I first fell in love with Colombia through the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a good 13 years before I got the chance to visit. The Noble laureate inspired a generation of devotees to Latin American culture with his unbridled imagination and dreamlike storylines, rooted in the violence and romance of his native Colombia.
If a single place could match the magical realism invented by Garcia Marquez, then Guatapé, just 500km south of where he was born, would be it. Known for its extraordinary color, artwork covers every surface of the town creating an otherworldly effect that seems divined from fiction. Guatapé is foremost a town with ease. Unhurried locals are often found popping into sidewalk cafes for a tinto (a small demitasse of instant coffee loaded with sugar), as shopkeepers peer out of their windows to watch live Reggaeton performed in the main square.
A visitor would be forgiven for not knowing which time period the village would ascribe itself to. An old-world charm is conjured by quirky details – flowers overflow from balconettes and ornate frescos, hand-painted in meticulous symmetry, adorn crisp, white walls. Tourists are often found admiring the zocalos. These color-rich designs of animals and mythical creatures frame the town walls and tell the story of each residence, and often pay tribute to the flora and fauna of the surrounding countryside.
A dot on the map with a population of just over 5,000 residents, Guatapé is located in the Antioquia region of the Andes Mountains, the world’s longest mountain range. The town is most often reached by way of Medellin, the bustling metropolis at the base of the valley below. Just over a two-hour drive away, Guatapé makes for an ideal day trip for those looking to breathe in the fresh air and reconnect with nature.
We begin from Medellin’s North Bus Terminal, ascending upward into the mountains, passing roadside flower vendors, horse farms and sculpture gardens as our clunky van manoeuvres the winding hillside. The rich green Antioquian landscape is interspersed with rivers and waterways, making for unusual roadside views. The area was flooded in the 1970s to make way for a hydro-electric dam, resulting in a mosaic of land and water peppered with clusters of tiny islands.
Like the great literary works they inspired, the mountain ranges of Antioquia have seen their fair share of tragedy. The region was off limits to tourists as recently as a decade ago and was once the setting of violent confrontations between the Colombian government, guerrilla rebels and various drug cartels. Pablo Escobar ran his narcotics empire from his hometown of Medellin, known as the most dangerous city in the world at the time, and kept a residence in Guatapé.
The drug wars have left enduring scars on a provincial community that has struggled to rebuild its reputation after more than 50 years of civil war. Nowadays, Guatapé’s history attracts tourists who flock to see the vacation home once kept by Escobar outside the town proper. His former retreat lies in ruins on a secluded island that was allegedly bombed in a CIA raid. Tours are now offered of the mansion, whose graffitied and moss-eroded skeleton could not stand in stronger contrast to the tranquillity of Guatapé.
Perhaps part of the charm of visiting Antioquia is that you’re able to visit at all. Guatape has become increasingly popular with Colombians and tourists alike who wander in for a weekend’s reprieve from city life. The diverse terrain offers visitors countless opportunities to horseback ride, cycle, kayak or hike between the peaks, or picnic leisurely on one of the many islands. The climate is permanently rooted in Spring-like temperatures, making a visit ideal at any time of year.
Locals will advise you to pick up a scooter near the river and ride the scenic 14km trek from Guatapé to the Rock of Penol. The idea is to keep on along the riverbank until the curious sight of a giant rock emerges, known locally as La Piedra. Erected as if in jest, the imposing 200 meter structure stands in fabled proportions above the low-lying cottages of the surrounding area. The 758 step climb to the top is well worth the effort for the panoramic views of the Andean backdrop flooded with lakes and streams.
We discover by accident that the best way to explore the outskirts of Guatapé is via the numerous waterways. In need of transport options when a motorcycle accident sends our friend flying into a bush, we decide to bypass the guided sailing tours in favor of a solo jet ski endeavor down the river.
There’s a sense of giddiness induced while zipping through a mountain range on a jet ski; the sight of waves upon the crags is enchanting. The vantage point from the water provides unobstructed views of the mounds and offers an uplifting sense of remoteness. We end the day gliding past hidden coves and islands, watching the crisp, clear water unfold between flanks of rust-colored mountainside.
With river soaked clothes still clinging to our skin, we head back to town for a beer and a piping hot plate of Bandaje Paisa (a traditional dish of rice, beans, beef and chorizo). As the sun sets, visitors pile into shared vans destined for Medellin and locals are free to reclaim their squares and restaurants, and listen to their Reggaeton in peace.
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Maria Polychronis is a Brooklyn-based aid worker turned Wall Street advisor. She has spent the past seven years living and working across the US, Europe and West Africa. She writes about international development and takes photos on beat-up old cameras she finds at flea markets while traveling.