Return to the Countryside
After a busy day with our personal tour guide it was time to leave Cata and Thomas in peace and making our way slowly towards the small town of Guatape, our last stop in the Antioquia region before the big leap to the Caribbean.
To get to Guatape we took the metro back to terminal Norte then jumped on a local bus which took 1h30 direct.
Guatape is another favourite hot spot for the locals of Medellin at the weekend. We arrived on the Saturday night, the town square was buzzing, everyone was sitting outside having a drink or eating, loud music thumping, all the shops were open and we just wanted to join in. First things first though and it was time to search for a hotel recommended by our friends. The problem was we had no address, just a name!
A stroke of luck
On this trip so far we’ve had some crazy, miraculous encounters with people along the way, when things were just meant to be. Our first night in Guatape was one of those moments.
Bags on our back, iPhone in our hand finding our position, we tried to find somewhere to stay. Whilst doing so a nice friendly random guy with his groceries in his hand asked if we were OK, Did we need any help etc? We said we were searching for a Hotel San Lucas and guess what?! It was his hotel! He took us directly to the street it was on. Such a crazy world and bumping into the owner of the hotel we were looking for out of one of over 100 hostels in the town was pretty incredible.
As we arrived the hotel was just being closed for the night by the staff, another bit of luck for us! We were welcomed with open arms, offered a choice of rooms and paid only 40000 pesos for a double room. Amazing!
A little colourful gem in the middle of Colombia
The programme for the next day was exploring the the town. We initially came to Guatape with the idea of seeing the big rock which dominates the landscape and has a spectacular panoramic view from the summit overlooking the artificial lake.
But since we had some spare time we decided instead to delay the rock and enjoy the town and see what it had to offer. As usual when we have no expectations of a place we are normally pleasantly surprised. Guatape was no exception. The town and it’s small streets were beautiful. Each house and building were brightly coloured with the most amazing small frescos integrated at the bottom of most walls.
Some streets were cobbled with little traffic running through except for small tuktuks making the town relatively quiet. It is definitely worth spending time exploring the beautiful town, taking your time walking around, talking to the friendly locals, taking lots of pictures and drinking great coffee.
We had the added bonus of sunshine which made the colours stand out even more. We spent the whole day with a huge smile on our faces.
We’d recommend Guatape over Santa Fe any day.
Another benefit of staying in Guatape longer, preferably over night are the crowds disappear – at the weekend that is, during the week it is known to be calmer. With the majority of tourists heading back to Medellin we took advantage of the empty streets and took zillions more photos. We hope you like a few of the many we chose to share with you on the blog.
The only issue we had in Guatape was the food. We aren’t saying it’s not good, the food we ate in the majority of the restaurants and cafes were delicious, but we were served a lot of food with hair in! It’s just a little in-joke but on the first day everything we ordered had 1-2 really long hairs in and at 3 different paces! It was even in our ice cream! Really bizarre. Just a little negative outweighed by all the positives of the town.
We established a plan for the next day on our first afternoon in Guatape. It was simple: time to climb the El Penol de Guatape. Basically it’s a humongous rock with a staircase running up the side. We then planned to catch a bus to the airport in the afternoon, flying to Cartagena in the evening.
Welcome to the rock!
We got up early the next morning not really knowing how long it would take us to get to the Penol and back, plus the hike up and down. We negotiated with a 4×4 jeep taxi to take us to the bottom of the La Piedra Del Penol. From there it was a short walk to the entrance, all uphill. Tuktuks hassle you a little but the price they were charging to take you 500m from the road to the entrance was extortionate. Instead we used our magic legs and arrived to be met by 20 odd shops and restaurants and an enormous car park.
This really was a huge attraction in Colombia! The benefit of getting up early to climb to the top was there was no one except us. Unfortunately to climb up the big rock there was an entrance fee of 30000 pesos. We don’t mind paying entrance fees as long as it goes into maintaining the rock. The money definitely was not used to maintain the rock and the 740 step staircase!
Time to stretch those legs!
So we attacked the ascent slowly. The good thing about the staircase going up was it was much larger, even, and less slippery than the separate steps used to go back down. The Penol obviously gets very busy at times and one staircase was not enough causing a bit of a traffic jam. They then obviously just decided to squeeze in a tiny staircase last minute to walk down no matter how it looked or how safe it was.
We passed no one on the way up except a few shrines, spinal boards and a telephone number if you needed help and some oxygen. Lovely!
20 minutes later we arrived to what we thought was the top. Views were OK but no panoramic. A few restaurants and cafes were opening up very slowly and smell in the area was a little funny. We then found a staircase continuing up a tower.
A bizarre little set up but again aimed at the tourists, there was a tight spiral staircase which ran through two or three little tourist tat shops in the tower and if you continued straight passed them and up you arrived at the summit.
The view was beautiful and you could see for miles. The enormous mass of the artificial lake (which doesn’t look artificial at all) was impressive, even after being told the water level was at a record low due to this years El Nino and as a result the hydroelectric pumps have been unable to work this year, the view was still great and there was still plenty of water.
Definitely worth the entrance fee but with the mass of shops and cafes and the size of the car park, we recommend you get there early!
Unfortunately the beautiful view and the whole ‘WOW’ moment was ruined by the millions of sand flies at the summit. We don’t mind flies but when they bite and really hurt it’s bliming annoying!
This quickly shortened our stay at the top and after some quick photos we started to descend. As we said earlier the exiting staircase definitely felt like it was an after thought to the main staircase. At times I felt a little claustrophobic, the floor was slippery and the smell again a little odd. The steps were uneven, narrow and sometimes pretty steep. What an adventure! We arrived back at the huge parking to see the start of coach loads of tourists arriving. We had timed it perfectly!
Next plan of the day was to get to the airport. We had chosen to do Guatape last because we knew the airport was much closer to the town than Medellin city, even though it was called Medellin International Airport and therefore we didn’t want to go back on ourselves. However, it didn’t seem the simplest of ways.
A little stressful adventure to end the day
We picked up a 4X4 jeep taxi on the side of the road at the bottom of the Penol and headed back to the hotel to get our bags and catch a bus heading back to Medellin. We would then get off half way back to the city. The driver of the bus knew exactly where to drop us off for the airport. Great! But when he dropped us off he then didn’t know where we were to go next so called over an expensive taxi. No way. We knew there was another bus but it was like a spaghetti junction and everyone we asked had no idea! We crossed the main road, bags under our arms and a ‘ghetto’ bus stopped for us.
He could obviously tell we needed the airport. We had been told from the junction you could get a direct bus but with time not on our side we got onto the random bus and just trusted the bus driver to show us how to get here. Our bus was heading into RioNegro, a town we knew was on the way to the airport. Unfortunately it’s a big place with serious traffic.
We were panicking a little by now, mainly because of the unknown and no one telling us anything, We arrived in the chaotic centre of the town with pollution and noise the main characteristics. The driver then pointed to the ‘airport’ bus which was just pulling out and leaving. We got our bags and just ran! The driver of this new bus didn’t see us for about 30 seconds. We continued to run after it until he came to some traffic and we were able to catch up! There must have been an easier way!
Hallelujah we got on and headed to it’s final destination the airport! Expecting the bus driver to put his foot down like all Colombian bus drivers, he decided to be a poodleler! Stopping at any occasion. Arriving just in time and well and truly agitated, we dropped our bags and boarded our plane.
We were then hit by the realisation that we could be sitting on a bus from Medellin to Cartagena for 17 hours travelling along the windiest roads. Instead it was a couple of hours on an air conditioned plane which was surprisingly the much cheaper option and much more comfortable. Our agitation and stress disappeared in an instant and we were back to our happy, adventurous selves. Now time for some sun, sand and humidity in the Caribbean! Yay