In March of 2013, we returned for the first time to Johanna’s birthplace, Colombia. It had been 20-some years since she left the country, adopted by an American family after being rescued by two nuns in an orphanage. This is our exploration of her homeland and a place to which we are sure to return.
Without a doubt, Bogota is the center of Colombia. In fact, regardless of where you hope to go in Colombia, you might as well plan on spending some time in Bogota, because if you’re coming by air, you’ll be flying into Bogota. That’s just fine really, because Bogota is an experience that you need to have if you’re going to say you’ve been to Colombia.
As I looked back on photos I’d taken while in Bogota, I was struck by what the place meant to me. Like I mentioned in pt. 1 of this series, while we were in Bogota, my wife and I were very cautious, perhaps too much so. This led to us agreeing that Bogota was our least favorite of the cities we visited while in Colombia. It was definitely the grittiest city I’ve been to in a while, but the truth is, travel is what you make of it. Bogota has a special place in my heart.
(word of caution: logistical information coming up…I just can’t help myself. If you get bored, scroll down to the photos and videos!!!)
Getting there and around by plane
There are a number of possibilities for getting to Bogota via US carriers and South American airlines. In our case, we flew United from LAX to Bogota, via Houston and back the same way. Some legs of this flight schedule were carried out by United’s partner Avianca, which is the major Colombian airline. Avianca is also your best bet for getting around Colombia, and because Colombians are not used to purchasing their transportation in advance, you have a great opportunity to save money here. Promotional rates (essentially half-price) are generally available, even in the high season, if you’re willing to book a month or two ahead.
For example, my wife and I flew from Bogota to Santa Marta for $60 each, as opposed to a $40 bus ride. The difference? The bus ride was 20 hours on winding mountain roads and the flight was 1 hour with great service. One thing to keep in mind though, is that Colombian airlines do not run on schedule for domestic flights. We flew three times and all three times our flights were delayed by at least half an hour. Life just flows a bit more freely in Colombia and schedules are not that hard-and-fast (just like traffic signals seem to serve only a suggestive purpose). Keep in mind that half an hour in an air-conditioned terminal is infinitely better than spending the night sleeping on a 30-passenger bus with 40 of your newest Colombian friends!
Getting around Bogota
Honestly, you might want to just forget about the metro system. I fancy myself a logistics whiz and that thing is impossible! The metro system is really just a loose confederation of buses with poorly designed letter and color codes. Even if you do manage to get on one of these buses, you will be in with the riff-raff and may find yourself on the way to a part of town you might not like to visit.
One thing you must know about Bogota is that it is a city of 8,000,000 people and most of them have nothing. Yes, you are safe in the tourist areas (minus the usual pick-pockets and scammers you find in all major cities), but that doesn’t mean you should go wandering into the dark corners of the city with your wealth on display (if you made it to Colombia, you are wealthy by the standards of most Colombians).
Instead, walk around La Candelaria or Zona Rosa/Parque 93, the two main tourist areas. I found the latter to be too trendy and international designer-oriented, but if you’re looking for a wild clubbing experience or some fashion-forward shopping, you might like it (for some great discount clothing, particularly shoes and leather, try skirting the edges of these neighborhoods). Mainly though, La Candelaria and the adjoining neighborhoods are your spot and during the day you can walk them freely.
At night, or when going between tourist zones, have your hotel or whichever restaurant you’re enjoying call you a taxi. This system is meant to prevent you from hailing down a taxi-driver with bad intentions, but in practice I believe businesses that drive customers to certain cab companies receive a commission. I say go ahead and let them have their commission because it makes life easy for you, too. I did pick up a number of cabs in Colombia without major incident. Your choice!
A bike ride in Bogota
I’ll let my writing take a back-seat to the photographs my wife and I took here, but let me just tell you that taking a bike tour is the best way to deepen your experience in Bogota. In our case, we used Bogota Bike Tours, and the English-speaking guide spent nearly five hours giving us insights into the history, culture, and economy of Bogota (click here for bike rental companies in Bogota). For $20 a person, we visited most of the major sites and saw things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise (read: we went to a marketplace outside of the tourist zones and rode through the uncomfortably grim red-light-district). Here are some photo highlights of the ride:
Notes from the bike tour:
- Plaza de Bolivar is the center of the Museum district within La Candelaria
- While not frequent, horse-drawn carts are still seen on major downtown streets in Bogota and other Colombian cities!
- Some of the best street-art is found near Plaza de los Toros
- A common sight throughout Colombia, street-vendors offer up a mix of sodas and sliced fruits, as well as chips and candy
- Bullfighters training in Plaza de los Toros. Real bullfighting is currently against the law in Bogota, but legal most everywhere else in Colombia
- There is a flower market within the larger marketplace in Bogota
- This marketplace in Bogota was a maze of product and true awakening for the senses
Eating in Bogota
Colombian food is a meat-centric tradition that also includes a healthy helping of egg-infused dishes, soups, and fried plantains. Johanna often had something not unlike juevos rancheros and I took to the chicken and asada dishes and plantain with gusto.
One can sample these foods at restaurants, tiny cafes, or from street vendors and we tried a little of everything. I’m not going to lie to you, I think I loved the street food more than anything I had in a restaurant (not that I had anything I didn’t like from a restaurant either!).
The name of my absolute favorite is entirely unpronounceable, but it was essentially meat (occasionally with some vegetables) wrapped in a pastry crust. Essentially, it was an empenada, but they didn’t call it that. The street food was also extremely cheap, and while restaurants and smaller cafes weren’t expensive, when your favorite meal costs less than two dollars, you tend to eat a lot of it.
Bogota Religious Experiences
There were two of what I’d call “religious experiences” for Johanna and I during our time in Bogota. They have continued to grow in force and meaning as time has passed since our visit, and they also tell much of the story of what it is to be Colombian.
Upon arriving in Bogota, our first order of business was to visit an orphanage. This particular orphanage a special place in our hearts because it is where Johanna spent most of the first two years of her life. You see, my wife was (and is still in her heart) Colombian and her story is nothing short of a miracle.
As a result of this visit, we got a very personal look into the duality of Colombian life. To be Colombian means to have been exposed to extreme poverty and need, but my wife’s story is also clear evidence that there is a tremendous amount of passion and love in the people of Colombia. Without the care of two wonderful nuns at this orphanage, Johanna would not have survived her first year of life.
Getting to visit with one of the two nuns and her colleagues, as well as the children that this orphanage continues to serve was an experience we’ll never forget. It’s easy enough to visit a new place and stay entirely outside of the every-day life of the people who live there, but if you have the opportunity to do so, find a locals activity and engage whole-heartedly. It will bring depth to your experience of that place.
In a similar vein of joining the locals, Johanna and I took the opportunity of Good Friday to climb over two miles and 3,000 feet to Monserrate Chapel with more than 40,000 Colombians. Yes, there were that many, and no, you shouldn’t do it if you’re not okay spending two hours climbing stairs shoulder-to-shoulder with people of all walks of life.
Some of these people were barefoot, some wearing their Sunday-best (it was 85 degrees and humid). The young and old, healthy and sick, all gathered together to make the pilgrimage to the top. I also read that those with serious afflictions have been known to start before sunrise and climb the stone stairs on hands-and-knees in the belief that they will be healed. In short, it was a powerful experience of human belief.
Santa Marta, Colombia
Santa Marta Overview
The city of Santa Marta and its surrounding towns are described in numerous places as the go-to spot for Colombian tourists looking to avoid the foreigner stampede that is currently hitting Cartagena de los Indias (particularly after the recent secret service/prostitute scandal).
Like most Colombian cities, Santa Marta looks a bit rough around the edges. New construction and crumbling buildings are often close neighbors, but things like these street art murals make the eye wander past the decay.
While Santa Marta does play second fiddle to Cartagena as the beach-goers tourism capital of Colombia, it does hold the title of oldest city in Colombia. Founded in the early 1500’s by conquistadors, Santa Marta has been a popular port-of-call ever since. More recently, Santa Marta has become known as a great base-camp for exploring the much-heralded Parque Tayrona National Park and the Macchu Pichu-esque multi-day trek to the ancient Cuidad Perdido.
Santa Marta also features plenty of scuba and snorkeling opportunities, as well as guided mountain-bike and adventure tours into the surrounding mountains. If all that seems like just a bit much for a beach vacation, one can easily find accommodations at a steal in the heart of town and simply walk the main strip of restaurants and shops, walk to the nearby beach (or bus to one of several other nearby beach towns), and just bask in the warm tropical weather.
From November to early April Santa Marta, like it’s neighbor Cartagena, provides a humid, but fairly storm-free wintering spot that averages about 85-90 degrees, all thanks to its proximity to the equator. Leave your layers at home!
Getting to Santa Marta
There are no direct flights to Santa Marta from outside the country (and very few international flights anywhere in Colombia that don’t pass through Bogota), so it’s a pretty fair to say that you might be coming from Bogota. This leaves you with only two real options for getting to Santa Marta: bus or airplane.
As I mentioned in an earlier Colombia field report, Avianca is a great airline and half-price flights are readily available to those willing to book three to four months in advance (and sometimes closer to departure). Using this option, one can fly from Bogota in about an hour for around 130,000 COP (Colombian Pesos), or about $70 US.
Alternatively, bus fairs can be found for $40-50, but expect the trip to be a hair-raising, windy path in excess of 19 hours in length. For us, the choice was clear, but I suppose if you’re on a shoe-string budget, didn’t book flights in advance, and also want to see a whole lot of countryside, the buses could work out. My wife’s cousin took the bus and was happy to have met new friends through the shared experience. To each his own!
If already on the coast, bus or rental car will be the best option to reach Santa Marta. The journey will take approximately 4 hours from Cartagena de los Indias or 2 hours from Barranquilla, which sits between the two major port towns.
Ten Things to do While in Santa Marta
While in Santa Marta, there are a few things to do that I feel are no-brainers:
- Walk to the beach
- Have an evening drink at a patio bar near Parque de los Novios and watch the people pass by
- Buy something fresh on the street corner
- Take a day-trip or more to Tayrona National Park
- Eat at one of the stylish restaurants on Carrera 3 (expect to pay near-US prices)
- Avoid pizza-in-a-cone at all costs (being a serious pizza-lover, I had to try this…and now you never have to)
- Take a shot with the locals at a “shots-only bar” before hitting the clubs
- Visit Catedral de Santa Marta because it’s beautiful…and because it’s next to all the ATM’s
- Look for bargains in a local market (try the tent marketplace at the edge of the beach, Carrera 5 near Aluna Hotel, or the official mercado, and don’t forget to haggle!)
- Drink lots of local beer, because it’s hot in Santa Marta and Aguila is the best refreshment
Where to Stay in Santa Marta
There are a number of options for accommodations in the Santa Marta area, many of which will provide a great value for those on the Dollar, Pound, or Euro. There are numerous rentals and hotel options in high-rises on the south end of the area in Rodadero. In Taganga to the immediate north, backpackers will find truly cheap accommodations and like-minded wanderers. However, for my wife and I, something near the heart of Santa Marta proper is what we required and we found it in Aluna Hotel.
Aluna Hotel is the product of an Irish expat who has created a boutique hotel with small, but functional rooms that mostly overlook the courtyard’s lush tropical setting. There is a roof-top perch from which to take in the sunsets and view the surrounding city, foothills, and even the high mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park. An inexpensive breakfast is also on offer for about 7,000 pesos ($3.50).
From Aluna’s gates one can walk into the main part of town for a meal or to the beach within 5 minutes and the surrounding area is quite safe. The rate for a private room and bath, with air conditioning is 90,000 pesos ($47) and their are several hostel-style dorm options that offer an even better value. Just make sure you have access to cash, as they do not accept credit cards, something we found out only upon checking out!
Santa Marta Real Estate
Since I’ve got an interest in vacation real estate (and by now you might have reason enough to extend your stay in Santa Marta), I was intrigued by a property I saw in the center district of Santa Marta (Barrio Centro). It’s literally located on the trendiest square in town (Parque de los Novios), near most of the list you just read of things to do in Santa Marta. So how far does your dollar stretch in Colombian beachside real estate? This beautiful two-bedroom with views and location was going for less than $200,000 US. Now try to find that in Miami or Los Angeles.
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Park (Parque Tayrona) is, without a doubt, a gem of this world. While Tayrona is becoming a top destination for tourists who travel to Colombia, that population is still relatively small and consequently, the experience of hiking through the park remains uncommercialized and nearly pristine.
While this section will focus on the trip from the main trail to/along the coastal part of Parque Tayrona, those seeking adventure into the heart of the jungle might want to look into the 4/5-day trek to the UNESCO site at Ciudad Perdida. Also, while we accomplished this visit to Tayrona in one day, camping or renting hammocks at designated areas within the park is also popular and might allow one to explore at a more casual pace than we could afford.
Regardless of what you do or for how long you do it, Parque Tayrona is an amazing place and definitely worth a visit.
Getting to Tayrona National Park from Santa Marta
From Santa Marta, the most efficient way to reach the park entrance is to find the buses that depart from El Mercado de Santa Marta near calle 11/carrera 11 (how’s that for an easy address!). Find 11/11 and the bus-drivers will help you get on one of the Tayrona-bound buses that leave about every 30 minutes. The journey takes about an hour and expect to pay between 6,000-8,000 COP.
Heading to Tayrona involves a stark scenery change from city to rural life. Along the road to the park, the buses pass small towns and little road-side outposts, such as the one in the photo below.
Upon arriving at the entrance of the park, you’ll pay the entrance fee of 40,000 COP (less if you’re Colombian or can prove you’re a student under 25), guards will check bags for prohibited items, and then you can hop in a 2,000 COP shuttle to the trailhead four kilometers up the road.
Hiking the Parque Tayrona Jungle Trail to the Coast
The first section of trail on the route to Tayrona’s beaches is covered by a wooden-plank boardwalk, presumably because this area is collects water during the rainy season. Having gone at the end of the dry season (late March), we had no such water to deal with, but the boardwalk was still a nice way to pass through the jungle, meandering up and down the hillsides.
On the way to the coast, we saw some interesting birds, lizards, and a few considerable lines of ants that stretched deep into the forest. I had read that the ants were a common sighting, which is great because they are truly incredible. On the return hike we were also treated to a fleeting glimpse of a Capybara, the largest rodent in the world, which looks like a guinea pig on steroids.
Coastal Beaches of Tayrona National Park
Upon initially emerging from the jungle, one can look in 360 degrees and find the dense greenery of the Parque Tayrona forest, the sweeping sands and rock outcroppings of Arrecifes Beach, and the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
After what seemed like at least an hour, we reached Arrecifes Beach, the first of several stretching out along the trail. Arrecifes is beautiful, particularly when first spotting it from the hillside above, but the waters are treacherous and posted signs warn of swimmers lost at sea to rough currents. Better to move along down the line in search of a more hospitable piece of paradise.
The next portion of the trail leads to the Arrecifes Camp and then La Piscina Beach, which as named, is a much more swimmer-friendly destination. Along this section is also the first area where food and drink can be purchased. To get to La Piscina in Tayrona, you’ll pass through mangroves with skiddish blue crabs (they refuse to be photographed!), cross a few streams (where I decided to go shoe-less), and pass through the Arrecifes Camp, where pack-animals offer another option for returning to the main road that leads back to Santa Marta and those without the legs to journey farther in a single day might choose to spend the night.
Smelling food between Arrecifes Camp and La Piscina is great moment, because at that point you have been hiking for at least two hours and a cooked meal at the make-shift restaurant is just what’s needed to continue the journey. Do note, however, that you will pay US prices for this meal, as they have cornered the market, and don’t expect them to have everything that’s on the menu (being remote, they apparently run out of things pretty regularly). A cheaper alternative is a small food stand opposite the restaurant, but we were just too hungry!
Moving on from lunch, we hit the truly spectacular bits of coastline that are the subject of most photos of Parque Tayrona. We didn’t have time in our day-trip to reach Cabo San Juan, the most reputable of the Tayrona beaches, but instead settled on La Piscina as our destination for the day.
La Piscina has a few primitive structures and one drink and snack-vendor that I can recall, but that’s not why people come to La Piscina. The locals were hanging out with a beer-chest and some plastic chairs, playing Colombian music, while a few others were snorkeling in the water. After three hours of trekking in the humid 85-degree weather, reaching this beach and jumping in the water was a worthy payoff!
Leaving Parque Tayrona
Leaving Parque Tayrona is as simple as retracing your steps to the point where the shuttle from the park entrance picked you up. In our case, since it was late in the day (the last shuttle leaves around 5pm, but check when you get there), we had the option to go with the shuttle all the way home to Santa Marta or to shuttle to the main road and meet the return bus there. Since the price was essentially the same, we chose to stay on the shuttle, which seemed like a sure thing.
We did have a bit of a complication, though, when our driver stopped to check something in front of the vehicle and then told us something we didn’t understand. When we reached the outskirts of Santa Marta in darkness, the driver turned to us and tried to explain something, but he was using too many unfamiliar words.
After help from another passenger, we figured out that one of the headlights was out and the driver couldn’t go into Santa Marta for fear of being ticketed. He was offering to help us hail a cab on the side of the highway to get us the rest of the way. Sure enough, he hailed a cab and gave the guy part of our fare to off-set the cost and we made it back to the city center without further incident.
The lesson of the story is: when in Colombia, transportation is not as reliable as in other places, but if you are flexible, the Colombian people will find a way to get you where you need to go.
What is perhaps most interesting about Medellin is that just 20 years ago it was widely considered the drug capital of the world. Thanks to a number of public works projects and the consensus desire among its citizens to be known for something other than drugs, Medellin has been re-branded as “the city of the eternal spring,” a title which certainly does fit its characteristics.
Weather Conditions in Medellin
Although some months carry a greater likelihood of rain, Medellin has an extremely tight range of temperature, so the conditions remain nearly constant year-round. Here is the weather data courtesy of Weatherspark.com:
While one could probably find gems in many barrios of Medellin, for the sake of the average travel, who has limited time, here are a few of the important ones (more detailed info available in the next post):
La Candelaria – Perhaps the tourist center of Medellin, La Candelaria is home to Plaza Botero, Parque de la Luz, and a number of streets and buildings filled with clothing and trinket shops.
Universidad – While I was unable to find a map that had categorized this neighborhood as Universidad, I heard it referred to that way and it’s understandable given that it’s metro station goes by the same name and the area is home to Universidad de Antioquia. This area is also known for the Medellin Botanical Garden and the Exploration Park (science exhibits), is easily reached by metro and provides a great bit of entertainment for families with children or couples looking for a relaxing park setting.
Prado – This residential neighborhood contains many of the older homes of wealthy citizens, two and three-story ornate mansions with gardens and gates.
El Poblado – Considered the most prestigious residential neighborhood in Medellin, El Poblado is also home to Parque Lleras, a park area teaming with restaurants, bars, and clubs. El Poblado also presents a great opportunity to live like an upper-class Colombian while in Medellin at a price you won’t believe (more below in “Where to Stay in Medellin”).
Hillside Barrios – Generally speaking, the further up the surrounding hillsides you go, the less like you are to feel comfortable as a tourist. While the hillsides are beautiful, simply by lack of proximity to good city jobs, these barrios have a more rough-and-tumble reputation. However, the city of Medellin is making significant efforts to bring opportunity to these areas through cable-cars that tie into the metro system and a strategically placed library (Biblioteca Parque Espana) and both are worth seeing.
Where to Stay in Medellin
You could stay in a hotel in Medellin and be very comfortable for less than $100 a night, but thanks to airbnb.com, you can do so much better. For whatever reason, Colombia is airbnb.com-crazy and there are some tremendous values to be found, both for groups and individuals. For example, here are some photos from our stay in the penthouse suite of a high-rise condo building in the trendy El Poblado neighborhood. The price came to $75 a night for the large studio with full kitchen, two bathrooms, washer/dryer, and doorman service…oh, and the views were okay.
If you do decide to use Airbnb, you’ll also be able to take advantage of local grocery stores, which carry great products at very reasonable prices. One example is Carulla, which happened to be within walking distance of our rental.
Getting around Medellin
As I mentioned earlier, getting around Medellin got a lot easier when the city invested heavily in its transportation system infrastructure, the center of which is a modern, sophisticated light-rail system. You can get to most any neighborhood you would want to visit with a metro ride and a bit of walking, or just take advantage of the plentiful and inexpensive yellow taxis after exiting the metro system. Do be aware that while walking in some neighborhoods, such as El Poblado, you will do some significant uphill (it is a city surrounded by hillsides after all).
Medellin serves as a good jumping off point for a number of other Colombian places of interest, such as the architecturally significant colonial town of Santa Fe and the little city of Jardin, with its iconic town square. It’s even possible to head into the Zona Cafeteria (a countryside coffee plantation mecca) for a quick overnight or longer with a four to five hour bus ride each way.
While in Medellin, my wife and I chose, instead, to visit La Piedra (The Rock) and the charming and colorful town of Guatape. This area is truly stunning, the product of an immense hydro-electric project that powers 30% of Colombia, and La Piedra is a true oddity.
Traveling to Medellin
Getting to and from Medellin, like most other major cities in Colombia, is about deciding whether to fly or take a bus, and since we booked our domestic flights a few months in advance, the price difference was negligible, making flying the way to go. Nearly all international routes to Medellin lead through Bogota, so be sure that if you’ve booked an Avianca domestic flight to Bogota and plan to connect to another airline for an international flight that you take the shuttle between the two Bogota airports.
I had read that Avianca had its own airport in Bogota and that their would be complications getting to the main Bogota airport for our flight, but in truth, it was fairly simple getting on the shuttle. It still makes sense to leave plenty of time with Avianca domestic flights, as they are almost always late in departing.
One great thing about flying out of Medellin is that, while you will have to catch a longish bus-ride to the airport (which is up above the valley where the city of Medellin is located), the airport itself is a very nice facility, modern and stylish with good food options to pass the time. Here’s a video from the airport food court:
There are lots of things to do and see in Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, and despite having limited time in the city (and the temptation to hang back in our swanky El Poblado rental), we managed to visit a few truly noteworthy spots.
La Candelaria District – The Center of Medellin
Like in many Colombian cities, the La Candelaria neighborhood is the tourist center of Medellin. Almost immediately upon leaving the Parque Berrio metro station, Plaza Botero greets visitors with its rotund sculptures. Fernando Botero’s easily recognizable artwork, done on canvas and other mediums as well as the bronze seen in the plaza, is among the most well-known in Colombian history. The bronze statues in this area make a great photo-op, and while we were in the area, we noticed a Medellin television station taking advantage of the interesting backdrop as well.
In the La Candelaria district of Medellin you can buy souvenirs from myriad street-side vendors selling food, clothing, crafts, and just about anything else you can imagine. Palacio Nacional is a converted government building that now houses 200 footwear and clothing stores packed tightly into former office spaces and the nearby El Hueco area contains some of the best bargains in the city.
Walk a few blocks to the west of the Palacio Nacional and you’ll find Plaza Cisneros, an open square with giant spires that are a stand of concrete trees in daytime, but provide a magically luminated scene at night. In the interest of making a full circle of the area, you could then head north a few blocks to pick up Calle 51, which is partially closed to vehicle traffic and features more shopping options on your way back to Parque Berrio Metro.
El Jardin Botanico – A Garden Paradise in Medellin
The Medellin Botanical Gardens were a real highlight of our time in Medellin. Though the city is surrounded by lush, green hillsides, it was nice to find a 40 acre patch of nature right in the heart of the city. The gardens boast over 1000 species of plant and tree and are a great place to get out of the hustle-and-bustle of the city and relax around locals looking to do the same. Also, be sure to bring a large-capacity memory card for your camera – there are many photo opportunities throughout.
Parque Lleras for Trendy Dining and Nightlife
We had been warned by a friend living in Medellin that Parque Lleras (in the El Poblado neighborhood) would not be authentic Colombia, but we went anyway because it was easy walking distance from our vacation rental. While it’s true that the establishments in Parque Lleras looked a bit more flashy than most we encountered in other parts of Colombia, we very much enjoyed the people-watching and had a few tasty dinners.
In particular, we had a meal (which happened also to be at a promotional price) at Al Rojo while being entertained by an excellent jazz band in the open-air patio dining area. The wine was also well-priced and my wife and I took advantage, which I blame for our lack of photos from that night but have a look at the video below to get a sense of the place.
Without doubt though, the best restaurant we visited while in Medellin was located to the edge of the Parque Lleras area, right in the middle of a pleasant stream-side greenbelt called Parque Lineal. Cafe Zorba was very popular, featuring relaxed dining inside or on the back patios and delicious wood-fired pizzas.
Guatape – Venturing out into the Countryside
Just a two-hour bus ride from the bustle of Medellin lies an area of lakes and rolling green pastoral hills called Guatape. The old town of Guatape was submerged by the effects of a large hydro-electric dam project, which supplies 30% of Colombia’s electricity, but you’ll find the “new” town has quite a bit of character itself.
Chief among attractions in the area surrounding Guatape is La Piedra or “the rock,” a monolithic wall of stone that seemingly appears from nowhere. Dare to climb its more than 600 stairs and you will be richly rewarded by a panoramic view the likes of which will leave you awestruck.
Getting to Guatape and La Piedra
It’s likely that if you’re traveling to Guatape you’ll be doing so via nearby Medellin. The bus, which leaves from Terminal del Norte (Caribe Metro Station), takes about two hours to reach Guatape and passes through lush, green countryside and a variety of fincas along the way. Two bus companies provide service to the area so be sure not to take the first offer (I managed to get the price down from 14,000 COP to 11,000 by playing the two against eachother). Buses begin running from Medellin around 6am and the last bus leaves Guatape around 6:30pm, depending on the day of the week.
The Climb to the top of La Piedra
The bus-route will drop passengers off at the bottom of a hill leading to the base of La Piedra, where you can either take the 20-minute walk or hire a moto-taxi to ferry you up. These taxis are a great way to move in the area, but after the two-hour bus trip we decided to walk and were rewarded with some interesting photo-ops.
Upon reaching the base of La Piedra you must pay a fee to begin the strenuous climb to the top, but as with most things in Colombia, the cost is minor (though be prepared to shell out outrageously for ice cream or drinks at the top!). As you begin to climb, it becomes evident that breaks will be necessary, as the steep staircases wind their way up the sheer face of the rock. There is plenty to look at even near the bottom, with El Penol lake stretching out as far as the eye can see, not to mention the undeniable theorizing of what black-magic engineering is involved in keeping the route to the top stable and safe.
Reaching the top of La Piedra is a rewarding experience, as music blairs from a boom-box and a few vendors wait to offer you snacks for which you will happily pay three-times fair value. There are places to sit on the flatter top portion of the rock, but the best views are achieved by climbing through the gift-shop building to it’s roof. From the top of the building 360 degree views of the surrounding area will astound and give the sensation of being at the top of the world.
Guatape – A Colorful Place in the Colombian Countryside
We marveled at the colorful moto-taxi we hired to take us from the base of La Piedra to the town of Guatape (9,000 COP), but as we neared the town we realized the moto-taxis were just the beginning. Every building in the heart of the little lakeside town had a vibrant blend of colors forming designs and depictions of Colombian life. The town is a truly charming place and worth walking around just to admire the building exteriors. At the center of Guatape sits a white-washed church that stands over a square with restaurants, shops, a few hotels, a chocolate shop, and an internet cafe.
The People of Guatape
While I take the majority of photos that wind up on IndependentTravelPlanning.com, my wife has a particular interest in photographing people going about daily life, and Guatape was the perfect place for her to take these photos. In general, but particularly in the countryside, we found older Colombian men to be very sharply dressed. As with the man below, they wore pants, button-down shirts with sweaters, and many wore a hat of one sort or another. While we were in the main square, we also took note of a class of young children out for a wander through the streets wearing very easy-to-spot fluorescent outfits that made for what looked like easy sheperding for the teachers.
A Meal on the Waterfront
While waiting for the next bus by the waterfront, there are a few restaurants offering grilled meats and other tasty plates to visitors. On the recommendation of a friend living in Colombia, I tried Apostol beer, in particular, a Belgian-style abbey beer brewed in Colombia and it was delicious. For lunch, we watched as my filet-mignon (about $8!) cooked on the grill at the front steps of the restaurant and my wife ordered Ajiaco, a traditional Colombian soup with meat, corn, avocado and other bits of produce. Both meal and drink were exceedingly good and though we hadn’t even taken a boat tour of El Penol Lake (one of the main attractions of Guatape) we headed back to Medellin entirely content.