You don’t have to step far outside of Medellín before you encounter the most magical place.
Just 86 kilometers outside of the city is the stunning town of El Peñol, known for its gigantic rock. But, this rock is not any old rock, and once you’ve climbed its 600-plus steps, you’ll soon realize why.
With a view to rival that of the Harbor of Rio, El Peñol Monolith offers something I have never seen before: an archipelago of green islands as far as the eye can see. Simply stunning!
Jet skiers zoom through them, boats take people on trips on around them, and people even zipline along the top of them, and the ironic thing is that they are not even islands.
Forty years ago, this quiet mountainous landscape was dotted with colorful houses until plans for a hydroelectric dam to supply 30 percent of the electricity to the whole of Colombia were put into place.
Over 5,000 acres of land were purposely flooded, creating the lush, green island effect of today.
El Peñol Monolith is 650 feet tall, and although it looks like a challenge to climb, it’s relatively easy.
Steps snake their way to their top and allow for several stops with great viewing points as you climb. Then once you get to the top, there’s an even larger platform to see the spectacular sight in all its stunning glory.
There’s a visitors center near the summit and if you fancy buying a souvenir, just climb a few more steps to the gift shop or choose one of the many stalls at the base of the rock.
So where can you find this giant rock?
In El Peñol, although locals from the colorful town of Guatape believe it sits on Guatape soil, and even went as far as trying to paint the name of their town on the rock to claim ownership until the painting was brought to a halt by the protesting residents of El Peñol.
Rumor has it that the painters perished before they could finish the name, but whichever explanation you choose to take, the giant rock is a sight to behold and the unfinished letters stand tall against its backdrop.
The cost to climb the rock is 10,000 pesos ($5), and you pay at the entrance at the bottom of the steps.
Once you’ve conquered the rock, pay a visit to Old Peñol, a pueblo that sits in a watery grave.
This former pueblo was also flooded to make way for the new water flow, and only the memorial cross of the church is visible to onlookers as it protrudes out of the lake.
Apparently you can dive below but the visibility is meant to be quite poor, and observing the steeple from afar leaves a more mysterious impression.
You can also see a replica of the town as it was before it was flooded, forcing the residents to move.
The whole area of El Peñol gets busy on weekends with locals and families, and you’ll be surrounded by street stalls selling art and souvenirs and people ziplining along the lake as many boats make the trips around the hilly islands.
How to Get There
If you’re coming by bus from Medellín, take the bus from the north terminal (Caribe metro station).
Two bus companies, Sotrasanvicente and Sotrapeñol run regular buses from 6 a.m. which take you through El Peñol and the entrance to the El Peñol Monolith (also known as La Piedra).
The bus then goes onto the charming town of Guatapé, known as the Pueblo de Zócalos and famous for its colorful facades of wall art. If you decide to go onto Guatapé, you can buy your return bus ticket from the Sotrasanviente office in the square.
If you’re just staying for just a day, buy your return ticket before you board. Each way costs about 12,000 pesos ($6.40). The last bus returning to Medellín at 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7:45 p.m. on Sunday and holidays.
Special Reader Discount
Use discount code MLTOURS when booking your tour to Guatape and El Peñol online with Medellín City Services and save 20 percent! If booking by phone or email, you can mention it as well.
more helpful info in my opinion – ask the bus driver to let you off at El Penol, when you board the bus. it is a 10 minute walk to the base of el penol, with a tienda or 2 on the way up to buy refreshments or food as the water is not guaranteed safe there as it is in Medellin. to get to guatape after you climb El Penol, you can pay a few dollars to take a tuk tuk moto taxi or a chiva bus or even an off road vehicle.
In guatape you can find many places to eat a nice trout lunch and zipline over the water, see the pretty painted houses. there are at least 3 hostels in the area. there are also party boats and small boats to take you to some of the small islands. i hear there is a big boa snake at one of the islands, and they used to have a bird(colors of Colombian flag) for photo ops and you donated a little money to the family or bought things from their tienda..
bus back to Medellin – if you decide to take a specific bus, maybe you should buy your ticket a bit in advance. we tried one time at the last minute to get a bus, and ended up sitting on cushions on the floor and stairs for the same price as having a seat, since the last seats were sold just before we got there and a few people had to stand for a while or sit in the aisle.
typically i leave 7-8am and return on a 5-6pm bus and have a busy but good day. have been there 4 times. I also here there is a cool town if you go a bit further than Guatape, but forget the name..
if you take the metro to Caribe station, take a 2 minute walk on the north bridge to the north terminal bus station and you will find the guatape bus’s at about space 14-16.
sunscreen – one time i was relaxing with friends and talking at the top for a long time, and there was a nice breeze that made me not feel the intense high altitude sun, and the next the next day i looked a bit like a lobster on my arms.
protecting items – one time a few of us gave a little money to a family that had a tienda on the way up to el penol, and they watched our bags for us.
Agree about the need for sunscreen once you’re up and out of the valley. I was in Santa Elena a few weeks ago, and the same thing happened. I put sunscreen on my head and neck, and even wore a hat, but I forgot about my arms. The cool breeze up there was disarming. By the time I got back down to Medellin a few hours later, my arms were lobster-red.
Dumb question…can you swim in the lakes (assuming they are “lakes”?) around there? El Penol.
Yes, but I don’t think there’s much in terms of a beach. Watersports like jetskis and wakeboarding are common too.
in 2009 we took a boat out to one of the islands and did some swimming. the banks of the lakes are like a red clay, so be prepared to have a dirty bottom/butt if you sit down there 🙂
I honestly don’t remember what the conditions of the water were. cold? murky?