A few days ago, Dan and I decided to venture out of Medellin and go on our first day trip to La Piedra de Penol and Guatape about 2 hours away by bus. The draw of La Piedra (the rock in Spanish) is to climb the 740 stairs for a stunning view of Guatape Lake and Guatape is a small, colorful town just a few miles down the road from La Piedra. The two together make a perfect day trip from Medellin.
Planning the trip was frustrating because there isn’t much information online regarding bus times. Being such a sought after tourist destination I was surprised by that! Despite not being able to find the bus times, Dan was able to figure out that the buses to La Piedra and Guatape leave from the Terminal Norte bus station and the tickets can be purchased at booth 14 (Sotrasanvicente is the bus company). So, we just decided to wing it.
We grabbed a cab at about 6:15 am on a Saturday morning (which was surprisingly easy to do) and headed for the bus station. It is possible to take the Metro to the Caribe station which is connected to the Terminal Norte but we were feeling much too lazy for that so early in the morning. We got to the ticket booth paid our 11,500 CP each for one way (approximately $4) and happily found out that one of the first buses leaves at 6:45 am so we had 5 minutes to spare! I’m still not sure what the method or time tables are for the bus but I would highly recommend grabbing this early bus (I’ll explain why later).
Our bus definitely was not top of the line but also wasn’t the bottom of the barrel either – it was just comfortable enough for a 2 hour bus ride. Besides the slight motion sickness I was feeling, I actually really enjoyed the ride there (which I would have never said about riding a bus in Chicago). If there are empty seats on the bus, the bus driver will stop and pick up people along the way, even if it isn’t a set bus stop. People just stand alongside the road and flag the bus down, pay the driver a small amount, and then get off wherever they need to. The driver even picked up a package from someone and dropped it off to another person in a different town! Usually stalling and delays on a bus would annoy me to no end, but I found this concept to be something very cool and unique to Colombia. It actually made the bus ride seem to go by faster as I was entertained watching all of the different types of people get on and off the bus, even kids as old as 10 or 12 were doing it! Besides watching the people, the views and landscape from the bus window were gorgeous. Medellin is surrounded by mountains and to get out of the city requires driving up the mountains which offers some stunning views. Once we were on top of the mountain and out of the city, the scenery changed to beautiful, green rolling hills and fincas (which are like farms in Colombia).
As we were nearing our first destination, we had to let the bus driver know we wanted to stop, even though it is one of the four predetermined stops on the whole route. So we jumped off the bus at the bottom of La Piedra around 8:45 am and saw virtually no one. I had read that there are usually mototaxis (tuk tuks) and horses at the bottom that will take you up the hill to the base of the rock and since they were nowhere to be found, we walked up ourselves (which is totally doable by the way). As we got to the top, we realized we were the first tourists there. We quickly purchased our tickets (12,500 CP each) and set off up the 740 steps it takes to get to the lookout on the top of La Piedra. After a lot of huffing and puffing, sweating, and cursing myself for not working out more in the past week – we somehow made it.
In a destination that is usually full of Colombian and foreign tourists, we had the top lookout to ourselves for almost an entire hour. In that moment, I was so grateful that we dragged ourselves out of bed before 6 am because the experience just wouldn’t have been the same.
Once other people started showing up, we decided it was time to head down about 50 steps and grab a beer at one of the tiendas. At 10 am we both indulged in two Aguilas (the Budweiser of Colombia) and a cup of mango with salt and lime all while still enjoying the view. Descending the remaining 700ish stairs while being slightly tipsy was probably not the best idea by the way.
At the base of La Piedra, there are mototaxis available to take visitors on the 10 minute journey to the town of Guatape for 5,000 CP a person (less than $2). They dropped us off right in front of the bus station which was really convenient so we could buy our tickets back to Medellin (which is recommended since the buses fill up quickly).
Right away upon arriving in Guatape, I knew I was going to love it.
Although we only needed a couple of hours to walk around and eat lunch there, it is just so beautiful. I’m not really one to use the words charming, character or quaint much but I couldn’t help but think that the purest form of those words is how I would describe Guatape.
It is the most colorful town I’ve ever seen, even more so than Granada, Nicaragua which held the top spot for awhile. The streets are made of cobblestone, the bases of the buildings have pictures of llamas, flowers, horses, sailboats, etc. on them and the buildings themselves are all various, vibrant colors. Can I please move in?
Needless to say our first day trip outside of Medellin was a huge success and was the highlight so far. On the bus ride back, I had one of those pangs of sadness at the thought that I will probably never return here but so thankful at the same time that I got to experience it. Dan even mentioned at the top of La Piedra while we were enjoying the solitude “How do you know that you are experiencing something so awesome like this enough?!” I can’t even remember what I said at the time, probably something shallow and unintelligible. But if I could answer that question now I would say that someday when I’m back in the USA, probably sitting in an office somewhere, I will think back to this day and remember how gold my spirit felt.