Cobbled street of colourful houses
Colombia,  Colour,  Culture & tradition,  Photographing Public Art,  Travel galleries

Gallery: Guatapé, town of the zócalos

In Guatapé, almost every building is a work of art, and its streets tell of its history. I have read that this is the most photographed small town in Colombia, and I can well believe it. Certainly there is no denying that it is colourful, nor that it is touristy. But all over the world places become touristy for a reason, and Guatapé is no exception to that.

Many other Colombian towns are colourful of course. What sets Guatapé apart is a traditional building technique, the zócalo, which here has been adopted in a very distinctive manner.

The word zócalo means ‘base’ or ‘plinth’ in Spanish. It is used in Colombia to describe the lower part of a wall of a house, constructed in a strong hard material such as cement to give the building stability. Above this section the remainder of the wall can be built with bamboo or timber, covered in mud and straw. This lower part therefore often stands out a little from the rest and is usually painted a different colour.

Cobbled street of colourful houses
In Guatapé

While other towns have been built using the same technique, here in Guatapé the zócalos have become a canvas for local expression and identity. Using bas-reliefs and the brightest of contrasting colours, some tell the history of the area, with objects and designs taken from pre-Hispanic discoveries. Some depict local occupations such as farming, or advertise a trade run within the building. Some reflect the occupants’ beliefs, interests and tastes. And some are purely decorative.

Part street art, part building technique, the zócalos of Guatapé have given the town a unique place in Colombian architectural folk tradition.

Cobbled street of colourful houses

Textiles shop with a boating-themed zócalo

Colourful building decorated with images of pack horses

Rural scenes with packhorses

Colourful building decorated with images of giraffes

I was surprised to see giraffes on this zócalo; it must reflect a particular fondness for them as they certainly aren’t seen locally!

Colourful building decorated with images of reindeer

Reindeer aren’t too common in Colombia either!

Part of a house with a window and frieze of alpacas

But alpacas are, of course; in fact we’d seen some only that morning, on our way here.

Face and neck of a young alpaca
Alpaca at a roadside restaurant


Motifs taken from pre-Hispanic artefacts

Colourful building decorated with images of clay pots

Colourful building decorated with images of parrots and flowers

Tropical birds, orchids and sunflowers

Colourful building decorated with images of owls

One of the more simple designs, a row of owls

Colourful building decorated with images of angels carrying lanterns

Angels with lanterns on a building belonging to a religious organisation

Colourful window shutters and frieze with mules

More packhorses

Seahorse detail in an underwater themed design

Relief image of a seahorse on a building

Bas relief depicting outside of a school

On a building that once served as a nursery school

Colourful building decorated with image of a cobbler

And one of my favourites. a cobbler’s workshop complete with mischievous cat!

And to finish, a selection of some purely decorative designs

Sharing for Natalie’s Photographing Public Art challenge

I visited Colombia in February 2023


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