Exploring Medellin, La Piedra, and Guatape

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This is the third in a series of posts chronicling my January 2018 trip to Colombia. You can read an overview/preview here.

I originally was supposed to have 2.5 days in Medellin, but a schedule change on my flight to Cartagena effectively eliminated that half-day. I think that would have been the right length of time – particularly if I had arrived earlier than 1am – to explore the area, although an extra day would allow further exploration of coffee country.

My first night was spent at the Ibis Medellin, in the Ciudad del Rio neighborhood, and I won’t do a separate report on that. I was there basically just to sleep and for breakfast, and for the price it did the job well. My second two nights were at the Intercontinental in the Las Palmas area, in the hills above Poblado. As I’ll detail in my separate review, I would not stay there again for multiple reasons, but most important for this post: location.  I would stay either in the heart of Poblado at the new Marriott or one of the other hotels around there, or maybe at the Four Points by Sheraton.

I’d heard a lot of great things about Medellin—for a lot of people, it’s their favorite city in Colombia. I didn’t really fall in love, though, and I wonder if my schedule played a role. In particular, I decided not to explore the nightlife on the Saturday night I was there, since I wanted to get up early for the bus to Guatape on Sunday morning. And thus the only time I spent in the very tourist-friendly, hipper/artsy/gay/walkable/wealthier area of Poblado was on Sunday night – not a great time to experience culture. If I’d had more time, I’d probably also do one of the theme tours, either one of the Escobar themed ones I also had some problems getting the SIM card I bought at local carrier Avantel set up the first morning, which was distracting. But I did really enjoy my day trip to La Piedra and Guatape, and encourage folks to do it. And I didn’t find the city unsafe at all, despite the reputation from the 80s/90s.

Medellin in One Day

One thing that I definitely enjoyed about Medellin was its public transit. It’s the only city in Colombia with a metro system, and I used it frequently. It’s a little annoying that there are no ticket machines, so you have to wait on line to buy a ticket each time (2300 COP (about 85 cents)), but it’s inexpensive and I never waited that long. Note, though, that it was standing room only or worse on each of my four or five trips throughout the day on Saturday.  For spatial orientation, think of Medellin is a long skinny rectangular city.  Poblado is in the south, and the Ibis was just a bit north of that, near the Industriales metro stop.  The main metro line runs north/south, and easily takes you into the downtown area. Although there is Uber in the city, it is technically illegal, and, unlike in Bogota, there are not a ton of drivers. I only used Uber once, and it was a long weight. The rest of the time I used either hotel taxis or regular taxis.

Arriving in the center of Medellin, near Parque Berrio

I was not particularly charmed with downtown.  The metro cuts an imposing figure cutting right through town, and on a Saturday the streets were packed with shoppers and all sorts of sales. It was hectic and lively, which sometimes can be good but I was tired. In my research, there didn’t strike me as a lot of must-sees in el Centro. The main sights of downtown are all clustered around the Plaza Botero, which is, as the name suggests, a plaza containing 23 bronze statues by Medellin-native, sculptor Fernando Botero. Botero is known for sculpting, shall we say, Rubenesque figures. The plaza was filled with tourists and it was a selfie-spectacular.

Plaza Botero

On the plaza is the Museo de Antioquia (Antioquia is the province of Colombia Medellin is located in; tickets are 18,000 COP (about $6)). The museum had a range of art exhibits, though I mostly saw stuff from the 19th century onward. (It isn’t very intuitively laid out, though, so I have no idea what I actually covered. The art deco building the museum is in, the Palacio Municipal, is itself is architecturally interesting, with several interior courtyards.

Museo de Antioquia

I walked around the center of town a bit more but it was overwhelming, so I hopped back on the Metro a few stops to the Universidad stop, north of the city center, where several sites are clustered, including the Parque Explora, an interactive science museum; an amusement park; and the (free) Jardin Botanico (Botanic Gardens). It wasn’t the most interesting botanic garden I’ve been to, but it did provide a nice break from the insanity of the city center.  I walked around for a bit before having lunch in the restaurant located near the entrance, which was peaceful and a nice environment.  It was pretty much all tourists, but the prices were more than reasonable. I had the Menu del Dia, which included juice, a huge soup, and a piece of steak, coconut rice, potato chips, and salad – a lot of food for 15,900 COP – a bit over $5. The food itself wasn’t memorable, but it was actually one of the better coconut rices I had during the trip – rice, sweetened with coconut – a ubiquitous side in Colombia.

Arriving at the Universidad Metro stop

Medellin Botanic Garden

Jardin Botanico Menu del Dia

At this point, the day was quite grey and cloudy, which caused a slight rejiggering of plans.  I had intended on making my way up to Parque Arvi, a large park high in the hills circling the city.  To get there, you have to ride two different cable cars, the first of which, Metrocable A, is included in the metro fare.  That cable car rides up into the poorer barrios in the hills, and apparently has been a major driver of jobs for the residents of the neighborhood. I was a bit surprised to see how long the line was to get on the cable cars, but it moves very quickly. There are two separate lines – one for people who want to sit, and one for people willing to stand, and it’s a very efficient operation filling the cars as they pass by on the continuously-running line. On a Friday afternoon, the crowd consisted of both lots of tourists and locals.

Boarding the Metrocable cable car

Given the weather, I figured I wouldn’t continue on past the Santo Domingo terminus and buy another ticket onward to Parque Arvi. I intended to wander a bit outside the Santo Domingo station, but as I was about to leave the station I saw the massive line to buy tickets and come back in.  Unfortunately, the aisle I was most interested in seeing, the Spanish Library, is closed and covered in scaffolding. The black, striking towers of the library were a gift from Spain, and were supposed to be an emblem of revitalization of a low-income neighborhood. Unfortunately, the library turned out to have major structural problems, so it’s been closed.  There’s a park adjoining that’s supposed to have good views, but the weather was not great. So back down I went.

Grey day riding the Metrocable (note the scaffolding-covered Spanish library)

Looking back towards the cable car and Parque Arvi

That night (Saturday), I was exhausted, and decided not to go out (probably a mistake). I did eat dinner at one of the locations of Hatoviejo, a Colombian restaurant, right across from the Intercontinental in Las Palmas.  The restaurant was empty, which was surprising at around 8:45pm on a Saturday, but I guess it was early. It seemed pretty touristy in terms of decor. There was a huge menu of steaks and Colombian specialties, but I ordered poorly. I ordered a salad to start that ended up being gigantic and unfinishable. My main was grilled fish drowned in a creamy shrimp sauce, with coconut rice, of course.

Hatoviejo Las Palmas

House starters, giant salad, and drowned fish at Hatoviejo

Even if you’re staying in Las Palmas, I’d recommend going down to Poblado- a short taxi ride down the hill (5 minutes, about $2) – for dinner. There are tons of restaurants, and it’s also where the nightlife is. I went there on Sunday night, when unfortunately, a lot of places were closed. But I did go to La Causa, a Peruvian fusion place that was filled with Americans – though was skewing more Colombian later in the night. It was hip and I got to eat on the outside patio, so that’s good.  The menu was filled with varieties of Pisco Sours, sushi, and more traditional Peruvian meat dishes.  I did a half-roll as a starter, which was good and fresh, and my main was a meat dish, that came with an insane amount of a creamy rice – like, the ratio of meat to rice was insane. So, for two dinners in a row, I didn’t finish my meal. Poblado really felt like a completely different city than the Centro. Later on Sunday night, there were a decent amount of young people at the bars around Parque Lleras.

La Causa, Poblado, Medellin

Pisco sour; sushi roll; beef and waaaay too much rice

La Piedra del Peñol/ Peñon de Guatapé and Guatapé Day Trip

A major reason I did not go out on Saturday night was that I was going to La Piedra del Penol and Guatape on Sunday morning. It’s probably the most popular day trip from Medellin, and there are a lot of ways you can do it.  There are two parts. First, ”the Rock of Guatape,” known as both La Piedra del Peñol/ Peñon de Guatapé  (fought over by the towns of Penol and Guatape on either side), is a huge granite rock that overlooks a large dammed-in area of countryside.  It rises about 7000 feet above sea level, and there are 740 steps you can climb to several observation decks on top, and is only about 80 km east of Medellin. The nearby town of Guatape is itself a tourist destination, and most people combine them in a day.  There are a lot of private tours from Medellin, and there’s one bus tour I could find, but it left at 7:30am and seemed unnecessary. I saved money and time by just taking a public bus, and had a nice day. (I almost didn’t go because there was rain in the forecast; the day ended up being sunny.)

Terminal Norte bus station

Inside the bus to Guatape

At around 8:25 in the morning, I headed by taxi from the Intercontinental (you can take the metro if you’re more centrally located) to Terminal Norte, the main bus station in Medellin. It was about 15 minutes, and after picking up an iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts in the station, I found the well-marked counter for tickets to Medellin. Buses leave fairly frequently, and I got a ticket for an 8:50am bus, for 13,000 COP one way (~$4.50).  I had an assigned seat and the small bus was pretty full – unfortunately for me, the people in front of me decided to recline their seats all the way, even though they were in a sort of bulkhead, and I couldn’t even sit with my legs forward. Just as we pulled out, though, I saw an empty row in the back and moved there.

En route to the Rock

As we left town, we made a few stops and picked up more people on the side of the road, completely filling the bus. At one stop, we picked up 12 people on roller blades, who were covered in tattoos and piercings and marijuana-themed clothes.  It was weird.  I also can’t imagine standing on a bus while wearing roller blades. They got off about 30 minutes later, and it was otherwise a pretty quiet ride.  There are some nice views on the left side of the bus, but alas I was on the right.

At 10:20am, we reached the town of Penol, and then 15 minutes later, the turnoff for the Rock. The bus doesn’t stop at the Rock itself, but rather at a gas station at a foot of a hill that leads to the Rock.  When you get off, there are little motorcycle taxis and donkeys you can hire to take you up.  One of the websites I had read said it wasn’t that long a walk, but I would disagree.  It took me about 15 minutes and was very steep; my legs were actually hurting by the time I got to the base of the rock itself (where there’s a parking lot, shops, restaurants, etc.). There weren’t many other people walking up, but it was very crowded at the base itself.

Walking up the hill from the bus stop to La Piedra

Nice sign; but overstated.

The base of La Piedra

Tickets to climb the stairs are 18,000 COP (~$6). Every 50 or so are numbered, so you can keep track of your progress. People of all fitness levels (mostly Colombian) were making the trek, and the most dangerous aspect was avoiding people who just stopped on the middle of the stairs. It can get a bit narrow, but the stairs are well-maintained and have large railings. (There are also separate sets for going up and going down.)  I did the climb in about 15 minutes, and at the top there are several stands selling ice cream, drinks, fruit, and micheladas.  I rewarded myself with a disappointing ice cream and took in the awesome views on all sides.  It was hot but not too bad – nothing like my drenched in sweat hike up Table Mountain in Cape Town — and the walk up to the parking lot was more strenuous than the steps themselves.

The stairs up the Rock

Views from the top

Hi there!

The walkway down is a bit more treacherous because it’s an interior stairway, which gets pretty dark and can be wet, but still not super strenuous.  I was down at the base by 11:30 and ready to head into Guatape. I originally thought I’d walk back down the hill and pick up another bus, or take a mototaxi if necessary, into town, but there are mototaxis right there, and it was only 10000 COP for a ride the whole way. (I did end up getting a bit ripped off, as originally they said it would be 5000 COP if I shared it, and I ended up jammed in with a group of 3—they paid 10000 for the 3 of them and I paid 10000 just for me- but I wasn’t going to argue over about $2.)

And back down.

Moto-taxis in Guatape

Once in Guatape, I headed straight to the bus ticket office as I had heard buses fill up in advance.  The only times available were 1:30pm and 3:20pm, which was less than ideal.  One gave me about 90 minutes in town, and the other way too much time, so 1:30 it was. I walked around the very pretty heart of the town, with a beautiful main square and very colorful buildings.  It was very charming and I really enjoyed just wandering.

Main square of Guatape

Exploring the side streets of Guatape

Along the waterfront is a tourist-oriented “Malecon,” with stands selling trinkets, jewelry, and all sorts of food. You can also do a canopy/zipline over the water, which was cheap and not very high up. There are lots of party boats lined up that you can go on for a tour around the lake, food, and dancing, but I didn’t have time.  But on a Sunday, there were a lot of people from Medellin out for the day with their families.  Instead, I just grabbed lunch at one of the many unremarkable restaurants on the main strip, and did some people watching and reading along with a grilled churrasco steak and a beer (and potatoes – not coconut rice for once!), before picking up a looked-better-than-it-tasted fried ice cream on the Malecon and boarding the bus back to Medellin.

Party boats in Guatape

Steak and fried ice cream: a nutritious meal

The bus ride back was a lot less relaxing than the outward journey. There were folks standing the entire ride, and some French hipsters bought “seats” that were just cushions on the small area between the driver’s seat and my seat in row 1. We also made a ton of stops along the side of the road and drove a lot of locals short distances.  Note, though, that stops aren’t announced – which two cocky Americans (who had been walking around town shirtless for some reason) learned the hard way when they didn’t realize they missed the stop for the Rock and ended up just getting off the bus 5 minutes later.  The traffic wasn’t bad, though, and I was back at Terminal Norte by 3:25pm.

The bus back

I highly recommend doing a day trip to La Piedra and Guatape if you have more than two days in Medellin. If you’re with a group of 3 or more, renting a car may even be the easiest way, but otherwise the bus is easy and you don’t need to spend $100 on a tour.

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