Midway through our stay in Medellin, we took a side trip to Guatape, a small Antioquian town about two hours away. Many travelers visit this municipality as a day trip, but we opted to spend a night and sight-see at a slightly leisurely pace. Our first goal was to climb the Penol Rock, a monolithic stone formation that soars over 200 meters into the sky. In order to reach the uppermost viewing platform, we had to summit 740 painful steps, built steeply up the cliff-face, in great humidity, with swarms of strange insects flying into our eyes and mouths (gag!). Passing Virgin Mary statues, I saw fellow climbers crossing themselves, probably praying that their hearts wouldn’t stop. As hoped for, the views at the top did make the workout worth it, providing a 360 degree view of the surrounding manmade finger lakes (a reservoir built for hydro-electricity).
From El Penol de Guatape, we hired an auto rickshaw to take us into the picturesque town center, also known as the Pueblo de Zocalos, so-named for the sculpted and brightly painted reliefs found on the wall bases of most of the city’s buildings. As you can see by the abundance of photos I took, I was completely charmed by these simple 3-dimensional vignettes and plastered walls in a crayola-range of colors.
Although snapping photos was my dominant activity while in Guatape, I have two memories of our time there that supersede this hobby. First, after all of our worldly travels, I can declare that I had the best coffee of my life (twice) in the Plazoleta del Zocalo, at the Cafe La Vina. Look it up on Tripadvisor, which I did after the fact, and you will see that I am not alone in this opinion. I don’t know if it was because of the fresh, locally grown and roasted bean, the skill of the barista, or the creamiest cappuccino foam ever, but this coffee experience was sublime.
My second memory of Guatape and the ill-effects of tourism and greed, is a lot less flattering. Being a western foreigner, I am used to being perceived as a walking dollar. We know that there are those who want to take advantage of our ignorance in order to make a buck, and thus we become less trusting of the stated costs for things and services. With this constant fear, we do our best to negotiate and bargain for the most equitable prices. This especially comes into play with transportation, as taxi drivers seem to have an aversion to using their meters with us. One afternoon, Daniel and Gabriel rented a boat to go fishing on the lake (surprise!), while Stella and I opted to hang out around town and window-shop. We had plans to meet back at our hostel in time for our bus departure and I decided to hire a taxi with ample time. I was familiar with the rough price of auto rickshaws and taxis, based on the four trips we had already taken. It was apparent that the cost varied depending on the vehicle, time of day, and the driver (of course!), but I had a known amount that sounded acceptable. After finding a driver who I negotiated the cost with in spanish and seemed to offer the lowest fare, we hit the road. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived and I pulled out the agreed amount, only to have him tell me it was incorrect and that I owed him four times that tally. I was flabbergasted. Not only because I was sure I had not misunderstood the first agreed upon amount, but also because he was asking almost double what we had ever paid. I stood my ground and refused to pay his extortionate rate, and he refused to bargain. He also refused to let me out of his rickshaw, with Stella by my side, and turned around to drive us all the way back to town! He stopped along the way to ask a group of drivers to substantiate his price, which they did, including some men who probably recognized us from previous lifts. I was angry and scared, as we continued into Guatape to the “police station”. There, I was forced to explain my case, in the poorest of Spanish, frustrated and teary, until a bilingual officer was found to hear me out. I didn’t know what kind of shakedown was ahead of me, but his calm manner gave me hope. With his presence, he stopped several other drivers to inquire of the correct amount for the journey, and they all stated a price half of what the guy was trying to charge me. This was still more than what I thought we had agreed on, but also inline with previous amounts that we had paid. The police officer said this was a problem that the city was trying to correct, and that eventually they hoped to standardize prices. Our rude driver was chagrined by the experience, but no punishment would come his way. In fact, we were made to pay him the lower amount for his roundtrip journey, despite the fact that we were back where we started!! In exchange for this payment and keeping of the peace(?), the police officer and his associate, drove Stella and I back to our hostel, free of charge. I am happy to say that this was the worst of any corruption that we experienced in Colombia.