My lungs burned and I was far too sweaty for this early in the morning. I should have eaten more than a bunuelo for breakfast. 475… Only 200 more steps to go. Aside from the realization that I’ve become incredibly out of shape over the passed two months, the view from up here is stunning. The colourful town of Guatape is a tiny scattering of buildings in the distance.
The Road to Guatape
When one of our friends from back home decided to visit us while we were living in Medellin, we chose Guatape as our first adventure. The colourful Andean village was the easy choice as it was only a short, two hour bus ride from the city.
On our morning of departure, we didn’t make it to the bus station until almost noon. While we’d planned on getting an early start, the evening prior went quite a bit later than expected. Thankfully, navigating the bus terminal was easy and we were soon on our way.
The first half of the journey was the long crawl up the valley from Medellin. Construction and traffic made for a slow climb. Just as the bus finally seemed to pick up speed up in the flat highlands, it turned off the highway onto a smaller road. Although the sharp curves and tight shoulders would suggest a reduction in speed, the driver seemed to be making up for lost time.
A simple, yet apparently common mistake…
Over the next 45 minutes, the bus swerved left and right, tossing the passengers around in their seats. Neither Kylee nor Murr were enjoying this at all. I was too busy concerning myself with time constraints. Seeing the beautiful countryside dotted with lakes of deep blue water, I was regretting our decision to stay only one night.
The bus rolled passed another town without stopping. The buildings were similar in design to others in the area, except these were very brightly painted. Colourful buildings are common in Latin America, but not like this. As the bus crossed a bridge and climbed up another hill, we looked back at the town. We knew that Guatape was famous for it’s vivid colours, so if that was any hint at what was to come, we’d be more than pleased.
The Guatape bus carried on… and on.
After another twenty minutes, we looked at each other, realizing that we’d clearly missed our stop. The driver confirmed our suspicions. That colourful town back there was Guatape. We were the only foreigners on the bus, everyone else was heading to the final stop in the town of San Rafael. Thankfully, the driver waved down a bus headed the opposite direction and we made the transfer. Several travellers were on board heading back to town from a hike in the hillside. They mentioned that they made the same mistake upon their arrival as well. Apparently it’s a fairly common issue.
Checking out the Colourful Town
We checked into our AirBNB, which was the show suite of a new apartment building. By new I should specify that it was still under construction, and by show suite I mean the only finished room on all seven floors. Next we picked up some ice cream and cold beer and began exploring the town.
Guatape might just be the most colourful town in the world. If a building isn’t colourfully painted, it probably has some articulate bas-reliefs painted in the stone. We passed several walking tours as we made our way through the winding side roads. The vast majority of businesses are either hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants or discotecas. Tourism is clearly the prime industry in these parts.
Fajitas and some Classic Music
For dinner, we decide on a surprisingly good fajita platter at a tiny Mexican restaurant. For dessert, we pick up some cold beer and head to the zocalo, the focal point and most colourful part of the entire town. We grab a spot on the steps and sit back and relax while tourists converse in cafes and local children chase puppies.
A couple of buskers sit just below us and crank out an accordion cover of The Final Countdown. Realizing nothing could ever top that, we decide to call it a night. We had a date with a giant rock named the next morning.
Heading to El Penol
The morning is cool and the streets are already buzzing with activity as we search for breakfast. Opting for a light snack rather than a heavy pre-climb meal, we sit down at a little bakery. The small shop is packed with locals – always a good sign. Murr orders a flaky pastry with some sort of fruit filling while Kylee and I share a couple bunuelos. Coffee flows heavily, and we’re ready to go.
The tuk-tuk sputters along the winding road as we make our way to El Penon, or: the Rock. It struggles along the steep final stretch and the driver tells us we’ve arrived. The monstrous rock standing ominously in front of us confirms the drivers obvious statement. We pay the man and continue to the base on foot.
Charcoal smoke hovers as the smell of grilled meat fills the otherwise clear mountain air. The base of El Penon is the typical mix of souvenir stands and restaurants offering bandeja paisa and other typical Colombian fare. As much as I’d love an enormous platter of assorted fried meat and carbs at 7 am, it’ll probably hinder the climb.
We pay the entrance fee and begin our ascent.
Climbing the Rock
The steps are marked every twenty five in bright yellow paint. I’m unsure if it’s an encouragement of progress or a taunting reminder of what’s still ahead. At around 300 I stop for water and am already taken aback by the view. In front of me spanned a landscape Iike I’d never seen before. The beauty was enough to distract me from the lactic acid burning in my legs. I continued on, attempting to catch up.
Finally, the stairs came to an end as I gasped for air. The view from the top is even more impressive as before. A vast expanse of green hilltops in multiple tones, with deep turquoise lakes darkened slightly by the cloudy sky while thin lines of brown emphasize the shorelines. The lakes themselves holding no recognizable shapes, as if splattered on the earthly canvas by some cosmic Jackson Pollock.
After several long minutes soaking in the view, we took a few obligatory selfies before beginning our decent. The walk down was quick and uneventful. The only thing worth noting was a worker, carrying water bottles up to restock the store up top. Not just a bag or two… he had four cases of 20 bottles, tied together, hanging over his shoulders. I hung my head in shame as we found a tuk-tuk back to town.
How to get to Guatape from Medellin
Getting to Guatape from Medellin is very simple, and a day trip is one of the best things to do while visiting the city!
- The bus station in Medellin for Guatape is the North bus terminal – at Caribe Metro station – and purchase a ticket from ticket booth 9 or 14.
- The price should be around 14,000 COP.
- Buses leave every hour, with the first at 5:30AM and the last at 6:30PM.
- For more detailed information, Bus Bud is a pretty reliable place to go.
- Note: Once the bus leaves the main highway from Medellin, the road becomes quite windy. If you’re prone to motion sickness (or hungover), you might want to take something for motion sickness.
- Don’t make our silly mistake and miss the stop. Just pay attention for El Penon, you won’t be able to miss it. It’s the giant monolithic rock on the right side of the road as you’re heading to Guatape. Less than 10 minutes later, you’ll pass along a very colourful town across from a lake. This is your stop.
A Few Details on Climbing the Rock
The entrance fee to climb the rock is 18,000 COP as of May 2018. If you have a few days in town, try your best to get up on a sunny day. A tuk-tuk should cost around 10-12,000 one way from town to El Pinon. The climb might be a little warmer but the colours of the countryside will be incredible. And like most sites, go early in the day to beat the crowds.