Went to the crowded bus station. Buses bound for Rio, Caracas, Asuncion, Santiago, Buenos Aires, all exotic, slightly dangerous places I’d only dared to dream about visiting up until last year. Even having visited them all now, their names on buses bound there still send a spark of excitement through my body. But today I wasn’t going so far afield. I’d been in Colombia for only a day, and had enjoyed Medellin yesterday. Now I wanted to head to the holiday town of Guatape, 2 hours from Medellin, set beside a lovely lake. Due to a hangover (I blame the aguardiente) I only made it for the 1pm bus to Guatape. The bus ride was a bit like being sat on Cristiano Ronaldo’s head as he went on one of his weaving runs through defenders, and I felt dizzy by the time I got off at a grubby little market town. It had a holiday vibe, and was full of men in cowboy hats, but it didn’t seem like the place I wanted to be. I wanted to be in El Penol, a 200m high granite monolith just out of Guatape. There wasn’t one in sight. I trekked to the top of a hill where I found a dilapidated church and a ‘no entry’ sign, which I passed through and continued to the top of a hill. From here I could see what I was looking for, El Penol, and now I had to find a way to get there. Idiot.
I got a passenger jeep with a few guys from Medellin who were on a vacation. They were really friendly, dressed as rockers in leather jackets and pants, slicked back black hair and all taking huge slugs of aguardiente from hip flasks, the stuff that had given me this nagging hangover that felt like a little chisel slowly entering my brain and making me feel queasy. I politely declined their offers of a drink, and again, and again. Then I succumbed to peer pressure, and took a swig of the potent stuff, wishing immediately I hadn’t as the jeep swerved left and right, down and down. Finally, we came to El Penol.
El Penol is also known simply as ‘The Rock’. It was quite a walk up a hill to get to the base of the monolith, on the walk up I had to politely decline several kind offers from Colombian families of a lift, and also decline the rather more persistent chaps wanting me to ride their horses. The views of the hills were already nice when I got to the base of the rock. 649 absolutely exhausting steps later (and with a head that seemed filled with treacle), the views were stupendous. The lake spreading out and reaching the bottom of the green mountains, little houses dotted in the middle of the lake, the town of Guatape visible. I stayed for some time, to enjoy the view, the breeze, and to catch my breath. I met a fellow admirer of the view up here, a young Colombian lady who followed me to the souvenir shop. Initially I thought she wanted to practise her English, but after about 30 seconds I realised she spoke no English, and I had to dig deep into my shallow reserve of Spanish, but digging through my brain was hard when it was filled with treacle, and it took a lot of effort to be coherent in the language I was beginning to feel more confident in. She told me she had just finished college, and was here with her mum, her sisters and her mum’s sister, who had opted not to climb up, preferring to stay in the carpark and eat ice-cream. She asked me where I was going next, and I said on to Guatape, though in reality I felt like locking myself in a toilet cubicle until the alcohol-induced nausea had passed. She told me I could go with her family. I said she should probably ask her mum first. And so we descended. I had ascended alone, and was returning with a young Colombian friend.
At the bottom, the mum, who only looked about 35, agreed to take me into town without a moments hesitation. The whole family had been staying in a hotel opposite El Penol, and had already spent time in Guatape, but they didn’t mind going again. As a matter of fact, they were returning to Medellin later, and asked if I wanted to join them. What a stroke of luck! I couldn’t face going back on bus, and anyway it might be full. It would mean only the briefest of visits to the quaint town, but I’d already ruined the day due to the aguardiente last night, so the briefest of visits is the best I could hope for as punishment for having ‘just one more’ drink last night. I jumped in the back of the battered little car, me, the girl I’d met at the top, and 2 kids. Mum and Aunty sat in front. They chatted to me all the way to Guatape, and when we entered the town I arranged to meet them in an hour, while they headed off for a coffee. They were so friendly. I realised after I got dropped off that the entire afternoon’s transactions and conversations had been conducted entirely in Spanish. I felt like I was getting better.
I was in a lovely square with a fountain in the middle, and a church, Iglesia del Calma, at one end, whitewashed with a Greco-Roman exterior. The music video for Paulo Nutini’s song ‘Candy’ was being played in my mind – and I could feel the warmth of the place and that effervescent feel that Latin America or South America gives out. I wanted to dance in the fountain and drink rum while wearing a white linen suit. I wandered around the cobbled streets in the lovely town for an hour, colourful, very South American. Houses have frescoes of animals on the bottom, or things like musical instruments. All different colours. Red-tiled pavements. Even the people were dressed in bright colours. Drab isn’t a word you associate with Colombia. I went down to the lake, where people were in a party mood, bars were open, people sitting out on chairs on the grassy slopes knocking back bottles of Aguila. Boats were taking people out onto the lake, and the boats had music, bars, dancefloors. Imagine that in the Lake District. People were zip-lining along the shorefront. I wanted to stay, to soak in the festive atmosphere. Maybe I should have done, but I had an expensive room waiting for me back in Medellin, and a trip to Cartagena in the early afternoon. I had to go back. The family were waiting for me by the lake a little further up. They seemed happy to see me, asking me how I’d found the town. Lovely – that’s how. We jumped in the car and began the long drive back to Medellin. It took a while to get there, and the car wound it’s way around ‘curvas peligrosas’ making me try all techniques possible to not be car sick – the last thing you want in a stranger’s car. I hadn’t felt this bad in a vehicle since a bus journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang in Laos. God knows how I managed to keep things down. All the way one of the cute little girls kept singing songs and I joined in to take my spinning mind off the winding journey, and we played an interesting game of hide and seek, not easy in the back of a packed car. The energy of youth. I was exhausted. We stopped in Santa Domingo Rio Negro, where one of the kids was dropped off outside a busy church. She hadn’t been the girl’s sister, after all, just her little friend. We had a toffee-filled wafer, which did my stomach no favours. This was a nice little place, with a fairground set in a square surrounded with parillas and bars We then ate at a restaurant on the outskirts of town for chorizo, arepas and hot chocolate with cheese – Colombian style. The family were so lovely, welcoming and friendly. They demanded to pay for everything. True Colombian hospitality. They dropped me off at the foot of the road leading up to my hotel. The walk up that hill nearly killed me, and I knew as soon as I got to my room that I wouldn’t be leaving it again until the morning. I ordered room service – a spaghetti bolognese, a bottle of Club Colombia, and went to bed. I’d made a a great day out of it, but how much better would it have been if I hadn’t drunk aguardiente the night before? Never mind, what’s done is done, and I’d enjoyed it immensely. Still, it was Medellin. It was Saturday night. I should have gone out and drunk through the hangover.