Guatape and El Retiro, Colombia

While we are in Medellin, we wanted to explore a couple of smaller towns that are close to Medellin but provide a quieter, small town environment.

Medellin to Guatape

Guatape is located on a reservoir about a two hour bus ride from Medellin. Colombians use it as a weekend getaway from Medellin, tourists come to climb El Penol, and a small number of expats are discovering it. It’s possible to visit Guatape as a day trip from Medellin but it would be a long day, so we decided to go for three days in the middle of the week. That way we could get a more in-depth feel for the town.

From our apartment in Poblado, a taxi ride to Terminales Norte (North Bus Terminal) cost about $6.50 (about 3000 pesos to the US dollar) for the four of us. All taxis are metered in Medellin and the drivers are diligent about using them. Buses leave for Guatape about every 20 minutes so when arriving at the terminal, it’s a simple task to buy a ticket on the next departing bus. A great website for researching buses from Medellin is Terminales Medellin. The fare was about $4.50 each for the 2 hour bus ride. As we got close to Guatape, the bus stopped to allow people who were climbing El Penol to get off.


In addition to lake access, Guatape is known for its zocalos, raised square designs on the front of the buildings, usually telling a story of the people who live in the house.

Actual fountain

Zocalo of fountain

Lit up for Christmas

Guatape is a small town so wandering around it takes a couple of hours with plenty of time for taking pictures. It’s also a very picturesque town.

They’ll let anyone in

Sitting at 2100 meters, it’s a little cooler than Medellin especially at night. As mentioned earlier, Guatape has a small but growing expat community. The reasons some expats choose Guatape are for access to the lake or because they don’t want to deal with the noise, traffic, crowds, or pollution of Medellin.

Church and square

Lit up for Christmas

Most restaurants are clustered in two areas, along the lakefront promenade or around the town square. The ones around the town square seemed a little less expensive. The local specialty is trucha (trout from the lake), prepared a number of different ways. And delicious! Prices in restaurants seemed slightly more expensive than Medellin, as would be expected in a tourist town, but not overly so. Since we were visiting on weekdays, no place seemed overly crowded, with enough people around to keep businesses open..

River outside of town (with our friends, Leah and Steven)

We spent the first afternoon and the next day wandering around town. During the afternoon of the second day, we kept hearing Christmas music from our apartment and discovered that during Christmas season, the church does mini festivals in each neighborhood, with music, food, and a fund raising auction. Very fun, observing small town Colombia.

Climbing El Penol

El Penol from outside Guatape

To get from Guatape to El Penol, the least expensive way is to grab a shared jeep from the town center which cost about $1 each. The jeep dropped us off at the fork in the road and it’s an uphill slog to the entrance for climbing. Tuk-tuks are waiting for those who want a ride. We chose to walk, figuring we might as well get our legs warmed up. Once at the entrance, the fee to climb to the top is about $6 each.

569 steps to the top

There are 569 steps from the entrance to the top (plus an additional about 100 steps to climb to the top of the tower), with separate stairs to ascend and descend. Ian doesn’t like heights, but our friends had convinced him that he would be fine since the stairs have a handrail the whole way up. Turns out this wasn’t quite the case: the stairs are switchbacks and at these points the handrail disappears as the spaces widen to allow climbers to take a breather. Which requires walking around them. Even with no real risks of falling, about halfway up, Ian was thinking not very nice thoughts about our friends, but by this point it would have been harder to descend against traffic, so we pressed on to the top. Once we reached the top (we did not climb the tower), the truly amazing views really were worth the admission fee, the stair climb, and the mild acrophobia.

View from the top

We made it!

Guatape Wrap-up

On our last day in Guatape, we took a hike along the road to the monastery, very pleasant, quiet with minimal traffic and great views.

While we really enjoyed Guatape. given how small the town is, it’s just not close enough to Medellin to be a viable expat destination for us.

El Retiro

The second small town we visited was El Retiro. El Retiro kept coming up in conversations. First, our friends, Leah and Steven, really liked the town when they visited with their expat friend, Tedi, who is in the process of buying a house there. Then at the Hanukah party we attended during our first week in Medellin, we met Roberto (expat) and his wife, Esther (Colombian), who own a finca (tract of land with a house on it) on the outskirts of El Retiro, and they invited us up to visit. So we decided to visit the town and the finca and make a day out of it.

The bus for El Retiro leaves from Terminales Sur (South Bus Terminal) and takes about an hour, or it’s possible to pick it up from the San Diego shopping mall (in which case the ride takes about 45 minutes). We chose to go to the bus station so Ann had a better chance of getting a seat in the front. The taxi to the bus station was about $3 and the bus was $2.30 each. The ride was uneventful and we spent a pleasant half a day wandering around the town.

While it’s not quite as picturesque as Guatape, it is nice, un-touristy, and quiet (quiet in Colombia is a relative term), and it’s only an hour from Medellin. We found a parilla (grilled meats) for lunch and were able to eat the menu del dia for a little over $3 for beef, chicken, or pork with beans, plantains, salad, rice, soup, and fresh fruit drink. Prices here seemed a little lower than Medellin.

Street fronting the square

Setup for lights at night

Community Center

After lunch we caught a bus to a stop closest to the finca. We had a delightful time visiting with Roberto and Esther and finding out about their property. They’ve lived there for twelve years, the property, mostly grassland when they bought it, is about two and one half acres and now covered with all sorts of plants and flowers (thanks to Esther) which attract a wide array of birds. They’ve also done a wonderful job of remodeling the house. What a great way to spend an afternoon! Catching the bus back to town was interesting. We had to stand for the first few stops, and the driver kept throwing the bus into corners like he was driving a motorcycle, which meant a few embarrassing moments of almost ending up in the laps of the people next to us…all part of the fun.

View from the finca

We could see ourselves spending an extended stay in El Retiro: it’s away from all the large city problems that Medellin has but close enough to visit whenever the need or desire arises. Plus unlike Guatape, El Retiro has a community center offering cultural events and a variety of classes. A similar set of attributes that attracted us to San Ramon in Costa Rica. The advantage over San Ramon is the cost of living; the disadvantage is that it’s not an hour from the beach.

Next up: the barrios of Envigado and Sabaneta, plus Medellin Wrap-up

Ian & Ann

8 thoughts on “Guatape and El Retiro, Colombia

  1. Art Elphick

    Creo que he dicho varias veces que las tierras altas de Colombia son el lugar más hermoso y perfecto para clima que he visitado.

    Algunos lugares que visitamos pueden haber sido peligrosos en ese momento, pero fuimos muy ingenuos (naive). Conocimos (met) personas que nos invitaron a su granja. Para protegerse de las FARC, construyeron un muro alrededor de las áreas para dormir y mantuvieron a un guardia vigilándola toda la noche.

    1. Ian Ann Post author

      Art, This time we are going to respond in English because our response is above our ability in Spanish since it’s a more complicated reply. Thank you for sharing your experiences of a Colombia of a different time not too long ago. It’s interesting to get a firsthand perspective from someone who traveled to Colombia during their recent times of trouble. Colombia has changed and is much safer for travelers as well as the people who live here. But memories of that time are still present. Today we met with a coffee farmer who was displaced twice during those years because he couldn’t pay money demanded by the paramilitary groups who were fighting against the FARC. Our guide also told us that the area we are in now wouldn’t have been safe as recently as seven years ago because of the conflict.
      Ian & Ann

  2. norma kimmelman

    Very picturesque town Guatape. Loved your poses together. Quite a climb you made. Interesting steps. Leah, What beautiful views. Leah, Steve, Ian and you, Ann look terrific. What fun your are having.

  3. Arkene

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I love reading your blog and the pictures are wonderful. Makes me wish I was there

    1. Ian Ann Post author

      Hi Arlene,
      We are happy that you are appreciating out blog. Ian gets the credit for the overwhelming majority of the photos, but Ann is often the director of photography.
      Ian & Ann

    1. Ian Ann Post author

      Hi Karen,
      Yes, Guatape is particularly colorful, but the same is true for many smaller Colombian towns especially around and close to the main plazas.
      Ian & Ann

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