The town of Guatape is on the list of every visitor to Colombia. Here is the famous Piedra del Penol, a huge rock monolith that stands 220m high, overlooking the reservoir. You can climb up over 700 steps imbedded in a giant fissure of the rock face to reach what looked like an incredible viewpoint. That was definitely something we would be doing, but not on a Saturday. Instead, we headed to a small place called Portus. It was mainly a rental apartment, but you could also camp in the garden which is directly on the water. There’s a small outside kitchen and a kayak available too. Normally there’s only a cold shower, but as they were using the shower room to store rubbish we were given access to the hot showers in the apartment. Now this place was definitely worth the trip. It was a beautiful setup, just metres from the gently lapping water in the bright afternoon sun.
After spending a very peaceful night lakeside, it was time to do some exploring.
We had yet more Pablo related history to visit. He had built his holiday home here, yet another luxurious place. It featured tennis courts, a soccer field (also the helipad) a guest house and a dock for anyone visiting by seaplane too. The property was not lavishly decorated but apparently had the practical feature of double layered walls in which you could either hide a large amount of cash or cocaine. In 1993, it was bombed by a grouped named Los Pepes, people who had been persecuted by Escobar and allegedly funded by a rival cartel group. Police were quick to gather the drugs and money revealed by the explosion, while Pablo himself wasn’t killed until 8 months later in the city of Medellin.
Before we attempted to visit the finca, we decided we would stop off at the model village of El Penol. This is a replica of the town that was flooded to create the large reservoir on which we had camped and apparently, it is still possible to see the cross on the top of the church underwater, on a clear day.
I probably couldn’t have been more disappointed. I was expecting a small model of a complete village. In reality it was more like a slightly small church and town square. It wasn’t big enough to be real, but then it wasn’t really small enough that you could tell what it was supposed to a model replica. In amongst all of that, every small shop desperately tried to sell you hats, ponchos or fridge magnets. We probably stayed all of five minutes before deciding to leave.
Let’s hope we’d have better luck with Finca La Manuela. In complete contrast to the heavily signposted model village, the access road to the finca had no signs at all. We drove down a questionable dirt road, bashing the remains of our broken anti roll bar against the floor (that was a casualty of the road to Florian). At the end we reach a gate and what looked like someone’s house. According to the sat nav we were still a few hundred metres away. A girl came out of the house and we asked if it was possible to visit. She shook her head and told us it was illegal. A few minutes later the father arrived. He told us the same thing. Apparently, it is now shut to tourists and has been for the last three years. It seemed the only way you could get close was by boat. So much for that plan then. We bumped our way back out again and figured we may as well spend the rest of the day looking around Guatape.
Our brakes had still not been on the best form and I had also been finding the gears a bit on the sloppy side when I had driven us in from Rio Claro the previous day. Now half the gears seemed to have given up completely. We could only get 1st and 2nd. Thinking that maybe the welding on the coupler had snapped, we slowly made our way to Guatape in 2nd. At leas there we could get it welded again. We pulled up on the street to check it out. For once, I can actually report that the problem was smaller than we thought. One of the bolts that connects the gear linkage had worked itself loose, a few minutes with a spanner and we were back in business. No welder needed.
With this small victory, we decided to go looking for a place to stay. With the van sorted, we could explore the town. We tried the free spot by the river, but it was blocked off. So we decided with it being the weekend it would be better if we headed slightly out of town. We paid to stay in the garden of a hostel. It was by the main road, but we hoped at night it would quieten down. The owner told us that there was a festival on right now that was a celebration of all the drivers. That explained why all the coaches, tuk tuks and taxi were covered in ribbons. Luckily, he said the party had been last night.
We had intended to explore, but someone we ended up sitting in the sun and drinking a bottle of wine. Still, what was the rush. A steady stream of brightly adorned traffic passed us.
As night fell, the traffic continued. In fact it continued all night. It was either a small motorbike blasting its tiny engine past at full throttle, or a car full of drunk people with the music turned up to max. Sometimes a truck turned on its engine brakes, just to add variety. Who knew where they were going past us to a road that went nowhere, but that didn’t seem to stop them. In the morning, we were keen to get out of there. I wasn’t really in the mood to explore now either and this was especially true after the hostels dog decided to bite me. We packed up and decided to go back to Portus for some peace and quiet. We had also realised that if we wanted to try and visit La Manuela by boat, it was actually possible to kayak there from the campsite. Back at Portus the nosiest thing happening was a gentle Sunday barbecue and I had no problem crawling into bed for a nap. Aimee too, relaxed.
Later that afternoon, feeling a bit more refreshed, we decided to head out across the water. The kayak was unpacked and inflated and we set off. We hadn’t attached the fin on the bottom, it was buried somewhere in the van and we didn’t think it was so important. As we paddled away from the shore and slowly did some interesting circles rather than getting any further away, we realised it was clearly a key feature. With the fin found and installed, we tried again.
It was about a 2km paddle to the finca, navigating the crowds of boats. Tour boats, water sports and private yachts. Everything was out on the lake enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon.
We got the ruined building in our sights and then made a break across the busiest channel to reach the shore. A security guard on a motorbike coupled with a complete lack of people confirmed that this was definitely no longer open to visitors. Still, even with a limited view from the shore it was interesting to see the derelict buildings and imagine some of the crazy parties that must have gone on here in the past.
The reservoir is a beautiful area, this is clearly where the well-off go to build there houses. Lots bespoke property designs looked out over the lake with their expansive glass walls and private docks. I can see why it would have been the first choice for someone with a lot of money to build a holiday home.
Back at Portus the gentle afternoon barbecue had wound down and we were left alone to another peaceful night on the lake. Tomorrow was Monday and with the weekend over it was time to visit Piedra del Penol.
We had hoped that with the weekend out of the way, it would be quiet. We left Portus mid-morning after we were kindly lent an angle grinder to chop off the remains of our anti roll bar. It was now rather more of a risk than a benefit, threatening to punch a hole in the front tyres when we put the wheels on lock. With that sorted, we headed for the monolith. When we had driven past on previous occasions it was possible to see the huge amount of people climbing up it from the road. While it didn’t look that quiet today either, we committed. Up in the car park, we were also part of the tourist attraction. Lots of passers-by stopped for a selfie with us or to take photos of the van. They wanted to know where we had come from, where we were going and most importantly, whether we liked Colombia. A lovely lady even gave us 100k pesos, to go and buy ourselves dinner.
Eventually we escaped Ruby and headed for the crowds. The queuing system set up for the ticket booth had overflowed into a long line down the road. It was busy. Eventually we got our tickets and headed for the steps. Here too, we ended up queuing. No one was quite sure why, but it was so busy that we slowly shuffled up the 700 steps in a large crowd of people. Still, the view from the top would be the same, busy or not.
And it is an incredible view.
As with many tourist places, we were forcibly routed through the gift shop in order to leave, where we succumbed and bought an ice cream before tackling the stairs back down.
It seemed the cause of the delays was maintenance.
Normally there’s two staircases, one up, one down. That’s kind of necessary because its very narrow at points. In general, the Colombians are not a patient nation. They treated one way systems on the rock, much like they treat driving in cities. Everyone tries to fit through one gap from both directions at the same time. Instant gridlock ensues. After a while, we emerged back on the ground for the obligatory photo.
After failing at looking around the town of Guatape, we decided we could stay there again that night. This time, we’d try the free street camping option. There was also another couple in a camper that were coming into the town today that we had planned to meet up with. Blake and Aly were also headed south, having recently crossed the Darien Gap too. It’s always nice to meet like minded people and so we hoped to meet them later. For now, we parked up in the free spot and went to walk around the picturesque town of Guatape.
Despite the fact that it is definitely touristy, we had a great time exploring the brightly coloured streets and walking down the quay.
Back at the van, Aly and Blake has just arrived in theirs. They parked up and we introduced ourselves. we were staying right in front of a hostel which also had a Thai restaurant that was supposed to be pretty good. It’s been a while since we had any Thai and so we all headed over for dinner. We had a lot in common it turned out, and we were several cocktails into our conversation before we had even really looked at the menu. I’m glad we were in good company as the service was anything but. They completely forgot my meal, still charged us for it and then didn’t take the money for our bill. Perhaps the waitress too, was enjoying the mango daiquiris she had recommended. In the end though, we didn’t really care. Wed had a lovely evening chatting with these two and the food wasn’t so important. Happily for us too, the night was a lot quieter than our last attempt at sleeping in the town and so when the morning came we were ready to head Medellin and spend a few days, on the outskirts of the city at a campsite that had been recommended to us by everyone, Al Bosque.