If you ever visit Medellín, and you absolutely should, then you should also be sure to schedule in a day trip to Guatapé and El Peñol. You can schedule a tour with a group for about 70,000 Colombian pesos (currently that is $23 USD), which includes breakfast, lunch, transportation, a boat cruise, entry to La Piedra del Peñol, and a couple of pueblo stops with information about them. Or you can go rogue like Marty and I and just get on a public bus to La Piedra and do your own thing. Advantage: you’re on your own schedule. Disadvantage: You don’t get the info part. Luckily, you have me and the rest of the internet to supply you with some of the information!
Located about 2 hours outside of Medellín (despite being only a 50 mile drive and 30 miles apart as the crow flies), whatever bus you take will wind up and out of the valley the city sits in, eastward, until beginning to do some more winding. The city of El Peñol comes first. Marty and I didn’t stop here (although I really should have for the sake of my bladder), but it has an important part in the history of the area. Next comes La Piedra – the world’s second-tallest rock. Finally comes the city of Guatapé.
Once inhabited by indigenous peoples, the land was dedicated to farming for centuries. Then in the 1960s, the city of Medellín was looking for more ways to generate electricity to support its rapidly-growing population, and identified the area as a great spot to install a hydroelectric plant. The catch: there wasn’t actually any water source there. After some haggling, the company in charge of building the plant convinced the town of El Peñol (with money, of course) to relocate. So an entire town’s worth of people rebuilt homes, city structures, etc. further west and up the mountain a bit, and in 1970, 8.7 square miles of land was flooded in order to build a reservoir. If anyone knows how this actually successfully happens, please tell me, because I just can’t fathom how that much water gets poured in quickly enough for a reservoir to successfully form.
Okay, so now Guatapé has this man-made beautiful landscape created by water filling in the crevices of the hills surrounding it. It’s beautiful from above, but how can that view be sold? THE ROCK. This is where the story gets really exciting. You see, there’s this giant rock, long ago worshiped by the indigenous people who lived there. Those indigenous people are no longer there. The town that used to be closest to the rock, El Peñol, has had to relocate. To whom does the rock belong now? El Peñol and Guatapé disputed this for a while, with the people of Guatapé even taking some extreme measures – they began painting their name on the side of the rock. 1.4 letters in, they were stopped by an enraged group from El Peñol, and now the rock just says “GI,” – that U didn’t even get finished. Eventually, whether this defacing had anything to do with it or not, Guatapé won the fight. Staircases with 651 steps to the top of the rock were built on the side to provide tourist access, and an observation tower was constructed on that, creating another 89 steps to the top. Plus you can get a snack of fresh fruit or a refreshing beverage at the top to really take time to savor the views!
This was Marty’s and my first stop (after the restroom), and we were surprised with a reunion with my Peace Corps friends Angelica, Jimmy, Lindsay, and Natalie at the top. They were doing that 70mil tour I mentioned at the top. We took a couple of photos with them (and with a group of Colombians who asked to take a picture of us, which is something that happens to us gringos sometimes), and got attacked by bugs (see that one on my chest?!). Our friends had to peace out, so Marty and I took the time to enjoy a beer (Marty) and a michelada de mango (Brianna – a beer with lime juice, salt, cayenne pepper, and fresh mango) while we scoped out the scenery.
After that we grabbed a colectivo (a ride shared with other people to split the cost) to get to Guatapé. We had a good traditional Paisa lunch of bandeja Paisa – rice, beans, ground beef, chorizo, blood sausage, fried pork rind, fried plantain, a fried egg, avocado, and arepa – and then gave ourselves a little canoe tour of the reservoir.
After our romantic boat ride, we finally took a little walk around town. Coastal towns are really colorful, with buildings painted in pastel (or sometimes more offensively vibrant) hues, but Medellín is astonishingly subdued with just lots of red brick. Therefore it was kind of surprising that Guatapé is extremely loud with its color! Not just its color – but with its zolacos, or specially-painted tiles. You see, every single building in town has at its base these tiles that depict various aspects of life in Guatapé…and seemingly beyond, considering some of them show African animals. They’re built three-dimensionally and meticulously detailed.
As we left to go back to the plaza to catch our bus back to town, on which I just zonked out with exhaustion, we even saw these motocarros painted to match the town! Seriously, how could you see these photos and not want to go there?