It rises like a natural watchtower hundreds of feet above the surrounding hills and lakes, a giant granite monolith with a vertical crevice splitting it down the middle, seemingly held together with a 659-step ‘zipper’ that zig-zags up the crack.This is El Peñón de Guatapé, affectionately referred to by the locals as La Piedra (the Stone) or El Peñól. Conquering La Piedra in Guatapé, Colombia is the reason why many visitors take the 90-minute bus ride here from Medellin, and it’s one reason why Henk and I had come here as well.
But seeing this mini-mountain for the first time and confronted with the actual scale of it, I had a moment of doubt when I began to question whether climbing this giant would be fun or more challenging than I had anticipated.
The History of La Piedra
La Piedra has always been a special place, one where the Tahamies Indians worshipped generations ago, and where locals still argue over ‘ownership’ today. In fact, on one side of the monolith, there are 2 huge white painted letters (“G” and “I” ) that come with an interesting story: La Piedra sits on the border between the towns of Guatapé and El Penõl, both of which lay claim to the stone. So to settle their claim once and for all, the residents of Guatapé decided to paint the town’s name on the side of La Piedra.
The residents in the town of El Peñol would have none of that, naturally, so they got together and put a stop to the painting mid-letter, leaving only the G and the incomplete ‘U”. No one has picked up the paintbrush since, and since the 1940s, the Colombian government has declared La Piedra as a National Monument, (which theoretically gives it to all of the Colombia people – at least in principle!)
La Piedra is Privately OwnedDespite being a National Monument, La Piedra is actually privately owned and was purchased decades ago as a piece of relatively useless piece of un-farmable land. But what a cash cow this big stone has turned out to be!
With a ticket costing 18,000 pesos for the privilege of climbing the rock, this attraction lures plenty of visitors seeking more off-the-beaten-path attractions. (And let’s not forget the souvenir shop and bar/cafe at the top.) But hey, I won’t begrudge the owners because the maintenance of those stairs alone justifies the admission price, and getting cold beer to the top of that beast is well worth the entrance fee in my books!
I was thankful that a good chunk of the 66,000,000-ton La Piedra is actually below ground, so that the climb up the visible part of the rock is only 740 steps (which includes the extra 81 steps taking you to the viewing platform on top of the 3-story tower at the pinnacle).
Remember that Colombia is one hilly country, so by the time you get to the very top, you’ll be standing at just over 7,000 feet above sea level – which is an effort for ‘flat-landers’ like us!
But as daunting as this all sounds – and looks – the climb itself was very doable and not nearly as intimidating as the idea of it. Yes, you should be in reasonable shape, definitely take your time, and rest often. Bringing water is a good idea, too, and you probably want to avoid climbing at high noon when the sun is directly overhead. (Henk and I did the climb around 2pm, and we were comfortably shaded the whole way up.)
The good news is that unlike the way the first climbers got to the top (by wedging wooden planks into the large vertical crevice in the rock and using them as makeshift stairs), today’s concrete staircase is as solid as the rock it’s built on. Plus you won’t have to worry about sharing the steps with climbers going down, since there is a second descending staircase deeper within the crack.
It’s not just the effort required to get there that makes the view from the top of La Piedra so breathtaking; standing on its peak gives you a 360-degree panorama over a landscape dotted with lush islands and blue-green lakes and lagoons – a man-made “lake district” resulting from the construction of a hydro-electric dam built here in the 1970s. There is no other way to describe it than jaw-dropping.
And with blue skies and soaring birds all around you, you can’t help but feel like you are on the top of the world.
Grab a Drink – You’ve Earned It!
I admit, La Piedra cannot compare to summitting Everest, (something I have absolutely NO desire to do by the way!), but this rock does have something Everest doesn’t: a bar with the best patio in all of Colombia! So after taking the obligatory photo of the ‘740’ step-marker on the top of the viewing tower platform, Henk and I felt we had earned a drink, so we grabbed a table on the terrace just below the tower and ordered a couple of ice-cold beers (5,000 pesos and worth every one!).
A Gentle Giant
Originally I had been a little intimidated by La Piedra’s immense scale, but it turned out to be a gentle giant, and scaling it was worth every huff and puff it took to get to the top. Henk and I hadn’t just conquered La Piedra – we had the photos (and drone footage!) to prove it.
What to Know Before You Go
Most people who climb La Piedra do it as part of a day-trip from Medellin, which includes a visit to the nearby town of Guatapé, a colourful Colonial town and a favourite weekend destination for the paisas from the city. Henk and I wanted to give each place its proper due, so we decided to do an overnight trip instead, and not try to cram too much into just one day (highly recommended as this man-made lake district is beautiful and the extra time means you can enjoy Guatapé and the region without rushing either experience.)
TIPS FOR GETTING THERE: Daily departures for Guatapé leave pretty much on the hour from the Terminal Norte Station in Medellin which is just across the bridge from the Caribe Metro station. We had a comfortable bus trip on Sotra San Vicente bus lines that cost us 12,500 pesos each one-way (about $10 Canadian dollars).
If you are going directly to La Piedra, you can ask the driver to leave you off at the Zeuss gas station just outside the town of Guatapé where there are usually tuk-tuks waiting to take visitors to the base of La Piedra. You can also walk the uphill 1-kilometer road, but I say save your energy for climbing, and leave the walking for the kids!