No trip to Antioquia is complete without at least a day spent wandering through the colourful streets of Colombia's most colourful town - Guatapé.
Here's our guide on how to make the most of your time in this great little pueblo.
climb el peñol for a great view
The whole area was flooded in the 1970s to make way for a huge hydro-electric dam. This resulted in a village or two being relocated and tourism having a much bigger role to play in the economy given that all the fields were, well, submerged.
A probably unintended benefit of this project however was the creation of a pretty great view. The signs in town call it 'the best view in the world' (it's not) but it's definitely worth seeing for yourself.
And all you have to do is climb a lot of steep stairs (740 to be precise) up the side of a bloody big rock. You will be knackered (Andrew is not faking it in the picture!)
How to get there: We've read that some people took a tour here - don't! It's easy to do on your own from the town or from Medellin.
If you're staying in the centre of town, the quickest option to reach El Peñol is to get a tuk-tuk or one of the collectivo jeeps to take you to the entrance.
You can however do what we did and walk there on your own! From Guatapé, take the road out of town on the left (back towards Medellin). Keep to this road for around 45 minutes and you'll start to see a number of hotels etc and the Peñol on your left hand side. At the garage, take the road on the left up the hill and you'll eventually reach the entrance. If you don't fancy walking all the way back, a tuk-tuk will cost $8000.
Cost: Entrance is $10,000 pesos per person. Too much but you can't come to Guatapé and not do it!
Budget tip: There are a number of shops at the foot of the rock and a cafe at the top of the rock with beers, juices, water etc. They are all very over-priced, so make sure to bring plenty of water with you.
walk amongst the zocalos
Despite doing an awful lot of research on-line and asking a number of people in town, we're still not entirely sure how Guatapé's buildings came to decorated with zocalos. The most common reason seems to be something to do with chickens.
Anyway, regardless of how they got there, we're huge fans! You will only find decorations like these in Guatapé and, when the sun is shining, we can't think of a more colourful town anywhere.
We'd definitely recommend you spend a few hours wandering around the streets with a camera in hand looking at some of the creations, which traditionally tell the story or heritage of the family or business who own the building. Stubborn donkeys, inquisitive sheep and priests seemed to be the most common emblem however there were some designs with dragons, giraffes and zebras - go figure.
A more recent addition to the town - which feels like a more overt attempt to capitalise on tourists flocking to see the colourful buildings - is the Plaza de Zocalos. This is a pretty little square to enjoy a rich coffee from one of the friendliest ladies in town, pick up some souvenirs and watch the world go by.
have some great street food
Guatapé was a safe and friendly community to explore. At the weekends, we imagine it would be pretty hectic with visiting Colombians, but during the weekdays the town was quaint and didn't feel like a tourist trap.
Although there are a number of restaurants on the waterfront, we'd highly recommend you visit an area of town called quatro esquinas (just ask a local). From around 4 p.m., you'll find our favourite empanada lady there (that's her stand in the picture) selling a great selection of delicious Colombian snacks. We highly recommend the cheese empanadas and arepas filled with shredded beef (they're seriously good and cheap, we went to eat here three days straight!)
And if you fancy a bit of ice-cream for dessert, there's a lovely hippy shop around the corner.
sit in the main square and people watch
One of our favourite things to do in the late afternoon was to sit in the square people watching whilst sipping $1000 tintos - an almost free activity!
There's some great characters in this town - mostly old men with moustaches, ponchos, a variety of hats and a cigarette permanently lodged between wrinkled lips - and most of them can be found after 3 p.m. around the pool halls or the plastic tables of the main square.
A lovely little quirk in a lot of the cafes in Guatapé is that the rich dark coffee is served in a fine china cup and saucer.
Sit back, relax. This is Colombia at its finest.
how to get there
In Medellin, make your way to the Terminal del Norte which is connected to the Caribe metro station on the blue line A.
Buses from Medellin to Guatapé cost $12,500, with the journey taking 1.5-2 hours. Find your ticket at window 9 or 14. When you purchase your ticket, you will probably be asked whether you want to be dropped off outside of town at El Peñol or in the town centre. If you've booked a hostel in advance, contact them beforehand to see which stop is best.
If you do end up in the centre and need to make your way to a hostel elsewhere, there are always tuk-tuks around.
where to stay
Although you could tick off Guatapé in a day-trip, we definitely recommend having at least one night there.
If you're looking for more of a backpacker social experience, then your best spot would be outside of town. Lake View with, as the name would suggest, great views of the lake is a popular choice and was highly recommended to us by a number of people.
If price is your key factor, then a walk around the main plaza and the adjoining streets will present some decent options, with a basic double room costing $35-40,000. We stayed at Tomate Café Hostel and would happily recommend it to others looking for good value, a guest kitchen and basic but comfortable surroundings.
is it expensive?
If you stay by the lake and eat at the waterfront restaurants every day, then yes, Guatapé can get quite pricey. Rates go up on the weekend too as it's a popular spot for Colombians hoping to escape the city.
However, pick a cheaper hostel in the town, eat at one of the local joints near the square, or visit our favourite empanada lady and you can easily stay under-budget.
Although we haven't listed them here, there are a number of other acitivities available in Guatapé such as kayaking, zip-lining, paintballing, bridge-jumping and boat rides along the water. These were outside our budget and not really of much interest to us, but we thought we'd let you know!