It was not my first time in Colombia. I’d been there in 2008, right before quitting my teaching job in Los Angles and dropping out of society for the next fourteen years and counting. Back then I’d flown into Ecuador and traveled overland all the way to Cartagena and back. The government had only recently signed a peace treaty with FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the atmosphere had still been tense. Traveling though the high mountain roads there’d been numerous military checkpoints, and you were never really sure whose soldiers you were talking to.
Now the plan was to return to Cartagena once again. The final thing I wanted to do in Medellin was to go see Guatape, but after hearing how bad the traffic had been that weekend, and fearing more of the same over the holiday, decided to go on the same day I checked out of the hostel, and then take the night bus to Cartagena. By then I’d passed the Terminal Transporte de Norte a few times on the Metro, so knew how to get there on the blue line. Buses to Guatape left every twenty minutes. Before hopping on one, I tracked down a company that serviced Cartagena and bought a ticket for a bus leaving at ten that night.
It is common in Latin America for traveling salespeople to hop from bus to bus. Usually, they are selling food, which they carry in baskets or coolers. If it is a product, like toothpaste, they usually have a speech attached to it that they will launch into once the bus starts moving and they’ve had a chance to hand a sample to everyone, whether you’re interested or not. After wrapping up the pitch, they come back around, either taking back the samples or collecting money from those they’ve convinced to make a purchase.
On the bus to Guatape, a boy rapper got on with a beatbox and personalized rap for everyone onboard. The ones who couldn’t bother to give him a few pesos got the biggest laughs when he managed to rhyme cheap with whatever physical characteristic most defined them. I was too easy a target. I almost threw money at him to avoid getting called out, and in return just got a fist bump, as opposed to becoming the unwilling star of a clown show.
It only took two hours to get to Guatape, and I was doubly glad I hadn’t gone two days earlier, only to sit in traffic for six hours. You could see the famous rock from a long way off. It’s six hundred and fifty feet tall and surrounded by a man-make lake, the result of a dam that made peninsulas and islands of the countryside thirty years earlier.
The bus dropped us off at a stairway, surrounded by a few vendors and food stands. These were the stairs just to get to the rock, not to climb it. It wasn’t far to the entrance, but was all uphill. Just walking a little way, however, you could already see the lay of the lakes and the land below, both different shades of green, the water almost emerald. It was a cloudy day, but not a rainy one. It could’ve been a tropical planet in a science-fiction movie.
Reaching the parking lot and entrance, the rock was now right in front of me, at the end of a strip of restaurants and gift shops. A metal staircase ran like a zipper all the way to the top. The fee to climb it was twenty thousand pesos, about four dollars. All in all, there were over seven hundred steps. Right away I got busy. There were a few viewpoints along the way to stop and take a picture or catch your breath.
At the top there was a platform where you could look down on the land from four directions. One man was having his girlfriend take pictures of him from every angle. I’d already waited for him once. Now he was at it again, not smiling, just looking cool for the camera. I brushed past him for one quick shot and he turned very serious, saying would I mind, they were trying to take a picture. I told him I didn’t mind. He’d taken many pictures already. At that point he just stared, but I shrugged it off. There’s a difference between taking a picture and staging a photo shoot. I wasn’t going to try to explain to him what that is.
The bus back to Medellin was full, with some people standing in the aisle. At one point I tried to meditate, but must have dozed off because the next thing I knew the man next to me was stuffing his jacket into the space between us. About ten miles outside of the city, the traffic began to back up. I still needed to take the Metro all the way back to the hostel, grab my bags and then return to the terminal to catch the night bus to Cartagena. My legs and lower back were aching from the climb. It almost seemed like too much to process.