Surely you’ve seen the photos on Instagram — brightly colored houses. Cute plazas filled with cafe tables where old men wearing cowboy hats sit gossiping and drinking coffee. A giant rock offering spectacular views over the surrounding lakes. Given the town’s proximity to Medellin, a Guatape day trip has quickly become one of the most popular activities in Colombia. And for good reason — it really is an incredibly beautiful slice of old-school coffee country.
But you don’t need to book a pricey tour where you’ll be shuffled around with two dozen other gringos to experience Guatape’s magic. You can easily and cheaply visit Guatape on your own, using public transportation. It’s one of the best day trips in Medellin — affordable, and there’s tons to see. In this post, I’ll show you how to visit Guatape independently.
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When to visit Guatape and the Piedra del Peñol
Like Medellin, Guatape Colombia is a year-round travel destination. The weather is always mild and pleasant. However, since the town is in the mountains, it’s often misty and rainy. Visit during the dry season (December-March) for the least chance of rain.
International instagrammers aren’t the only ones flocking to Guatape tours. The town is also extremely popular with Colombian travelers, especially folks from Medellin looking for a weekend escape. So on the weekends, the town fills up and has a party-like atmosphere.
This can be really fun — there’s music in the streets and good vibes all around. If you’re traveling on your own, it’s also easier to meet people to share tuk tuks and boat tours with. But it also means bus tickets are harder to come by, restaurants are full, and you won’t get many photos without other people in them. Visit during the week for a calmer escape. Either way, be forewarned that Guatape is touristy — much more so than Barichara, for example.
Additionally, the mountains get quite cloudy in the afternoons. So I’d recommend heading to La Piedra first when you arrive. This will allow you to get the best views of Laguna de Guatape before any bad weather rolls in. Ideally you should be here by 10 am. So you’ll need to get a pretty early start from Medellin for your Guatape day trip.
Taking the public bus for a Guatape day trip
The first part of planning your Guatape day trip by yourself is getting there. Luckily, this is super easy.
First, you’ll need to get to Medellin’s Northern Bus Terminal (Terminal Norte in Spanish). You can take the metro — get off at Caribe and follow the signs. The metro ticket costs 2,255 COP and the ride takes about 30 minutes from El Poblado, the main backpacker area. Alternatively, take a taxi (20,000 COP).
When you reach the terminal, take the stairs to your left down to the ground floor. You’ll see bus company ticket windows all around. The companies that serve Guatape are down the hallway to the left. They clearly advertise Guatape at their ticket windows, and you can see the buses outside with “Guatape/Piedra” in the front window.
Buses leave at least hourly, and more frequently on the weekends. So look around until you find the company with the soonest departure. Buy your ticket for 15,000 COP — you’ll get an assigned seat — and board the bus.
Then sit back and relax for the two-hour ride to Guatape from Medellin. The scenery along the way is fantastic, especially on the right-hand side.
The bus may stop a couple times along the way to pick up local passengers, but the first major stop is at the base of the Piedra. If you plan to climb the rock, get off here and do that first. Otherwise, continue into town and the bus will drop you off at the station on the waterfront.
What to do in Guatape Colombia
You can easily cover all the things to do in Guatape listed below on a day trip. Leave Medellin by 8 am and you’ll be back around 6 pm.
Climb La Piedra de Peñol
You’ll see it from the bus well before you reach it — the giant granite monolith known as La Piedra de Peñol, or El Peñon de Guatape. (The two names are because the two towns compete over who “owns” the rock.) Those who brave the 700 steps to the top get a stunning view over Laguna de Guatape. It’s one of the best things to do in Guatape.
If you’re visiting Guatape without a tour, hop of the bus at the gas station where the conductor announces “La Piedra.” From here, it’s a few hundred meters’ uphill walk to the rock itself. Moto taxi drivers will offer you a ride for 5,000 COP, but the hike isn’t difficult.
When you reach La Piedra you’ll see a bunch of shops selling tourist knick-knacks and restaurants with a menu del dia for around 12,000 COP. Pick up a snack if you need one — I’m a huge fan of the lemon-juice-soaked guava slices everyone sells for 2,000 COP. You’ll also find clean and free restrooms right next to the ticket booth.
When you’re ready to start climbing, shell out your 18,000 COP for a ticket and head for the stairs. Follow the signs and try not to focus too much on which number step you’re on. There are plenty of places where you can step to the side to take a rest or for photos.
At the top, you’ll find more snack vendors and another gift shop, along with viewing platforms all around. The best views are toward the back. You can also climb the stairs in the little shop for a full 360-degree view, but the highest platform is extremely crowded.
Various marketing brochures call it “the most beautiful view in the world.” Just to manage expectations, it’s decidedly not that, but it’s still very nice and well worth the climb. The lush green mountains surrounding the finger-shaped lakes make up an iconic South America landscape.
When you’re ready to head down, be sure to follow the signs for the descent. It’s a different staircase than you used to climb up.
Getting from La Piedra to Guatape
After you climb the rock, the next step in your Guatape day trip is to get into the town itself. It’s a few kilometers away from La Piedra.
You could walk it — you’d need about an hour — but that would cut into your time for other things to do in Guatape. So instead, hop in a moto taxi (motorized tuk tuk) for the ten-minute ride into town.
Moto taxis charge 10,000 COP for this route. But if you hang around for a few minutes, you can find others to share with — I paid 4,000 by sharing with a Colombian couple.
If you really want to save money, you can wait for the bus from Medellin to Guatape to pass La Piedra. This costs just a few cents, but you may have to wait for up to an hour on weekdays.
If you’re visiting Guatape on the weekend, as soon as you get into town you should go to the bus station down on the lakefront (one block from the central plaza) to buy your return ticket to Medellin. Buses fill up quickly. Buy a ticket for the 3 pm or 4 pm bus and you’ll have plenty of time to explore. The price is 15,000 COP.
Walk around town and see the frescoes
The best part of a Guatape day trip is seeing the impossibly colorful houses all around the town center.
The central plaza is a logical place to begin your exploration. Dominated by the main cathedral, it also has a cute fountain, banks, restaurants, and cafes. On the weekends you’ll often find street performers here.
One block east of the central plaza is Plazeta de los Zocalos. This is perhaps the most photographed spot in the entire town. A brightly painted staircase leads up to a small park, with balcony cafes overlooking it. Musicians perform here on the weekends as well. Be patient with your photos — everyone wants a perfect shot on the staircase.
Calle de los Recuerdos is another popular street to explore. Here you’ll find traditionally decorated houses and shops. One of the best photography spots in town is at the top of this street.
Of course, some of the streets further out offer the chance to see the frescoes without so many tourist crowds. Don’t be afraid to wander further west or north. You’ll encounter friendlier people here too — someone might even explain their own home’s frescoes to you!
Take a boat trip on Laguna de Guatape
Seeing as it’s surrounded by lakes, it’s no surprise that a boat trip is one of the most popular activities during a Guatape day trip. You can go for something adventurous — like a zip-line tour — or simply cruise around on a small or large boat.
The typical tours take you by a handful of islands (you won’t get off) where you can see ruins from the old town before it was flooded to form the lakes. They last around 90 minutes and cost 15,000 COP. Some boats have more of a party vibe while others are family-friendly. Not all the boats live up to an acceptable safety standard.
You will see some boats advertising trips out to Pablo Escobar’s former mansion — where you can even play paintball. However, I highly recommend against participating in this activity. Many Colombians find it extremely offensive and insensitive to their history. It’s even worse in this case because your money will go directly to the Escobar estate.
While it’s one of the most popular activities in Guatape Colombia, in my opinion the boat ride is skippable if you only have one day to explore. I didn’t do it after hearing from other travelers that it was the most disappointing part of their Guatape day trip.
If you still want the Laguna de Guatape experience without the boat trip, any moto taxi driver can take you to a beach where you can swim for 5,000 COP.
Where to eat and drink during your Guatape day trip
Guatape isn’t exactly a culinary destination. It has nothing like the best restaurants in Medellin. But you can find a decent meal here — and the atmosphere can’t be beat.
The most popular places to eat are along the lakefront. You’ll pay around 20,000 COP for a menu del dia here. La Fogata is the pick of the bunch.
If you want to save 5-10,000 COP, opt for one of the traditional paisa restaurants in the central plaza instead. You can get a good bandejo paisa (massive dish with every imaginable variety of meat, rice, egg, arepas, avocado, and beans) for around 15,000 COP. Most places serve a vegetarian version for 8,000 COP.
Craving international food? It’s a bit of a splurge, but the pizzas at Pizzeria de Luigi are legendary. You can also find decent Thai food at a couple spots in town.
Good coffee isn’t super easy to come by in Guatape. While every other cafe has a stunning balcony with great views, they mostly serve mediocre tinto (sludgy instant coffee) for inflated prices. Exceptions include Tiki Taka on the main plaza, which has a full espresso menu, and teeny-tiny Black Hole Cafe near the Zocalo, which has excellent baristas and a couple of perfectly located sidewalk tables.
The restaurants along the lakefront and in the central plaza are also great places for a beer. A couple places east of the main plaza have a rowdier drinking culture, with pool tables and football games on the TV. Solo women may find them a bit uncomfortable.
What to bring on your Guatape tour
A day trip to Guatape is long, so you need to be prepared. Be sure to pack these items in your daypack:
- Your camera, of course!
- A reusable water bottle and Steri Pen so you can refill safely
- Umbrella or rain jacket in case of afternoon showers
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Bus snacks (or pick up some fresh fruit along the way)
- Swimsuit and towel/sarong (if you plan on visiting the lake)
Want to extend your Guatape day trip? Stay overnight.
If you love small towns and you want to experience Guatape after the tourist crowds go home, you may want to consider spending a night or two here.
If you’re visiting on a weekend, you’ll need to book accommodation well in advance. Otherwise you can probably just show up and find something, although the better places fill up during the week too.
Lake View Hostel is the relatively central choice for budget travelers in town. While no food is included, the breakfast options are amazing and you can get good Thai food in the restaurant. Alternatively, Galeria Guatape closer to La Piedra is well-loved (dorms only).
Honestly, though, if you have to pick one small Colombian town to spend the night in, I would pick Jardin over Guatape any day. Just three hours south of Medellin, Jardin feels far more authentic and less touristic. Obviously if you have time to do both, great!
Alternative to taking the bus: Guatape tours from Medellin
If you have any experience with backpacking independently, a Guatape day trip is pretty easy to organize on your own. You can plan all of the things to do in Guatape that I covered on the spot when you arrive.
But if you prefer the convenience of taking a tour, or if you’re nervous about missing the last bus back to Medellin, a Guatape tour is another option. With a tour, you’ll cover all of the activities above, but you’ll get private coach transportation (along with 30-50 other tourists) and everything will be organized for you in advance.
Toucan Cafe runs a highly recommended Guatape tour. It costs 83,000 COP including breakfast and lunch, but not including admission to La Piedra. You can also organize a private tour through them, although it will be much more expensive.
In a pinch, you can always get a taxi from Guatape to Medellin — if, for example, all the buses back are full or you miss the last one. This will run you about 150,000 COP.
As you can see, it’s much cheaper to tour Guatape independently — you’ll save about 30,000 COP — but the tours are still pretty good value for money.
However you choose to visit, you won’t soon forget charming Guatape. From its colorful houses, to its cobblestone streets, to its gorgeous surrounding landscapes, this is truly one of the prettiest corners of Colombia. Don’t miss out on the chance to visit Guatape on a day tour from Medellin!
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