After five days in Medellín, we left the big city and set out for the Colombian countryside. On our two hour bus ride, we watched lush green hills roll past the windows before arriving in the small town of Guatapé. This pueblo is built along the banks of a reservoir, created when the government flooded the area in the 1970s. Apparently, at the bottom of the lake somewhere lies the original town of Guatapé – a casualty of the nation’s hydroelectric power needs.
We stayed at a hostel outside the town, right beneath the major attraction of the area: La Piedra Del Peñol (the “Rock of Guatapé”). The name is pretty self-explanatory; looming above the lakes and hills is a single rock protruding 200 meters into the sky.
We had planned to stay in Guatapé only one night, but after arriving later than we’d hoped and in no state to climb 700 stairs, we decided to extend our stay. Perhaps the visit to the salsa club the night before had something to do with it. Anyway, we postponed our ascent of the rock, and instead walked to the town.
On the way, we glimpsed flashes of wealth that exceed anything I’ve so far seen in Colombia. Multi-story mansions, speed boats, jetskis; this is where the richest paisas seem to spend their weekends. Even Pablo Escobar bought a few houses on the lake for himself, several family members, and his bodyguards.
The town, however, is much more modest. Guatapé is a relatively small collection of cobbled streets and colourful buildings, all of which are famously adorned with decorative squares called zocalos. They depict aspects of life in the village, and many are specifically related to the buildings they cover (such as fruits outside the grocery store).
Stalls selling obleas (dulce de leche sandwiched between two wafer biscuits), guarapo (sugercane juice with lime), ceviche and all manner of craft items line the waterfront, and across the road lie numerous restaurants. As it was a long weekend, there were quite a lot of local tourists around enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon, but Guatapé still embodies the charm of a quaint village. The church square was, as I’ve noticed is usually the case, the heart of the town; kids played in the fountain, people relaxed at the surrounding cafes, and we had a drink and some ice-cream.
On the second morning, we returned to the town to find some breakfast and wander around a little more. Afterwards, we were treated to a beautiful bird’s eye view of the town when we decided to try the zip line. We were strapped together, hauled up to the elevated platform and then pushed, one at a time, back towards the waterfront, sent zooming across the lake.
After a midday nap, it was time to climb La Piedra. We started our ascent in the late afternoon, first traversing private farms on a footpath that wound its way around the rock to the stairs on the opposite side. Looking up at that staircase zig-zagging its way to the summit was a little daunting, and the climb justified my reluctance. I had to stop every fifty steps or so to force some air into my lungs and marshal my aching limbs…
740 steps to the very top, but the view was certainly worth it. Puddles of turquoise water surrounding islands of emerald green, with the Andes mountains carved into the horizon. A sign at the bottom bragged it’s “the best view in the world”, and although that may be a little generous, it’s one of the best I’ve seen.
We lingered at the summit for a while, savouring the view and sipping micheladas (beer mixed with lime juice and possibly hot sauce, served in a salt-encrusted glass). Then we made our way down the labyrinth of stairs and back through the farmlands to watch the sunset.
Settled on a smaller rock in the shadow of La Piedra, we listened to cicadas chirping and watched the sky change, pinks and purples reflecting in the pools. We only spent two nights in Guatapé, but it was definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. Hopefully we’ll have the chance to return soon.
Early the next morning, we waited on the side of the road for the bus going to Alejandría. We had our doubts about it ever arriving, but we were pleasantly surprised when it appeared around the corner only half an hour after it was expected. The hour-long ride to this pueblo was scenic, but rather hair-raising. The road turned into a dirt track just outside Guatapé, and the bus sputtered and spat gravel as it climbed over mountains and wound its way through valleys.
I’d never heard of Alejandría until three days before. A restaurant owner in Medellín suggested a visit to the town, and gave us tokens for free river tubing at the one and only hostel, so we looked it up and then added it to the itinerary. Unfortunately, due to delays and awkward bus routes, this turned out to be at the expense of Jardín, the other pueblo we’d planned to visit, but we were both glad we went. Alejandría is an agricultural town, encircled by rolling hills and rivers, that consists of maybe a dozen streets surrounding the main square.
The landscape is breathtaking, and there are many hikes to do and waterfalls to see in the area. We were pretty disappointed that we couldn’t do the river tubing, because the hostel owner who organises the activities was away at the time, but we spent a lovely day walking around the town and swimming in the natural pools by the river. We played frisbee with the resident hostel dog, and befriended a sad little specimen from the village. After being coaxed out of the bushes, she followed me around all evening, and then appeared again the next morning as we waited for the bus. It broke my heart to leave her behind.
We shared a bandeja paisa for lunch (a typical dish of the region – beans, rice, meat of some variety, crispy pork rind, plantain, fried egg and avocado) at one of maybe four restaurants in the town. In a display of typical Colombian warmth, we were greeted like old friends by our waitress Gloria when we returned there for dinner. We joined the collective groan that echoed in the town square when Colombia lost to Argentina on penalties in the Copa América, and then we walked back through the quiet streets for an early night. A full day’s travel lay ahead for us, as we had to head back to Medellín before catching a bus to our next destination: Manizales.