Black Sheep Hostal is the only place in the city that arranges the Guatapé and Peñol tour in English. It also happens to be the only pick-up point. When we booked it last week, they told us to call on Monday to make sure they had enough people to run the tour on Tuesday. It was doubtful they would cancel it, but to be certain, we should call.
Told to be at the hostal at 9:10 we obediently complied, not realizing we would be hanging around for another half hour. The tour’s starting time was actually 9:30 am and Rafael does start his tour on time.
Gathered into the van, there was a nice collection of people from Austria, England, Morocco, and Argentina. Just as we were pulling out, Rafael spoke Spanish to the group; I was immediately confused and upset that this would be a long day and a waste of money. Then he asked who did not speak Spanish. There were more than just Ron and I. Though we could understand some of what he said, once he started with landscape, architecture, or historical terms, we would be lost.
Rafael explains that he takes the back roads giving a better opportunity to see vistas that are not always visible on main roads, but also allowing the van to be stop so we can get out for those Kodak moments. There is a perpetual haze, mist or smog hanging over the mountain area in the distance. We, at first, thought it would burn off when the sun came out full blast, but it never really does.
After riding for an hour, we were impressed with the infrastructure of the roads. All well paved and maintained. No sooner than that thought finished, we left well-paved roads for others that made the van feel like a carnival ride. Bouncing and tossing around we traveled dirt roads filled with rock, potholes, and along the side of cliffs. For about 10 minutes, we became better acquainted with each other; being thrown into each others laps creates a new intimacy. Finally, we reached a pleasant ranch style home. This is a breakfast stop.
Two tables were set when we arrived. Shortly after, there appeared fresh pineapple, mango, papaya, Nutella, starfruit, sliced tomatoes, guacamole, and jelly. This could have been plenty, but then we were to choose either spinach or a tomato omelet. Rafael set out a large platter filled with two different types of bread and then proceeded to offer coffee, tea, or juice. No one left hungry, but food remained. It was a plentiful bounty.
Back in the van, we drove for a bit of time before Rafael stopped along the roadside. He jumped out and returned with a bag of what looked like doughnut holes. He passed them around for us to sample. They were soft, chewy, bread looking little pastries that had a salty flavor.
One gas stop was interesting. The law here is that everyone needs to be out of the vehicle before an attendant pumps the gas. Gas stations offer free water and coffee just far enough away from the pumps to entice travelers to get away from their vehicle. Restrooms are another incentive to get away.
Our first tourism stop was a village where there is a church built into a giant rock. Other than this, there is not much to see in this village. Though it is an anomaly as traditional churches go, I was not about to climb dozens of steps to see another bastion of religiosity. Staying on terrafirma, I a local dog entertained me with her sleeping positions.
We learned that there are now two towns named El Peñol; one is old El Peñol and the other New El Peñol. In order to create the Peñol-Guatapé reservoir, the government flooded the entire town of El Peñol after relocating all the residents to New El Peñol. Outside of Medellin, tourists can visit a replica of the original El Peñol. There is a mini village of model reproductions of the original church, town hall, a few stores, and restaurants. It was interesting to view the architecture, but the vista was incredible.
Rafael announced the next stop would be for a swim; he asked if we all had swimsuits. Not knowing there was a swim stop, I would not have gone swimming in a lake, if I did. Once we traversed a road that looked like it had been created moments before our arrival, the van parked at the end of a long suspension bridge. Others got out changing into their suits, Ron and I walked the bridge.
Climbing down to the water’s edge looked challenging enough. Convinced the water was deep enough to jump from the bridge, our Moroccan acquaintance decided to try it. Once he did it successfully, the Argentinean women decided to try also. No ambulances came to the scene; no paraplegics created on this day.
The next stop was a huge one. Given 90 minutes, this was sufficient time to climb the 679 steps to the top of La Piedra del Peñol (Peñol Rock). Estimations are that the rock came into existence 70 million years ago, but only two-thirds of it is above ground. Seven thousand twelve feet above sea level is not my idea of fun unless there is more than a panoramic view. There are restaurants and souvenir shops at the top, yet that is not an incentive either. I will wait for the elevator installation. Our younger van-mates tried haranguing us into joining them, unsuccessfully. The 32 steps to the metro have me huffing and puffing. We spent our energy swigging on a Club Colombia Red beer and that was as energetic as we were going to get.
When it was time to regroup back at the van, Rafael put out a full buffet lunch spread with three main entrees with one of each meat: pork, chicken, and beef. Additionally, there were a dozen vegetable dishes. His hot lentil dish was over the moon delicious.
Back in the van, our last stop was Guatapé. A Spaniard, Spaniard Don Francisco Giraldo y Jimenez, founded this community in 1811. The name comes from Quechua, meaning ‘stones and water’. This former farming community has changed due to the building of the dam and now it is a major center for electricity production.
Rafael said that the town officials, in an attempt to increase tourism, made it law that the buildings have colorfully decorated three-dimensional tiles along their lower walls. The tiles as well as the upper buildings are in bright colors. Some of the tiles reflect the products offered by the stores, while others show the owners’ beliefs. There were a number of tiles with priests, Christ or the sacrificial lamb. The entire town is one bright rainbow of color. We had an hour to roam, photograph and have a coffee. It is a special feeling.
The ride home was long and it was now dark. The van is equipped with a DVD player. After asking if we were interested, Rafael put on the movie The Two Esobars, a documentary from 2010. It is the story of Pablo Escobar, the kingpin of drugs and one of the world’s richest men and Andres Escobar, a famous Colombian football player. Subtitled in English, it was an incredibly powerful movie.
We made one vista stop before returning to Medellin. There were two statues in the parking area. At first, I thought they were performance artists, but they really are statues.
A great part of this tour can be attributed to the people we shared it with this day. Everyone was friendly and willing to share with the rest of the group. Rafael and his helper were magnificent in their commitment to making this a wonderful experience for all. We could not have imagined the food or the sites would be nearly as exceptional as they were.A BIG thanks to all who spent the day with us.
Many people suggested we could get to these places on our own, but I am thankful we did not listen. We would have missed all of this sharing with fun people, having great food and listening to some fun stories along the way.
Rafael was kind enough to drop us off at our apartment building. This really ranks in the top five of the best-guided vehicle tours we have taken. Van Por Colombia rocks!!! You can reach Rafael at this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org