I may be going out on a limb here by declaring definitively that Guatapé is Colombia’s most colourful town, since I haven’t visited every single place in the country. But given the photo evidence that you’re about to see, I think I am on pretty solid ground with this claim. Of course, you can decide for yourself, but I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that this rainbow-bright South American town is a visual feast for the eyes.
Guatapé: Pueblo de Zócalos
Guatapé showed up on my radar when I was researching interesting day trips from Medellin, and for the tiny town that it is, Guatapé has a lot that makes it unique. Of course there’s El Peñol, or La Piedra, a huge granite monolith just outside of town that Henk and I climbed as part of our visit, and to which the town lays claim.
But the main attraction is of course the town itself, a pretty Colonial pueblo of 11,000 people situated on the shores of a man-made lake and made famous for its colourful zócalos. In fact, these unique architectural details have earned the town the nickname Pueblo de Zócalos.
What exactly is a Zócalo?
Zócalo means ‘base’ or ‘plinth’ in Spanish, and can also refer to the main square in a town, but in Guatapé specfically, the word refers to colourful bas-relief designs found on the lower half of almost every building in the historical centre of town.
These designs are a point of pride for the pueblo and part of the town identity, with subjects ranging from floral motifs to religious subjects to village life, each of which reflects the personality or history of the residents and the town.
And of course, you’ll also see plenty of images depicting La Piedra.
Guatapé’s Colourful Architectural Details
The colours on Guatapé’s buildings don’t stop with the zócalos: every architectural detail from the soffits to the window grilles are decorated in a complementary palette, making it difficult to know where to point your camera first.
Even the municipal building looks like a beautiful historic hotel with character and personality you typically never find in a government structure.
Wandering around the town, I can honestly say that both Henk and I were trigger-happy when it came to shooting photos.
Multi-Coloured Tuk-Tuks Painted like Mini-Chivas
Even the tuk-tuks in Guatapé are colourful, and I have to admit I fell in love with them because of it. Painted to resemble ‘chivas’ (large, open-air 4X4 buses commonly used to shuttle people around in Colombia’s hillier regions), these mini-chivas (pronounced chee-wahs) are the most popular way to get around town, and another great excuse for a photo.
Guatapé’s Colourful Characters
Pausing to drink in the colourful surroundings is a good excuse to spend time at one of Guatapés many outdoor cafes, and gives you a great excuse to engage in the town’s most popular pastime: people-watching in the main square. Here, young and old enjoy life at a more relaxed pace, while sipping coffee from fine china cups (this seems to be a small-town thing in Colombia). And you can always count on there being a few of the town’s elders who make it a habit to gather in the square, exchange news or just enjoy a drink.
Since the construction of a hydro-electric dam that flooded the area and surrounded Guatapé with several man-made lakes, the town has become known as a bit of a resort town and a great weekend destination for the paisas (local residents) of Medellin. Thousands are drawn here to breathe the fresh air, enjoy a boat cruise on the blue-green waters, or just escape the big city. And since Medellin is only 90 minutes away by bus, a lot of visitors do day trips here as well, either independently or as part of organized excursions.
Day Trip or Overnight?
Henk and I considered doing what many of those visitors do, and just visiting Guatapé for one day, but we decided to do an overnight stay instead and are really happy we did. Not only did the extra time mean we weren’t rushed, but we got to enjoy the town in the evening after all the day-trippers had gone home (something I highly recommend for popular destinations.)
And exploring the town the following morning before the bus tours arrived gave us a feel for what this quaint little pueblo is like when the tourists aren’t here.
Guatapé or is it “Guatapulco”?
Guatapé’s rise in popularity in recent years (especially with Medellin escapees) has earned Guatapé another nickname: ‘Guatapulco’. But don’t let this discourage you from visiting. Just try to time your stay when it’s not high season (the peak months of summer, or Christmas) or go during the week when the town is quieter. Because this little Pueblo de Zócalos definitely lives up to its colourful reputation not just with its pretty architecture but also its peaceful lakeside setting – both of which will make you glad you came.
And while I can’t absolutely guarantee that it is Colombia’s most colourful town, I can guarantee this: you will leave Guatapé with your camera filled with its many colours.
TIP: We did our overnight visit to Guatapé in early February on a weekday, and found the town uncrowded even during the day. And although some of the waterfront restaurants weren’t open (as it wasn’t high season), the weather was perfect, there were no lineups for any activities, and we had our hotel practically to ourselves (including the pool).
As for accommodations, we stayed at the Hotel Verony, a few kilometres from town and close to La Piedra. Although not luxurious, the hotel was new, absolutely spotless, and had a terrific pool (which is a rarity in Guatapé).
If you really want to drop some pesos and spoil yourself, the ultimate grownup option would be the brand new Luxé Resort by the Charlee.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.