Visiting Guatape and its famous Rock, El Penol

Medellin is one of Colombia’s largest cities and seems to be firmly placed on everyone’s itinerary. I can see the appeal of the city but personally, its true charm lies 2 hours away in the small town of Guatape.

Before we get to the exciting bits, we had to get from Cartagena to Medellin, which entailed a 14 hour bus ride. I’ve made peace with the fact long bus rides are part of the South American experience now. I do have some practical advice for you, however:

Foreigners are charged more for many bus trips here but this can be avoided by booking your tickets online through a website called RedBus. It saved us a few bucks.

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One of the critters we stumbled upon in the Botanical Gardens in Medellin.

Having endured the 14 hours and eventually arriving in Medellin, we jumped onto the metro (Medellin is the only Colombian city to have a metro and at COP2,300 for a one way trip – it is really affordable) and made our way to the hostel – easily one of the most overly-regulated one’s I’ve stayed in. Wear this identifying bracelet, pay this deposit, sign this, do that, etc. Having stayed in hostels for virtually a full year, I find this unnecessary.

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Medellin is a sprawling, massive city.

Medellin itself is a gigantic city, but the main points of interest are mostly concentrated around the Museo de Antioquia, a museum that, amongst other things, houses a lot of the work done by the famous Colombian artist/sculptor – Fernando Botero. He’s famous for art that is “proportionately exaggerated”. In other words, his art and sculptures are mostly of obese people.

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Not too sure how to caption this one.

Medellin has a host of cathedrals and squares you can wander around but they’re all in the bustling city and at some point, the traffic and vehicle fumes get too much. Reprieve can be found in the Botanical Gardens, however, which are free to get into.

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I spent 2 days in the city and I think this is the right amount of time. I did notice many backpackers, especially the younger ones, do spend a serious amount of time here but I think this may solely be driven by Medellin’s thriving night life. Being an old man now, 2 days was enough and I was ready to get to Guatape.

Buses to Guatape all leave from the North bus station. Don’t be tempted to buy a ticket from the first person that offers to sell you one – the prices are generally over-inflated so there is room to bargain. We paid COP10,000 each to get there, which is what it should cost. Bargaining is a little harder on the return trip but COP10,000 is still possible and thanks to some clever footwork from Dean and I, we got the return ticket for COP10,000 too!

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A typical street in Guatape.

Guatape is a really chilled town on the banks of what is incorrectly referred to as a reservoir. Yes, the area was historically flooded in order to provide the water for Colombia’s hydroelectric power plant but it really is a million times more beautiful than a reservoir. If anything, it resembles many little towns on a large lake.

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Guatape is small, quaint and really colourful. Most of the streets are cobblestoned and the vibe is super-relaxed. We only spent 1 night there but I could have easily spent more time!

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The major crowd puller in this part is El Penol (also known as the Rock of Guatape). It’s a gigantic rock with a staircase built into a crevasse that takes you to the summit. God knows how they constructed this staircase – it looks totally alien on the face of the rock and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have heebie-jeebies climbing its 740 stairs. It raised questions in my mind about construction methods, safety, earthquakes, etc.

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The never-ending staircase to the summit!

Regardless of the occasional bout of vertigo when looking over the edge, the views from the top are breathtaking. They give you the full perspective of the region that really is something to behold.

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Logistically, you can get to the rock by catching a jeep from Guatape or you can walk the 3km’s there, which we did, and I’d recommend. The walk is easy and the scenery is mostly good when you aren’t walking on the road. To climb the rock will cost you COP18,000 – well worth it.

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Having summited and descended the rock in one piece, we made our way back to Medellin and made preparations to get ourselves to Salento, Colombia’s coffee region, the following day. Until that blog post – trust you’re all well and happy!

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