La Piedra and its Protest Climbs
How a massive granite dome in Colombia was climbed, exploited, and protected thanks to local rock climbers determined to foster a sense of ownership within the community.
In December 2015, Colombian climber Yon Monsalve just about had enough. A garbage dump was forming at the bottom of the 200-meter-high granite dome known as El Peñon de Guatapé or, simply, La Piedra—the Rock. Monsalve has lived in this part of Colombia nearly 20 years and was fed up with the people above dumping their garbage over the cliff’s edge.
For the last thirty years, the big rock—located near the town of Guatapé— saw its development go in two directions: on one side of the dome, the de facto owners of the rock had built a cement staircase with more than 700 steps, zigzagging up a narrow chimney, to take tourists to the top. Awaiting them, there was a bar and restaurant, souvenir shops, and balconies to take in the sweeping views of the Colombian landscape of mountains and lakes. On the other side of the granite dome, rock climbers were scaling the coarse, black granite and establishing some of the country’s hardest slab climbs and Colombia’s testing grounds for multi-pitch friction.
In late 2015, a handful of climbers—led by Monsalve—reached their tipping point and set up a “rock nest” in protest, directly under the path of trash jettisoned from five hundred feet above, gaining the attention of those above as well as those below. The nest hung under a large natural roof and consisted of a few hammocks and a small platform built with some of the materials that had been thrown off the rock. The climbers held their ground, occupying the rock nest, for approximately six months, and the ensuing drama involved everyone: local government leaders, the police, adjacent landowners, and the community at large, not to mention Monsalve’s mother, who continuously fed the eco-climbers. Every revolution needs a mother.
Aiding the Stairway
The history of climbing the big rock started in 1954 with Luis Villegas, a plucky 37-year-old who heard in a Sunday sermon that international climbers were coming to Guatapé to climb the up-to-then unclimbed Piedra.
“Are the men of Guatapé born of families of toads? Because toads do not climb on rocks,” the priest famously said, goading locals to act.
Villegas, with two others, accepted the challenge and spent five days wedging tree trunks and wooden planks all the way up a natural three-meter-wide chimney. His courageousness and successful conquest of the dome all but guaranteed there would be no dispute to whom the rock belonged. Predicting the rock’s fame, he then bought the land below. The wooden staircase was rebuilt five times before finally, in 1976, he made it out of cement. When Villegas died, his children inherited the farm, the staircase and the rock. Today, at least five families have land abutting the dome, but none questions the Rock’s ownership; to the victor, go the spoils.
In the 1980s, a small group of climbers started sussing out the dome’s cracks. They had little gear and less money. They used homemade, wooden protection and shared one pair of climbing shoes and a few ropes. Then in the early 1990s, other Colombian climbers came and started placing bolts, discovering fantastic lines over the blank faces, dancing over slopers and micro-edges. Monsalve arrived in the late ’90s, determined to create a community around climbing la Piedra.
Meanwhile, the Villegas family was building a tourism empire on the summit. Today, the Rock is a well-oiled tourist trap: at the base you can buy meat, beer, cheap plastic toys, and haphazardly fashioned crafts. Up top, there is more of the same. Every year, thousands of tourists pay the entrance fee, climb the stairs, and buy stuff. This produces a lot of trash, and a lot of it accumulates around the base of the Rock. What’s worse, the bathrooms used by the visitors simply flush down a less conspicuous corner of the dome; out of sight, out of mind.
It is a sad irony that a conflict would pit rock climbers against the family of Luis Villegas, the Rock’s first climber. “The Villegas family looks at the Rock as a business dealing, and does not consider the entire eco-system surrounding it,” says Sergio García, a climber who joined Monsalve on the wall in the protest. “For the community, it should not be about how much you can profit from the Rock, it should be about its usage.”
García is one of few climbers who actually lives at the base of the dome. He and his family purchased a small parcel of land back before the protest, recognizing both the beauty of the Rock and its need for protection. However, for many of the families who own the land directly below the climbing routes, García and any other climbers are personas non-grata. Even more so once their protest began.
Garcia recalls, “The landowners surrounding the Rock never understood that this was a protest. They see us as invaders who are trying to steal their property or land rights.”
The Rock Lobby
While dealing with accusations and police during the protest, the climbers simultaneously levied their own complaints with the regional environmental authority, CORNARE, as well as with Guatapé’s municipal government. In 2018, the wheels of bureaucracy finally began to turn: the city council reviewed the municipal land use management plan and ordered a tourism impact assessments in order to declare the granite dome a cultural monument. Last year, the regional environmental authority received orders from the Colombian Geological Service to begin outlining an environmental management plan, a necessary step to convert the rock into “geological patrimony” and a “conservation area.” The Villegas family has been ordered to stop throwing garbage over the side and to install sewage pipes on the summit.
Nevertheless, the ownership of the Rock remains a point of contention. Can the Villegas family legally own the rock dome? Where does land ownership end in relation to the dome? Do the families own the land all the way up to the base of the Rock? How can you divide the ownership of a large rock?
Land issues are not new in Colombia. They have been at the heart of Colombia’s 50-year conflict, which has displaced more than six million people. Rural Colombians wait an average of five years to title and register a property, never mind the costs. Thus, rural land informality is higher than 50%, and there is widespread distrust of the government: a largely absent, unresponsive institution, incapable of properly administering land.
After the protest, the climbers recognized that engaging the community would be a priority. According to García, “The community has never felt a sense of ownership of the Rock. One problem is that Guatapé’s youth move to Medellín or Bogotá to study or look for work. There is no sustainable economy, and no land to farm, to keep them here. This lack of job opportunities fractures the process of adopting the Rock as their own.”
Monsalve and García created a small association and began training ten local youths who live around Guatapé. Every weekend, the members meet at García’s bungalow, where they can borrow gear and climb some of the 80-90 routes. It is hoped that this new generation of local climbers will help foster a deeper relationship between the local community and the Rock.
The dome still holds massive potential for new routes and usage, but new sectors sit above the land of different landowners. “We’re trying to resolve one conflict at a time,” García says.
If you would like to contact, learn more, or contribute to the climbers’ association created around the Peñón de Guatapé, you can contact CETAV (La Corporación de Escalada de Antioquia – Vigías del Patrimonio Natural y de Aventura) below:
Telephone/Whatsapp: +57 312 734 5576 (Sergio García)
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