One of the (many) great things about Colombia is it’s multiple festivos throughout the calendar year. In addition to Navidad (Christmas) and Semana Santa (Holy Week, or Spring Break), there are several long weekends with a Friday or a Monday acting as the “festivo.” However, ask any Colombian what the festivo is celebrating, and most of them will be unable to tell you, mainly because there are so many in the year and also because, well, no one really knows, but any day reserved to celebrate and relax in Colombia is greatly-accepted, regardless of the reason.
For this festivo weekend, with an added day off for celebrating Dia de la Maestra (teaching is awesome), a quick getaway to Medellin and Guatapé fit perfectly into four days and three nights. An Avianca flight booked days before whooshed easily up in the air and back down in about forty minutes; another flawless flight on the favorable Colombian airline.
After landing in Medellin, transport to the city was had on the community buseta for a barato $8,600.00 COP, versus a taxi for the quoted $50,000.0o (más o menos) COP. Gracias a Díos for public transportation in South America. As the little buseta ripped its way over winding hilly terrain at daredevil speeds, I repeated the Spanish word for rollercoaster outloud “montaña rusa, montaña ruuuuusaaaaa!” as my neighboring passenger laughed at my fear/excitement.
Arriving to my guest home, I was greeted by a beautiful woman named Gloria who welcomed me, fed me, and asked me questions about my life in Colombia, before wishing me a good night’s sleep. Waking to the smell of café con leche and warm arepas, desayuna was enjoyed with my other host, Juan Fernando, prior to catching the metro to the terminal de transporte. A large, bustling, half-indoor, half-outdoor estacíon reminiscent of the one in Guayaquil, people rushed up and down the stairs of the four floors.
The buses to Guatapé, located on the bottom floor next to the departure area, flashed neon signs advertising the small town about two hours away, as well as it’s main attraction, La Piedra Del Peñol, a gigantic monolith surrounded by a man-made lake and sprawling fincas and ranchos: the main reason for this personal journey to the land of the Paisa.
The bus, priced at $12,500 COP one way, and packed with people (and one small dog), provided a breezy ride on twisty, winding mountain roads through lush green rolling countryside. This interior terrain of Colombia is spectacular to see, and the climate – know by many as “eternal spring,” was a welcome relief to the rising heat of Cartagena.
Stopping to pick up vendors and drop off passengers, the bus continued until at last, appearing in the vast landscape like a humpback whale rising from a foamy green sea, it was finally visible: El Peñol, which left this gringa without words at first sight.
As the bus drove closer, finally passing the giant rock and rolling its way through Guatapé, I was so enamored by the scenery that I missed the little town and had to get off after the bus passed over the river, taking a colorful, speedy moto car back across.
At my first stop, Lake View Hostel, where I “booked” my reservation by emailing the owner, Greg, a day before. I was greeted warmly by a gentleman named Johnny who proudly showed me the relatively-new hospedaje, my home for the night.
Following a conversation with Johnny about Colombian life (and how we both love it), I took a moto car to El Peñol for $10,000 COP. It should be noted that collectivos, a rideshare in the back of a Nissan Patrol or similar vehicle with other passengers, are also available for about $3,000.
Regardless of the cost of transport, ascending the giant entry to El Peñol was almost as magnificent as standing before this huge monolith in person. Prior to moving to Colombia in 2014, this giant edifice, made of minerals including quartz, feldspar and mica, and rising 2,135 metres (7,005 ft) nearly straight up, has fascinated me and been at the top of my list of places to see in Colombia.
Fortunately, after paying $12,500 COP and climbing all 700 steps to the top, El Peñol did not disappoint. The climb up is momentarily brutal but overall exhilarating. Watching visitors from ages 3 to (possibly) 93 climb the skinny, carved rock staircase in the side of El Peñol was an adventure in itself.
Once at the top, the extraordinary view of this beautiful, diverse country made every step worthwhile. As the wind whipped around people taking selfies and staring out over the sprawling terrain of greens and blues, it was almost impossible not to feel a spiritual connection with Colombia.
After a good hour at the top, the climb back down El Peñol was refreshing and easily achieved. Piling into a double moto car disguised as a Chiva and able to hold six people comfortably, I squeezed in as a seventh, riding on one of the two batteries to either side of the driver.
Yep, a “seat” of about 50 square centimeters (8 inches) was my ride space for the 15-minute journey down twisty, tree-lined roads. Praying to keep my balance steady, I cozied up to the driver over a few bumps, while he delivered our party safely, as promised.
Walking through the colorful little town of Guatapé was a huge treat for panoramic-vista laden eyes, listening to the sound of a televised futbol game off in the distance, as families ate early dinners on their multi-level patios.
As evening settled on Guatapé, colorful lanterns, strung on the tourist boats that cruise the river, dotted the horizon of the night sky, like a rainbow of low-hung stars.
Returning to Lakeview Hostel at dinnertime meant trying some bites from Thai Terrace, a restaurant open to the public and located on the rooftop patio. Two types of Spring Rolls, fresh and flash fried, were served with interesting dipping sauces – peanut to compliment the fresh and spicy plum to enhance the fried. Both were excellent and presented prettily on small plates.
The next morning, before the bus ride back to Medellin ($12500 COP), an early start meant my choice of horseback riding companions from the vaqueros who congregate in the centro. I chose Alberto, with his wide smile and friendly “Buenos dias, mona linda, a la orden.” His smooth greeting roped me in like a baby calf to a seasoned cowboy.
The air was crisp and dewy, and the poncho I had bargained down the evening before was well-appreciated, as my horse Champagne galloped along old stone roads.
Riding through the town streets, we headed out to the monastery, about an hour’s ride uphill, through back roads, passing little fincas and roadside tiendas.
After horseback riding, a few hours walking along the malecón in Guatapé revealed a lively, friendly town excited to cater to tourists and locals alike. Vendors accepted price wagers cheerfully, and those preparing drinks and snacks made profitable advances in the warm, sunny weather.
A hat for $18,000 COP was haggled down to $15,000 just in time for the sun to start beating down. Passing through colorful street after colorful street, it was easy to become enamored with this tiny picturesque town.
Returning from Guatapé to Medellin felt a little sad, like going from a colorful bike with a banana seat to a giant 10-speed bicycle overnight.
As the huge city appeared in the valley, and the terminal de transportes ushered in the return bus, and a grateful sentiment was expressed for a safe journey and the humbling awe of making another dream come true.
Exhausted from the past day and a half, I slept for nine hours straight after arriving to Gloria and Juan Fernando’s. The next morning, and last day in Paisaland, I set out for a free walking tour with Real City Tours, booked online two nights before.
Fortunately, I was able to avoid being one of 85 people on a waiting list by jumping in at the exact moment the online reservations opened up.
Meeting at a metro station, our group of twenty-four listened intently as our guide, Juliana, born in the US and raised in Medellin, delivered interesting, fact-filled monologues about her giant metropolis.
Adept in holding a crowd’s attention, with a university degree in storytelling, Juliana discussed everything from business to politics to history, enthusiastically stating statistics and reciting remembrances about the second largest city in Colombia.
While the camera-happy tourist in me longed to see more buildings and artwork along the tour, the extranjera in me curiously soaked in the richness of Medellin and it’s powerful vibe as the second largest city in Colombia.
Juliana spoke volumes when she described the ideal Paisa as a hard-working, intelligent, proud (but shrewd) businessperson whose manners are foremost in conversation, occasionally overshadowing the advantage of a deal but still welcoming a savvy deal-maker.
While Juan Valdez lookalikes can still be seen in the area surrounding Medellin, this fictitious character based on a hard-working coffee farmer who loves his country and his job, is really not too far off, he’s just evolved with modern times.
On the last stop of our tour, Juliana stood beside a metal sculpture that was blown to bits by dynamite during the 1980’s, and pieced back together as a memorial to tragedy, loss and bad memories. Though the city wanted the statue demolished, beloved Colombian artist Fernando Botero insisted it be displayed, stating that if we forget the past, we are destined to repeat it.
The statue remains on display, next to a newer version, so Medellin would not forget how far it has come since the crime-laden days of Pablo Escobar in the 1980’s, and the years of extreme political corruption the 1990’s.
Working my way back through the Centro to catch the buseta to the airport, I reflected on the incredible diversity of Colombia and felt grateful for my new life here. I said a little prayer of thanks for every incredible place there is to see, the amistad and warmth of the people, the fantastic culture and, especially, the bonus of festivo days to experience it all.