Chances are you won’t have spent much time in Medellín before you come across a picture of El Peñol (daily 8am–5pm; COP$10,000), a bizarre 200-meter-high granite rock—locals claim it as their very own Sugar Loaf Mountain. El Peñol rises sheer above a beautiful tapestry of turquoise lakes (created by a hydroelectric dam in 1975) known as the Embalse del Peñol. If you make the ascent via a spiral staircase of 649 steps (which takes around 35 min.), you will be rewarded with impressive views over the lakes. The “GU” painted onto the rock face was originally intended to spell “GUATAPÉ”; in 1988, a vehement cadre of Guatapé’s denizens attempted to take possession of El Peñol, much to the chagrin of local residents. The painters were swiftly condemned, but the graffiti still remains.
Some 3km (about 2 miles) from El Peñol, the town of Guatapé (founded in 1811) boasts all the salubrious trappings of a charming lakeside hamlet, with narrow streets punctuated with rainbow-colored colonial homes, ornate churches, a convivial main plaza, and relaxing boat rides (if you avoid the weekend madness). It’s the sort of town where you can happily settle into vacation mode for a day or two, or three. One block from the lake, the main square, Plaza de Simón Bolívar, is dominated by the pretty Greco-Roman Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Carmen with a distinctive white facade enlivened with decorative red brushstrokes.
Guatapé is famed for its zócalos—ornamental relief panels (rather like frescos) painted in kaleidoscopic colors—that adorn a large number of the town’s single story colonial structures. The traditional Spanish architectural embellishment has been given a local spin; Guatapé’s residents have incorporated fanciful representations of families, folkloric symbols, historical events, and tributes to famed local artists (look out for the homage to Botero) into their designs, with a quite magical effect. The whole town feels like a public art space. While you can happily spend a few hours wandering around the town without an agenda, for the finest examples of zócalos, head to Calle de los Recuerdos (Carrera 28), or Plazoleta de los Zócalos, a short walk from the main square.
A standard feature of most tours to Guatapé is a boat ride (around 3 hr.) on the lake. Boat excursions take in Viejo Peñol, a submerged town (only a church cross poignantly rises above the water) and/or La Manuela, a derelict lakefront finca that once belonged to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. On the lakefront malecón, you can sign up for a tour (there are numerous companies with similar prices, around COP$12,000 per person). Boats depart at 2pm during the week and on the weekend boats leave when they are full, which happens fast when Guatapé swells with day trippers, and with music blasting and liquor flowing, it’s a party. By far the best time to visit is during the week. For a more thrilling vantage point, there’s also a Cable Paseo (Mon–Fri noon–6pm, Sat and Sun 9am–6pm; COP$10,000), a zip wire suspended across a section of the lake.
There are hourly bus connections from Medellín’s Terminal Norte to Guatapé (2 hr., from 6am–7pm); buses pass through El Peñol en route to Guatapé. Willys run between Guatapé and El Peñol (COP$4,000), and will drop you at the entrance to La Piedra (COP$3,000). Returning to Medellín, the last bus is at 6:30pm or 7:45pm on Sundays and holidays. Weekend buses are always booked solid, so reserve your seat in advance.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.