A Travellerspoint blog

From My View, Guatape More Than a Daytrip

Climbing “The Rock” & Exploring the town worth two nights

rain 65 °F

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The amazing view from atop Piedra del Penol, aka “The Rock”

Many people see our next destination as a day trip from Medellín. However, we wanted to take our time seeing Guatape, so booked two nights at a hotel on the main square in town. Guatape was a pretty town, with brightly painted buildings along steep streets busy with walkers, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks. These are 3-wheeled taxis, usually garishly and colorfully decorated. Essentially, they are a motorbike with an extended back cab attached to it for 2-3 people to sit.

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One of the main taxis on the streets of Guatape - tuk-tuks, 3-wheeled motorbikes, essentially

After unpacking and a quick lunch, we hired one of the tuk-tuks to take us to our #1 reason for coming to Guatape: Piedra del Penol. This is a spike of granite rising 656 feet above the surrounding lakes and lowlands. Steps have been carved into the rock to allow visitors to climb to the top, where there are amazing views of the lakes and towns all around. When you first see the stairs, zig-zagging up the sheer surface of the rock, you think, “Wow, my legs are going to be burning after this!” Still, the pictures I’d seen on the Internet convinced me to do it. I am a sucker for scenic views and will hike for hours on the promise of a gorgeous panorama.

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The stairs up the sheer face of the Rock - 675 of them by some count, 700+ by others

I’d actually changed into shorts for the first time on the trip for this climb. The sun was out, too, which is why we seized the moment and went to the rock right away. Sunny weather is not something you can count on in June throughout Colombia. The weather forecast on my phone has shown rain every day of the trip in every city we’re visiting. Typically, the day starts out overcast, then the sun breaks through in late morning. Most of the time it is sunny from about 11am till sometime in the afternoon. On lucky days, it waits till late afternoon for the skies to open up and let loose with a drenching downpour. On unlucky days, it happens mid-afternoon. Usually, it rains off and on from that point throughout the evening and early morning hours.

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Partway up the stairs of Piedra del Penol

For the climb - and more importantly the view from the top - we had brilliant, warm sunshine. The climb actually wasn’t bad. It was nothing near as strenuous as the Cocora Valley Loop hike. It took me only about 20-25 minutes, and that is with breaks for photos on the way up. Atop the rock, people clustered here and there along the surround railing taking in the magnificent view (and posing for duck-lipped selfies). The valley below was threaded with multiple arms of a vast lake created when a dam was constructed here in the 1980s. Because it flooded all the low-lying land, leaving the hills above water, it is not a circular or oval lake. It shoots off arms in all directions like a vast, blue octopus. Hilltops and ridges became islands and peninsulas formed by the flooding, making it a gorgeous tableau of green and blue beneath you. It was truly worth the exertion of climbing the 675-plus steps to the top.

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A beautiful, 360-degree panorama awaits those who make the climb to the top

There is also a three story building on top with a circular platform on the roof that is the highest point. Of course, after catching my breath and taking some photos, that was where I headed. This was where the selfie-takers clustered. All around, self-absorbed girls and women were playing paparazzi with themselves for a whole series of images. I know that sounds sexist, but the selfie culture is definitely a phenomenon that inflicts the younger generations more than the old, and ladies more than men. All over Colombia I saw groups of girls as young as the middle schoolers I teach pretending to be runway models and flirting suggestively with their phones. At most, I have one photo of myself taken per day on most of my trips. I have always preferred photos of the destination I have come to see rather than me standing in front of it. I realize culture changes, though, and I have no problem being a curmudgeon when it comes to monopolizing the best spots for pictures!

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I took a LOT of photos up top!

In addition to a few souvenirs shops, there are a handful of cafes up top to sit down, relax, and enjoy a beverage with a million dollar view. The weather was perfect. The rain had held off so far, with no towering, dark clouds lurking anywhere on the 360-degree horizon. As I had seen so far in my week-plus in the country, most tourists were Colombians. Maybe about 25% were Europeans or Americans. Interestingly, I saw almost no Asian tourists in Colombia. I am not sure why the demographics play out this way. It is just what I’ve seen fairly consistently. I think lots of domestic tourists is always a good sign for a country. That means there is a large enough middle class to get out and enjoy their own country’s heritage and sights.

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When I travel, I always seek out scenic views from on high, so The Rock was perfect for me

I took LOTS of photos up top, as I imagined that I would. I knew it would be a challenge honing down the number of images to put here on my blog to a reasonable level. I switched between the normal/wide angle lens and my long lens to zoom in on the various luxury hotels or condominiums on their own private island or peninsulas. Boats were out on the lake, leaving their feathery white wake behind them. Two helicopters did a circuit of the rock and lake, landing beneath us on the helipad to drop off and pick up a new batch of deep-pocketed tourists. There was even a helipad on top of the rock - perhaps for medical emergencies? Or visits of dignitaries?

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The lake far below is actually man-made from a hydroelectric dam that supplies 30% of Columbia’s electricity

Descending Piedra del Penon was easier than ascending, as you can imagine. The steps are regular and well-maintained. In fact, they were doing maintenance on part of the staircase resulting in the lower half of the route being shared by people going up and those descending. Normally, you go up one staircase and down another. Below, there is a massive collection of souvenir shops and restaurants, booming music and cheery greetings to entice visitors to enter. After making a brief circuit of them, we walked down the road to where the tuk-tuks pick riders up. There was no wait, and we were soon bouncing our way downhill and buzzing along the road back to Guatape. Hiring the tuk-tuk costs only 12,000 Colombian pesos each way - about $3-$4 US dollars.

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I switched back and forth to my “long lens” so that I could zoom in on the islands and their luxury hotels below

Once in the main square, I went up to my hotel room to stretch out on the bed. Within minutes, the rumble of thunder sounded. The daily rainstorms had arrived, effectively putting an end to sightseeing activities for the day. We did discover a cafe that evening which had a great selection of microbrews, and watched a bit of a Columbian soccer match there with a cheering group of fans.

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The next day started off with a lake cruise

The next morning, we headed out to the shore look for lake cruises. There are all sizes of watercraft that ply the lakes, from renting your own kayak or paddle boat to small and large sightseeing boats. It seemed few people were out that early in the morning, though. We wanted to get our lake cruise in earlier rather than later, so that we didn’t get caught out on the water during a thunderstorm. We found one dock where they offered us a private lake tour for one hour. The price - 100,000 pesos came to about $25-$30 between the two of us, so we said, “Si!” and climbed aboard.

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It was an enjoyable hour on the lake motoring past all the lakeside homes with their wonderful views

It was still overcast, but we could see the sun beginning to break through in the distance. Luckily, that was the direction we were headed. After about 10-15 minutes, we were in sunshine. Our drive spoke no English, so we had to interpret what he was telling us as best we could. There were hotels and wealthy villas spaced out along the various byways and cul de sacs of the lake. One was a burnt out shell spray painted with large warnings in red not to approach. It was the lakeside villa formerly owned by the notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar. In 1993, a rival vigilante gang calling itself the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (“Los Pepes”), planted a bomb at the villa which ripped it apart. The mansion, pool, tennis courts, and discotheque were gutted and the police used the opportunity to raid the villa and seize the drugs hidden there.

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The bombed out ruins of Pablo Escobar’s lakeside villa and the stark warnings it is off limits

We had eschewed the “Pablo Escobar Tour” in Medellin, but there is no way of avoiding the most famous stop on a Guatape lake tour. The blackened concrete shell is slowly being overgrown by nature. The ruins are off limits to the boat tours, though it appears if you pay enough money you can book a tour and clamber around the ruins. One site claimed that for both this Escobar mansion and the one in Medellín, you sign up to play paintball there and live out your drug hoodlum fantasies. Needless to say, that was not on our itinerary!

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The pretty church square was where our hotel was located in Guatape

We continued exploring the lake, photographing the homes of Colombia’s rich and famous along the shoreline. Speaking of Escobar, our boat driver pointed out the home of one of his family members. We also got a nice view of the Rock. The sun wasn’t hitting it well, and the distance and rocking of the boat meant my pictures were less spectacular from the water than from atop. One of the final stops was the watery grave of the original town of El Penon. The largest settlement in the area, it was covered by the lake when the dam was built in the 1980s. A cross protects from the water to mark the spot of the town’s main church. Apparently, those on helicopter tours can make out the sunken ruins of the town beneath the surface. We couldn’t see anything from our boat, though. We motored around the cross and past a building which stood on a hill above the original town. Now, it sits near the lake’s surface - just barely surviving the flooding.

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Guatape is a pretty town with brightly colored buildings and decorations

As we returned to Guatape, we took pictures of its waterfront from the lake. The sun was shining on the buildings and it looked much more bright than the overcast skies we’d cast off under. Disembarking, we took advantage of the sunshine and walked around Guatape’s streets. One of the most colorful parts of the town are the zocalos. These are painted panels on most buildings that depict the job of the original residents. So, you see horses on the homes of the ranchers, bread on the bakers, lambs on those who raise sheep, and so on. The more modern trades haven’t been left out, either. You will find depictions of ice cream on the gelato vendor’s building, motorcycles on the repair shop, and even bicycles at the place that rents or sells bicycles. It was fun to walk along and photograph them.

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One of the colorful zocalos, framed relief paintings at the front of nearly all the buildings in downtown Guatape

Probably the most photographed street by visitors was the Plazoleta de los Zocalos. Every building on all four sides gleams in bright pastel colors. Suspended above the street leading to the plaza are dozens of colorful umbrellas. When the sun is shining, the light streams in translucent shades through the umbrellas. I jokingly called it Calle Selfie. It was impossible to walk through at busy times as nearly every person was posing for a selfie, or waiting for the chance to also block traffic to get photographed in the perfect spot. It was a pretty street, I admit. However, it became annoying at peak times and would be a spot to avoid on the weekends. Like Salento, Guatape is a Colombian town that is supposed to come alive on the weekends. Having already experienced what that meant in Salento, I was happy we were leaving the next morning (Friday).

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The street of the Zoacaletos with it pastel colored umbrellas turning sunshine into a rainbow of light

We were kind of running out of things to do, so decided to take a shared Jeep taxi to the Replica El Penon. This tiny cluster of buildings sits on a hillside overlooking the lake where the original town was flooded by the dam’s waters. A reconstructed town square with replica church sits in the center of it. There are souvenir shops and cafes, and we found a breezy spot to sit, enjoy a refreshing beverage, and look out over the pleasant view below.

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Another colorful zocalo on the bottom panel of a building’s facade

Catching a ride back was a bit more adventurous than going out. We had caught the Jeep in the main square, paying the roughly $1 each fare. We were dropped off at the side of the main road leading up to the replica town. We were told that to return we just flagged a passing Jeep taxi down and climbed in. IF there was space. After 10 minutes of waiting, one finally arrived and stopped in answer to my wave. It looked pretty full already, but the locals inside made room for us. We clambered in and we’re soon back in Guatape’s main square. Tired from a busy day wandering about in the tropical sun, I went up to the hotel room and stretched out on the bed. Once again, I was awakened by a crack of thunder. The afternoon rainstorms had arrived, so I guess that was it for our sightseeing in Guatape!

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The replica village square of El Penon was erected on a hill overlooking where the original town lies slumbering under the lake’s waters

When I think back in it, someone could easily pack in all of Guatape’s sights in one day trip. It would mean your wandering of the colorful streets would be less leisurely, and it would have to count on cooperating weather to get everything in. Still, I felt Guatape was a lot more relaxing stretching that day trip into two nights. Only one more city remained before our two weeks in Colombia were complete. So, we happily took it easy for our remaining hours in Guatape, and enjoyed the slow pace of the town that evening.

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This cross projects from the lake’s surface, marking the spot where Old El Penon’s church rests on the lake floor

Posted by world_wide_mike 01:53 Archived in Colombia

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