Guatape – Painting the Town Red (and Blue and Green)

8 12 2011


Guatape, near Medellin, central Colombia

Guatape’s animated streets are adorable: a labyrinth of dynamic scenes that adorn house facades and flow into the town’s plaza. Café-goers spill out onto the table-strewn roadsides clutching their café tintos y pan (black coffee and bread) while a few blocks away lies an islet-woven lake, Guatape’s main draw with national tourists.

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But the mystery of Guatape is this: despite its undeniable charm and phenomenal views, only a handful of foreign visitors wind up here. Which makes it a perfect getaway destination to spend a few days, but be warned, you may linger longer than expected.

As the bus rounded the corner, Embalse del Peñol burst into view. Large party boats patiently waited for hip-shaking Colombians to take two-hour trips on Guatape’s lake to see the abandoned mansion of Pablo Escobar, once the country’s most feared drug baron.

With his capture and death in the 1990s and the retreat of FARC rebels into jungle territory, more Colombians than ever are travelling in their own country, and many urbanites from nearby Medellin pour into Guatape on weekends, bringing a pleasant bustle to the town.

The plaza centres on Guatape’s church and a busy reunion scene where elderly locals nurse their coffees for hours. Colourful frescoes depict scenes from local life in the narrow streets so that colour seeps through the town even in a downpour.

Bike trip to El Peñol

The view from El Peñol, Guatape

A few kilometres from the centre is El Peñol, a 200-metre towering rock with panoramic views of Guatape and the lake. Even through drizzle and mist, the hike up the 600-plus steps is a must. No-frills cafés and restaurants eagerly await thirsty climbers with piping hot chocolate and cold beers.

The best way to visit El Peñol is to hop on a bike and cycle round the ring road, a Pandora’s box of superlative views. Rounding each bend gives a new perspective of the bewitching water, past enchanting fincas (farmhouses) and gardens. A side trip to Monasterio Benedictino (monastery) is worth the uphill huffing and puffing, just to see the modern yet impressive buildings. Brown-robed monks scurried into the shadows when they saw me approaching, giving a courteous wave before vanishing into the shadows. With a bemused smile I turned away and took in the panoramic vistas of the calm lagoon.

Actually, it’s not a lagoon, nor even a natural lake. Guatape’s Embalse del Peñol provides 30 percent of the country’s electricity needs and was created in the 70s by flooding part of the town. Now it’s become an attraction for its boat trips, fantastic views from high up and Kodak-snapping moments.

Hostel in Guatape

After the three- to four-hour bike trip, lazing in a hammock at El Encuentro – Guatape’s best hostel by far – is in order. One of only two backpacking options  in the town, El Encuentro wins hands down for its views, comfort, private lake access and great book exchange. Not to mention its decking with horizontal lounging facilities.

American owner Greg has a dinghy for free guest use. You can try your luck at catching your dinner or head down to the

View from the hostel El Encuentro, Guatape

lakefront restaurants for ready-to-be devoured fresh trout. The private lake access at El Encuentro is a safe swimming area, free of boats (except the dinghy) but as Greg insists, ‘swim at your own risk’. To which I did and I can say the only real danger here is you’ll probably never want to leave.

There’s more to do in Guatape than initially expected with bike or bus trips to swimming holes, half-day hikes, a chocolate factory to sweeten the day, and lazing in a hammock. It’s mandatory.

And while you’re there, listen to the Eagle’s song, Hotel California and see if the lyrics rings true. I checked out of El Encuentro and returned two hours later for a few more days. It seems to be the norm here.

Hostel El Encuentro
861-1374 – book in advance on weekends, it fills up with Colombian guests
From the plaza it’s a 15 minute walk – ask for directions – or jump in a tuk tuk
Dorms from 20,000 per night

  • kitchen

    Not a bad view to wake up to every day at El Encuentro hostel

  • discounts for two-plus nights for single rooms
  • fabulous views
  • bike rental (5,000 pesos for half day with helmet and lock)
  • private lake access
  • great local knowledge
  • volunteering at the hostel available

How to get to Guatape

  • Take the metro in Medellin to the northern bus terminal
  • Once in the terminal go to stand 9 or 14, both bus companies go frequently from Medellin to Guatape
  • The journey takes about two hours


  • Has a population of 45 million
  • Has border crossings with Venezuela, Brazil (boat only then a flight), Peru (boat only then a flight) and Ecuador. For crossings from Panama it’s a pricy flight or a boat trip. No roads exist to curb the cocaine smuggling
  • Is my favourite country in South America


  • Two hours north-east from Medellin in central Colombia

    A 3D painting on a house in Guatape

  • An adorable town with painted frescoes and fabulous views from the looming monolith
  • A lakeside town where you can be active on bike rides or chill out at hammocks at El Encuentro





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