I had 4.5 months left in my one year around the world trip when realized I was running low on money. Knowing this, I started looking for a solution to spend significantly less money while traveling. I wanted to finish this round the world trip without missing any of the key places I really want to see. That’s when I went on the website workaway.info and began looking for volunteer work. After a week of constantly applying for volunteer work, I finally secured one in a small town of Guatape in Colombia. Little did I know I was about to discover something that completely changed my outlook on long term travel.
Taking the bus from Medellin to Guatape
As soon as I secured the volunteer work, I immediately made my way to Guatape, Colombia. The bus ride seems simple enough. Just go to the northern bus terminal in Medellin and take a 2-3 hour bus ride to Guatape.
While waiting for the bus, I got a chance to befriend three 55 year old Americans from Texas who’s also going to Guatape to visit the hostel’s owner. It was quite funny to meet these Americans because two of these guys has never left the United States before. As a matter of fact, they just got their passport for the first time!
It’s really interesting to see the differences in cultures. Americans don’t seem to travel internationally as much as Europeans do. Everywhere I go, I always meet a Dutch or German person while seeing Americans is a rare thing.
Arriving and volunteering in Guatape
Upon arriving at Guatape, one of the Americans (Tom) led us to the hostel where I was going for volunteer work (and where they were staying).
I got a chance to meet the owner of Lake View Hostel, Greg, and he briefed me on what my task I need to do for the rest of the week. For the first two days, I was essentially a floater. If the kitchen needed my help, I would help out by washing dishes or cutting vegetables. If the restaurant was busy, then I would take orders or serve food to the customers.
On most days of the week, I would work in reception. My job is to speak English to backpackers checking in and translate in Spanish to the other individual working in reception. While my Spanish is nowhere near good, I know enough to speak and understand so people know what I’m talking about.
A typical shift would last anywhere between 4-6 hours, 6 days a week and we get Fridays off. Volunteers also get one free meal a day which is always dinner around 9:30-10:30pm at night.
Volunteering vs Backpacking
One of the biggest reason I enjoyed my time in Guatape so much is because of what was lacking while I was backpacking around the world. Usually, you make friends for a day or two then you never see that person again. When you volunteer, you befriend other volunteers and it becomes similar to what a co-worker would be like back home.
Volunteering also gave me some structure and stability in my life which I missed a little bit since I am constantly on the move. At the end of the day, volunteering in Guatape gave me back my sanity that I started to question as I bounce from city to city and country to country.
A beautiful morning
My number one most favourite thing to do while I was in Guatape is eating breakfast infront of the hostel’s lake. The view was spectacular and very beautiful and I just can’t see a more perfect morning. Everyday, I would eat breakfast as I gazed on the lake. Sometimes, I would chat with other backpackers and other days, I would keep to myself working on my blog. It was truly one of the most perfect mornings I can imagine.
Sight seeing and random adventures
Guatape is also full of sight seeing places and adventures you can participate in. I barely scratched the surface while I was here because of the sheer amount of fun stuff you can do while living in this town.
The most popular tourist attraction here is “La Piedra” which means “the rock”. While the name is not very original, there is a giant rock in Guatape that looks amazing and is the main tourist attraction of the area. The view of this rock is wonderful and I made sure to take tons of pictures while I was in this area. If you’re in Guatape, you can reach this rock by taking a tuktuk from the city which will cost you 8,000 COP. Another method of transportation is the shared 4×4 jeep you can take at the centre of the town where the church is located. For 2,000 COP, the 4×4 jeep will drop you off at the road leading to “La Piedra”.
Other activities I tried was kayaking on the lake and hiking, and sight seeing the small town. I was no good at kayaking but it was definitely an interesting activity to try.
If you are ever in Guatape, you can also try the following activities:
- Biking to a nearby city called San Rafael
- Renting and riding a motorbike or scooter
- See Pablo Escobar’s blown up vacation home
- Paragliding at a nearby town
- Wake and Fly boarding
- Hiking to the waterfall
Summary of experience
On a typical day, I would get up in the morning, have my breakfast and start my volunteer work. In the afternoon, I normally ate at the same place that served this giant plate of Colombian food called a “bandaja” consisting of a meat, vegetables, and a variety of carbs.
I also befriended Greg, the hostel owner, and we would workout in the gym sometimes or go on a random hike with other volunteers.
When working in the kitchen, I became friends with the kitchen staff who would often teach me Spanish. I also got to know many of the locals who were employed to work in this hostel and got a chance to interact with them.
However, after two weeks of volunteer work, I felt the need to move again. I was also starting to feel a little overwhelmed with the fact that I am around people all day, everyday, with not a single day for myself.
Moving on (but also planning on returning in the future)
My time in Guatape is definitely a memorable one and I become good friends with two fellow volunteers (fellow Canadian Tanya and Jacob). Because I liked Guatape so much, I plan on coming back here again in the future when I return to Colombia.
I really think Guatape is one of those hidden gems that no one really knows about and I’m glad I got a chance to experience it. Should you ever travel to Colombia, do take the chance to live in Guatape for a week or two. If you can secure volunteer work here; even better, as you will get a chance to live with the locals.
Because of my experience in Guatape, I now know that doing volunteer work abroad as part of long term travel is very important. Through volunteer work abroad, you will get a chance to work side by side with locals and really get to know their culture at a deeper level. Moving forward, I am making sure I secure several volunteer gigs in between backpacking to not only save money but also learn more about the people and culture of a country.