I am a firm believer in trying to have experiences as a local would, not foregoing the famous sites, but rather getting there in an alternative, more authentic manner that ultimately gives you a truer sense of place and culture. In my research for my month in Medellin, I knew that I absolutely had to visit Guatape, a colorful town adjacent to the giant Piedra del Penol surrounded by waterways dotted with islands. Although you can easily get here from Medellin by bus on your own, you miss everything in between. When a friend traveling with me on Remote Year mentioned a hippie van tour with a local to Guatape, I jumped on the opportunity.
We set off from Medellin at 9am in Rafa, our tour guide's, rustic Ford van and headed up the mountains surrounding the city. Rafa, in true hippie form, was wearing corduroys, a colorful "do it in a van" tshirt, and had hair possibly longer than mine. About 45 mins outside the city we pulled over to the side of the road and picked up a musician who proceeded to sing us several songs while playing the drum and a unique harmonica-like wooden instrument as we continued to drive up the mountain. Only in Colombia?
Turning off onto a dirt road we arrived at a colorful home complete with a vegetable garden, a trampoline!!, and surrounding views. A handful of tables were set out with classic red and white checkerboard tablecloths and plates of food - freshly baked bread, tomatoes, a variety of fruit, nutella, arepas, and shakshuka like eggs in cast iron skillets. We quickly learned that this was Rafa's house and he and his family were treating us to brunch, a pleasant and delicious surprise.
Leaving Rafa's home was our first of several opportunities to ride on top of the van as we twisted up and down through the Colombian countryside, an experience I will surely not forget anytime soon. We stopped in a few small towns before arriving at a quiet pedestrian bridge spanning one of the many waterways in the area. Here, we jumped off said bridge, and spent some time swimming and lounging in the sunshine.
Photo by Bharath Mohan
After getting our fill of sun and water, we piled back into the van to head to the main attraction, the Piedra del Penol. The massive rock composed of quartz, feldspar, & mica juts to 7005 feet above sea level, and can be seen throughout the adjacent area. 740 steps, marked at intervals in yellow, take you to the top where you have stunning views of the water & islands surrounding the rock. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a mango michelada as you take in the view. (entry to the rock is 18,000 pesos or approx $6 not included in the tour fee)
While climbing and enjoy the views from La Piedra, Rafa and his right hand man Diego were cooking up a storm from the back of the van. We returned to blankets laid out on the grass and a spread consisting of three types of rice, 4-5 types of stir fry with different ingredients, 4 salads, potatoes, beans, fresh passionfruit juice, and more. Everything was flavorful & delicious, and we subsequently wiped all the dishes clean. Rafa & Diego reaffirmed my belief that true Colombian food cooked by locals is far better than anything you will find in a traditional restaurant in this country.
The last main stop of the day was to the actual town of Guatape, a colorful enclave known for the zocalos that adorn the bottom of the facades (not to be confused with zocalos in Mexico). Each zocalo is selected by the owner of the home and most often represents their trade or profession. There is one craftsman and his apprentice that create the majority of the zocalos in town. On our return journey to Medellin we made two final stops, at the town of San Antonio de Pereira for the local favorite dessert bar Postres San Antonio and up on the mountains overlooking Medellin to take in the city lights.
Photo by Ash Edmonds
At the end of the day, Rafa told us we were the best group he had ever had in his 3 years of touring folks around his country - an appropriate end to a fulfilling day. The whole day cost 100,000 pesos or roughly $35/person at current exchange rates - Book your tour with Rafa today here! If you're still not sold, here is a video that three of my fellow remotes (WeSideTrip) put together of the day: