Photo by Anamaria Mejia. Within the last 20-25 years, Medellin has remade itself into a premier destination for tourists and backpackers alike. One of the greatest results of this new found safety is that many of the picturesque and historic pueblos around Colombia’s second largest city are now easily accessible and excellent places to visit to escape the hustle and bustle of Medellin. One such pueblo, popular amongst locals and tourists, is Guatape.
Guatape is often written-off as a casual day trip, but the appeal of the natural landscape and colorful town make it a destination worthy of more than 24 hours. The pueblo is, at its core, a lake town. The human-made lake — the result of a dam built in the 70s — now reaches around the hilly shores, creating a number of small coves. The crooked shoreline and twisted islands almost give the area a distinctly unique setting. The town itself, populated by only a few thousand people, draws many strolling tourists who enjoy the cobblestone streets and the bright colors of the home lining the roads. The elaborate paint choices also feature tile paintings of people, places, depictions of ranch life, and even characters like Snoopy on their lower half.
La Piedra del Peñol
Easily the most recognizable attraction in the Guatape area, La Piedra, sometimes referred to as El Peñol, is the town’s skyline, towering at just over 7000 feet. The barren monolith stands in stark contrast with the rest of the terrain, which consists mostly of green easy-rolling hills. For a fee, visitors can climb the 740 steps to the top of the rock for panoramic views of the aquatic basin below. Try to arrive early to avoid the crowds — a key strategy for preparing your pace up the natural stair master; don’t worry there are tiendas at the top, selling beers and snacks.
Relax in the Colorful Squares
Guatape has two central squares. The first being the main square of the town, which is under the watch of the traditional façade of Parroquia Nuestra Senora Del Carmen, Guatape’s Catholic church. The square is bordered with shady benches where many people go into full relaxation mode and spend hours people-watching. The other square is called Plazoleta de Los Zoalos, and is about as close to a sensory overload as possible. The multi-tiered plaza is painted in more colors than most can name and nearly every wall is a different shade. Usually musicians play here for spare change to add to the atmosphere. Shops, where tourists can buy trinkets, quality leather goods, and hand woven bags and hammocks, surround both squares.
Immediately when stepping off the bus in Guatape, guests can tell that the town embraces adventure seekers as a zip-line descends over the main lakeside boulevard. Thrills aren’t hard to find either, as salesmen approach tourists offering their jet skis for rent. Other options include Comfama Parque, an inflatable obstacle course that floats on the lake, and boat rentals. Without a boating license, tourists will be forced to rent a boat with minimal horsepower, but these boats will still allow for appropriate exploration of the numerous islands in the area; faster boats are available as well but only with a local driver. Frowned upon by many locals because of the controversial history, a tour offering the opportunity to go paintballing in the ruins of one of Pablo Escobar’s mansions is another popular attraction near Guatape. However, we recommend that before committing to any Escobar tourism, travelers research the company and ensure the money is not funding any potentially harmful or dangerous groups in Colombia.
This suggestion is just as much for the food as it is for the lake view. Many of the restaurants in Guatape are built vertically with bar-style seating on each floor to overlook the lake. Try one of the many places that sell fish, like trout and tilapia, straight from the stocked lake.
There are many preparation options, some with fresh garlic sauce, or to try something different and Colombian like fresh maracuyá (passion fruit) salsa. Another choice is the “Indian” restaurant called Chillies Don De Sam. While Indian may be the special of the house, the eccentric and personable owner, Sam, is known to challenge customers to ask him to make them anything they want. When you’ve worked up a thirst, head to Namaste Café and Black Hole Café for a cup of authentic Colombian coffee.