An Andean resort town situated on the shores of a spectacular reservoir in central Colombia, Guatapé is without a doubt the most colourful city I’ve ever seen. From the jaw-dropping lake views atop La Piedra to the rainbow-coloured streets decorated with bas-relief zócalos, there is seriously SO much to enjoy in this charming pueblo.
Best of all, Guatapé is an extremely easy day trip from Medellín, accessible on a quick public bus without the need to hassle with a tour operator or pay for private transport. Steal a day away from Colombia’s most innovative city to explore the vibrant Guatapé— this guide contains absolutely everything you need to know about visiting Guatapé as a DIY day trip, including how to take an inexpensive bus from Medellín, what to pack, how to climb La Piedra, and what else to do in Guatapé for the day.
What's in this travel guide
Getting to Medellín
Bogotá to Medellín
If you’re travelling from Bogotá to Medellín, you really have 2 options: bus or flight. Buses in Colombia are incredibly nice and inexpensive (expect to pay around 60,000COP or $24AUD for the bus), but the downside is that you’ll spend at least 10hrs on the bus. On the other hand, you can fly from Bogotá to Medellín in just 1hr (plus the extra time getting to the airport), but the flight will cost more like 150,000COP ($60AUD).
You can also reach Medellín from San Gil, although it’s not quite as straightforward as the journey from Bogotá. Take the bus from San Gil to Bucaramanga (12,000COP; 3hrs) and then take a bus (60,000COP; 8-10hrs) OR fly (250,000COP; 1hr) from Bucaramangato Medellín. Flying can save you several hours, but it’s not entirely painless, since you still have to catch a 3hr bus and take a taxi from the bus terminal to the airport in Bucaramanga (30,000COP; 25min).
Santa Marta to Medellín is one of the few journeys in Colombia where taking the 18hrs+ bus (195,000COP / $76AUD) is actually more expensive than flying (80,000COP / $32AUD), even when you add in the 45,000COP for checking a bag. I’d recommend getting a cheap flight with Viva Air if you’re coming from the Caribbean coast.
Buses to Guatapé depart Medellín’s busier northern bus terminal (Terminal Norte), which is directly and very conveniently connected to the Caribe Metro Station.
From El Poblado, you can easily walk to the metro (Poblado Station) and purchase a one-way ticket for 2,550COP ($1AUD). You can buy the ticket directly from the counter, and there’s no need to say where you’re headed— all tickets on the Medellín Metro cost the same! From Poblado, hop on a train towards Niquía and then disembark at Caribe Metro Station, which is attached to Terminal Norte.
If you want to take an Uber instead, it should only cost around 10,000COP ($4AUD) from El Poblado to Terminal Norte, although that is subject to change based on time of day and how busy the roads are.
Buying bus tickets to Guatapé
Once at Terminal Norte, you can find the companies servicing Guatapé on the lower level (ticket counter 9 & 14). I travelled with Sotrasanvicente & Guatape La Piedra (counter 14), which departs for Guatapé every 20min from 6am to 7pm; tickets cost 14,000COP ($5.50AUD).
The drive from Medellín to Guatapé takes a little under 2hrs, and although the bus doesn’t really live up to typical Colombian standards, it’s still comfortable enough for a reasonably short ride.
You can actually hop off the bus directly at the base of the stairs to La Piedra, a few minutes before reaching Guatapé. Basically all the tourists on the bus will be doing this, so you certainly won’t miss it! I’d highly recommend making this your first stop and then catching a tuktuk into Guatapé pueblo to explore further. More on climbing La Piedra below.
What to pack for a day trip to Guatapé
Comfortable shoes— if you want to climb all 659 stairs to La Piedra, runners or other walking shoes might be a better choice than sandals
Headphones for listening to music on the bus trip
Phone with local SIM card
Approx. 75,600COP ($29AUD) for the day— you’ll need 4,600COP for return Metro tickets + 28,000COP for return bus tickets to Guatapé + 18,000COP for La Piedra + 5,000COP for a tuktuk to town + ~20,000COP for food & drinks in Guatapé
*What to do in Guatapé
Climb La Piedra del Peñol
Guatapé is best known for its stunning and impossibly convoluted lake (actually a man-made reservoir) whose turquoise waters twist through the rolling hills and verdant forests of the Antioquian countryside. It is truly unlike any lake I’ve ever seen and, after stumbling across a photo online, definitely one of the places I was most looking forward to while travelling through Colombia!
In the 1970s, the Colombian government created this reservoir by flooding nearby lowlands, including the town of El Peñol, to create a renewable source of power. The Guatapé-El Peñol hydroelectric dam now provides an astounding 35% of Colombia’s electricity, proving once again that this country is leading the continent in terms of environmentally-friendly development.
The absolute best way to marvel at the view over Guatapé is atop La Piedra del Peñol (or simply La Piedra, “the rock”), a hulking 220-metre monolith said to be the 3rd largest rock in the entire world. You’ll have to climb nearly 700 steps to get to the top, but it’s a very short workout for a spectacular reward.
From where the bus drops you off, you need to hike about 5-10min uphill over a gravel trail and up a few stairs to reach the base of La Piedra. There are some restaurants down here and a few tourist shops, but save your treats for the summit— pay the 18,000COP ($7AUD) entrance fee and then begin your ascent!
It only takes 10-15min to climb all 659 stairs to the main viewing area atop La Piedra, from which you can enjoy insane panoramic views over the labyrinthine lake below. Expect to be a little puffed, especially in the afternoon heat, but all that’s left to do now is relax and enjoy.
There’s also a little bar at the top serving snacks and cold drinks, so plan to grab a beer or salty mango michelada (local cocktail made from beer, lime, unripened mango, and a LOT of salt) and hang out for a while! It’s easy to see why many Colombians consider this “the most beautiful view in the world”.
Check out the Zócalos
After the iconic La Piedra, Guatapé’s other most notable feature is the incredible collection of colourful zócalos adorning every home, shop, and building.
These bas-relief, fresco-style paintings sculpted directly onto the plaster walls are absolutely stunning, but they are more than just decorative— zócalos are often used to display important symbols or even visually depict a significant story for the family of residence. Many shops in Guatapé have similarly used zócalos to advertise their good and services, with plump loaves of bread artfully lining the façade of a bakery and colourful tuktuks painted near the main square.
Some zócalos date back to the early 1900s, while others have been added in more recent years as locals and tourists have embraced Guatapé as the ultimate holiday destination. No one seems to know why the residents originally started painting zócalos onto their homes, but whatever the reason, one of the best ways to explore this vibrant pueblo is to just wander the streets and admire the beautiful artwork.
Plazoleta de Los Zócalos
This plazoleta (small square) in the middle of Guatapé is the most colourful spot in the entire pueblo, every wall, staircase, balustrade, and doorway an incredible explosion of rainbow colours. Equally vibrant zócalos decorate the central stairs and surrounding buildings, all combining to make Plazoleta de Los Zócalos the ultimate photo spot in Guatapé.
This is (unsurprisingly) a very popular destination for tour groups visiting Guatapé, but if you can time your own visit to the plazoleta well, you’ll have it practically all to yourself.
Colombia experiences a rainy season from September to November, which seems to put a lot of people off visiting during this time. Combined with the fact that most South Americans take their holidays in December and many locals travel to Guatapé on sunny weekends, the best time to experience a quiet Guatapé is probably mid-week in September or October. As you can tell from these photos (taken in late September), the weather was still absolutely perfect and yet there were hardly any people around!
Several cafes, restaurants, and tourist shops also line the perimeter of the square, so pull up a chair, hang out for a while, and enjoy Colombia’s most colourful town. I had the most delicious homemade cinnamon roll from a little shop on the plazoleta for just 2,000COP (directly behind where I’m facing in the photo below).
Explore the colourful streets
There aren’t a lot of major “attractions” in Guatapé, but that’s the beauty of this town— you can easily entertain yourself for hours just wandering up and down the quiet cobbled laneways, admiring the beautiful colours and artwork on each individual building.
With a population of just 5,000 people, Guatapé doesn’t have the bustle of a big city (it’s not even a city at all, really), but there’s still a wonderful energy to the place. The locals are incredibly friendly and it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself as you walk through its glowing, polychromatic streets.
Getting back to Medellín from Guatapé
From the small bus station in Guatapé (although it’s hardly a “station”), you can purchase tickets to Medellín from the window whenever you’re ready to head back. Sotrasanvicente & Guatape La Piedra buses run every 30min from 4.30am to 7pm, also for 14,000COP ($5.50AUD).
If you hopped off the bus earlier today directly at La Piedra and haven’t seen the bus station yet, it’s located on Calle 32 right on the lakefront; just search “Guatapé bus station” on Google Maps or ask literally anyone in town.
There’s usually no need to book tickets from Guatapé back to Medellín in advance, but do be aware that the bus can fill up very quickly in the afternoon and you might end up sandwiched between strangers at the very back— that is, if you’re not pushed onto the next bus 30min later.
It’s probably not a great idea to travel to Guatapé on the same day as an important travel booking or flight from Medellín, just in case something delays your return. Likewise, don’t leave your return for the final bus of the day, in case it’s full and you’re left stranded for the night. Otherwise, enjoy the most colourful town in Colombia!