A Weekend Exploring Guatape, San Rafael, and San Carlos in Colombia
If you’re living in Medellin or just passing through it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone will recommend you checkout Guatape for at least a day trip (Tripadvisor even lists it as a top thing to do).
Located a 1.5 – 2hr bus ride from Medellin, Guatape is a large and incredibly detailed lake system that was created by the government in the 1960’s to support a dam project.
The town of Guatape is a small, colorful, and unmistakenly Colombian pueblo that fills with tourists every weekend and seems sleepy by comparison during the week.
Besides the beautiful lake, the highlight of Guatape is La Piedra, or the Rock – an impossible-to-miss rock formation jutting 200 meters (or 600+ steps) above the lake and affording amazing views.
The town of Guatape itself is more than worth the journey from Medellin, but if you have the time or desire to explore 2 more small towns in Colombia, both San Rafael and San Carlos are easily accessible from Guatape.
Note: We actually went to Guatape twice during our time in Medellin – this post contains information from both of those trips.
Getting to Guatape from Medellin
The easiest way to get to Guatape is by bus from the north station (Terminal Norte). We did this twice and the buses were frequent (about every 30 minutes), clean, and on time.
You will be fine buying your tickets when you get to the station so don’t stress too much about when to leave – we’ve always been able to get onto the next bus but a friend of ours did have to wait for 1hr when he tried to go over a holiday.
To buy a ticket, head down to the first floor and over to window 17 or 18 (I think – you can simply tell the Info Desk on the top floor “Guatape” and they will tell you the correct window) and tell the person behind the window how many tickets you want. If you’re unsure if you’re in the correct place, each window has a sign over it advertising the name of the bus company and the destination.
(Note: there are random people in the terminal that will approach you asking if you’re going to Guatape – just ignore them as they likely don’t work for an established company).
The average ticket price is between 12,000COP-15,000COP per person each way and you will get an assigned seat. If you have larger bags, simply tell the driver and he will help you store them in the truck (make sure to take all of your valuables out just to be safe).
Note: If you travel during the weekend it’s advisable to book your return ticket when you arrive if you’re going back the same day or early day of if you’re going back another day – the bus station can get crowded and planning ahead will ensure you don’t have to wait!
The bus trip itself was straightforward and scenic, even when it rained for ⅔ of the trip it didn’t take us more than 2 hours. If you’re traveling during the day and sitting by the window there is no shortage of things to look at.
Three things to note about bus travel in general Colombia:
- The roads are winding and the drivers seem to be in a race with everyone else on the road – this can lead to some aggressive corners and stopping short as they try and overtake other vehicles. If you have a sensitive stomach (or get car sick), you’ve been warned!
- The drivers make extra money by picking up passengers who didn’t buy a ticket – this will begin immediately upon leaving the North Station and it’s likely the driver will pick up multiple groups throughout the trip – they all pay the driver a small fare (which he pockets) and take whatever seat (or standing room) is available.
- The drivers also pick up vendors (especially around the toll stations) who sell snacks and drinks – they are usually polite and everything is cheap if you’re hungry or forgot your water.
One final note on transportation – if you’re not keen on taking a bus it’s quite easy to hire a driver for the day – we’ve seen people ask about this in the Medellin Expats Facebook group and prices seem to range from 50,000COP to 100,000COP per person.
Where We Stayed in Guatape
As I mentioned above, we’ve been to Guatape twice and stayed in very different places each time.
Lakeview is one of the more popular hostels in Guatape (according to Hostelworld) and we actually heard about it from a coffee shop in Medellin. It’s located on the lake (though not the best view) and an easy walk from the town center.
Lakeview seemed to be geared more towards younger, partying travelers, and their bar on the top floor was always rocking until late. Even if you’re not into partying their breakfast was great (though not included) and I still think about their breakfast burritos – they also have a well-known Thai restaurant on their top floor but it was closed during our stay.
View from Lakeview Hostel
We had a private room here on the first floor and it was fine – the ensuite bathroom was clean and the bed was comfortable – the only issue was the noise that came from the lobby but after a day of exploring we still fell asleep without much issue.
If you opt for Lakeview, try getting a room on the 2nd (middle) floor – you’ll be spared the noise from the lounge on the first floor and should be shielded enough from the bar on the 3rd (top) floor.
Casa Encuentro is an incredible property located on the backside of Guatape (compared to Lakeview) with a much better view. It’s not as popular with young travelers and the vibe reflects that – it’s very chill, relaxed, and peaceful.
View from Casa Encuentro
While breakfast and coffee are included (and delicious!), they don’t have a restaurant to support other meals (though their common area and bar does stay open until 8 and is a great place to hang out and check out the views).
We also had a private room here but the setup was such that we had to walk through a dorm (with only 3 beds) in order to get to it – we also shared a very small bathroom with the dorm. Casa Encuentro does have a higher tier of the private room that we were able to check out and those look quite nice with a proper ensuite, FYI.
If we were to go back we would likely stay at Case Encuentro again (and have recommended it to others) – the views were just so much better than Lakeview and the vibe more in line with what we looking for in the place like Guatape. With that being said, I do regret not being able to try the Thai food at Lakeview as everyone says it’s awesome!
Where We Ate in Guatape
There are two restaurants worth noting in Guatape, both of which we ate at twice and can be found on Tripadvisor:
- Pizzeria de Luigi – incredible pizza with awesome infused olive oils – they don’t open until 6:30pm though and there are usually people waiting to get in, especially on weekends.
- Namaste – really good vegetarian food located on the main strip along the lake – try the Shakshouka.
What We Did in Guatape
Guatape is a popular day trip from Medellin because there aren’t too many must-do things in the town (though I’d still recommend spending the night there).
Here’s what we did:
Hike La Piedra (The Rock)
The Rock is the main attraction in Guatape and provides both incredible views of the lake and an impressive workout after climbing your way to the top.
To get there, flag down literally any tuk tuk in town and say “La Piedra” – it should cost 5000 per person. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also flag down one of the buses leaving town (make sure it’s heading back towards Medellin) and tell them to drop you off at the rock (remember what I said about them picking up passengers without actual tickets?) – that will cost 1000-2000 each.
A ticket to the rock is about 15,000 per person and affords you entrance to a massive staircase carved/placed into a crack that runs up the side. It’s a little more than 600 steps to the top but you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the lake and Guatape. Also at the top is a gift shop and a few vendors selling drinks and snacks (at double the price) – we had a beer to celebrate the climb and it was worth it!
Like many Colombian towns, the center of Guatape is the square where everyone meets to drink coffee, eat, or have a beer. If you’re in Guatape on the weekend, the square will be quite busy with tourists but it’s still worth it to find a place to have a cup of coffee (we had some tinto there each morning).
Note: the best square we’ve seen in Colombia is in Jardin – super cool if you want to check it out!
The restaurants along the square weren’t too impressive, but it’s hard to find a better place to people-watch in Guatape!
Plaza de Zocolos
This tiny plaza is one of the most colorful spots in Guatape and a perfect place to relax with a cup of coffee (look for the places with the sign that says they don’t have any wifi and to talk to each other!) and watch some street performers (we saw both musicians and belly dancers there).
The plaza gets a bit hot after 10am due to the sun and more crowded as the day goes on, so if you’re looking to get some good pics it’s best to get there early.
Walk the Lake
I’m not going to lie – the part of the lake along the main street is not the most beautiful – filled with boats, attractions, and a waterline that always seems too low.
Still, walking from the bus station to the bridge (where the road splits to go to Lakeview Hostel, FYI) is a great way to explore local vendors (look for the coffee cart!) and get a feel for the lake and town.
If you’re feeling super adventurous, we heard there is a way to walk around one of the lake’s fingers – you start by going right out of Casa Encuentro and just follow the lake for 3 hours or so – supposedly you end up at the Rock but we weren’t able to test it.
Wander the Streets of Guatape
It’s hard to wonder what came first in Guatape – the tourists or the colors. Still, there is no mistaking the pride the locals have in their town – every house and building in town is done in vibrant colors and we really enjoyed just wandering the streets and getting lost in the variety of homes.
I use the term “get lost” loosely – the city is laid out in a grid so you can easily start from the square and double back each block until you’ve seen enough.
San Rafael & San Carlos
On our second trip to Guatape, we decided to dedicate an entire day to exploring 2 of the smaller towns outside of Guatape: San Rafael & San Carlos.
While you can take a bus to each of these quite easily, we decided to rent a scooter from Guatape Motors and do it ourselves (we paid 80,000 total for 6 hours, which was plenty) – if you have the time and are comfortable on a scooter I highly recommend this route – the views were incredible.
View from the trip to San Rafael
While our main destination was San Carlos, we decided to stop at San Rafael and have a cup of coffee because it was on the way and why not (it took about an hour via scooter to reach San Rafael from Guatape)?
The square in San Rafael
Tons of small-town charm in San Rafael, though it has more of an industrial feel (and definitely less touristy) than Guatape. There are actually some good swimming and hiking spots in San Rafael but we passed on those in order to make sure we could get to San Carlos in time.
To be honest, we might not have been so excited about San Carlos if the person at Guatape Motors had not been so adamant we check it out – it’s 1.5 hours from San Carlos (so 2-2.5 hours from Guatape) so not exactly a quick trip, but the nature and swimming there was supposed to be great.
We weren’t disappointed – not only were the views from the scooter incredible, San Carlos, though rough around the edges, had a super cool nature park.
Located through the town (we got directions from the scooter place), San Carlos has done an impressive job of creating a park around a river and filled it with swimming holes and hiking trails.
In the end, we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked, but we did hike for about 30min along the river and then I took a quick swim.
Super ants walking on their own path…
We went on a Monday so there were maybe 15 other people there, but the layout seemed to imply that it gets busy during the weekend.
Getting back to Guatape was a trek – we had booked bus tickets back to Medellin and needed to get back so we spent 2 hrs on the scooter making sure we were on time. The only time we stopped was going over the mountain back into Guatape from San Rafael – the clouds had lowered and visibility was pretty poor. A cool experience, but definitely cold!
Should You Go to Guatape?
Absolutely – while I wouldn’t suggest anyone come to Colombia just to visit the town, if you’re already going to be in Medellin then it’s a no-brainer (also check out Jardin)!
Guatape (and San Rafael + San Carlos) is a great way to put a more local spin on your Colombian trip and the people and towns are both incredibly welcoming.