In North America, the term “the rock” is likely to make you think of Alcatraz, the abandoned federal penitentiary on an island off the coast of San Francisco. And when hearing “top of the rock,” Americans and Canadians might think of the observatory in Rockefeller Center that offers panoramic views of the Big Apple. But in South America, in the beautiful Andean town of Guatapé, “the rock” is a much different experience, albeit one that still delivers stunning 360-degree views.
Pro Tip: Located about halfway between the towns of El Peñol and Guatapé, the rock can be associated with either destination. So while you may hear it referred to by many names — La Piedra Del Peñol (the stone of El Peñol), El Peñón de Guatapé (the Rock of Guatapé), or simply La Piedra (the stone) or El Peñón (the rock) — all refer to the same massive granite formation. So don’t let that confuse you!
Where Is Guatapé?
Guatapé is located about 50 miles east of Medellin. But don’t apply an American interstate highway mentality to that 50-mile journey. Instead of speeding between the two destinations at 75 miles per hour on a freeway, you’ll wind your way along narrow bamboo- and palm tree-lined mountain roads. So be sure to allow about two hours of travel time each way.
I was fortunate to visit La Piedra with Colombian friends who drove us to Guatapé in their car. But you can also reach Guatapé from Medellin by bus, as part of an organized tour, or by hiring a taxi or private driver.
Pro Tip: Many people who remember the violence that racked Colombia during drug lord Pablo Escobar’s time or who see Colombia tagged with a Level 3 advisory by the State Department wonder, “Is Guatapé safe?” While each traveler has their own comfort level, I can tell you that I never felt unsafe during my time in Colombia, especially not in the town of Guatapé.
What Is The Rock Of Guatapé?
El Peñón Guatapé is a massive quartz, feldspar, and granite dome that rises 650 feet above the surrounding rolling green hills. That’s 20 feet taller than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and nearly 100 feet taller than the Washington Monument in D.C.
El Peñón is mostly smooth, except for one long crack down its northwestern side. When Luis Eduardo Villegas Lopez successfully scaled the Rock of Guatapé for the first time in 1954, the climbing party ascended the dome by jamming wooden boards into the crack. You’ll find both a statue and mural celebrating Lopez’s accomplishment at the base of the Guatapé Rock.
As if a giant surgeon attempted to stitch up the crack, today you’ll find a staircase built into the crevice. Blending a natural wonder with human intervention, it allows visitors to easily zigzag their way to the top of the rock.
Fun Fact: While the Rock of Guatapé is a natural formation, the nearby lake is manmade. To create a gigantic reservoir in the 1970s, the Colombia town of El Peñol was relocated so the Guatapé River could be dammed, and the valley it was in flooded. Today the reservoir provides electricity to more than 35 percent of Colombia.
Tips For Climbing The Rock Of Guatapé
- Buy a ticket. While the climb isn’t free, it’s not very expensive. When I visited in November 2021, it was 20,000 Colombian pesos, or about $5.
- Go early. Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll also beat the heat. And by getting a jump on the day, you’ll have plenty of time to explore more of Guatapé.
- Be sun smart. UV intensity increases about 4 percent for every 1,000 feet you rise above sea level — and Guatapé has an altitude of 6,200 feet! So regardless of the clouds in the sky or the amount of melanin in your skin, protect yourself. Be sure to apply sunscreen and wear a hat and sunglasses.
- Prepare to climb. To get to the top of the rock, you’ll have to ascend 650 stairs. And then you’ll have to climb three more flights to get to the three-story viewing platform. Let me be clear: There is no elevator! And because the path up and down is one way, you can’t really turn around if you change your mind. At least numbers painted on the stone steps keep you posted on your progress, and encouraging phrases will cheer you on.
- It’s okay to take your time. Although it took Luis Eduardo Villegas Lopez five days to climb El Peñón de Guatapé, it will only take you between 10 (if you’re part billy goat) to 30 (if you want to go slowly and admire the view) minutes. While there aren’t places to sit and rest along the climb, there are several scenic spots to stop, catch your breath, and admire your progress.
- Linger at the top. On the flat top of the rock, you’ll find food vendors, a small gift shop, and views that will take your breath away (and not just because of the altitude)!
- Wear smart shoes. You’re going to be climbing the equivalent of about 45 flights of stairs. And then back down. This is not an activity to do in flip-flops or high heels.
- OMG — the view! No matter how much your lungs burn at the top or your legs wobble as you make your way down, the view from La Piedra makes any pain worth it! To the north, you’ll see the clear water of the reservoir reflecting the sky and perpetually green landscape, and to the east, you’ll get a glimpse of the town of Guatapé. No wonder climbing La Piedra is often cited as one of the best things to do in Colombia!
- Tag along even if you won’t make the climb. Members of your group who aren’t interested in ascending La Piedra can browse the kiosks or enjoy a bite or beverage at the base of the rock. Just note that there is a small fee (the equivalent of a few dollars) to enter the covered area overlooking the reservoir. While the panoramic view 650 feet higher up is certainly stunning, the view from this spot is still quite impressive.
Once you’ve climbed the El Peñón, head to the town of Guatapé. To fully experience one of the most colorful cities in the Americas, I recommend taking a boat ride on the reservoir (where you can see the burned-out ruins of one of Pablo Escobar’s mansions), enjoying lunch at a local eatery (be sure to try the trout), and admiring the zocalos (whimsical frescoes decorating nearly every home and business in Guatapé).
Want to climb La Piedra? Check out a variety of tour options here.