One Day in Guatape

A one day guide to visiting Guatape, Colombia

A Day in Guatape

You could spend months wandering the Antioquian countryside. Winding trails through forested hills lead the way to small pueblos brimming with life and with colour, none more famously so than Guatape. Given its proximity to Medellin, and the access it provides to the famous El Penol, which the locals proclaim to be ‘the best view in the world’. Hyperbolic, maybe.

Mustachioed men with weathered skin hang cigarettes loosely from their lips as they crowd around pool tables in smokey pool halls, while others gather in the square with their wives and children and grandchildren, sipping coffees and watching the world roll by. Despite the growing number of tourists, and of large tour groups being shepherded through town, local charm lingers.

The buildings themselves are charming. Elaborately ordained with zocalos, small reliefs raised from the fronts of the multicoloured houses, some of which seem rather avant garde choices. From paintings chasing chickens along the sides of the streets to large reimaginings of Fernando Botero’s ‘Fat Mona Lisa’, there’s no shortage of curiosities to spot along Guatape’s alleyways.

Only two hours from Medellin on a local bus, Guatape is the ideal day trip for those looking to venture into some of the smaller towns of Antioquia.

So what’s there to do in Guatape?

Climb El Penol

El Penol is that enormous grey rock that protrudes sharply from the rolling green hills at her base. It’s tough to miss when driving into Guatape. Catch a tuk tuk in town, head to the base of the rock, and brace yourself for the 740 steps that are to follow. The journey is steep and the heat can be gruelling, but the views provide a good excuse to make regular stops for ‘photography’, where you can gasp for breath with less judgement from the super fit people running up behind you. The walk isn’t tricky, just tiring, and doesn’t require any kind of specific footwear. I did the whole thing barefoot with no problems.

Moments spent looking over the man-made lakes are what you make the climb for. The area was flooded in the 1970s as part of a project to build a hydroelectric dam. While I can’t speak for its efficiency in producing energy, I can tell you the view is pretty spectacular. Light blue lakes weaving through the quintessentially Antioquian greenery lie still and calm. The occasional kayaker will paddle through, or a motorbike will emerge from one of the holiday homes perched on the islets, the only disturbance to the mellow life of the lakes.

Once at the top, you can purchase some overpriced ice creams or some desperately needed bottles of water, relax and enjoy the view. Aim to take the hike in the cooler hours of the morning or later afternoon, when the sun is lower and many of the large tour groups have made their way back to Medellin.

We also managed to get swept up in a Hare Krisha procession on the way down. Unexpected, but always entertaining.

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Wander colourful calles

The painted streets of Guatape are almost as famous as the views of El Penol. It is often referred to as ‘the most colourful town in Colombia’ by people who haven’t visited very many towns in Colombia. Using different styles, colours and designs for each half of a wall is the signature of the streets of Guatape, and it makes for an eclectic and entertaining spot to wander. With central spots like plaza de zocalos bringing bursts of colour from every corner, and each and every cobbled alleyway being filled with artistic surprises, you won’t tire from exploring. Although, Guatape is a small town. Within an hour or two of wandering slowly, stopping for coffee, browsing souvenirs, you will still probably have seen every street in town.

People watch

Life in Guatape epitomises the best of Colombian languor. The pace of life across the country is relaxed, slow, tranquilo. An ideal afternoon in Guatape is spent sat in the central square, sipping rich, black coffees, sampling street eats, and watching the world go by. From gaggles of old men, laughing with their friends in the same shady spot they’ve been gathering for years, to young children crawling under their mothers legs as they run and play. Life is lived outside across all of Latin America, and this offers a unique opportunity for travellers to observe the open and candid lives of the people that live there.

The panadería on the corner of the square provide a fantastic selection of pastries, filled with meat or cheese or sugar or really anything you ask for. Cinnamon rolls are a distinctive feature of Guatape’s cuisine, with the best of these treats that you’ve ever tasted being available across the town. Grab a selection of your favourite Colombian street snacks, or wait for the lady that makes arepas bursting full of shredded beef on the side of the road, and settle into a shady area of the central square. While Guatape was one of the most tourist-y places I visited in Colombia, there is still plenty of opportunity to mingle with the locals and watch the people of the pueblo.

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Get Sporty

Rent a kayak and venture solo out onto the lakes, embracing that perfect moment of tranquillity moving alone through nature. Sign up for ziplining, and fly over the highlights of the beautiful Antioquian countryside.

Don’t sign up for a paint balling tour in Pablo Escobar’s old holiday home, La Manuela. Well, you can, but it seems pretty off-colour to pretend to shoot each other in the place that many lost their lives, and where plans were set to murder thousands more. Colombian history and tourism is littered with reminders of her dark past, some of which I think are worth learning more about. These gimmicky tours aren’t one of them. They’re also expensive, and unnecessary. Narcotourism is a nuanced issue, but there’s nothing you can learn about Colombian history here. Just go paint balling with normal people in Medellin.

Guatape is definitely one of the easiest and most appealing day trips from Medellin, and a great option for those looking to get out of the city for a day or two. I only spent one day in Guatape, but if I were to return I would prefer to spend more time in the town, and would recommend an overnight venture.

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One day guide to visiting Guatape, Colombia
Check out this guide to a day in Guatape, Colombia
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