r 7 weeks in Medellín, we heard so much about Colombia’s colourful town, just three hours north, including posters advertising tours and a day trips. When something is as hyped as Guatapé, we knew we had to give this some of well-deserved attention, packed our bags and jumped a bus with the aim of spending at least two nights there.
Honestly… Do believe the hype!
No words, no pictures, no videos nor advertising could do this place the justice it truly deserves. It’s no wonder Paisa’s and their fellow habitants of Antioquia escape their daily lives here. It’s no shock that tourism is clearly on the rise, as busses filled with excited tourists roll in a daily basis.
Like every visitor, we lost our breath to the 740-step La Piedra El Peñol and we walked the length and breadth of the town, making sure we saw every brightly painted home. We took a boat ride through the tiny islands to La Hacienda Manuela; Pablo Escobar’s hidden haven, and we joined the locals for a spot of Sunday strolling along the waterfront.
By the end of it all, we wanted more. So we followed a recommendation from our host and ran ahead to its neighbouring town, San Rafael.
And like always, we deliver to you a guide full of fun and quirky things to do, places to stay and simple info on how to get there, all without breaking the bank.
So off you go, read on ahead and prepare yourself for happy, sunny rainbow-land. As we like to call it
From Medellín to Guatapé:
Take the metro to Caribe station, exit and take a right straight into Terminal del Norte.
Head down to the ground floor and shop around for prices at window 22, 14, and 9. Average cost for a bus to Guatapé is 13,500 COP (€4). However, do haggle. In the end, we got two tickets at window 9 for 11,000 COP (less than €3) per person.
The bus takes 2 hours and the driver will ask if you want to be dropped at the town or by the lake, so double check with your accommodation, if you have it pre-booked.
If you have nothing prepared (meet your brother and sister here) just jump off at the town. The bus will leave you at the waterfront. I could say at the bus station, and that is what it is, but it looks far from a bus station.
From here, take the first right and walk up the cobblestone street, straight for Parque Guatapé. This is the best place to start your hostel search.
Actually! There were some hostels still advertised on Booking.com and HostelWorld that don’t exist anymore, so you are better off hitting the pavement.
Accommodation in Guatapé:
It didn’t take long for people to approach us, asking were we lost. The minute we explained we were looking for a place to stay, in came the suggestions.
One gentleman proposed we follow him, that he would get us the best rate. Of course we were sceptical, well aware that anytime this happens, we are expected to cough up some pennies. So we declined, and he respected that; which then intrigued us, ‘what a brutal salesmen’ we thought.
But nope, our judgemental selves ate our words. He was genuinely just being helpful and wanted to bring us the right way (we love you Guatapé). He also promised we’d get a good rate, and that we did.
We stayed at Hostel la Casona. With your back facing the church, head for Calle 32, the street at the top right hand side of the park.
Here is another fine example of face-to-face negotiating. We logged onto Booking.com to get an idea prices and for two nights, a private double room was advertised for 130,000 COP (€43) whereas when we got there, the two nights cost us 88,500 COP (€25) an absolute steal!
See! Your man followed through on his ‘good price’ promise.
This is a great little hostel with friendly vibes, a large balcony are with hammocks, a pool table and nice views. They also have low cost tours available and bike rental for less than 30,000 COP (€8.50) per day.
Things To Do in Guatapé:
La Piedra El Peñol:
This giant rock that sits smack bang in the middle of the lake is the main reason people pop by Guatapé. Something you don’t see every day, and may not see anywhere else but here.
The stony, rocky, giant goodness was formed a long, long, loooong time ago (how, we don’t know!) and was first climbed, in the early 50s, by the legendary, local god, Luis Eduardo Villegas López.
We panted, and eventually crawled up the steep 740 steps, whereas good man Luis here climbed it in 5 days, using nothing but sticks that where attached to the rock *cough* show off *cough*.
They say it’s the most beautiful view in the world which some might debate, but for us, it’s up there, literally and figuratively.
The entry price of 18,000 COP (€5) might seem steep (excuse the pun) but considering you can spend as much time up there as you want, and it’s genuinely a stunning view, don’t hesitate in handing over the few pesos.
There are busses running from the town to the rock, but we urge you to walk it instead. A perfectly paved path alongside the road, that includes crossing a dodgy looking rope-swing bridge, we would have been happy with the walk itself. Especially with the weather Guatapé has all year round.
A simple 50 minute ‘straight-all-the-way-walk’ you can’t and won’t get lost, tired, bored or in any way disheartened.
From the “bus station” take a left and follow the main road the entire way. When you reach the main bridge, with the rock in sight, take a left towards the rock. Walk up the hill *good practice for the “big step”).
What is a tourist attraction without vendors, but food, souvenirs etc. are expensive up there so bring some lunch, and plenty of water with you. Since you can spend the entire day, bring a book, a game of cards, sun lotion and just chill.
If you are not in any rush home (exactly why a day trip just won’t suffice) stick around for sunset. This is such a fantastic day out; we hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Meet some new people; enjoy some fresh (free) juice and brush up on your Spanish, for free.
Held every day from 4-6pm, at Bar Baroja Café, this is the perfect way to rest those aching feet, meet some Colombians and find out more about the foreign land you’re in.
La Manuela Hacienda:
We’ll leave our embedded Facebook post to explain more on this one, but in a nutshell, this is best way to get your Pablo Escobar/Narcos fix without being disrespectful to locals, and glorifying the murderer that he was.
La Manuela Hacienda is Escobar’s second favourite home, hidden on an island on Lake Guatapé. The history-rich locale was blown up in 1993 by Los Pepes (funded by the Cali cartel) and remains as destructive as that day. Yet, it still stands and stands proud, a symbolism of the man himself really.
To visit, swing by the waterfront and ask or lookout for the “Cooperative De La Lancha” sign. The collective lancha leaves from the waterfront every hour, or when full. The first lancha leaves at 10am.
At a cost of 15,000 COP (€4.25) for a return ticket, make sure you tell the captain that you want to get off at La Manuela.
In total, the boat ride takes about 20 minutes, swerving through the mini islands, across the lake, and passed the homes of famous people we don’t know. The captain will share some interesting stories about the islands and homes. Ask him anything, they love to share.
When you dock at La Manuela, you will need to pay a 5,000 COP (€1.40) entry fee to gain access to the property. The good news is that this cost includes a guide who will greet and take you for a stroll around the house that withstood 200kg of TNT. Bear in mind, they speak very little English.
Also, the lancha may leave so don’t panic! It will come back for you. That’s the beauty of paying on return, not arrival.
The cast-iron interior and its double concrete walls (20cm gap) were built for protection and storage for all his drugs, guns and money. The palace itself was named after his daughter and interestingly enough, his discoteca, which was unharmed during the explosion, is now a museum and restaurant ran by Escobar’s old butler.
We must admit, we did giggle at the many holes found in the ground and amongst the walls from where people where convinced he still had stashed money there. To this day, all digs remain unsuccessful.
Another interesting fact is that his mother and sister still live locally. You can see their houses from the ruin. We can understand why Escobar adored La Manuela, and you can almost still feel his presence, as strange as that sounds. If not from the surrounding trees (imported from all over the world) that still grow there today, it’s the clear insight into his luxurious lifestyle, in the form of helipads, guesthouses, pool views, large rooms, garages and nightclub.
We enjoyed our Pablo fix; it was subtle, interesting and combined with a lot of history. Certainly beats running around playing paintball in Pablo’s mansion, something we feel is a little too tacky (sorry, it’s just our opinion!).
Ramble Around the Rainbow:
We hear our frequent readers groan as we write this. You will find this suggestion in all our ‘things to do’ blog sections.
This is skittle town, as in you have literally jumped into a packet of skittles! It’s evident from the colourful houses, businesses, bars and anything else with a wall.
A walk around the streets of Guatapé are a must, you need to visit each street and decipher the colourful story-like paintings, view the painted doors, picking your favourite, and remember to always look up to sometimes find 3D art shooting from the walls.
Apparently, some of the 3D art and selected colour schemes can reflect anything from the owner’s profession to the “feeling” of the house.
Like we said, enjoy the rainbow.
Here’s another shout out to our favourite, food-saturated dish from Antioquia.
Thanks to our host for the recommendation, and the slight discount, for the best Bandeja Paisa (a local dish loaded with rice, beans, avocado, mincemeat, crispy pork, chorizo, fried egg, friend plantain, salad and an arepa) pop by the square in search of Tikki Takka Restaurant. It’s facing the church.
This dish is definitely worth more than the 16,000 COP (€4.50) price. Now, we dare you to try finishing it without sweating.
If you’re enjoying the fresh air, touch of nature and the easy-going exercise, we definitely recommend an overnight (at least) in San Rafael, easily reached from Guatapé.
Ah yes, the “bus station” this is where all starts and, sadly, ends in Guatapé.
The bus leaves the terminal every hour on the half hour, and the charming 45 minute drives costs 6,000 COP (€1.70).
Unless you want to stay in another puebla, we suggest jumping off before the San Rafael town and enjoying a sleepover in the hills.
Ask the driver to let you off at the main bridge before the town, they’ll know exactly what you mean, but if you are met with confused looks, just ‘name drop’ Hostel Casa Naranja.
This fabulous little hostel is surrounded by hiking trails, waterfalls and swimming spots, nothing but nature.
Ran and owned by the lovely Mary, be prepared for hugs on arrival and a feel of home. Even the dogs and cats will act like they know you years.
Mary was kind enough to bring us on a beautiful hike but if you prefer some alone time, you can also ask for hiking trails. Or just go and get lost around the mountains. If you’re lucky, you’ll bump into an elderly man, famous to the area, who will invite you to his home for some tea. Take him up on this offer.
Visit the local waterfalls, befriend the hundreds of dogs (literally) and cool off in a natural spring.
So jump on the Guatapé bandwagon, and do all things touristy here.
However, we urge you to spend a night at least, and we almost feel sorry for anyone who missed out the night-time shenanigans, in favour for a day tour.
We’ve no idea how much a day trip costs here, but we seriously doubt you will experience the full Guatapé effect. An effect that will encourage you to stay more than one night, maybe even three, and even after that you will have to peel yourself away.
One more time…, go ride the rainbow. And most importantly enjoy!