Updated: July 2019
Not far from Medellín lies a charming little town called Guatapé, also known as Colombia’s most colourful town. A sight to behold, Guatapé makes for a gorgeous day trip from Medellín that includes leisurely strolls around town as well as some exercise, as you hike up to the top of the giant El Peñol boulder for magnificent views over a massive, serpentine lake. This mini travel guide provides practicalities and tips to help you prepare for your visit to Guatapé from Medellín, along with a list of our favourite things to do in town, just to guide you a bit through the region and its history. Feel free to reach out to us, should you need more information!
We spent a full day in Guatapé and although it was enough to see it all, we sort of regretted not being able to spend a night. For those like us who love small charming towns, this could be a great option! Just try to avoid weekends or public holidays, as the large crowds might spoil Guatapé’s picturesque charm.
A little introduction to Guatapé, Pueblo de Zócalos
Five centuries ago, before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, the land that would become the Antioquia Department was inhabited by indigenous communities. Rumor has it that the colourful town of Guatapé as we know it today, was named after a fearless cacique (indigenous chief) of the same name, as a tribute to the region’s ancestors. This was probably the first attempt of Guatapé to preserve and share its history, as are the beautiful zócalos that nowadays adorn every house in town.
Now, before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: the term zócalo refers to a main square in Mexico but for the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, zócalo means a sort of wainscot – an ornamental strap in the lower half of a wall. In Guatapé, zócalos are beautiful 3D depictions of village life that you can find on nearly all facades, including the church’s; they are the town’s most iconic feature and the villager’s main point of pride. So much so, that the town is now officially known as ‘Guatapé Pueblo de Zócalos’ and every week it receives hundreds of visitors, curious about its colourful zócalo-adorned streets.
But it isn’t only zócalos that make this a special destination. Located some 10 minutes away from town there’s a 285-metre tall monolith known as La Piedra del Peñol, which you can climb (over 600 steps) for spectacular views over one of Colombia’s largest lakes. And if that’s still not enough to persuade you to visit, you should also know that kayaks and scenic boats are available for excursions around the lake. There’s even a canopy zipline over the lake, for the adventurous ones.
So, have we convinced you yet? If so, here’s what you simply can’t miss during your visit to Guatapé.
Things to do in Guatapé
Admire the beautiful zócalos in town
The most striking thing about Guatapé are those colourful zócalos adorning every house in town. They represent various town-life scenes and many of them are a graphic depiction of the occupations, hobbies, or anecdotes of the families living in town. Beyond that, they’re now an important source of income to villagers, as their colourful charm attracts hundreds of tourists every week.
Don Héctor, a Guatapeño running Café Tertulia in the town’s main square, told us that the very first motive was the sheep. It all started when one couple in town decided to decorate the internal walls of their patio with the Lamb of God (a Christian symbol referring to Jesus, who sacrificed himself to clean the world’s sins). They were in charge of the church decorations and wanted to take home some elements from the altar. “The lamb is looking back, because one must never disregard the past when moving onto the future”, don Héctor explained. This first zócalo was made of cement, as it is resistant to the damaging effects of humidity and small animals like chickens (and children), who could scratch the lower parts of the walls.
In this very religious town – like mostly every other in Colombia (dare we say South America?) – the neighbours soon got curious and started requesting replicas of the 3D-sheep decorations for the exterior of their houses. Don Chepe Parra, the first zócalo maker, got then creative and started making zócalos with geometric motifs; others soon took over and started representing important events in town or their lives. Next thing they knew, a tradition was born: an open history book along the streets of Guatapé; a peek into each family’s soul for us to admire and enjoy.
Nowadays you can find all sorts of designs in town. From the traditional Lamb of God to airplanes, you can basically find zócalos with every imaginable motif. Take your time to discover them and try to read their meanings. And ask around too, as the locals are proud of their zócalos and will be happy to tell you the stories behind them. There are as many zócalo motifs as there are houses, so it will take time to walk this small town but it will be totally worth it!
Climb El Peñol boulder
Rising proudly towards the sky, La Piedra del Peñol (or simply La Piedra) is the only survivor from the millenary erosion that has taken place in the area. As it is the only giant boulder in an otherwise flat land, La Piedra is hard to miss. It has become a major tourist attraction due to the beautiful lake views from the top.
You can climb this geological wonder thanks to a staircase built on one side of the monolith (and that from afar looks like a badly-stitched scar). It might sound like a lot to climb over 600 steps, but the views over the Embalse Peñol-Guatapé are simply spectacular. And it’s really not hard to climb if you do it at a reasonable pace; take your time and stop at different points to admire the views and catch your breath. We saw many people rushing upstairs, only to meet them a few steps later half dying on the ground. Slow and steady, always wins the race!
Now, because we are slightly nerdy and like to know something about the places we visit, here’s what we think you should know: that beautiful water reservoir that you’ll be seeing from above, is known as Antioquia’s internal sea and it is a hydroelectric dam that covers 2,200 hectares and provides 30% of Colombia’s electricity. It’s not a natural lake, though (not that this makes it less impressive).
It was built in the 1970s during Colombia’s industrialization boom and it took the partial or total demolition of two towns (Guatapé and El Peñol) and the flooding of previously dry lands that were used for agriculture and cattle raising. The towns were relocated against the villagers’ will, but the life of all those people changed forever; just imagine watching everything you and your ancestors have built from scratch, being flooded away in the blink of an eye. Imagine starting all over again in a land where suddenly cattle were replaced by fish.
Walk along Calle del Recuerdo: the most historical street in Guatapé
Today Guatapé might be the most colourful town in Colombia, but back in the 70s when the dam project was executed, it was all looking pretty grey. Saddened by the destruction of their town and facing an uncertain future, many town inhabitants wanted to leave the area. The colourful zócalos that don Chepe Parra had designed were disappearing under the waters, along with people’s hopes.
It was then that a new movement started. With the slogan of “Guatapé is not dead”, some inhabitants started a process of cultural recovery aiming to re-motivate the town and create a sense of community needed in those times of adversity. They found a street that was suitable to start the recovery process and slowly recruited manpower to detach the remaining old zócalos from flooded areas and bring them back to what they named Calle del Recuerdo (Remembrance Street). It’s the only street nowadays displaying the original zócalos of don Chepe Parra’s time.
This reconstruction idea soon took off and enthusiasm slowly returned to Guatapé. New projects took form, aiming to turn Guatapé into the colourful Pueblo de Zócalos that we know today. Zócalos became an important symbol of the town’s identity and resilience, as well as a new source of income for the town, which now relies on tourism as a main economic activity.
Walking down Calle del Recuerdo is a must for all Guatapé visitors, a reminder that adversity can be (and usually is) the driving force for progress. Posters have been placed on the street to inform visitors of the history of Guatapé and its zócalo tradition, so you can read all about the zócalo making process, the main components of a zócalo, and the history behind this beautiful tradition. We really recommend this nostalgic stroll back in time; Calle del recuerdo is definitely one of the nicest streets in town.
Go people watching at the main square or at the Plaza de los Zócalos
Tired from all the zócalo watching? Exhausted from climbing La Piedra? There’s no better cure than a nice cup of Colombian coffee at the town’s main square. There are plenty of little cafés offering tinto (black coffee) for 1,000 COP (or Colombian pesos; US$0.30); there you can sit and relax, while watching the world go by. Starting from 2 to 3 pm, locals start arriving to have their coffee with friends and catch up on daily town events, so it never gets boring over there. And the view of the church is pretty too.
Now, there’s a good place for cinnamon rolls and coffee at Plaza de los Zócalos – a colourful square recently built to cater to the increasing influx of tourists. This isn’t a particularly charming spot (the place is packed with tourists taking pictures and buying souvenirs), but you should still see it and decide if it’s to your liking or not. It wasn’t for us, but the cinnamon rolls made it worth the visit, which is not a long way anyway; Guatapé is a very small town.
Practicalities and Tips
How to get to Guatapé from Medellín
From Medellín, buses to Guatapé depart from Terminal del Norte (metro line A, stop Caribe). There are two bus companies going there:
- Sotrapeñol (counter number 9) Tel (4) 230 8814
- Sotrasanvicente (counter number 14) Tel (4) 230 6637
We took one on the way there and the other one on the way back. They’re both good and prices are standard.
Departure times to and from Guatapé: every 20 to 30 minutes, starting at 6 am and ending around 6 pm.
Price per way: 14,000 COP ($4.30) per person (can go down to 12,000 COP ($3.70) on weekdays).
Duration: 2 hours to reach La Piedra and another 10 minutes to reach Guatapé. Buses will stop at both locations and you can get off wherever suits you best, for the same price.
Last bus back to Medellín: around 6 pm. If you go on a crowded day, buy your return ticket as soon as you reach Guatapé (right where the bus drops you off), just to make sure there will be a seat for you in the late afternoon. Buses will depart from Guatapé and La Piedra, so it doesn’t matter which one you decide to do first.
How to travel between La Piedra del Peñol and Guatapé town?
To go from La Piedra to Guatapé or the other way around, you’ll see tuk-tuks everywhere offering to take you. However, we recommend you the far cheaper option of a normal urban bus, which costs only 1,500 COP ($0.45) per person (tuk-tuk drivers will charge you around 10,000 COP ($3.10)). You can take it right where the bus from Medellín dropped you off, either in Guatapé or La Piedra. Just stop any bus passing by and make sure you inquire the price beforehand.
Enjoying the zócalos in Guatapé, like all the best things in life, is for free. On the other hand, to access the stunning views atop La Piedra del Peñol you must pay 18,000 COP ($5.60) per person; this isn’t exactly cheap, but climbing the rock is kind of a must for Guatapé visitors.
Do you need a tour to visit Guatapé and La Piedra del Peñol?
Absolutely not. It’s really easy to plan a day tour by yourself and we believe that the experience will be more memorable than a boring one-size-fits-all tour. If you spend more than a night in Guatapé, you could also visit San Rafael (1 hour from Guatapé) for its charming small town feel and many swimming holes/waterfalls.
When is the best time to visit Guatapé?
Anytime of the year. Being close to Medellin, Guatapé enjoys the same weather as the City of Eternal Spring with a constant temperature of about 20°C all year round. This region sees quite some rain throughout the year but some months are “dryer” (December to February) than the rest. See the chart below for details.
Is Guatapé safe?
Travelling across the Coffee Axis in Colombia is very safe and comfortable. Enjoy your travel and forget about what you thought you’ve learned about Colombia and Pablo Escobar in the Netflix show. Times have changed!
Where is Guatapé?
Just in case you’re interested in reading more about the history of Guatapé and its amazing zócalo tradition, there’s a pretty complete thesis that you can read online (Spanish only): Ayala Andica, Luz M. (2017) “Guatapé, Zócalos e Historia Oral: contexto educativo”. Tesis de Maestría. Facultad de Ciencias Humanas y Económicas, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Sede Medellín.