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Imagine waking up to a view of continuous coves of green that surround Guatape lake, watching the fog as it settles into each nook, and in the other direction, peering at the giant rock towering over the cabins below. This is the view from Galeria Guatape Hostel and the reason you should stay overnight in Guatape, Colombia. Sure, it’s easy to travel from Medellin to Guatape for a day trip, but you are here to relax (well, that and to climb to the top of that giant rock!)
There are plenty of things to do in Guatape, with the main focal points being the lake itself, the views from the top of El Penol (the rock) and the colorful zocalos in the small town. When I first read about the zocalos I was confused since the word zocalo in Mexico refers to the main square. But in Colombia, it’s the name for the lower half of the building which is reinforced and painted to protect it from water. Actually, if you look at other Colombian small towns, you’ll notice many of the buildings have zocalos, though none are as decorative as Guatape.
While the town of Guatape can be explored in an afternoon, the lake is massive and could easily take you a few days to tour it all. Use this Guatape guide to create your own travel plan. And if you’re looking for other day trips from Medellin, check out my post.
Things To Do In Guatape
If you’re deciding whether you should visit Guatape for more than a day, you’re probably wondering what there is to do in this lakeside town. The answer is quite a lot actually. Many people visit Guatape as a day trip from Medellin. And there’s nothing wrong with that but if you can spend two or three days here you’ll experience what life is like in this small town of about 5,000 people as well as some amazing outdoor activities.
First a quick history of the lake. In the 1970s a large hydroelectric dam was built which flooded the town of Peñol and more than 6,000 hectares of farmland (almost 25 square miles!) On the Medellin-Guatape bus, you’ll pass through the new town of El Peñol which was relocated 30 minutes west of Guatape. Wikipedia has an interesting story about the graffiti on the Guatape rock which you can see in the image below.
Okay, let’s dive into what to do in Guatape, Colombia.
Climb La Piedra de El Peñol
The most popular thing to do in Guatape is to climb the 200 meters (656 feet!) to the top of the rock for stunning views across the seemingly endless lake. Don’t worry, there are stairs. The climb is steep but there are plenty of lookout points to rest along the way. At the very top, you can expect an open platform deck with a lot of tourists taking selfies and slightly overpriced cervezas for purchase. If you can, avoid the weekends and holidays as Guatape is a popular destination.
If you’re only traveling to Guatape by bus for the day, the rock is a stop on the way to town. I recommend exploring it first and then catching another bus into town. This way, when you are ready to take the bus from Guatape to Medellin you catch it at the beginning of the route when it’s less likely to be full.
Hours: 8 am to 6 pm Everyday Entrance Fee: 18,000 COP
TIP: If you’re staying at La Galeria Hostel, there is a trail that is an easy hike along the lake and behind El Penol up to the ticket booth. Think of it as a quick warm up before the climb.
Literally, Rock Climb El Peñol
On the backside of the rock is an area where you can literally climb the rock. Well, not all the way to the top! About a quarter of the way up is your goal – a hammock to rest after the somewhat strenuous climb (or so I heard). While I didn’t climb the rock, I spoke in-depth with a girl at my hostel that did.
To organize the climb ahead of time, she ventured down the trail behind La Mona Restaurant (look for the stairs) to the climbers’ house. You’ll recognize it by the small rock climbing wall on the front of the house. She told me it is the meeting point for climbers that also promote the importance of taking care of El Penol, such as teaching tourists not to litter.
When she couldn’t find anyone at the house, neighbors said they would leave a message. Later that evening, the hostel received a phone call and she was set to meet the guide at 11 am the next morning. While she is not an experienced climber, I could tell she thoroughly enjoyed the climb and lake view from the hammock.
Duration: 5 hours Cost: 120,000 COP
Admire the Colorful Zocalos in Guatape
You could spend hours wandering the narrow streets in Guatape, admiring the colorful zocalos. In Guatape they are an art form of reliefs that depict the family business, a piece of history, or simply a feeling. Today they have become a source of pride with a covert rivalry among homeowners for who has the best zocalo in Guatape.
TIP: To read more about the history of the zocalos, walk down Calle 29 near the Community Museum. There is a short pedestrian street with a fountain at one end and several banners that explain (in Spanish) the zocalos in Guatape. It was also one of my favorite streets to wander.
This is what I gathered from reading the history. The first Guatape zocalos created by Don Chepe Parra in 1919 and depicted lambs. For political reasons, he was forced to construct the zocalos on the side of the house rather than in the street. As he did, the trend caught on and more people began to request a decorative zocalo for the side of their homes.
Rent a Kayak
There is a two-person kayak for rent at several Guatape hostels, including Galeria. The water is calm with many coves to explore so it’s a great way to experience the lake. Remember to wear sunscreen and a hat. While the day may start out cloudy, the sun is still quite intense.
Cost: 20,000 COP per hour
Wakeboard on the Lake
Wakeboarding in Guatape is something else I didn’t personally experience but I spoke with someone at my hostel that did. Because of the great location of Galeria Hostel, the boat picked him up from the private dock, used the dock to go over the basics, and then for the next hour he was determined to get up on that board. I happened to be at the hostel at the time and watched as the boat sped through the channel, pulling him behind. It took a few tries but he managed to stay up for a while and told me he enjoyed the excursion.
Duration: 1 hour Cost: 60,000 COP
Explore the Area By Mountain Bike
I met another traveler in Jerico, one of my favorite towns of Antioquia, that had also visited Guatape and rented a mountain bike to explore the area. To my surprise, a guide was not needed and he enjoyed venturing solo on the roads less traveled. Check out Colombia Getaway for bike rentals and other Guatape tours.
Cost: 10,000 COP per hour or 35,000 for a full day
Take a Day Trip to San Rafael
The views on the road from Guatape to San Rafael is enough of a reason to visit this simple town located along the Guatape River. The one hour, 7,000 COP bus ride takes you through vibrant green hills, beautiful mountain views, and a spattering of houses in between. From town you can walk to several nearby waterfalls and swimming holes.
To explore the nature and water in San Rafael, I recommend walking about an hour south of town on Carrera 26 towards Playa Del Rio Arenal. It’s a rural area with large green hills along a flat dirt road. There you’ll find an area to swim with large rocks that are great for lounging after you swim. If you want to stay overnight in San Rafael, I recommend Eco Language Hostel.
Where to stay in Guatape: Hotels and Hostels
So you’ve decided to stay in Guatape rather than simply go for a day trip. Yay! Your next decision is whether to choose a Guatape accommodation on the lake or in town. I was concerned that staying too far out of town would restrict me to one restaurant for dinner or that I would have trouble finding local transport. Then I found the Galeria Hostel. It was amazing! But because Galeria only offers shared dorm rooms (sorry couples, no private rooms!) I have included a few other options from my research, keeping in mind the importance of easy access to town.
Speaking of access to town. I saw a few people walking, though the thought of that scared me as the road is fairly narrow without a dedicated footpath. The easiest is to flag down a bus, jeep, or tuk-tuk from the main highway. Keep in mind, the most affordable will be the bus or jeep which each cost under 3,000 COP from the area near the rock. The tuk-tuk should charge around 10,000 from the same location but they can accommodate two people. If the driver wants to charge more, ask to see the rate chart and negotiate before you accept the ride.
Galeria feels like a lake house you’d rent with your friends for the weekend. It’s a small house tucked into the hillside with absolutely stunning views of the lake and equally impressive views of the Guatape rock. Many of my fellow travelers stayed longer than they had booked because the lake view delivers a peaceful tranquility that holds you hostage.
When you arrive, Alejandro gives a warm welcome and introduction to the hostel. Breakfast is included and made to order. The rest of the day, the kitchen is available to use and there are two restaurants nearby, including one with a very affordable (10,000 COP) menu del dia even into the night.
TIP: Ask the bus driver to drop you off at Restaurante La Mona located just before the rock. From there, walk a short distance on the path to the right of the restaurant and you’ll reach Galeria Hostel.
At this Guatape hotel, colorful cabins are nestled in the hills, overlooking the lake. Similar to Galeria, the views are amazing and it’s a short walk to the rock. There is also a restaurant on site that serves breakfast and an outdoor area to enjoy it. Some of the cabins are big enough for a small family while others are perfect for couples. And each is decorated with its own zocalos – adding the perfect charm to your trip to Guatape.
This hotel in Guatape is also on the lake and a short distance from town. Clean and modern rooms, each with a private balcony overlooking the lake. Some are more of an apartment-style with a small kitchen while others are simply a room. There are plenty of hammocks on the grounds to ensure you relax as well as easy access to the lake at the bottom of the hill.
Medellin to Guatape: How to get to Guatape
If you’re traveling from Medellin to Guatape by bus it is an easy two-hour ride from Medellin’s North Terminal. The bus leaves every 30 minutes and costs 15,000 COP. Look for ticket counters #9 and #14 after you arrive at the North Terminal. To return, the Guatape to Medellin bus also leaves every 30 minutes and the last one departs at 7:30 pm.
TIP: You can save money by taking the metro to the Caribe station, though do be aware of rush hour times and especially if you have luggage with you. Look for signs to the North Terminal as you exit the metro.
Remember, if you only want to do a day trip to Guatape it is best to climb the rock first so that you’re in town when you want to find a bus back to Medellin. Otherwise, you risk the bus being full. If you really don’t want to worry about anything, you can always take a Guatape tour from Medellin. The tours are quite affordable and include transport, though be aware you’ll be on someone else’s timeframe.
While it’s definitely a tourist destination, the amazing views, impressive rock, and colorful town are more than enough of a reason to visit. Just make sure you take the time to relax, slow down, and enjoy while you are there. Before you know it you’ll dread the thought of returning to the big city.