisurely pace, snapping photos of ornate doors I liked, hanging plants above wrought iron light posts, cobble stone streets, and the simple white church in the town’s main square—where a Sunday service was taking place. I wish I didn’t feel so awkward about taking photos of people, because this place made for great people watching and street photography. A group of Colombian men sitting at tables outside one corner shop, bottles of cerveza in front of them, talking of politics and weather and work, I imagine. An older woman standing just outside the door of the church, holding onto the carving of a bull, seemingly taking in her religion from both the church and the square.
I sat and had lunch in one of the restaurants in the main square. A veggie burger, one of my only options, and one more cerveza michelada (YOLO). The food wasn’t great, but I wasn’t expecting it to be. As a matter of fact, a street dog I was sharing my lunch with actually refused one of the bites of the veggie burger I tried giving him. But I enjoyed my leisurely lunch, people watching, sipping, making friends with the unimpressed perro.
Once my lunch was finished, having already strolled through much of the town, I wondered what I’d do for the next three hours. I walked around some more, meandering down side streets now grown crowded, enjoyed the sunshine, stopped for an ice cream. But to be honest, if I wasn’t buying anything and if I wasn’t going to keep eating and drinking, there wasn’t much left for me to do. A lot of people do an overnight trip to Guatapé, and it was recommended to me as well. There are boat tours and water sports you can do on the reservoir, which sounded lovely, but not a must-do for me. People have suggested to stay overnight so you’re not rushed, so you can get to La Piedra de El Peñol before the crowds. But I’m a badass and got up at 6 and took the bus from Medellin and still beat the crowds. I’m sure it’s a fun little place to stay overnight, but to be very honest, I didn’t feel I was missing anything and in fact ended up changing my bus ticket for an earlier departure back to Medellin. I’m not doubting the validity of the claim that staying overnight is nice, but for me the day trip—half day trip, really, if you don’t count the bus and train ride home—was plenty. It is perfectly plausible to climb El Peñol, get your fill of views, and walk the entirety of the town in 3-ish hours.
Tips for Guatapé
1. Get up early! Beat the crowds like I did. The views are better, the photos are better, the air is cleaner, the streets are quieter.
2. Dress appropriately. It’s not that strenuous, and it’s short, but sneakers are still best for walking and not slipping down the stairs, taking out abuelas making their way down.
3. I got a sunburn on my legs of all places, and two girls I know from school returned from their Guatapé trips sporting red faces, shoulders and chests. It’s not any hotter than Medellin—on the contrary from what I hear it gets quite cold at night—but the sun beats down on you while you’re climbing the rock and walking through the town and there just isn’t a ton of shade.
4. Think about your itinerary and then buy your bus ticket in advance. On the advice of other bloggers and webpages devoted to visiting Guatapé, I purchased my return ticket to Medellin as soon as I got to the town. (the station is right on the main road, maybe 5 minutes walking from where you get dropped off. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see buses parked.) I arrived at 11:40, give or take, and purchased a ticket for the 3pm departure to Medellin. But after I had walked all through the town and had lunch and a drink and dessert, I had no idea what I’d do with the next two + hours. I was lucky that they had seats and let me exchange for earlier. If you’re planning to do a boat tour or water sports, definitely give yourself more time when you’re booking your return ticket. If you plan to meet up with friends and spend the afternoon catching up in pubs, if you’ll be venturing out of town for anything, give more time. But if you’re just there to see the place, check it out and take some photos, grab a bite, then two hours is more than enough in town.
It was a nice day and certainly worth the trip, but with the way people talk this place up, I must admit the actual visit left me a little let down. I enjoyed my visit to the little town of Salento, in the coffee region, a lot more despite it being quite touristy. I’ve also heard wonderful things about Filandia and Jardin. I’d recommend popping into Guatapé for a day trip and saving your overnights for one of the other hundreds of quaint colorful towns in Colombia.
Thanks for reading!