A few hours away from Medellin, in the midst of the rolling green Colombian countryside, sits a rock. But this isn't just any old rock.
El Peñol de Piedra is huge, the only giant rock for miles around; it looks out over clusters of tiny islands dotted with trees and houses; and it's the centre piece for a rather bizarre area of Colombia, which almost doesn't seem real.
The last few weeks in Colombia have been a mourning period for one of the country's most legendary figures, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, after he died aged 87. The author's writing was infamous: he spearheaded the magical realism genre, and littered Colombia with metaphorical yellow butterflies and bursts of wonderful madness wherever his stories went.
But I didn't expect to visit a living embodiment of it.
Guatape: a pueblo with a colourful background
The small town of Guatape is famous for a number of things. First off, it borders a man-made reservoir that the Colombian government built in the 1960s for a hydro-electric dam, in order to provide water for Medellin and the surrounding areas.
The 'lake' is now used for pleasure boat cruises, tours to the spire of the old town's church, now submerged under the water for all eternity, and to gaze at one of Pablo Escobar's holiday homes that sits on one of the islands.
Guatape's second famous aspect? El Peñol de la Piedra, or El Peñol rock, a monolithic stone that shoots straight up into the sky. Seeing as the rock is the only one of its kind for miles around, the two communities that live on either side have understandably tried to hold claim over it; the people of Guatape started painting their towns name on the side of the rock, but only got as far as the 'G' and the first stroke of the 'U' before a mob from El Peñol stopped them.
Visitors climb to the top of El Peñol via a set of 650 stairs that look rather rickety and heart-attack-inducing from far away, but are actually carved from heavy stone and set into a rift in the rock (not entirely sure how secure they are though…)
But that's not the best part about Guatape. Third on the list of the pueblo's wonders are the zocalos, colourful tiles that cover every inch of the narrow winding streets, and depict every aspect possible of Guatape life. It's these bright mosaics that seem to have affected the sensibilities of the people living here the most.
Because Guatape is wonderfully, oversaturatedly, crazy.
Arriving to Guatape in the evening however, after dark, meant not discovering this colour craziness until slightly later. We jumped off the bus while on the highway, still outside of town, and checked into a homely little hostel called Mi Casa Guatape, sitting at the base of El Peñol de la Piedra.
A raging thunderstorm made us huddled up with Lulu, the hostel dog, amongst a collection of blankets on fold out sofas, and indulged in the hostel's huge collection of movies – but the next day dawned bright and sunny, so we headed up towards the imposing looking hunk of rock filling the sky above the hostel roof.
Climbing El Peñol de la Piedra
The nearer we got to the base of la Piedra, the better we could see out over the surrounding landscape; an approach which also provided us with a distinct amount of pre-expectation.
Luckily, the rock – and the view – didn't disappoint.
As soon as we began the trek up the solid stone steps, I started to realise just how bizarre the combination of man-made reservoir and huge rock was – particularly alongside the numerous Colombians steadfastly maintaining houses on those little strips of land in the middle of it all.
That afternoon we hailed down a micro bus from the highway outside the hostel, and rode jostlingly amongst various wide eyed Colombian children to Guatape.
A colourful explosion in Guatape
Wandering through the brightly painted streets, I allowed my camera free reign to click away as it wished, while my mouth hung open incredulously. And very happily.
Guatape is like a Colombian take on Disneyland. A group of buildings accidentally ate too much sugar and spewed forth an collective array of colours that would probably be considered an eyesore in other places – but here, it works.
I think it's because this is South America, where people reflect this level of colourfulness in their personalities. All around town, groups of children raced against small dogs and each other; old men sat on benches in the plaza; women stood around the entrances to shops and cafes, chatting and laughing.
The town is popular amongst weekend trippers from Medellin, but I got the distinct impression that those actually living here have a lifestyle completely different to those in the bigger cities. Everywhere, people were smiling at each other and at us.
Even the Guatape taxi drivers seemed more honest than usual, arguing good naturedly over prices that were actually reasonable, despite being quoted to two gringos.
Eventually the light began to dim and my camera was obstinately refusing to switch on any longer, so we picked a small cafe with tables set against a corner of the main plaza, ordered beers, and began to discuss the surreality of Guatape.
Had the over saturation of this town been explicitly planned?
“Look, guys,” the town mayor might have said to his fellow Guatapians, assembled on plastic chairs around him, “people seem to really love the whole colour thing. I know we're not hugely fond of it but let's just keep it up and see what happens, yeah? After all, tourism's up by a huge percentage this year…”
Clearly the zocalos hadn't appeared naturally – but things just seemed a touch too excessive. Even the bicycles were colour coordinated!
But then, out of nowhere, a procession began – the start of celebrations to mark Easter week.
For the next half hour, people filed past our ringside seats opposite Guatape's church; children dressed in white, flag bearers, dancers, old women with rosaries, a priest bedecked in religious finery with an awful singing voice.
Yet another reminder that this place managed to constantly thwart our attempts to understand it.
Being brought back down to earth
“Here is your pizza!” the man in the white apron exclaimed later that night, as he set down a giant doughy monstrosity in front of us. There was a smudge of flour on his nose.
“Sorry, it is very juice because the tomato is very juice,” he said, backing away from the table to take a photo of us 'eating at his restaurant' on his phone. Behind him, a group of teenagers on push bikes laughed, resting their Converse-capped toes on the cobbles.
Josh and I 'cheersed' with our overladen slices, grinning cheesily at the camera until the pizza chef had disappeared back to his kitchen. Then we took our first, over-hungry bites.
The 'very juice' situation was critical. Thick slices of tomato fell from the pizza as I tried to salvage the disintegrating base, but to no avail. Wielding cutlery, I dug through the dough and forked up slippery pieces of cheese.
“I don't think this is going to make the 'best pizzas in South America' list, do you?”
But it didn't matter, really. The food is secondary when your eyes have been so well treated.
I always knew that South America was colourful. But I haven't been to many places that so embody those colours; live them, breathe them, encompass them into everything.
Which is why I guess I felt the need to get involved myself; an attempt to fit seamlessly into an unbelievably colourful world.
Magical realism at its finest, right?
Have you ever visited somewhere that's as colourful and unreal as Guatape?