From Columbia 2: A rock and a lake

Danielle is spending five weeks in Medellin, Colombia working on a research project involving tobacco exposure in pregnancy. The project involves two surveys: one targeted to prenatal care providers and one for pregnant patients in four different medical institutions throughout the city. She will blog about her experience here at OHSU StudentSpeak.  Learn more.

The wonders of Medellin can only be taken in doses, and I decided that I needed a break from the commotion of city life, so I fled to Guatapé, a nearby town. The main attraction of this town, as I read in my guide book, was a big rock overlooking a big lake. I didn’t look too much further into it, but when I visited Guatapé I found out that this description severely underestimated the beauty of these geographical phenomena.

I was dropped off after a 2-hour-ish bus ride at La Piedra (the stone, aka la Piedra del Peñol o Peñón de Guatapé), which lies about 15 minutes from the town center of Guatapé. I was not going to visit the rock until after dropping of my backpack and checking in at my hostel in Guatapé, but when the bus stopped at the base of the rock, and I saw it in it’s full glory (which cannot be captured by photographs) I could not wait. Backpack and all, I trekked the 679 stairs and 656 feet to reach its peak. It was well worth the 10,000 pesos and physical exertion, even with a backpack on. The view was incredible: a 360 degree vista of lake Guatapé and its many inlets and outlets. It was like looking at the blue green pattern of the earth’s surface from space.

A young man poses, on the precipice of the rock's highest viewpoint

The lake arose from the unfortunate construction of a dam which flooded the old town of el Peñol, and led to the construction of a new Guatapé. The new town would make up for the destruction of the old with its pretty cobble stone streets and multi-colored buildings. Strolling through Guatapé felt like a walk through Disneyland, with the buildings displaying not only color but little pictures on their facades.

The next day I accompanied three visitors from North Carolina I had met at my hostel on a bike journey via the backroad to la Piedra (as my hostel was on the opposite side of Guatapé from the monolith). Despite the mechanical difficulties my bike suffered (as rental bikes often have) and the incredibly bumpy dirt road we took, the journey was not to miss. The Norte Carolinenses and I traversed valleys and hillsides on our rickety old bikes in the glaring tropical sun of 7,000 feet for a couple of hours, and the views made up for any discomfort brought on by riding decrepit bikes. As we rode, I kept thinking to myself, “I love life.” There is nothing quite like being in the middle of nowhere on a bike in stunning lush country. The area reminded me a lot of Rwanda, actually, with its rolling uber-green hills and dry breeze. I have decided that the best of climates occurs with the combination of high altitude and low latitude, as is the case here and in Rwanda. Medellin, like Rwanda, is said to be a region of eterna primavera (eternal spring) because of the warm, but not too hot, and relatively dry (not humid like tropical lowlands) climate. Cuernavaca, Mexico, Caracas, Venezuela, Trujillo, Peru, and Quito, Ecuador are other cities that also carry this label.

The altitude of this pleasant ride, however, would manifest itself in less desirable ways, specifically the exertion of uphill riding as well as the sunburn I had at the end of the day despite slathering on SPF. After the tiring journey, we had lunch on the waterfront of Guatapé and I then very hesitanty hopped on the 5:05 bus back to Medellin. I did not feel ready to leave, and could have easily spent the next week there exploring more of the area’s natural pools and waterfalls, and waking up to a view of the rock over water everyday. Nevertheless, Monday morning would come no matter how hard I tried to freeze time in Guatapé, and I had to get back to work. I returned with a great appreciation for the tourist destination (visited by mostly Colombian tourists) and a plan to somehow return to the lake and rock before I leave this country.