The prize for the cutest, most beautiful, quietest-without-being-boring, small town goes to … Guatapé, a small town two hours from Medellín.
When I stepped off the bus, I was greeted by a few colorful buildings and thought “how cute”. But then I began walking through the streets in search of lodging, and I realized this was a city like no other. There weren’t just a few cute and colorful buildings, but looking down every single street my eyes were rewarded with a burst of color – and not tacky colorful houses but really cute, orderly and coordinated colors that made the atmosphere of the whole town feel pleasant.
Turns out, this Colombian lakeside town of 5,000 people is known as “la ciudad de zócalos”, because of the colorful, artistic baseboard decoration on the outside of each house.
The decorative band of designs typically depicts an aspect of daily life, history, or the homeowner’s or artist’s interests.
Though sometimes they are just colorful designs accenting the colors of the house.
The town reinvented itself in the 1980’s after the construction of a dam protected it from future flooding, and the town came together with the idea to adopt this signature style throughout the whole town. The result of their unified efforts is astounding.
This quiet town, 2 hours from Medellín is a popular weekend getaway for Paisas and a common stop for international travelers.
It is quiet most days of the year, except during the approximately 12 holidays of the year – during a holiday, the population explodes from 5 thousand to up to 15 or 20 thousand as visitors flood in from Medellín or other parts of the country. On the busiest days, there isn’t enough lodging and people have to return to Medellín for the night.*
I am not at all surprised at the popularity of Guatapé as a relaxing weekend escape.
First, it is most famous for “la piedra”, which is a tall rock rising above the landscape, offering an incredible view of this interesting lake-filled region.
The town has built stairways of 659 stairs up to the top of the rock and charges an entrance fee. While the touristy part at the entrance and the top didn’t appeal to me much, many would appreciate the opportunity to buy a cold drink or souvenirs, especially those who just do a day trip to the area. Either way, the view at the top is well worth the climb. It was really unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Back down on the ground, you could do lake activities like paddle boats, kayaking, going out in big boats, or renting jet skis.
You could walk or bike to the monasteries (one for women and one for men, though only the one for men was active).
You could rent a bike and do a loop around Guatapé, which of course is something I chose to do.
And this is where I really got a sense of how chill this town is. The bike rental place rented me a bike with zero collateral. I just wrote my name on a paper and said I’d bring the bike back before 6pm and they gave me a bike and helmet and said I could pay when I got back.
I got another feel for the small town life the day I walked around town and got my haircut. In the salon, I was greeted by a mestizo guy who informed me that the stylist was finishing lunch, and as we chatted I realized he was a neighbor just hanging out there. He was proud to be a Paisa, and enjoyed explaining to me how friendly they were.
While the woman was cutting my hair, two black teenagers came in and the woman greeted them enthusiastically. Turns out they were from Guatapé, but one was visiting from Medellin where he had gone to study. The woman had an aunt-like manner with the young neighbor boys, highlighting for me that small-town feel where everyone knows everyone and looks out for everyone.
In addition to the mix of mestizos and blacks (seen all over Colombia not just in Guatapé), the majority of people tending the restaurants (and those managing my hostel) were Venezuelan – also a common occurrence throughout Colombia right now.**
Turns out that I was in Guatapé at just the right time too … I was safely enjoying small-town life during the planned protests in Colombia this past weekend (21 Nov). While some of the bigger cities experienced cases of looting or disturbances that led to curfews, things in Guatapé were calm and quiet.
I am so lucky to have experienced this little gem in the middle of Colombia! Hopefully you will one day too!
*Oxapampa, twice as large as Guatapé with an urban population of 10,000, experiences a similar phenomenon during holidays as Limeños flee to the rural city looking for a quiet, nature-filled, relaxing holiday. Ironically, in both Oxapampa and in Guatapé, this surge of tourism turns the quiet town into a busier and noisier city – though still much quieter and relaxing than Lima or Medellín.
**As a neighbor to Venezuela, Colombia has received around 1 million Venezuelan immigrants in the last two years due to the economic crisis there.