La Piedra: A photoessay for would-be travellers

We set out for the La Piedra at 7:00 am on foot, walking westward along Calle 32. At the edge of town, the sidewalk gave way to a dirt path that ran alongside the road for a few hundred meters, then rose up onto a ridge. We trudged upward with our day packs, and at the top crossed a bridge over the road.

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The bridge across the road

The path on the other side was shaded from the already hot sun by trees and bramble. Blackberries and blueberries grew wild alongside the path, and the hardpack of the dirt suggested this was not just a hiking trail for tourists, but something still used by the locals to travel between Guatapé and El Peñol. The path dipped back down to run alongside the road, passing the lakeshore and local swimming holes. Then it disappeared entirely, and we were left to walk along the road. We had gone less than a hundred meters when a car passing by us honked and slowed. “¿A dónde van?” the driver shouted to us. “¡La Piedra!” we shouted back. What followed was the standard price haggling – he offered us a ride for 8000 pesos, and we laughed and declined. “We’re already halfway there, and we don’t have much money for a ride.” He laughed too and said “Fine, fine. But either you pay for a ride, or you have to pay for new shoes when those wear out from walking. 3000 pesos.” We accepted, and got in the car.

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Our ride to La Piedra

The ride reduced our remaining journey time to mere minutes. We sat in the back on leather seats as our driver quizzed us on the usual. “Where are you from?” “The United States” “Ah, traveling?” “Yes, around the world!” “Hm, wow…” We arrived at the base of La Piedra, and our driver insisted on driving us up the hill to the entrance. At the top he let us out and we paid. That’s when I got a good look at the car. Clean and polished, it was clearly a prized possession. We didn’t get picked up by a taxi driver, but by an enterprising guy out for his daily drive. I asked to take a picture. “Sure,” he smiled, and polished the hood of the car.

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Our driver shines his car so I can take a photo

La Piedra, the monolith

You don’t realize how tall La Piedra is until you’re at its base. At 200 meters high, this granite monolith towers over everything else in the countryside. And with everything that sticks out from the surrounding countryside, there have been lots of ideas about how it got there, from fallen meteorite to aliens (I couldn’t find any source on the internet to confirm that anyone actually believed this). Geologic studies of the rock, though, suggest that it’s the natural product of the shifting tectonic plates; as the Nazca and South American tectonic plates collided, they pushed up the cooled remnants of giant, ancient magma chambers. La Piedra is one of these remnants, called granitoid plutons (described here in these video flavors: fun or extensive). Millions of years of environmental exposure then weathered La Piedra into the smooth monolith.

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The stairs to the top of La Piedra, as viewed from the bottom

While the native people of the area originally worshipped the stone, the local farmers largely viewed it as a nuisance. After three locals scaled it for the first time in 1954 using wooden planks wedged into a crevice, someone must have realized the tourist potential. The three climbers were immortalized with plaques at the base of La Piedra, and one even got his own statue.

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One of the three climbers that first summited La Piedra

Nowadays, climbing La Piedra is pretty easy. An enterprising individual or group from Guatapé has built a set of stairs to the top, and 740 vertical steps upward will take you to the highest point. And at 18,000 pesos per person for foreigners, they’re probably making a fair bit of money. This roused the neighboring town of El Peñol, who also laid claim to La Piedra. To put an end to the dispute, Guatapé once commissioned painters to write the town’s name on the rock. They got as far as “G” and a single line of the “U” before a supposed mob from El Peñol and legal action put a permanent stop to the painting (the “GI” can still be seen today). The anecdote seems amusingly provincial until you realize that it’s a zero-sum fight for tourism in a country where a quarter of people live in poverty. And that tourist money means less backbreaking work in the fields.

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La Piedra, from entrance kiosk to the top

We bought our tickets at the kiosk above and began to climb. While the staircase is an impressive engineering feat, it’s easy to find places where poor planning and reality collide. There are seemingly random platforms separating staircases, some sets of stairs lead to nowhere, and looking down the whole thing looks like a funhouse.

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A view down the flights of stairs. This picture includes stairs a flight below us (left), stairs from the ascent (top-right), and a dead-viewing platform (bottom-right). Yeah, it’s disorienting.

The stairs aren’t the only thing clinging to La Piedra. As we ascend, we can see plants growing directly on the rock face. They’re bromeliads–plants that we’re used to seeing on trees in the jungle. Here, they use their adhesive roots to cling to the rock, while their leaves capture rainfall and mist for water, channeling it down to the roots. This same water carries all of the nutrients the plant needs, often in the form of fine dust blown from around the world.

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Bromeliads flourish on the sheer rockface of La Piedra

We keep climbing, and about halfway up we reach a small viewing platform with a Virgin Mary statue, somehow lugged up 350 stairs. From the number of rosaries, it looks like many come here to pray.

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A statue of the Virgin Mary greets climbers halfway up. The sheer volume of rosaries suggests this is a popular prayer location.

Finally, after 647 stairs, we’ve reached the top of the rock! The remaining 93 stairs are part of a tower built on the top of the rock, but we’ve got to take a breather. We get some ice cream and enjoy the scenery. It’s nearly 10:00 am now, and the sun’s rays are intense, searing everything they touch. We seek shelter in the shade.

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Resting at the top of La Piedra, before we climb the tower.

Even this high up, we’re not alone. Small wasps flit around, lapping up any moisture they can find. They’re particularly fond of drops of molten ice cream.

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A wasp rests with us in the shade. Despite their small size (they’re as large as a grain of rice), they do sting, although the pain is brief.

After half an hour’s rest, we tackle the last 93 stairs to the top. The tower is narrow and has a single winding staircase to the top, with three side doorways that open to souvenir shops. The stairwell is brilliantly built to only accommodate traffic in one direction, so as people come down the stairs we have to duck into one of these shops, giving us a chance to browse the wares. If we didn’t have ten more months of travel after this where I had to carry every possession on my back, I probably would’ve bought something.

Finally, after 83 steps, we emerge onto a viewing platform where the final ten steps to the top await. We take turns taking pictures of each other from the vantage point of step number 740:

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The view from the top of the tower.

Looking down, everything seems miniature. Tiny houses and trees dot the lakeshore, a palette of forest green vegetation on emerald green water.

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Houses along the waterfont below us

Slivers of road snake off into the distance, back towards Medellín, which helped create Guatapé’s aquatic beauty. The water pictured here isn’t from a natural lake, but a reservoir created when the public utility of Medellín, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), built a hydroelectric dam along the Nare River in 1970. The project resulted in the resettlement of 5,000 people and eventually flooded more than 2,000 hectares of land, including the original town of El Peñol and part of Guatapé. It’s also driven a boom in tourism, with boat tours and aquatic play parks.

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Calle 32 snakes around the water and runs back toward Medellín

The reservoir is visible from the ground, but the scale of change it wrought on the landscape isn’t evident until we come up here. A speedboat slides soundlessly along the water’s surface, leaving ripples that radiate outward for miles.

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A speedboat on the water leaves ripples that extend for miles.

The reservoir stretches seemingly endlessly, flooded valleys interrupted by islands and peninsulas. The only noise besides the chatter of tourists is the wind whooshing across the platform. The clouds drift lazily by in the distance. We could stay here for hours watching them go by, but we’re getting sunburned.

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View stretching out toward towards the mountains

We climb back down the tower and then head down the descending stairwell, which is a separate path mercifully shaded by the ascending stairwell. We watch people’s heads bob up and down along the ascending path, and looking out, we can barely see the reservoir and forests on the ground.

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Taking the descending stairs, with the ascending stairs zig-zagging above us.

Seven-hundred and forty stairs later, we’re back on the ground at the base of La Piedra. We’ve heard rumors from town that there are caves at the base of the rock, so we skip the main road down and take a dirt path that hugs the side of the rock. We wander through what I’m pretty sure is someone’s backyard. The path continues alongside La Piedra, eventually leaving behind houses for open field. Then, a quarter of the way around the rock, we hit a barbed wire fence. We could cross it, but it’s been patched several times, so whoever owns this land clearly wants this fence here, so we abandon our quest.

Back at the entrance La Piedra, we ask a few locals about the existence of caves. No one we ask knows of any caves in the area, and one man points us out to the mountains in the distance. If there are any caves into La Piedra, they’re a well-kept secret–the entrance may be on private property, or may have been submerged by waters of reservoir. It’s possible there never were caves, that their existence was a myth. But without exploring the whole area, it’s impossible to know.

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An orb weaver spider (likely Argiope argentata) weaves a web in the weeds at the base of La Piedra

Technical Specs

  • Getting there: Take a moto-taxi or walk westward from Guatape along the main road, Calle 32.
  • Cost: We spent 3000 COP on a ride halfway there, 18,000 COP per person for admission, and 4,000 COP for an ice cream at the top. Total: 43,000 COP (~$14.00 USD)
  • Time spent: 1.5 hours travelling to/from, 3 hours at La Piedra.

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