Guatapé: Medellín’s little lakeside town

IMG_3304
The scenery of Guatapé

While Colombia’s major cities have undergone a Renaissance in tourism in the past decade, many of its smaller towns remain quiet bastions of pastoral life less visited by tourists. Located 80 km east of Medellín’s, Guatapé is one such town, boasting a population of less than 6,000 inhabitants and hundreds of kilometers of lakes and forests. While primarily a farming community, part the region was intentionally inundated after construction of at 2600 MW hydroelectric dam by Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) in the 1970’s along the Nare River. The resulting reservoir flooded more than 2,000 hectares of land, creating the patchwork of emerald hills and lakes you see above. The beautiful scenery and local charm combine to make Guatapé a relaxing getaway only a few  hours away from the hustle and bustle of Medellín.

IMG_3275
The edge of town

Getting there:

While there are many tours available, most pack too much into a single day and then drop you back off in Medellín, AND can be pretty expensive to boot. Guatapé is a place to slow down and enjoy the scenery, so plan to spend at least one night in the town to truly savor the experience. This means that planning your own transportation is cheapest and easiest, since overnight stays tend to drive up tour costs. The cheapest way to get to Guatapé is by bus from Medellín’s North Bus Station, located at the Caribe stop on the metro line. There are two bus lines that run to Guatapé, but because it’s a popular weekend destination with the locals keep in mind:

    1. As of writing, buses from Medellín to Guatapé run from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, buses from Guatapé to Medellín run from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, and tickets should cost around 13,500 COP ($4.50 USD) per person. Always double check bus times with staff at the station when you buy your tickets, because holidays change this schedule.
  • Try to plan your trip around low times, as the bus is far more pleasant to ride. As with most buses in Colombia, the driver will pick up people along the way and it can get pretty cramped during busy times.
  • If you’re planning on taking the last bus back to Medellín, buy your ticket at the Guatapé bus kiosk at least an hour before departure or on the previous day. The final bus tends to sell out in advance, leaving last minute travelers stranded in the town. While this isn’t the worst place to be stranded, it can put a damper on any plans you had back in Medellín.

P.S. We were able to successfully negotiate at Medellín for a lower bus fare than that stated above, but failed to get a lower rate when we tried to negotiate in Guatapé.

IMG_3395
A street in Guatapé with one of the local moto-taxis

Stay:

Located on the quiet eastern side of town, Lake View Hostel is an affordable backpacker accommodation with several perks. The building is clean and airy, with a central hangout area on the first floor. Lake View’s staff are bilingual (English/Spanish), and can offer great recommendations on what to do and where to eat in the local area. They’re also insanely nice–they gave us a whole 4-bed room for a private room rate when the private rooms got overbooked. When we visited in December, rooms cost 46,000 COP (~ $15.50 USD) per night via HostelWorld.

Asking the staff about Guatapé’s current events also nets interesting stories. As of December 2016, the reservoir is the fullest it’s ever been and Guatapé’s waterfront real estate prices are soaring. “People are buying like crazy, and it is crazy,” a staff member laughs and tells us, “because this water doesn’t belong to Guatapé. It could disappear at any time.” He explains that the reservoir exists solely to store water for EPM’s dam, which in turn creates hydroelectric energy on demand. If EPM finds additional buyers for electricity, it draws more water from the reservoir through the dam, lowering water levels and leaving previously waterfront properties landlocked. The water level is currently high because last year Venezuela defaulted on paying EPM, so EPM cut them off. The water level has been rising ever since. Guatapé may be a small town, but even isn’t isolated from global events: the economic crisis in Venezuela is fueling a real estate bubble here.

Eat:

Guatapé’s local specialty is trout (trucha) that is caught locally from the reservoir. Nearly every place will offer a version of this, either grilled in foil with butter or fried on the griddle. Steak and other grilled meats are also common. Most plates will come with rice, plantains or french fries, and a small salad. And as with elsewhere in Colombia, fresh fruit juice is easy to come by in most restaurants.

After asking both hostel staff and locals for the best restaurant in town, we found that the overwhelming consensus was La Fogata, a grill located conveniently along the town’s main street right next to the bus kiosk (where you’re first dropped off in town). La Fogata serves grilled meat of every kind, from steak and pork to fish, including trout. The prices here are high for Colombia–expect to pay around 50,000 COP (~ $17 USD) for two entrees and drinks. But the fine preparation of dishes like the fried trout and grilled salmon make it worth it. If you’re feeling particularly carnivorous, you can also go all-out and order their steak, which comes smothered in grilled bacon and a mushroom-cream sauce.

IMG_3268
The open grill at La Fogata

There’s also a second, more secret culinary specialty in this town: chocolate. Hidden in a corner of the Plazoleta de Los Zócalos, La Tiendita de Chocolate is dedicated to the small scale, bean-to-bar creation of chocolate delights. Gourmet chocolates range from 2,000 COP ($0.67 USD) per piece to 5,000 COP ($ 1.67 USD) per bar. The focus here is on dark chocolate (although milk and white chocolate are available) and exciting flavors (think peppercorns, sea salt, and tequila). Each chocolate is handmade on the premises.

IMG_3413
Chocolates at La Tiendita de Chocolate

Do:

Despite its billing as a relaxing destination, Guatapé has a surprising amount to keep you busy for several days. Here’s a brief overview of what we found

#1. Take in the town’s charm

Guatapé may be small, but its narrow streets are packed with brightly-painted buildings and its open-air squares are gorgeous. It’s a local tradition to create panels of art on each building depicting floral patterns or scenes from pastoral life and the local area.

IMG_3391
Buildings with panels depicting La Piedra

Similarly, the local squares are decorated differently for each holiday. Take time to wander the streets and admire the houses and shops. Two particularly good places to visit are the local squares: Plazoleta de Los Zócalos is a square with open-air seating, restaurants, and souvenir shops, while Parque Guatapé is the main town square and a great place to people-watch.

IMG_3401
La Plazoleta de Los Zócalos–can you tell this one is a hit with the tourists?
IMG_3267
Parque Guatapé, with bright lights for Christmas

#2. Climb La Piedra

By far Guatapé’s most iconic attraction, La Piedra is a volcanic remnant that towers 200 meters (~650 ft) above the ground. Enterprising locals have built a stairway to the top, and for a small fee you can climb up and enjoy breathtaking views of the region. There’s even a shop at the top that sells ice cream as a reward for making the hike. Make sure you bring water, a hat, and sunblock, as the 740-stair climb can get hot.

IMG_3214
A view of La Piedra (upper left) from Guatapé

This rock goes by multiple names because both Guatapé and the neighboring town of Peñol claim ownership of it; you’ll often hear it referred to as either La Piedra Del Peñol or El Peñón de Guatapé by locals. I don’t know much about the history of the dispute and who’s in the right, but I hear it can be a touchy topic.

#3. Enjoy the water

With all that water in the reservoir, there are tons of aquatic activities to do, including a water park in the area and daily boat tours. To find any of these things, just walk down the main street (Calle 32, where you’re dropped off by the bus when arriving). You’ll find water taxis to take you around the reservoir or out to one of the uninhabited islands.

IMG_3196
Amusement rides and water slides along the waterfront

If you ask around at Lake View Hostel, they also know several areas for good trout fishing. There’s even a spot in the hills where you can fish and a local family will cook your catch up right away for you to enjoy.

IMG_3203
A sculpture along the waterfront

Guatapé may seem tiny, but our two days there were overpacked and we loved every minute of it. We can’t wait to go back.

Santa Marta – a sweet Colombian beach town and springboard for Tayrona

IMG_2410
A statue along the beach park in Santa Marta

After Cartagena, we arrived in another tropical beach town: Santa Marta. Though normally just used as a jumping-off point for Tayrona National Park (it’s a short 2-hour collective ride to the main entrance), we adored this town for its comfortable accommodations and amazing local food. We heard mixed things about Santa Marta from the internet before arriving, so to confirm a few things: yes, the city is not the cleanest – there’s tons of dust in the streets. Yes, the traffic can be insane – we learned to walk in the traffic jams. And yes, this beach party town can get sleeplessly loud at night – we brought earplugs. But between living off of fresh-squeezed juice of every kind of tropical fruit imaginable to walking the beach at sunset (still lovely in the rainy season, by the way), I don’t think we can complain.

Stay

We started our Santa Marta trip by checking into the dorms at La Villiana Hostel. Since the hostel also doubles as a bar, bring earplugs to ensure a good night’s sleep. Also bring your swimsuit because the hostel has a small pool for a midday dip on hot days.

IMG_2408
Sweet, cool relief: La Villiana’s pool offers a break from the midday heat. Here’s a window of the hostel reflected in the water.

From what we saw of the 16-bed dorm and 8-bed dorm that we stayed in, rooms at La Villiana are pretty nice by our hostel standards. The bunk beds were fairly comfortable, there were actual stairs (not ladders) leading up to the top beds, and each bed also came equipped with a cubby that had a reading light and two outlets for charging electronic devices. (I thought Stoytcho had a picture of this, but sadly I couldn’t find it.)

They also had lockers available and drawers underneath the bunks for your bags, which does away with tripping over everyone’s stuff when I have to use the restroom at night. The only downside I found to the rooms is that they can get insanely cold at night because they turn on air conditioning and fans. It may help some people sleep, but because they only handed out sheets I was frigid the first night. I slept in a sleeping bag the rest of the nights because attempts to ask them about additional layers ended in failure (although they have a sign saying they have them). So think of this hostel as a BYO blanket kind of place.

We went over to Tayrona National Park after a couple of days here, and the hostel was happy to store the extra stuff we didn’t want to lug in with us. Whether or not this storage service cost money weirdly depended on which front desk staff you asked, so we asked a couple of people until one person pointed us to the storage location and we dropped a reusable grocery bag there, tied shut – I’m not sharing that one to keep everyone else’s stuff safe. When we came back our stuff was still there and untouched, although buried by other people’s bags, so we can happily say that your stuff is safe here as long a no one sees something tempting.  Don’t store anything that might be sensitive to having 15 heaping travel packs piled on it, though.

Eat

Ahhh, this is where Santa Marta really shined. There were two spend categories of food: street cheap and restaurant expensive. Being us, we stuck mostly with the street cheap and enjoyed eating at the amazing street markets. Our local haunt was the street market that takes over Calle 16 between Carrera 5 and Carrera 6, just east of Catedral de Santa Marta.

IMG_2395
People gather for dinner at the street market
IMG_2397
Grillfest: get kebabs, potatoes, and arepas all grilled to perfection at the street market.

The market specialized in pizzas, fried foods, and fresh juice, with at least two stands selling any given thing from just before lunch until around 8:00 pm. Here’s an example of the delicious abominations you could get there, a heaping plate of “animal fries” for USD $2 (COP 6,200):

IMG_2404
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here: beneath this pile of fried potato skins, cheese, sausage slices, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions lies half a pound of french fries.

Our other category of food, the fancy restaurants, was located on a long stretch of the narrow pedestrian-only Carrera 3 between Calle 16 and Calle 20. These restaurants range from $4 to $20 USD an entrée and include a Chipotle-ish DIY burrito place (Barbacoa Santa Marta), an amazing arepa café and juice bar (Lulo), and some extremely high-end restaurants (Ouzo, places across from Parque de los Novios). We ate here only a couple of times, but that extra couple of dollars buys you some amazing food:

 

IMG_2701
Arepa tower!  (From Lulo)
IMG_2699
Mixed juices from Lulo.

Lulo offers heaping arepas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as mixes of delicious tropical juices. For USD $20 we each got a juice and arepa piled high with veggies and protein. The staff are bilingual, making ordering especially easy of you don’t know any Spanish. And it’s STILL cheaper than a comparable restaurant in the U.S.*

Do

We spent a total of 3 days in Santa Marta, so we didn’t get to explore much. But we did manage to find the beach, which hugs the west side of the town. Like some places in L.A., the beach is part boardwalk and park called Camellon, with steps leading down to the sand and waves. There are vendors selling snacks and souvenirs in Camellon, and from talking with locals we found out it’s safe to wander until about 8 or 9 pm, when everyone closes up shop and goes home. This makes it the perfect place to catch the sunset:

IMG_2412
Sunset over the beach in Parque Camellon, Santa Marta.

Though it was rainy season, the temperatures were also still fairly warm and the water was comfortable:

 

IMG_2414
People swim at sunset in Parque Camellon, Santa Marta.

 

Apart from that, we spent our time here relaxing and planning our trip to Tayrona National Park.

*My reference here is Rubamba, our beloved arepa place back in New Haven, CT. There two arepas and drinks would run you about USD $25 before tip, so a total of roughly $30 for a night out there. Of course this price for a nice night out might be comparable to some other U.S. restaurants, but overall it still runs cheaper.