South America: Rock steady

A towering monolith is well worth the effort of scaling.
View of The Rock near Guatape, Colombia.
View of The Rock near Guatape, Colombia.

It's millions of years old, weighs in at an estimated 10 million tonnes, is more than 200m high and has a curious history. But it's unlikely you would have ever heard of - let alone seen - this intriguing giant.

That's because the Rock of Guatape monolith (also known as El Penol) is far removed from the typical "attractions" on offer at the well-trodden tourist trails Antipoedeans favour, such as Bali and Thailand.

Because of its far-flung location in Guatape, Colombia, the fascinating rock is well known among locals but has remained off the radar for many New Zealand travellers. And boy, have we been missing out.

Rediscovered by a group of mates back in the 1950s, who scaled it using just a wooden plank, the rock has been declared a national monument by the Colombian Government.

Its trademark feature is a more modern addition; an astounding staircase that zigzags a staggering 649 steps up through a crack in the side of the otherwise fairly smooth rock.

No matter where you are in the nearby towns, you can't miss it.

And there's something a bit strange about the rock, which was worshipped by its former inhabitants.

Not visible at every angle, eagle-eyed visitors have been left baffled after spotting giant letters painted in white on the side of it, spelling out "GI". So what on Earth does that mean? It turns out that what appears to be an "I" is an incomplete "U".

What's the significance of those letters? The monolith actually straddles two towns, Guatape and El Penol, and its ownership has long been disputed by locals. So to settle the matter, residents of Guatape decided to paint the town's name on it, but it wasn't long before residents of El Penol noticed and a mob ceased the painting.

To this day, nobody has dared finish it.

On top of the rock is a viewing area with food available and souvenirs. The view is awesome, and looks out to the Embalse del Penol, a hydro-electric dam that submerged the original town of El Penol in the 1970s.

Travel photographers Lauren Bath and Melissa Findley, who recently visited the rock, said the experience was unforgettable.

"Guatape has to be the most vibrant, colourful town we have ever visited," they wrote. "The buildings are decorated in primary colours - it makes the perfect backdrop for photography and filming. We spent hours strolling through the streets of the picturesque town, cameras in hand.

"Each building had a pattern, design or mural that traditionally tells the story or heritage of the family or business that owned the building - we found this so unique and interesting."

Yep, one to add to the wish list if in Colombia.



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