“All fear has much imagination and little talent.”
– Colombian proverb
I like to commemorate my travel anniversary: February 26th.
First year I did a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, a bucket list item. My second year I was working in China so I didn’t get much choice (we had a night out with the gang). This time it was my 3 year anniversary travelling. On this day I had officially been travelling for 36 months. So I decided to schedule my Guatapé tour for this day. Fair warning: This is going to be the messiest blog post I’ve ever posted.
Another day, another tour!
I hopped on a bus leaving from my hostel (or close enough) and sat next to Veronica, my new best friend. She was there with her sister, but they weren’t sitting together so she was mine now.
The bus rolled through Colombian scenery on its way to wherever we were eating. At this point I was so chilled out about tours that I surrendered every bit of individual thinking the second I boarded whatever transport was given. All I knew was we were going to see Pablo Escobar’s bombed out vacation spot: La Hacienda Manuela, climb a tiny mountain peak, and go see Guatapé: a town about 2 hours drive from Medellin best known for its delicious trout dishes.
I was going there for colour though, I didn’t know about the trout. I just found that out now researching details for this blog post. Whatever.
La Manuela Hacienda Ruins
Ripped apart by a bomb in 1993, the shell of Pablo Escobar‘s infamous vacation house still stands. I’m way to lazy to rewrite all this info in my own words so I’m just going to quote Atlas Obscura here:
“Everyone needs a place to get away, and violent cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was no exception. The spot he chose was on the shores of the Peñol Reservoir in the idyllic resort town of Guatapé. There, Escobar built a lavish estate called La Manuela (named after his daughter) that would be the scene of one of the most dramatic episodes in his downfall.
Covering eight hectares (20 acres), La Manuela consisted of a stately mansion surrounded by a pool, tennis courts, a soccer field (which doubled as a helipad), stables, a guest house, a seaplane dock, a special driveway for motorcycles, trees imported from around the world, and a security force of 120 goons. The main house was, of course, luxuriously appointed, and even included its own disco tech. It was also built for practicality, however, featuring double-layered walls used for hiding mountains of cash and cocaine. La Manuela was Pablo Escobar’s second-favorite house.
In 1993, it was bombed by Los Pepes, a vigilante group whose name stood for “Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar” (“People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”). Allegedly funded by the rival Cali Cartel and other enemies of Escobar, Los Pepes stuffed 200kg of TNT into a bathroom at La Manuela, the detonation of which blew the house to bits. Police forces quickly swooped in and seized the drugs and money revealed by the explosion. Escobar was shot and killed by authorities eight months later in Medellín.
La Manuela has now been taken over by nature. Visitors may enter the ruins but must exercise care while on the grounds. The walls are filled with holes where people have searched for stashed money; locals note that nobody has ever found any. People can visit Escobar’s room, the now-swampy pool, the guard towers, the bathroom where the bomb was planted – basically the entire estate. The surrounding area also provides beautiful views.”
Apparently if you arrive by road you’ll see a modern house before the blown up hacienda. This is a restaurant run by Escobar’s old butler… I guess he moved up in the world. Gotta capitalize, amirite?
I, however, arrived by boat (and never actually went ashore) so I only got to see the blown up hacienda from the water. It was still a cool thing to see, it’s pretty wrecked. The guide told us some stories about the 200 kilos of TNT and how it blasted the house to smithereens, but I have to admit I don’t remember much of the narration. I was awestruck with the view from the boat, first the house/ruins and then the landscape. I remember vividly how impossibly big the sky seemed from my small vantage point… It was an incredible view.
Or I was unwittingly on mushrooms or something, who knows, it’s Colombia.
(That was a joke, for those of you who don’t get text based humour. There were no drugs. This isn’t 1993). #Escobar
The first stage of the trip was a stop at “Réplica del Peñol” – a small town with a tiny church and a lot of touristy shops selling souvenirs. I didn’t really catch what this was, but later read: “Parque Temático Réplica del Viejo Peñol, is a duplicate copy of the village church, and was reconstructed along with lots of tourist souvenir shops.”
Apparently this is a replica of a small village that was flooded on purpose (which we heard about while we were boating over it, but I didn’t really connect those dots until afterwards) to create the lake and supporting dam that generates power for the area.
Cool place anyway, just like Guatapé turned out to be it was extremely colourful. I walked around and took some photos with Veronica and her sister and checked out the little church. It’s a place you’ve pretty much seen in 15 minutes to be honest, not really the reason you’re there and that’s fair enough.
The boat trip was lovely, we had great weather and it made for some weird light… Can’t really explain it well other than to say it looked bleak some places, bright a lot of the time and just… vast. I can’t really explain – it was bright and bleak at the same time.
The hacienda itself I saw from a distance, but we got some long, good looks from both sides – I was happy with how much time we spent and the information that was given, it was a good tour. (I’ve copied a lot of the info in this post so I don’t forget it). I got to know Agatha a bit better, the Polish girl living in Berlin that was on the tour with us. She explained some of the stuff the tour guide was saying to me (because at some point he started chatting in Spanish and when a bunch of people on the boat started laughing I was lost).
We caught a glimpse of The Rock of Guatape (El Peñón de Guatapé) in the distance. It was pretty cool seeing it like that when we knew we would be climbing up it in about an hour. I also remember they played “La Bicicleta” by Carlos Vives and Shakira like FULL BLAST a couple of times… So there’s another song for the “Colombia” portion of my playlist… I’m guessing la bicicleta means the bicycle…?
There’s a lot of peñols and peñons and stuff here, I don’t speak Spanish, I have no idea what I’m writing… I seriously need to start Duolingo on Spanish.
El Peñón de Guatapé
This thing has a staircase set into the side of it, so going up is not difficult. It’s not that hard either, I was wildly out of shape attempting this (which I seem to be every time I attempt stuff, I never do things like this when I’m actally IN shape) and it only took me 22 minutes. I timed myself on my phone because I like statistics. (By comparison, the trip down took only 12 minuter).
I didn’t find it exhausting at all and the views were definitely worth it – if you go and have a chance to climb the rock, do it. Along the way they have painted numbers on some of the steps to let you know how many you’ve climbed already. The last step onto the little viewpoint “square” at the top is number 705 and once there you can enjoy the drink you brought from the little kiosk up there and take in a nearly 360 degree view.
Guatapé – every building is a work of art
I teamed up with Agatha and our new friend from the bus, Pablo. Contrary to the name his Spanish wasn’t as good as Agatha’s so we relied a bit on her for communication. We hopped aboard a tuktuk-similar thing with a driver that sped along the intensely colorful streets of Guatapé chatting along in Spanish. I was busy taking photos and perfectly happy letting Agatha talk to this guy and just relay whatever she thought was important for us to know. To be honest I barely remember most of it today – I came away thinking the details were, for once, not that important. I know it was founded in the early 1800s and today it is important for Colombia’s electricity production.
Did I mention the colours? All the houses are decorated with so-called “zócalos”. The small sections usually at the bottom of the buildings, divided into squares. They are painted to tell stories about the people living there – who they were, sometimes what they sold in their shops and maybe their beliefs. It has become a century lasting over a 100 years now – I heard various stories about this, our driver told us it started with a family decorating their house for a birthday party and then their neighbours got jealous and copied them leading to the whole town trying to out-do each other.
(I also heard the cement in the zócalos have the extra function of protecting the building, but the story was a bit lacking in detail, so this might be correct, or it might be a myth…)
We saw zócalos depicting everything from personal family history to apparently just being decorative (unless a floral arranger lived there) to straight up telling us this building is a hostel, come stay with us.
I was on the move for a whole day – got some souvenirs, went on a boat, climbed a small mountain, saw one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to and arrived back at my hostel in Medellin thoroughly exhausted. If you’re ever in Colombia and give this place a miss, you’re a fool. A fool I tell you! O.O