All of my Colombian friends insisted that if I visit Medellín, I have to make a day trip to see the majestic La Piedra del Peñol and the colorful village of Guatapé. With my father visiting, I decided to schedule a day trip to these places during our visit to Medellín.
We hired LandVenture Travel for the day trip. Our guide, Andrés, picked us up at our hotel promptly at 9am and made a stop to pick up two other guests not too far away.
Andrés took us on the scenic route leaving Medellín. We crossed by a reservoir with massive homes built next to it and made an unscheduled stop in the village of El Retiro to try some coffee directly from a coffee farm. Unfortunately, the store was closed but we did have a chance to have a quick walk through the plaza.
El Retiro is actually historically significant not only to Colombia but to the Americas because in 1757, a rich woman named Javiera Londoño freed over 120 slaves. It was the first act of this kind in the Americas, and it happened well over 100 years before the abolition of slavery in Colombia and the United States. A statue in the plaza dedicated to Londoño commemorates this important event.
We continued the drive through lush green hills populated with coffee and other crops until we reached the town of El Peñol. This wasn’t the original town. The first El Peñol had to be relocated because of a hydroelectric dam caused the original one to be flooded. As we drove through around the fingers created by the artificial lake, Andrés stopped and pointed out a small cross rising out of the water. The cross marked the spot where the cathedral of El Peñol once stood, and also the location of the main plaza.
The main attraction in the area is La Piedra del Peñol. It’s a huge granite monolith that stands 220m high and is a national monument of Colombia. The setting looks like something out of a Disney movie, with rolling forested green hills and clear blue water surrounding the rock. It’s also a very controversial subject to residents of nearby towns El Peñol and Guatapé, as both towns claim the rock as their own. The town of El Peñol used to be located next to the rock until the artificial lake caused the relocation. Now, the nearest town is Guatapé.
If you look at the rock from a distance, you will notice a large “G” and a partial “U” painted on the side. Residents of Guatapé had the brilliant idea to paint the name of their town to mark the rock as their own. Soon enough, the residents of El Peñol formed an angry mob to stop them. The government stepped in and said it is not permissible to deface a natural monument.
The rock is privately owned by the family of the first man to climb it, Luis Eduardo Villegas López. He bought the rock because it was useless as farmland for the original owners, built the concrete steps in a crack, and began charging admission to climb to the top. Nowadays, over 5,000 visitors climb the rock every day and Villegas’ descendants live off the profits.
To climb El Peñol, it costs COP$15,000 per person. It’s a good idea to take some water and wear sunscreen on the way up. It could also get windy and possibly cold so a jacket was recommended, but on the day I visited it was hot and the jacket wasn’t necessary. For those who do not want to climb the rock, there are a few cafés and restaurants located next to the entrance. My dad stayed in one of the restaurants with Andrés while I climbed the rock with his wife, Lexi.
The steps are numbered every 25 steps with yellow paint. Halfway to the top is a small pedestal with a statue of the Virgin. It’s a resting point allowing visitors to rest away from the stairs where others are ascending to the top.
Once at the top of the rock, there is a small café selling drinks, ice cream, fruit, and other snacks, and a small structure with even more stairs to the top. Inside the structure is an inescapable gift shop with junk. Overpriced junk, because you can buy the same junk at the bottom of the rock for much cheaper.
On top of the structure, there are 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape. It’s breathtaking!
Next, we were taken a few minutes down the road to Guatapé. We had a delicious lunch at a traditional Colombian restaurant serving fish and grilled meats at very reasonable prices. We then had some time to walk around the village which is known for its zócalos (colorful panels) lining the bottom of each building.
Some of the zócalos are simple geometric figures while others portray Antioquian life.
Others portray real life townspeople, including the mayor who delivered on his promise to put zócalos on every building in town.
Even the church has zócalos, but it’s also worth popping inside to see the gorgeous wooden interior.
Part of the town of Guatapé was also submerged with the creation of the lake, and one street in particular was dedicated to preserving the zócalos that were salvaged from that part of town before its demolition.
Wander around the streets within a couple blocks of the plaza and you’ll have a wonderful fill of zócalos and colorful buildings.
For the more adventurous type, it’s possible to do zip lining across one of the legs of the lake. There are zip lines for one or multiple people and it looked like a lot of fun. You can also take a short cruise around the lake.
Doing El Peñol and Guatapé by public transportation is possible at a very low cost, but to save yourself the hassle of missing buses and to have a thorough explanation of the area, I highly recommend hiring Andrés and LandVenture Travel for this tour.
If you choose to do the tour by bus, buses leave from Terminal del Norte in Medellín. It’s connected to the Caribe metro stop.