The glass on the bus was extremely cool, chilled by the cold winds whipping against it as we pummeled our way down the narrow Colombian highway. It was around nine o’clock at night, and our crew was scattered throughout the coach, all either sleeping or staring out the window into the darkness. I had managed to sit in the front seat with the bus driver, a friendly guy who didn’t feel the need to chat and allowed me to rest my eyes. It had been an incredibly busy day, and the specter of an overnight bus ride still loomed in front of me. I turned around and saw Nicole, sleeping peacefully in the back of the bus, her head resting against the window. Anya rested her head on Derricks shoulders, JJ attempted to sleep next to an extremely large Colombian woman, and Connor, his left side looking like an injured mummy, stared straight ahead into space. I turned back and closed my eyes again, hoping the swaying of the bus on the windy roads would lull me into sleep.
TWELVE HOURS BEFORE: AS TOLD BY A BUZZFEED ARTICLE
9 Reasons Why You Must Visit Guatapé, Colombia
(You Won’t Believe Reason 14!)
Reason 1: The Airbnbs
Guatapé, located about an hour and a half east of Medellin, is THE place to go to escape the insanity of Medellin. While there are some hostels available (I heard good things about Lake View Hostel) our Airbnb was a beauty to behold. The sun rose at 5:48am that morning, showering our little house with golden light and casting the entire Colombian valley in swaths of pinks and reds. I can only assume that, however, since none of us crawled out of bed until much past ten o’clock in the morning. After days on the road, sleeping in hostel beds and usually not falling asleep till the sun was rising in the first place, an actual bed in an actual house was like a small piece of heaven delivered to us by the wonders of 21st century accommodation technology. Thank the Good Lords for Airbnb.
My awakening was kick started by Nicole, who in her half slumber managed to kick me out of the bed with her legs and send me flying onto the tiles. Even a foot shorter than me and still asleep, Nicole was someone you didn’t mess with.
“Shit!” I yelled out as I crashed into the floor.
“Mhhgmghagmhg” Nicole responded, and rolled back over to sleep.
Firmly awake, I walked over to our patio, past the beer stocked mini-frdge and empty beer laden picnic table, and fell into the hammock overlooking the valley, La Piedra (which you’ll hear more about soon) sticking out of the earth like a sharks fin. Derrick was already up, taking an early morning swim in the pool, and the small, ratty dog we shared our space with was sleeping peacefully in the morning sun. And if it wasn’t perfect enough, our host let us stay past checkout and called us tuk-tuks to take us into town. The Gutapé Airbnb game was really putting the rest of the world to shame.
Reason 2: The Food
In Cartagena, were were drowning in seafood options. In Bogotá, we were surrounded by tamales served inside an elegant banana leaf. In Guatapé, and the surrounding regions, we ate like paisas. A paisa literally means countryman, and the food in this area reflects that rural lifestyle in a massively delicious way. After careening down the hills in our brightly colored tuk-tuks, we ended up back at La Fogata, the restaurant we tried the day before. I know we should be trying new things, but god damn, that bandejo paisa was just too good to pass up.
As a recap, bandejo paisa was a dish consisting of beans, rice, ground beef, friend pork, fried eggs, a fried plantain, sasusage, arepas, avocado, and to top it all off, a lime. It’s a dish that, if eaten everyday, would limit your life expectancy by at least thirty to forty years. After eating a bandejo paisa, you’ll feel like you don’t really need to eat ever again, until you see an empanada stand a few hours later and think “well, I better try one of those too.” Food in Antioquia (the region Medellin and Guatapé are in) usually means filling and hearty, leaving your stomach twice the size it was before you started your lunch. Between the six of us, our table was near breaking point with the sheer weight of food before us. And we ate every single damn bite.
Reason 3: La Piedra (That Massive Rock)
Knowing our bellies were full to bursting with food, our next stop of the day needed to involve some sort of exercise. So, we set our sights on La Piedra del Penol, the massive boulder thats seen from pretty much anywhere in town. Made of granitic rock and claimed by both the town of Guatapé and El Peñol (their neighbor to the west), the thing goes by many names, including The Rock of Guatapé, Stone of El Peñol, Shut Up Guatapé It’s Ours, and Go To Hell El Peñol You Wish It Was Yours. Regardless of its name, the rock rises over 650 feet high, shrub adorned and surrounded by tourists. We had already rented our motorbikes (more on that later), and had zoomed the ten minutes to the base of the staircase. Built into the side of the rock, inside a large crevice, are around 650 steps, zigzagging their way to the top of the rock.
Nicole and I, somehow, became the front runners of the stair climbing crew, rushing forwards after paying our 18,000 peso entry fee. Derrick, JJ, Anya, and Connor were soon in our rear view mirrors, and after 300 steps our legs were feeling the pain. By 400, I turned around and saw Nicole struggling, with a look in her eyes that said ‘just leave me, go on save yourself.” I nodded and pushed forward, nearing my breaking point by step 600. By the last fifty steps, I was struggling for breath, gasping like a fish looking at its bank account after a weekend bender in Las Vegas. Despite the pain, I somehow wound up first to the top, and walked around and giving high fives to perfect strangers.
The top of La Piedra is essentially a little market, with stalls selling beers, mixed drinks, little trinkets and fried empanadas. I got myself a peak beer and waited for Nicole and Co, staring out over the edge. The lake that surrounds the area spreads out like an a pair of conjoined octopi, tendrils branching out and creating little tree covered peninsulas and islands. In the distance you could see Pablo Escobar’s summer home, which is now a tourist attraction that features paintball games in the ruins of his estate. I’m sure Pablo would be happy to hear about that one.
Nicole and the crew eventually made it up, and we cheered our successes and saluded our peak drinks, enjoying the soft breeze and allowing our lungs to return to a normal rate of movement. However, it turned out we hadn’t yet reached the very top, as there was a small parapet located near the edge, where another one hundred steps led you to its open top, A pair of travelers sang and played guitar in the middle of the throngs of picture takers, singing about something in Spanish, I’m assuming love or food. I threw them a few pesos for their troubles, hiking up that thing was hard without a guitar strapped to my back. After finishing our drinks, we waved goodbye to the view and retreated down the mountain.
Reason 4: The Twisty Roads
Traveling by bus is usually a boring and potentially stomach curdling affair, therefore whenever possible I decide to go by motorbike. In Guatapé, the place to rent your bikes is Guatapé Motos, who charge a very reasonable rate and offer the finest of rides. Nicole and I shared a bike on our trip, with JJ, Anya, and Derrick on solo, and Connor handling the only motorcycle, the real deal with manual gears and everything. When asked if he could ride a manual motorcycle, Connor responded, “Uh, yeah, probably.” We took that as good enough for us.
From the rock, our convoy headed out east past Guatapé, across the bridge over the lake, and into the countryside. At first, the roads are fairly flat, surrounded by rock hills and tree lined ponds. Soon, however, the rocks fall away, the road becomes more windy, and the land opens up into a magnificent valley, with views going miles away into the horizon. The road leads to San Rafael, and with only a return bus trip in our future, the road was our guide. We zoomed past each other, gave mid-ride high fives, and took an unmentionable amount of selfies. The wind ripped through our helmets, but the mountain air was so refreshing that we didn’t even care.
Reason 5: The Campgrounds
With San Rafael far in front of us, we decided to park early at the Rio Bizcocho Campground, a beautiful little spot located right on the Bizcocho River. We parked our bikes near the road and walked down through the meadow towards the river. At the campground, the river forks around a sandbank, leaving huge shallow areas for swimming. The place was filled with frolicking kids, families picnicking on the shores, and Colombians eyeing the group of tourists warily. We clearly were in a place where Americans did not often make it to. Regardless, they welcomed us with smiles and chuckles.
Just Connor and I were willing to jump into the river, becoming those kids that scream back at their parents to “look at how deep I’m in Mom! Dad look how far I am!” We didn’t mind though, and waded through the water to the other side of the river where a massive rope swing was lying in wait for us to play on. Connor managed a neat little flip and dive off the end. I fell off near the very beginning and belly flopped in the shallow water. In order to prove to myself I could still do water sports like a kid, I climbed a nearby tree, and flailing jumped into the water, probably thirty feet off the surface. I surfaced and bellowed out a war whoop. Connor sighed and gave me the high five I so desperately craved.
Reason 6: The Coffee
Now, I wasn’t here for this, and I don’t even know the name of the place, but while Connor and I were playing in the water, Nicole and JJ went off to get coffee at a shop just down the road. When we returned from our water games, including playing tag with the local kids who were very excited to chase a large white man around a beach, the two were just coming back, helmets in hand. They had sipped coffee at a small cafe near the river, where for just a dollar they got a cup of local Colombian coffee and a view to boot. Now, the coffee really starts getting good a few hours south of us, in the town of Salento, but for the area, I was told the coffee was incredibly delicious. I’ll trust JJ and Nicole on that one.
Reason 7: The Near Scares
With the clock running low on our time, we hustled back to our bikes and began our return to Guatapé, this time going up the mountain instead of down. Our bus left around six, and as our watches were reading five, and the sun beginning to set, we put handle to the metal and got zooming. We zipped past cars and other traffic, looking like a professional biker gang, albeit a fairly innocent gang that didn’t really know how to ride bikes very well.
We were so insistent on getting back to town in time that we perhaps drove a bit more reckless than we should. Along the way, JJ, in his hurry, decided to pull out his phone to snap a quick pic. However, in front of him was a patch of gravel with a lip between the rocks and the roadway. Without noticing it, his bike hit the dip and his phone flew out his hand, fluttering above his fingers and miraculously landing in his cup holder. Since this all happened in a split second, however, JJ swerved out of control and slid onto the ground, hoping off the bike just in time.
I tapped Nicole’s shoulder, who was driving, and flipped her around. JJ was a bit shaken up, but fine, and we all had a good laugh. Man, thank God the bike was alright and JJ wasn’t hurt. What a close call, ha! Connor patted JJ on the back, helped him up, and sent him on his way like a dad helping his son back onto a tricycle.
“Man, what a novice, I can’t believe JJ fell over, what a laugh!” I imagine Connor said to himself as he got back onto his motorcycle.
Reason 7: The Injuries
Not ten minutes later, Nicole and I drove up over the top of the mountain, far behind everyone else as we had a bit more weight on our bike than everyone else (I blame the bandejo paisa). As we turned a corner, we saw our crew huddled around one of the bikes, lying on the ground, and someone bent over near the wreck.
“Oh no.” Nicole said.
“Shit.” I replied.
Right after that corner was a wet spot where a waterfall rolled across the road and down into the valley to our left. We slowed down, and saw that it was Connor, the Australian, who had taken the spill. After hopping off our bike, we rushed over to survey the damage. The bike had taken a mighty spill, with a front light shattered and the shafts connecting the wheels to the body bent. Connor, meanwhile, might have been in worse shape. His whole left side was scraped away, and his tank top and shorts proved to not be adequate enough protection from the gravel road. Connor’s arms and elbow were oozing blood, as was his upper thigh and lower leg. It looked as if someone had taken an extreme dislike to Connor’s left half and rubbed him over a cheese grater in protest.
“Fuck, Connor, are you alright man?”
“Yeah mate, no troubles, not too bad” he said, his arms shaking as he took some water and splashed it over his arms.
“Oh my god this isn’t good” Anya said, “we need to get your wounds clean right away.”
“I mean, it’s not too terrible guys, honestly” Connor said in protest, although I don’t think he even convinced himself of that.
“Eh, it’s pretty bad buddy.” I said, peering at his elbow. There were chunks of rock deep in his arm, and the skin had peeled down almost to the fat. It didn’t look great.
“Does the bike still work?” Derrick asked, “If it does, lets just get going and get you clean at the bike shop, yeah?”
We all agreed, and after a little finagling, got Connor’s bike started again, and we took off back towards town. Guatapé can offer some lovely days, and excellent opportunities for adventure. As a pro tip, maybe wear jeans though if you are going to go on a motorbike ride. Just in case.
Reason 8: The Lovely Locals
While some towns outside of the big cities can be a bit rough around the edges, with locals that would prefer wild tourists to stay outside their borders, Guatapé is a welcoming home for the slightly confused and continually out of place. After hustling back into the motorbike shop, the owner, a lovely German man whose name I forgot to write down but will call Henrik for now, welcomed us back and immediately began to worry about Connor. We urged Henrik it was alright, Connor was Australian, it took a lot to hurt him, and while it looked bad, it wasn’t as terrible as it could have been. Connor, meanwhile, was sitting in a chair and beginning to realize what had happened to him, and the pain that was soon forthcoming. It was then we split up.
Derrick, realizing that we would not make our bus now, sprinted off to the bus station to exchange our tickets for later ones. Nicole and Anya stayed with Connor and helped clean the wound with cloths and water, JJ ran to get beers, because there was no way Connor was doing this sober, and I rushed to find the closest pharmacy for bandages and iodine. I sprinted down the dusky streets, peering in windows and looking for any store that might sell bandages. I finally found one, rushed in, and realized I didn’t have any idea how to say any of the words I needed to say in Spanish. The pharmacy owner stared at me curiously. In my out of breath state, I tried to mime my way through the order, wrapping my arm in imaginary bandages, and asking for “water of health” in the hopes they knew I meant an antiseptic. After ten minutes of confusion, we figured out what I needed and sent me on my way. They were lovely folks, and despite dealing with a large, out of breath American who didn’t speak great Spanish, they helped me out immensely.
Back at the bike shop, everyone had returned and fulfilled their missions. Connor was chugging his third beer, clearly in pain now that the girls were washing his wounds and dabbing iodine in the cuts. He was a tough egg, but anyone would be in tears at that point. Henrik, meanwhile, was offering us anything we needed, and also quietly letting us know the damage to the bike was going to be an extra 185,000 pesos. Considering thats only about sixty buck, we agreed to split the cost as a group. Someone wanting to rip us off could have said it was twice that, and we would have paid it, but Henrik was a decent fellow. He had lived in Stuttgart for years, living together with a lovely German woman. At some point, however, they broke up, and she broke his heart into a tiny little pretzels. Instead of wallowing in his sorrows and his schnitzels, he decided to move to Colombia and open an motorbike shop. You know, the usual.
Connor was on his fourth beer at that point, and feeling marginally better, however the Colombian Clubs might have been doing that rather than the pain levels. His wounds bandaged and looking like a roll of human sized toilet paper, we helped him up and started our walk to the bus station, waving Henrik goodbye. Nicole wished him luck in love, to which he smiled and nodded his thanks.
Reason 9: The Memories
Our crew sat down at La Parilla, a restaurant right next door to La Fogata, for a very fast dinner before our seven forty-five bus. It had been a wild day, filled with rock climbing, river jumping, and emergency medical interventions. Connor had a steady limp, and I imagine in the back of his mind was wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into when agreeing to adventure with us.
That’s the thing about traveling, though, you meet others at hostels, at bars, at apartments, and through an amoeba like force become a whole new traveling unit. The six of us had never been together thirty-six hours beforehand, but by now we were a traveling machine, each bringing something to the group that wasn’t there before. That’s one of the greatest joys about doing this kind of thing, is that you make memories with people you didn’t even know existed a few days before.
We all climbed into the bus and headed back towards Medellin, waving Guatapé and a good amount of Connor’s skin goodbye. Back in the city, Nicole and I wished the crew goodbye, giving hugs in the metro lobby and promising to stay in touch on the various social medias we frequent. After a teary departure, Nicole and I rushed off to a cab to get our overnight bus to Salento, feeling awfully quiet as just two travelers. In the end, we missed our first bus, waited in the Medellin bus station for three hours, and finally got onto a Salento bound bus around midnight. We crawled into some backs seats, closed our eyes, and let the rocking motion of the bus sway us into sleep.