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Destination Colombia

El Peñol: Underwater Memories and a Stairway to Heaven

Many stories surround this strange wonder of La Pachamama, located in Antioquia, Colombia. Worshipped by the indigenous people who once roamed the land and feared by peasants of old who considered it a hindrance, El Peñol’s history is the stuff of legend.

By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman

The full splendor of the mountains of Antioquia fills the horizon as we swerve from side to side, rounding the forty-three miles of curves on a road meant for seasoned travelers only. It’s one of those amazing days when the sky clears completely and wonderful colors shine. Suddenly, the landscape in the distance is split by a “small bump.” As we move closer, the “bump” takes shape until, finally, we see it: the famous El Peñol Stone. The sky remains blue and we stand stunned before this natural wonder.

The landscape is dominated by this 720-foot stone that came out of who-knows-where. And behind this curtain of quartz, feldspar, and mica lies a breathtaking sight that will give you goose bumps. We stand in awe of its immensity, our hearts pounding. Underneath the stone lies the original village of El Peñol, submerged under the waters of the reservoir that flooded it.

Many stories surround this strange wonder of La Pachamama. Worshipped by the indigenous people who once roamed the land and feared by peasants of old who considered it a danger that was “stolen by the devil” on several occasions, El Peñol’s history is the stuff of legend. But of all these stories, the following is my favorite:

Legend has it that the Villegas family, which owns the land, were downhearted when they inherited these fields with a huge stone in the middle that no one and nothing seemed capable of moving. The unidentified object, however, fascinated the youngest son, Luis. Despite much teasing from his siblings, Luis spent hours staring at the motionless stone. Years went by and Luis’s fascination continued. When the family estate was redistributed, he decided to hold on to the “useless” piece of land while his siblings divvied up the fertile fields surrounding it.

Bravely, and driven by his obsession, Luis decided one day to climb the rock alone, using only his hands, up what seemed like a stairway to heaven. Days went by in absolute silence until his anxious relatives saw a flag flying at the top: Luis’s shirt blowing in the wind, signaling his victory. This was the moment when he became truly aware of the treasure at his feet. Months later, a makeshift wooden ladder became available to others brave enough to make the climb. Today, thanks to this nature lover, the whole world can enjoy the unparalleled 360-degree panoramic view.

Ready to clamber to its heights, I can’t help trying to imagine the same setting without all the souvenir stands, flags, and languages I hear around me. I imagine a young Luis, staring up wide-eyed from the very place where I now stand, just as expectantly. All that remains is to thank him for his stubbornness and, like him, enjoy this extraordinary adventure. The clock tells me it’s time to start walking. I’ve taken only a few steps in the parking lot and haven’t even begun the 740-step climb to the top.

“It’s an easy climb,” they tell me, but as we make our way up the 7,000-foot ladder it soon becomes clear who is out of shape. We get off to a good start, full of energy and expectations, chatting away gaily. But as we become winded, our conversation is curtailed. One hundred steps later, the “essential” photo-ops become an excuse for more frequent rests. Three hundred more steps and the landscape starts to blur; another hundred and I can swear I understand the conversation of the Japanese family walking nearby. Just when my heart is about to give out, the 650th step appears: a rest stop! I breathe as best I can and look from side to side and down below, which really takes my breath away —and not just because of the exertion. More than the satisfaction of a goal achieved, once up here, I experience a sense of awe that makes me appreciate every bit of the landscape: a thousand shades of green, a thousand more blues, and thousands of cameras and hearts opened to this unforgettable experience.

It’s the perfect time to think back on the history of the municipality of El Peñol, a phoenix reborn not from ashes, but from a flood. I was unaware of the story until María shared it with me this morning upon our arrival in the town. She was born and raised in the original El Peñol village and now lives in the new town, the resurrected phoenix, where she runs the Templo Roca bakery. There, as we sipped a delicious Antioquian coffee, she shared with us her mixed feelings and her memories of 1978.

The El Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir, one of the largest in Colombia, not only supplies power to the entire country, but is also one of the region’s major tourist attractions. And yet, to achieve what we see here today, an entire village had to be submerged.

As I search from above for some trace of the original town, which is now under water, I recall Maria’s words: “Nobody wanted to leave their home behind. You were offered compensation and a new house, but the people loved their village, their homes, and their memories. The elderly, like my father, were the hardest hit. It wasn’t all that long ago and the wounds have yet to heal.”

Although the new town was well built and planned, the hearts of its inhabitants are still submerged, and when the water level falls, revealing the cross where the old church once stood, the most devout travel by boat to pay tribute to the old town.

I can also see Templo Roca from up here, a temple worthy of these devout people and the fruit of a battle between the Church and those responsible for building the reservoir. According to the El Peñol Historical Museum, the head of Empresas Públicas de Medellín claimed: “Mass can be said in any barn,” which naturally sparked outrage and anger among the clergy and townspeople. A court battle ensued, which the Church won, and Templo Roca built: a fusion of architecture, religion, and nature mimicking the famous monolith for which the municipality is known.

From María’s bakery, my goal seemed terribly distant, but now, looking out on the landscape, I forget all about the conflict and devastation. From up here, the museum, the temple, the new Peñol, and the replica of the old Peñol below seem like mere dots. But our climb is nowhere near finished; this is just a quick stop to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom. There are still ninety steps to go and we couldn’t possibly leave without climbing them. We now wind through a maze of souvenir shops until, finally, we reach step 740.

Couples dedicating love poems to each other, the religiously inclined making vows, incredulous tourists, and breathless athletes all stand in a tight circle, as if awaiting the medal we deserve after our victory. Finally, the trophy we’re handed is simply every bit of the vista we can possibly take in. Even with so many people around, you’re on your own here. This is heaven.