There is one way to describe climbing El Peñol, the gigantic 10,000,000 ton rock, also known as la Piedra del Peñol or Peñon de Guatapé in the Antioquia Department of Colombia; exhausting. It is definitely worth it though. The views from the top are incredible and the smug feeling that goes with conquering the steep climb is not bad either.
One Step at a Time
I guess the fact that we decided to walk to the rock didn’t help with our exhaustion by the time we had scaled all 659 steps of Piedra del Peñol. It was a decision fuelled by our recent motivation to do exercise daily. However when constantly traveling and arriving to new locations every few days, you are often in locations not necessarily suited to morning exercise, so we took off by foot in the direction of the giant chunk of rock projecting towards the sky in the far distance. I don’t think we ever considered the fact that once we reached El Peñol, we still had to scale it.
Despite that, the walk was pleasant, with beautiful views of the surrounding lake valleys and mountains and for most of the journey, we could see the great rock getting closer and closer, and in turn getting more daunting. The walk even included crossing a very wobbly wooden bridge suspended high above the road (we felt very Indiana Jones!). It took us about an hour to walk there, including stopping for pictures and taking one 5-minute rest on the very steep final hill.
Once we looked around the tourist area below the rock, full of expensive restaurants and souvenirs, we paid the $10,000COP entrance fee for Peñon de Guatapé (about $5 USD/€4) and began the ascent. Thankfully, the stairs have been improved in recent years from wooden (yes, wooden) to stone, and they have also added a separate smaller stairs for those descending.
The top of the rock consists of a small-ish fenced in area with a small hut for buying souvenirs, or a much-needed beer and another tall circular building built as a viewing point, where you can also climb to its roof. The top of the building, adds another few meters to the 2,135 height of El Peñol to allow for uninterrupted 360-degree views of the surrounding land for miles. I advise taking a nap while up there and enjoy the breeze!
Pride Rock; El Peñol vs. Guatapé
My favourite thing about Piedra del Peñol is the funny story behind the two giant letters painted onto the side of the rock (don’t ask me how they managed that!). The letters ‘G’ and the start of an incomplete ‘U’, were begun by the residents of Guatapé, who have claimed ownership of the rock for years despite the protests of the residents of El Peñol (also the name of the other nearby town) who also claim that the rock is theirs. Once the residents of El Peñol heard about the attempts of Guatapé to claim the rock, by painting their towns name onto it, they immediately created a huge mob to stop it. Typical feisty spirit of the Paisa´s in action (a nickname for Colombians from the Antioquia region)!
Guatapé, Guatapé, Guatapé!
I loved Guatapé. The streets are so colourful, clean and another descriptive word beginning with C? But really it is one of the nicest towns I’ve been to in Colombia (I know I say that about almost every town) but it is also very different than any of the other places I’ve been. Every single building is covered in vibrant wall art known as ‘zócalos’. The zócalos are a tradition unique to Guatapé and found on every building in various styles, ranging from geometric shapes to historical depictions and often the downright hilarious. All the ‘zócalos’ were re-painted in 2011 in an initiative to encourage tourism, as Guatapé turned 100 years old and hosted the 2011 Guatapé ITU Triathlon Pan American Cup and Caribbean Championships.
Guatapé is a beautiful small town and I would recommend spending more than a day so you can enjoy the town as well as la Piedra del Peñol. On weekends, particularly Sundays, you will find the town a hive of activity especially down by the lake with visiting Colombian families, locals, tourists and backpackers enjoying the lakeside restaurants, the many water sports on offer and the temporarily constructed fairground attractions for kids.
Where to stay in Guatapé
We stayed at Hospedaje Guatapé, a hostel owned and ran by the community of Guatapé, with profits going back into the maintenance of the town. Rooms are very basic but super cheap ($25,000 COP/$14 USD/€10 per night for private double room with your own bathroom) and the staff are very friendly and helpful. However we made the mistake of taking a room at the front of the hostel, which had a small missing windowpane that let all of the noise of the outside street into our room. You never realize how noisy motorbikes or people are until you try and sleep with them passing right by your head.
How to get to Guatapé
Guatapé is about two hours from Medellin and can be easily reached by bus for $12,000 COP ($6.75 USD/€5) from the North Terminal in Medellin. Views of the countryside, on the way to Guatapé, are beautiful, with steep lush green hills covered in farm cultivations and small farmhouses dotted along the way. Vast lakes cut into the mountainsides, creating a series of valleys on the outskirts of the famous small town as you travel the winding roads through the mountainous region, typical terrain in a lot of Colombia.
Next Stop…Cali (via Medellin, again)