What I wish I had known before climbing a 650ft high rock in Colombia

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In North America, the term “the rock” might make you think of Alcatraz, the abandoned federal penitentiary on an island off the coast of San Francisco. And when they hear “top of the rock,” Americans and Canadians might think of the Rockefeller Center Observatory, which offers a panoramic view of the Big Apple. But in South America, in the beautiful Andean town of Guatapé, “the rock” is a much different experience, although it still offers stunning 360 degree views.

Pro tip: Located about halfway between the towns of El Peñol and Guatapé, the rock can be associated with either destination. So, although you may hear it by many names – La Piedra Del Peñol (the stone of El Peñol), El Peñón de Guatapé (the Rock of Guatape), or simply La Piedra (stone) or El Peñon (the rock) — all refer to the same massive granite formation. So don’t let that confuse you!

Wise Scott

Where is Guatape?

Guatapé is located about 80 km east of Medellin. But don’t apply an American highway mentality to this 50-mile journey. Instead of speeding between the two destinations at 75 miles per hour on a highway, you’ll wind your way along narrow mountain roads lined with bamboo and palm trees. So be sure to allow around two hours of travel time each way.

I had the chance to visit La Piedra with Colombian friends who drove us to Guatapé in their car. But you can also reach Guatapé from Medellin by bus, as part of an organized tour, or by hiring a taxi or a private driver.

Pro Tip: Many people who remember the violence that rocked Colombia during the era of drug lord Pablo Escobar or who see Colombia marked with a Level 3 advisory by the State Department wonder: “Guatapé is sure? Although each traveler has their own level of comfort, I can tell you that I never felt insecure during my stay in Colombia, especially not in the city of Guatapé.

Zocalos at the foot of La Piedra.
Wise Scott

What Is The Rock Of Guatapé?

El Peñón Guatapé is a massive dome of quartz, feldspar and granite that rises 650 feet above the surrounding green hills. It’s 20 feet taller than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and nearly 100 feet taller than the Washington Monument in DC

El Peñón is mostly smooth except for a long fissure on its northwest side. When Luis Eduardo Villegas Lopez successfully scaled Guatapé Rock for the first time in 1954, the climbing group climbed the dome by wedging wooden planks into the crack. You’ll find both a statue and a mural celebrating Lopez’s accomplishment at the foot of Guatapé Rock.

As if a giant surgeon was trying to mend the crack, today you will find a staircase built into the crevice. Combining a natural wonder with human intervention, it allows visitors to easily zigzag to the top of the rock.

Fun fact: While the Rocher de Guatapé is a natural formation, the nearby lake is man-made. To create a gigantic reservoir in the 1970s, the Colombian town of El Peñol was moved so that the Guatapé River could be dammed and the valley in which it lay flooded. Today, the reservoir supplies electricity to more than 35% of Colombia.

Author eating a pancake on top of the rock.
Food vendors at the top (Photo credit: Sage Scott)

Tips for climbing Guatapé Rock

  • Buy a ticket. Although the climb is not free, it is not very expensive. When I visited in November 2021, it was 20,000 Colombian pesos, or about $5.
  • Go early. Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll also beat the heat. And by skipping the day, you’ll have plenty of time to explore more of Guatapé.
  • Be careful with the sun. UV intensity increases about 4% for every 1,000 feet of elevation above sea level – and Guatapé has an elevation of 6,200 feet! So no matter the clouds in the sky or the amount of melanin in your skin, protect yourself. Be sure to apply sunscreen and wear a hat and sunglasses.
  • Get ready to climb. To reach the top of the rock, you will have to climb 650 steps. And then you will have to climb three more floors to get to the three-story viewing platform. Let’s be clear: there is no elevator! And because the path up and down is one-way, you can’t really turn around if you change your mind. At least numbers painted on the stone steps keep you informed of your progress, and encouraging phrases will encourage you.
  • It’s good to take your time. Although it took Luis Eduardo Villegas Lopez five days to climb El Peñón de Guatapé, it will only take you between 10 (if you’re half-goat) and 30 (if you want to go slow and take in the view) minutes . While there are no places to sit and rest along the climb, there are several scenic spots to stop, catch your breath, and admire your progress.
  • Linger at the top. On the flat top of the rock you will find food vendors, a small souvenir shop and breathtaking views (and not just because of the altitude)!
  • Wear smart shoes. You will climb the equivalent of approximately 45 flights of stairs. And then back down. This is not an activity to do in flip flops or high heels.
  • OMG – the view! No matter how your lungs burn at the top or your legs wobble as you descend, the views from La Piedra are worth it! To the north, you’ll see the reservoir’s clear water reflecting the sky and perpetually green landscape, and to the east, you’ll catch a glimpse of the town of Guatapé. No wonder climbing La Piedra is often cited as one of the best things to do in Colombia!
  • Follow us even if you won’t make the climb. Members of your party who are not interested in climbing La Piedra can browse the kiosks or grab a bite to eat or drink at the base of the rock. Just note that there is a small fee (the equivalent of a few dollars) to enter the covered area overlooking the reservoir. While the panoramic view 200 meters up is certainly stunning, the view from this location is still quite impressive.

Once you have climbed the Peñón, head to the town of Guatapé. To fully experience one of the most colorful cities in the Americas, I recommend taking a boat ride on the reservoir (where you can see the burnt ruins of one of Pablo Escobar’s mansions), having lunch at a restaurant local (be sure to try the trout), and admire the zocalos (fantastic frescoes decorating almost every home and business in Guatapé).

Do you want to climb La Piedra? Check out a variety of tour options here.

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