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El Peñol and Guatapé

Colombia day nine

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In Guatapé

Having explored Medellín quite thoroughly yesterday, today it was time to see what lay outside the city, visiting the region's most popular day-trip destination, the reservoir 'Embalse El Peñol-Guatapé’.

We drove out of the city with Jean and driver Matteo through a long (over eight kilometres) tunnel. We passed the airport and soon afterwards left the main road to follow a more winding one uphill. The day was grey and there was drizzle in the air. We took a short break at what is obviously a popular stopping off point, where an enterprising restaurant owner has added attractions such as a small herd of alpacas and other animals, souvenir shops etc. to draw in passers-by. It is clearly working; being a Sunday there were plenty of other people there.


Alpacas at our stop on the road to El Peñol

We passed through the fairly modern town of El Peñol, established in the 1970s. Why is there a new town here? The explanation lies, literally, in the lake. When the dam was built to generate hydroelectric power, a large valley was flooded, creating today’s lake. The then-village of El Peñol lay in that valley. The people were forced to leave their homes, where often several generations had lived before them, and move to this new town. Although they were given compensation, most felt it wasn’t enough, but in the end all of them accepted the inevitable. Today the new El Peñol is thriving and benefitting to some extent from the influx of visitors to the area stimulated by the lake. And of course younger generations won’t miss a home they never knew. But I suspect some of the older folk still wish they were back in that quiet valley.

We arrived at the lakeside and took a small boat out on to the water. We were in the very area where El Peñol once lay. Jean had told us that the buildings were all demolished before the valley was flooded, so they wouldn’t cause a hazard to boats. But at the request of the villagers a stone pillar was erected on the spot where the church once stood, with a metal cross. And on the shore Jean pointed out the one house that remained just higher than the water level, once home to the village doctor.

Cross marking the site of the drowned village

Only remaining house from the former village

Land around the lake today has become very desirable and expensive. We saw some very grand houses, some home to footballers and musicians.

Footballer's home on the right, and his ex-wife's on the left (how is that working out, we wondered?!)

Most interesting however is one that once belonged to the infamous Pablo Escobar, Hacienda La Manuela, named after his daughter. As well as the luxurious main house there was a pool, tennis courts, a football pitch which doubled as a helipad, stables, a guest house, a seaplane dock, and even a discotheque. But the house was also built for practicality, with double-layered walls used to hide stashes of cash and cocaine. In 1993 La Manuela was bombed by a vigilante group called Las Pepes, allegedly funded by Escobar’s enemies including the rival Cali Cartel. Police forces seized the drugs and money revealed by the explosion. Eight months later Escobar was shot and killed by the authorities in Medellín. His former retreat was left in ruins, to be taken over by nature. It has a menacing presence on the lake shore.


La Manuela Hacienda

The former swimming pool block

Back on dry land (if it can be called dry when still drizzling with rain!) we drove to the lake's most famous sight, the rock of El Peñol, sometimes also referred to by the name of the nearby town, Guatapé. The owners of the land on which this outcrop stands have seized the opportunity it provides to generate as much income from it as they can, with lots of food concessions and souvenir stalls. But most significantly, they have constructed a flight of concrete steps so that the rock can be climbed. The exact number of steps depends on who you ask – I have seen everything from 640 to over 700 mentioned. However many it is, I knew it would be too much for me, especially the descent, as my knee still hadn’t fully recovered from overdoing it in the Valle de Corcora.

The rock and steps, with Chris and Jean waving to me on the right

So I watched as Chris and Jean set off, then took a few photos of what was a great view of the lake even from the height of the car park and then retired to a little café for an excellent espresso and more great views.


My views of the reservoir

By the time they returned it had started properly raining. We drove to the village of Guatapé itself, where we had lunch in a restaurant run by an Indian called Sam from Golders Green, now settled here and serving traditional Colombian dishes as well as curries! We stuck to the former, and my fried bass was delicious.

Near Sam's restaurant in Guatapé

As Jean had predicted, by the time we'd finished our meal the weather had improved considerably. The rain had stopped and the sky was brightening. We went for a walk around the town to photograph its colourful houses.

In Guatapé

These are all decorated with friezes along the lower portion, known as zócalos. Jean explained that when the village was first established the usual building style was to have the first section of the walls made from rocks, for stability, and the rest bamboo covered in mud. When building methods improved the rocks were dispensed with, but the tradition of a different lower section to the walls remained. It became the custom to decorate these with designs that reflected the owners’ occupation, beliefs or simply something they liked. I was amused to see giraffes and reindeer as well as llamas and mules, for instance.



In Guatapé

We spent some time walking around and taking lots of photos before it was time to meet up with Matteo again for the drive back to the city. So this is the point at which I bombard you with photos of what has to be one of the most photogenic and colourful towns in the world!

Cobbler's workshop

Nursery school

Some more recent street art





In Guatapé


In the main square

Although we'd had a bigger lunch than usual we couldn’t resist going back to La Terazza, the nearby Italian restaurant we'd enjoyed so much on our first evening here. It was much quieter this evening so we had no problem getting a table. The service was friendly again although this time our waiter spoke no English. But that wasn’t really a problem as they have an English menu, so Chris chose a pizza and I had a delicious smoked salmon filled tortellini. A nice way to end our brief visit to Medellín.

Posted by ToonSarah 08:25 Archived in Colombia Tagged lakes rain architecture history ruins colour views village colombia street_art street_photography

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Wow they really do love colours in Colombia! Everywhere looks so cheerful because of them.

by irenevt

Very true Irene - and I haven't yet shown you Cartagena, possibly the most colourful of the lot!

by ToonSarah

I adore alpacas! Or atleast they look cute in photos, never seen one in live. Yet! :)

Wow, that's a high climb! Didn't Chris count the stairs? :)

by hennaonthetrek

No, he said he was too busy climbing and also talking to Jean to count!

by ToonSarah

talking about color and than some! Thanks for sharing Sarah, me like it very much!

by Ils1976

Glad you like the colours Ils :)

by ToonSarah

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