I arrived in Medellin, Colombia, in the early evening and the next morning got straight on the bus to Guatape for the weekend, so I am going to come back to writing about Medellin once I have told you all about Guatape!
So what is Guatape and why was I going there? Guatape is a small village on a series of lakes (Embalse el Peñol – created partly by the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam) about two hours from Medellin, a favourite of paisas (what you call people from Medellin and the surrounding area) to escape from the city at the weekend. It has the reputation of being very lively at the weekend and very quiet during the week. I was going to experience a bit of both, by spending Saturday and Sunday night there. It is also famous for the Piedra del Peñol, a huge rock that sticks up out of the ground… More on that later!
I woke up early on Saturday morning in my hostel in Medellin and caught an Uber to the bus station (Terminal Norte). I spotted an Information kiosk and they told me to go to ticket offices 9 or 14 to get the bus to Guatape – the bus station has a long line of different numbered ticket offices where you can buy bus tickets for different locations. I bought my ticket and the bus was leaving in half an hour which just gave me enough time to get some cash and some water for the journey before making my way to the gate.
Everything was a bit confusing when the bus turned up as there were far more people waiting than would fit on the bus! People started pressing forward and pushing their tickets into the conductor’s hand – I am pretty good at that pressing forward business so I did the same. Strangely lots of people were turned away but my ticket was fine and I was ushered onto the bus – perhaps they had tickets from a different company or for a different time, I am not sure. As I was travelling by myself I was asked to sit in the front seat, which I did gladly, with a great view and lots of space!
We left on time and the bus chugged its way up the main road leading up the hill out of Medellin. I was amazed at the number of cyclists on nice road bikes and in proper cycling gear – a sign that I had arrived in a slightly richer society than Guatemala. And also amazed because the road out of Medellin is up a very steep hill that takes over 15 minutes just to drive up, let alone cycling! We drove for about an hour along the main road before turning off for another hour along winding, gently sloping hills, until the huge rock of La Piedra came into site on the horizon and I knew we were almost there.
The bus stopped at the rock and I jumped off as I had decided to stay out of town but near the rock – Guatape was about two miles further down the road. The directions to my hotel mentioned walking up from the main road at a petrol station towards the rock for about 300m. I looked in front of me – there was the petrol station. Beside it were some steps leading up the hillside so I figured that was the way I should go. I gradually realised it most definately was not the way I should have gone once I’d gone well over 300m and the steps had petered out into rough, cracked earth, all at a ridiculously steep slope. But it was over 30 degrees in the heat of the day. And I was at around 2000m of altitude. AND I was carrying my big rucksack. I had to stop and take a break a few times but eventually I made it to the top… And then had to walk down the road I should have come up to reach my hotel!
My room wasn’t quite ready yet so I left my bags and headed to the main road to catch a moto-taxi into town. I had been told that the price from La Piedra itself was 10,000 COP (£2) and that it should be around 7,000 during the weekend from the main road, and that I should always ask the amount before getting into the moto-taxi. Every time I did this trip I was quoted 10,000 from the main road, and every time I said “no, that’s too much, it’s 10,000 from the top, it should be 7,000“. And every time there were no complaints and I was only charged 7,000. Just a little tip!
Once in town I spent a lovely few hours walking around and eating lunch. The town is on the shores of the lake with a long promenade running alongside a green slope that leads down to the lake and a number of boats from which you can take trips to explore the water. There is also a zipline which looked incredibly boring. The promenade is lined with stalls selling food, drink, trinkets, toys….I bought a stick of strawberries dipped in chocolate and it was delicious.
Away from the lake-side is the village itself, beautifully brightly coloured with zócalos (tiles) along the walls of all the buildings, telling the story of their inhabitants. It is such a colourful place that it seems almost impossible to be unhappy wandering the narrow cobbled streets – a view confirmed to me when I met an English expat who now runs a small restaurant in Guatape.
I stopped for lunch at La Fogata, drawn by the smells of barbecued meat and the flames emanating from an open grill. I had a mango juice and a typical Paisa dish with trout – the fish that can be found in the lake. Trout, black beans, fried banana, fried egg and an arepa. Very, very filling and also very delicious! In fact, it was the best Colombian dish I have had so far.
I spent the afternoon back at my hotel relaxing, doing some yoga, and reading my book in the hot tub as the sun set…
Yes, this was bliss. Le Refuge had a garden leading down the hillside with stunning views and lots of little places to sit, as well as a bar area where you could barbecue your own food if you wished. On Saturday night, a big party of Colombian motorcyclists arrived so I left them to it and headed into town for dinner and a glass or two of wine while enjoying the atmosphere. I ate at Namaste where I had a wonderful vegetarian crepe and fresh juice – a welcome change from all the unhealthy food I’d been eating.
On Sunday morning I set off for a run to Guatape and back, stretched, showered, and then headed off to get ridiculously sweaty again climbing La Piedra. The rock stands over 7000ft above sea level and at its highest point, it is over 650 feet above the ground. It’s believed to be the result of a volcanic explosion – it certainly looks very incongruous and almost not natural perched up on top of the hill!
I paid the entry fee and began climbing up the steep stone steps to the top – 659 of them winding around one small section of the rock. It was not easy. I really wanted to just keep going, to make it a workout to get to the top in one go. Ideally I had actually wanted to run up but didn’t factor in all the other people who would also be going up! And lots of them were walking up much slower than I wanted to go, stopping in ridiculous places and causing traffic jams! 659 steps later I was at the top of the rock, but there was a small tower that I still had to climb to get to the very highest point – a whole 740 steps up.
It was incredibly busy with other tourists trying to take photos, ideally with nobody else in them so they could pretend they were at the top by themselves (no judgement – me too!) but I took all the pictures I wanted and sat down to enjoy the views and the atmosphere for a long while.
After the rock I went back into Guatape where I found Hecho con Amor, a wonderful little cafe owned by the English expat I mentioned earlier. I had some baba ganoush, some hummus, a slice of the quiche of the day and severance fresh lemonades while reading my book and chatting to the owner. It was wonderful! Then it was back to the hotel for more relaxation before coming back into Guatape for dinner. I ate again at La Fogata but this time had barbecued ribs with a side of black beans. It was incredible. I would really recommend this restaurant in Guatape if you like meat!
The next morning I went for another run, another lunch at Hecho con Amor, and a coffee in a pretty square from the renowned best coffee shop in Guatape – Cafe La Vina. And I can tell you it is just as good as the reviews say, and the owner is just as friendly!
Need to know: buses leave from El Terminal Norte and cost 12,000 pesos (just over £2). If you are planning on coming back to Medellin on a Sunday you are advised to buy your return ticket in advance. I came back on Monday and had no problem just turning up in Guatape and buying a ticket for the next bus. I stayed in Le Refuge which was lovely but…. I had booked a single room with a shared bathroom and just didn’t expect the room to be quite so tiny. There really was nowhere to put my stuff. In addition, one of the reasons I wanted to stay in Le Refuge was for the views but my room had very little view at all so if you care about that you should ask in advance!
To get from the rock to the town (or vice versa) there are loads of little moto-taxis that you can take, or, for 2000 pesos you can jump on one of the buses from Medellin to Guatape (and back). I did this often from town – the buses leave at half past the hour every hour so I would turn up just before half past and stand in the doorway until we reached the turning to La Piedra.
Restaurants: I ate in and really enjoyed three restaurants, La Fogata for meat, Namaste for vegetarian crepes and fresh juice, and Hecho con Amor for a lovely atmosphere and a nice selection of home-made healthy food. All were very cheap (by my standards anyway!).