Despite the numerous activities available at the Colombian metropolis of Medellin, an important site not to be missed when one is in the Antioquia department (northwest Colombia, lying mostly within the Andes mountains) is Guatape.
Known for its colourful town and spectacular views of the reservoir atop a monolith named La Piedra del Peñol or La Piedra (literally translated as The Stone), the pretty lakeside town of Guatape has some interesting sights and stories to share. Aptly named, the word ‘Guatape’ is associated with stones and water, but more than the captivating sights, one will be intrigued to find out how the village was flooded to become an essential water source and increasingly popular tourist destination.
To visit Guatape, one can easily make your own way BUT if you want to get the most out of your trip and dinero (‘money’ in Spanish language), join one of the popular Guatape day tours from Medellin like I did!
Pros & cons of Guatape day tours
Day tours to Guatape are popular and can be readily booked online, with the hotel that you are staying at or a travel agency in Medellin. The value-for-money Guatape tours usually last for 12 hours and include breakfast and lunch, transportation to various attractions as well as the service of a Spanish-speaking tourist guide. The pros of going on such group tours include economy of scale as well as great opportunities to know other travellers. On the other hand, do note that waiting time during the tour (e.g. pick-up of tour participants at different locations) can be long.
Note of caution: If you happen to be one of the punctual freaks like this author, you should be aware that time can be pretty flexible in Colombia, and ‘tranquilo’ (Spanish expression for staying calm or relaxed) is an important trait to cultivate. That said, it is always good to relax while you are on vacation!
Attractions in Guatape
Visit Iglesia de Piedra - a church designed after La Piedra
Located in the small town of El Peñol, the Iglesia de Piedra or El Templo Roca (known as the Stone Church or Rock Temple) is as its name suggests, bizarrely designed to resemble the region’s famed attraction: La Piedra - the Stone - which is a stone’s throw away.
This is usually the first stop on day tours to Guatape and shows the great significance and sentiments of La Piedra to local inhabitants. Opened in 1982, this Rock Temple is a symbol of community identity, and the entire community contributed to its construction! The interior also retains elements of a rock shelter that command awe upon entrance.
Initially appalled at the short 20 minutes that were given to tour participants to explore, we soon realised that the time given were sufficient to explore the site.
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Explore history at the Theme Park of Old Peñol - replica of a flooded village
Known as Parque Tematico del Viejo Peñol, the Theme Park of Old Peñol is actually pretty new as it was built in recent years in memory of the flooded village of Peñol. However, this is not your usual theme park, as it only features a replica of the main plaza of the village that was flooded in the late 1970s, when a dam was built. Although history is somehow changed by man and an entire town has to be relocated, it is pretty cool to learn the importance of the El Peñol – Guatapé reservoir, which is an essential water source in the region.
Development of the Theme Park of Old Peñol is still in progress but this makes for an enjoyable stopover. Check out the pretty church, souvenir stores and great scenery that overlooks the reservoir! Storyboards featuring old pictures of the main square of Viejo Peñol will tell you stories of the past.
Cruise leisurely on Embalse Peñol – Guatapé
While most visitors tend to miss the ferry ride on Embalse Peñol – Guatapé (a reservoir that spans ~64 sq km/25 sq miles), this is one experience not to be missed! This is included in the itinerary of most Guatape day tours where different tour groups will get to board the same ferry.
Departing from the dock at the base of the Theme Park of Old Peñol, the ferry has three decks that provide much space for dancing, lounging and sightseeing. A bar is available on the first deck to provide snacks and beverages, including alcohol.
As one cruises along the reservoir, it is almost impossible not to be taken in by the beautiful scenery. Isles blessed with greenery and well-maintained fincas (farms) can be spotted from a distance but what is most interesting would probably be the cross that juts out of the water, marking the original location of the principal church of El Peñol and its main plaza that remains underwater.
When the commentary casually points out the vacation house of the late infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, you will notice a hush in the boisterous crowd and everyone will be focusing on the broken mansion that sits at a distance. In case you do not understand Spanish like this author, just pay attention to those around you. This is a highly-visual tour, so even if you do not understand the language, you will have a great time!
Tuck into a typical Paisa region lunch at Guatapé town
The Paisa region refers to the northwest of Colombia, including part of the Andes. Typical food in this area includes the Bandeja Paisa - a high-calorie meal - that contains so many side dishes that the chef should be applauded!
A plate of Bandeja Paisa often includes rice, red beans, salad or french fries, choice of meat, chicharron (deep fried pork belly/fats), plantain, arepa (a type of pancake made of corn flour), avocado, and egg.
Besides the Bandeja Paisa, if you are on a group tour, you will be offered other choices such as the Trucha - a delicious trout fish that tastes like salmon, served with other side dishes.
Discover the characteristic architecture of Guatapé town
More than just pretty colours, the architecture of Guatape town gives food for thought, as it is linked to the history and culture of the area. The characteristic designs of the friezes on the lower part of houses portray the lives of the inhabitants from the good old days. Take delight in discovering a typical farm life or livestock that are essential in the region.
Located right next to the lake/reservoir, Guatape is indeed a picturesque town and makes for a romantic experience, even for solo travellers! Near to the main plaza, there is a particularly colourful street named Calle del Recuerdos that is worth a visit.
One of the cons of joining a group tour is the constraint of time for exploration. However, the town of Guatape is not big so you can get a nice overview in the limited time that you have.
Climb 740 steps to the top of La Piedra del Peñol
The final stop in the Guatape day tour will be at La Piedra del Peñol (The Stone of Guatape), where travellers will be given the option of climbing 740 steps up the phenomenal 200 meters (~650 feet) tall monolith. The 360-degree views over the Guatape reservoir and Antioquian countryside present a spectacular view that is totally worth your effort!
The entrance fee of 15,000 COP (~5.10 USD) is not included in the tour package, but this is probably the main reason for you to visit Guatape. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, the above ‘several thousand of words’ shall speak for themselves.
The alphabets “GI” on the side of La Piedra may invoke curiosity and contains a nice story, which you will discover if you visit this special destination. Sorry, no spoilers!
1-day Guatape tour from Medellin: yay or nay?
Located in eastern Antioquia and bordering the city of Medellin (~1.5 hours from the city by drive) in Colombia, Guatape is a popular weekend destination for the crowds from Medellin, but it is possible to explore key attractions in a day. This author is not a fan of group tours, but I’m giving the 1-day Guatape tour from Medellin two thumbs up!
In case you are wondering, I booked my tour with Maxi Tours via Whatsapp and payment of 69,000 COP (~15 USD) was made when the guide came to pick us up in the morning.
Viajes Maxi Tours
Adress: Carrera 80 # 47 - 64 Local 101, Medellín, Colombia
Contact: +57 (4) 366 82 67 - 411 85 71 / Cel: 311 788 55 99
Website: Viajes Maxi Tours
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