If you’re staying in Medellin and looking for a change of scenery – heading over the hills to Guatapé is a must. Only two hours from Medellín by bus, this tiny town is an Instagrammer’s dream.
It’s literally the most colourful town I’ve ever seen.
I was feeling a bit “meh” about not finding the “real” Colombia after being in Medellin for a few weeks – so the trip out to Guatapé is just what I needed. Whether you take a day trip or stay for a week or two, it’s a must-see for anyone who wants to explore smaller towns in the region.
Here are my recommendations for the best things to do in Guatapé.
HISTORY OF GUATAPÉ
Present day Guatapé has a sad but fascinating story behind it’s colourful zócalos and dreamy lakes.
The name “Guatapé” originates from the ancient Quechua language, meaning “stones and water”. It was originally inhabited by various indigenous tribes until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and declared everything to be theirs.
Guatapé as it looks now was officially founded in 1811. The rolling hills and valleys were predominantly farms that relied on livestock, agriculture, and mining.
But in the 1970s – things took a radical turn for this small, sleepy farming community.
A hydroelectric dam was commissioned by the powers that be over the hill in Medellin, which meant flooding much of the farmland in Guatapé. Although this meant many farmers and communities had to leave their homes, the dam caused Guatapé to become one of the most important producers of electricity in Colombia, which had a big impact on economic, environmental, and cultural development in the area.
Due to its spectacular new lakes (with homes and buildings still buried under the water), Guatapé is now a major drawcard for tourists and local holidaymakers looking to escape the city for a few days.
THINGS TO DO IN GUATAPE
Explore the town centre
In the main square, you’ll find Parroquia Nuestra Señora Del Carmen. It’s an impressive building, and at night the facade often turns into a crazy disco light show with color-changing LED lights.
The main plaza houses hotels, bars, cafes, and restaurants. It’s also the main point for pick ups and drop offs if you’re looking to catch a tuk tuk, collectivo, or taxi. It’s an explosion of colour – every building is painted and decorated with bright murals and frescos, and your photos will literally take themselves.
Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to take any bad photos in Guatapé.
You can stroll around the town’s charming cobbled streets for hours, watch buskers, grab a coffee, beer, or cinnamon roll, and do some people watching. It’s a safe little town, and locals (used to a neverending stream of tourists), are helpful and don’t mind you snapping photos of them or their beautiful houses. Just make sure you ask first 🙂
Zocalos of Guatapé
The highlight of Guatapé is its hand-painted buildings zócalos (murals). You’ll see sheep, horses, dolphins, farmers, flowers, dragons, motorbikes, and whole bunch of other weird, wonderful, and humorous things.
Each of these zocalos is handmade, which is incredibly impressive. We got to see a fresco master in action, and the amount of time, care, and painstaking detail that goes into these is amazing.
So while you’re reeling off thousands of photos of the township – spare a thought for the artisans who’ve spent countless hours creating these beautiful artworks for you 🙂
You’ll begin to see the the zocalos as you head into the main township. Many of these paintings and frescos depict the town’s history, the products sold in the shop, the cultural beliefs or traditions of the homeowners, or the services offered by businesses.
Climb Piedra El Peñol
Hey hey, it’s legs day! It’s pretty much mandatory to climb this epic, quad-blasting 740-step staircase at the Rock of Guatapé when you visit. Bring a spare set of lungs – you might need them.
El Peñón de Guatapé sits next to the hydroelectric dam. It formed around 70 million years ago, and despite its size – two-thirds of the rock sits below the ground. The rock is over 200 metres high, and it’s a landmark that you can see from miles away. It was declared a national monument in 1940.
In front of the rock is a statue of the first man to climb this monolith in 1954. It took Luis Villegas López a couple of his friends 5 days to climb the rock using carefully placed sticks and crevices in the rock face, battling both torrential rain and torrential bees on their way up.
The best thing about climbing the rock face is the double staircase. This means when it’s busy, you won’t get annoyed having to push past people going in a different direction. Plus – you get different views going up and down. If you nerd out on impossible staircase construction, you’ll love this one.
What’s painted on the side of the rock?
The first thing you’ll notice about the monolith is that is has something like “GI” or “61” painted on the side of it.
The story goes that the neighboring towns of Guatapé and El Peñol were in a constant battle as to who owned the rock. So one day, the residents of Guatapé decided to take matters into their own hands and claim the rock for themselves – by painting “Guatapé” in giant white letters on the western face.
El Peñol quickly found out what was happenening, and deployed a large mob of angry residents to stop this. Guatapé had painted a G and half of the U by this time – so that’s what you can see on the rock.
You can walk to the the Piedra from Guatapé central, which will take around 45 minutes. Just be aware there’s no footpath most of the way! You can also grab a tuk tuk or catch the bus.
Depending which direction you arrive from, you’ll be faced with a hill, or some steep stairs and a hill. Consider this a gentle warm-up for the main attraction.
At the base of the rock are shops for souvenirs and snacks, and it’s your first opportunity to look across the Guatapé countryside.
I thought that numbering the stairs as you ascend was a nice touch, so you can measure how close you are to your lungs exploding. Halfway up, there are also some religious statues in case you feel the need to pray for your knees during the rest of the climb.
As much fun as hiking up 740 stairs is, you’ll be well rewarded by the freaking amazing view at the top of the rock. The 360 degree panorama stretches aross the lakes, hills, and houses of Guatapé. It’s pretty spectacular.
When you get to the top, you’ll find vendors selling cold drinks, souvenirs, ice creams, snacks, and beer. Bliss.
And there are plenty of shady places to sit while you recover!
Know before you go:
Ticket price is 20,000 COP. I don’t recall seeing any ATM machines there, so make sure you bring cash. It can get super hot during the day in Guatapé, so make sure you have water and sunscreen.
Once you’ve survived the climb, simply catch a tuk tuk at the bottom of the rock to take you back into town, or back to your accommodation.
Explore the lake
Once you’ve done your sightseeing around the lake, you might want to get on the water. The lakes here are safe to swim in – just make sure you’re in an area where you’re not likely to get mowed over by jet skis or speed boats (which you can also rent, by the way).
If you fancy a slower pace, you can hop on a tour boat, or rent a kayak and spend the day leisurely exploring the lake and coves. You might even paddle past the ruins of Pablo Escobar’s mansion – La Hacienda.
Many of the lakeside accommodations have free kayaks that you can paddle out onto the lake. But if you go into town, just head down to the waterfront and you can rent kayaks from there too.
Pro tip: Make sure you wear sunscreen and a hat. Colombia sun is very sneaky and will try to burn unsuspecting gringos at every opportunity. I’m still sporting my sexy, after-burn tan 3 months later.
Catch a Tuk Tuk
We stayed in Guatapé for a couple of weeks, and tuk tuks quickly became our main mode of transport. They’re cheap, super fun, and always there when you need one – rain or shine!
You can find them parked all over town, or just flag an empty one down if you see one coming.
Eat the local food
You’ll find all of Colombia’s traditional carb-laden, meaty, and deep fried dishes here. Around the square you can take your pick of bandejo paisas, empañadas, and arepas. At night, there are food carts grilling pork, baby potatoes (highly recommend!), and other smoky delights, plus popcorn and buñuelo stands.
If you wander further outside the township, you’ll find locals boiling, grilling, and frying all sorts of things on the streets that you can try out.
My favorite place to eat in Guatapé
I found it quite challenging to locate food on the outskirts of Medellin that didn’t include various nose-to-tail animal delicacies of some sort.
But tucked away in Guatapé is a cute little vegetarian/vegan place called Namasté. This has two small restaurant locations in the township. We only ate at the little container courtyard situated next to the main square, which was awesome.
Over two weeks I tried pretty much everything on the menu at Namasté, and it was all super fresh and tasty. So if you’re tired of a diet of bandejo paisa, deep fried buñuelos, and arepas – definitely put this on your list of snack stops.
Do some people watching
One of our favourite things to do was catch a collectivo into the town square and watch the world pass by over a beer and a couple of shots of the local firewater, aguardiente.
This street corner was our favourite place to kill some time in the evenings. Bonus were the sweet local dogs that pass by hoping for free snacks – particularly the old German Shepherd that will put his head in your lap for some head scratchies. Too cute!
HOW TO GET TO GUATAPE FROM MEDELLIN
Getting to Guatape from Medellin is a breeze if you want to catch the bus. Buses leave every hour or so from from the North Bus Terminal in Medellin, and the trip over the hills to Guatape takes around 2 hours.
Simply catch an Uber or taxi to the Medellin bus station, then head downstairs to the ground floor where all the ticket booths are. You’re looking for booth 14 to Guatape and El Peñol. Tickets are 16,000 COP one way.
Once you’ve bought your ticket – head outside behind the ticket booth and find the bus in parking bay 14. This will be clearly marked as going to Guatapé. Ask a friendly local or the bus driver if you’re not sure you’ve got the right bus!
Note that puesto on the ticket picture below means “gate number” and rampa is your seat number on the bus. Don’t get those confused, or you’re likely to end up somewhere else. Which, being Colombia, could be a fun and excellent mistake to make.
Assuming you’re now on the right bus, it’s a smooth ride out of the city, through the winding hills, and out to the gorgeous countryside and lakes that make Guatapé so unique.
Fun fact: bus crashes in Colombia are both common and horrific. There’s a lot of steep hills, sharp corners, and loco drivers on the road. To counter this, your bus interior may be decorated with psychedelic images of Jesus doing calming things like “looking off to one side” and “waiting for you in heaven” to put your mind at ease during the journey.
Make sure to take water and snacks for the ride, as it can really heat up on the bus. Locals will occasionally jump on and off the bus during the journey selling water and various snacks like chips and popcorn, so don’t stress too much if you forget.
To get back to Medellin? Simply buy a ticket from the kiosk where the bus initially dropped you off. Buses leave regularly from Guatapé back to the city terminal.
GETTING AROUND IN GUATAPÉ
Most tourists visit Guatape as a day trip from Medellin. You can catch an early bus, or book a tour in Medellin that will take care of your transport.
Book a tour
If you like being part of group tours, there are plenty of options you can book online, or on the street when you’re walking around Medellin.
I recommend you stay at least one night in Guatapé, so you have time to experience the slow, colourful pace of the township. Also, if you hit bad traffic between Medellin and Guatapé (which is common) this can cut your sightseeing time in half.
Catch a local collectivo
One of my favourite ways to get around. And also one of the cheapest! Collectivos in Guatapé are jeeps that you can flag down on the side of the road, or in town, and they’ll take you anywhere between Guatapé and Peñol townships. They have bench seats in the back, and you can jump on and off wherever you need to on the main highway. It’s a great way to meet some of the locals.
Jump in a tuk tuk!
Tuk tuks are literally everywhere here. They have plain white ones (BORING) and crazily decorated ones which are colourful inside and out, often sporting disco lights and giant speakers.
Catch the local bus
The public bus runs between Peñol and Guatapé on a regular basis, and you can flag this down anywhere on the side of the road. It’s around the same price as a collectivo, and is one of the cheapest options to get to and from the town centre.
Uber or taxi
These are the most expensive options – as they will charge you for a two way trip if you’re heading from the town centre to your accommodation outside town. This is because they have to cover their mileage back into town, which can be a long way.
The upside to catching ubers and taxis is that they’ll drop you off at your door rather than having to walk from the main road down to your hotel or hostel, which is handy when it’s raining.
Hitch a ride with friendly locals
We were offered a couple of rides into town by locals who obviously took pity on the two sunburnt, dishevelled gringos standing on the side of the road. We took the rides, and they were both lovely people who were excited to practice speaking some English with us.
Note: If you get offered a ride and you DON’T feel comfortable saying yes to the offer, it’s okay. Always trust your instincts and wait for a collectivo or the bus.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU STAY IN GUATAPÉ?
While day trips are popular to Guatapé, there can sometimes be major traffic problems on the winding roads. These can make your 2-hour trip anywhere up to 5 hours long – which means there won’t be much time to see the town.
Weekend traffic heading over the hills from Medellin can also be hectic with locals heading to the country, so allow for extra commuting time
I would recommend 2 nights as a comfortable stay in Guatapé. This gives you enough time to explore the town and surrounding areas at a leisurely pace, and appreciate its unique and picturesque setting.
We stayed here for 2 weeks, as we were busy with work, and wanted to explore the lake and township at a leisurely pace.
WHERE TO STAY IN GUATAPÉ
There are plenty of hotels, hostels, and fincas to book both in the town centre, and in the surrounding lakeside districts.
We stayed in accommodation that we booked via Booking.com. Howeverrr…..it was resort-style accommodation that was ridiculously noisy pretty much 24/7.
Colombians, it turns out, go to the country to party – not to relax and chill.
So if you plan to work online in Guatapé, make sure you take some noise-cancelling headphones. You could also book a private house (finca) if you need maximum peace and quiet!
Hotel Santa Maria de las Aguas
This resort style setting of Hotel Santa Maria de las Aguas is incredibly beautiful – but noisy.
When we stayed, there was also a lot of construction going on around the property, together with banging club music at the pool, lots of screaming children, and loud Latino accordion ballads that the builders were using to try and drown out the banging club music.
Note: this level of sound chaos is kind of normal for Colombia.
If you’re here for pure enjoyment then this hotel is in a fantastic spot, and the view of El Peñol across the lake is unbeatable.
To get into town, you can walk about 8 minutes up to the main road and flag down your choice of transport (keep an eye out for the bright orange dinosaur house on the way!).
It will cost you $2,500 pesos on the bus to get to the town square, or you can grab one of the frequent collectivos for the same amount.
If you see a tuk tuk, it will cost you $20,000 pesos to get from here into Guatape township. We generally caught collectivos into town, and tuk tuks on the way back to our hotel.
The internet here is fast and stable – if you have the right room. We got “upgraded” but quickly found there was no wifi signal, so we downgraded our room to the upper terrace area, which was also cool and shady, with a view over the lake.
Check availability and book your stay at Hotel Santa Maria
Hotel Soy Local Guatapé
We loved the lake surroundings of Guatapé so much that we decided to stay another week before heading back to Medellin.
It was not.
The rooms had paper thin walls, and the property was wired up with speakers pumping out yet more accordian ballads, so there was literally nowhere on the grounds you could go to escape it.
I read the reviews again and had somehow overlooked all the ones that said “was unable to sleep for a whole week” and “make sure you bring earplugs”.
While the internet was fast and stable, I wouldn’t recommend this place as somewhere to work from for a week, but if you’re just staying a couple of days then it’s a nice base. It also has free kayaks to explore the lake in.
Check availability and book your stay at Soy Local Guatapé
WHAT TO PACK FOR GUATAPÉ
Sunscreen: I don’t want to sound like your mum or anything, but WEAR SUNSCREEN. Colombia can go from rain to sun in a matter of minutes, and you will burn fast – especially if it’s summer, and even more especially if you go out on the water. I always carry Kiehl’s sunblock in my daypack, because my naturally pasty complexion means I burn instantly when I’m in direct sunlight.
Swimwear — there are plenty of options to swim to Guatapé, from pools, to waterfalls, to the lake itself. So pack a swimsuit in case you need to cool off!
Motion sickness things – if winding roads make you want to barf, you might want to pack sea bands or motion sickness patches for the journey from Medellin to Guatapé. The bus can also get super hot if it’s a sunny day, so it’s best to be prepared for the worst.
FIND MORE THINGS TO DO IN GUATAPÉ
I absolutely loved Guatapé and would recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a place that’s uniquely Colombian. If I’m in Medellin again at any point, I’ll definitely be going back (just with better accommodation planning for work!)
Here’s some more things to do when you’re there:
- TRAVEL TIPS AND RESOURCES
- Find cheap flights
I use Kayak, Skyscanner, and Expedia to find the best deals on flights. This often means flying late night or early morning – so if you’re working remotely, make sure you plan around this.
- Book accommodation
I always use Booking.com for my first stop in any city. These tend to be hotels, so it’s easy for your taxi or Uber drive to find them, which is a huge relief if you arrive in a strange city at 3am after a 19-hour flight and just want to sleeeeeep. For longer stays, I use Airbnb (always, always filter these listings by superhosts and make sure to read the reviews before you book), Hostel World to book budget stays, and VRBO (the new challenger to Airbnb – way less fees and great accommodation options),
If you’re a pet lover, you can stay FREE in a local house anywhere in the world with Trusted Housesitters. I’ve used this a couple of times and it was awesome. If you travel long term and miss the companionship of fluffy friends – borrowing other people’s pets (and saving $$$$ on accommodation at the same time) is a huge win.
If you need a rental car, I recommend RentalCars.com or Kayak to find the cheapest options and compare companies.
- Travel Insurance
Yes. You need it. I recommend both SafetyWing and World Nomads to keep you and your gear protected. These companies have monthly policies specifically for digital nomads and long-term travellers. I’m currently using SafetyWing, as it’s one of the only companies that covers travellers for COVID-related issues right now.
- Book a tour
I’m not big on guided tours, but I check out Get Your Guide and Viator to find must-see places in every new city I go to. If you love tours, these are the two top sites to search for and book tours around the world.
- Luggage storage
Stuck in that awkward zone between two accommodation points – or waiting all day for a flight? Stasher has 1,000 locations in 250 countries that you can store your luggage in while you go out and do fun stuff. Because carrying everything you own with you all day is not fun.
Rachael is a full-time digital nomad and freelance copywriter for B2B and SaaS companies. She’s worked with brands like Unbounce, Biteable, Datacom, Viddyoze, and Owler.