To understand the complex culture of Colombia, you must first understand the history of these people. While the history is quite sad in some ways, it is also very interesting.
Because they left few enduring archeological monuments, the ancient people of Colombia are not well known. However, the country was inhabited well before the arrival of Columbus, as is seen by some of the gold and pottery left behind. It was not until Alonso de Ojeda, one of Columbus’s companions on the second voyage to the New World, first set foot in the land that it became more important in history.
It was in 1499 that Ojeda began his trek in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where he found that the local indigenous population was quite rich in gold and precious metals. This led to the myth of the golden city of El Dorado, which became the driving force that pushed Spain into Colombia. While the mythical city was never found, this push did lead to the rapid colonization of the region. In 1525, Rodrigo de Bastidas established the town of Santa Marta, which would become the earliest surviving town of the Spanish colony. In 1550, the colony was put under the control of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
During the colonial period, the indigenous people of Colombia, the Spaniards who ruled them and the Africans brought over as slaves began to intermingle, creating a unique blend of races. However, in spite of this intermingling, the pure blooded Spaniards retained control. With time, the local people and these mixed races began to feel discontent under the oppressive Spanish rule. Small protests began, and in 1781 the first open rebellion in Colombia occurred when the Spanish crown raised taxes. When Napoleon placed his brother on the Spanish throne in 1808, the people of Colombia refused to acknowledge him as their ruler, declaring their independence.
It was Simon Bolivar in 1812 who was able to help Colombia solidify their independence, for a short period of time. However, by 1817, colonial rule was established once again. Bolivar retreated temporarily, but was able to gather strength and support from the British. In 1819 he marched back into Colombia and won the country’s independence.
Sadly, early independence was a challenge for Colombia. Bolivar, who was elected president, left the infant country to continue fighting for the independence of other South American countries, and he left power in the hands of vice president Francisco de Paula Santander. In 1830, Bolivar’s Gran Colombia split into three separate countries. Over the next 70 years, Colombia was filled with strife as three political parties vied for control, and this came to a head in a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives in 1899.
After the United States took Panama from Colombia during the civil war, the people came to an agreement and lived in piece until 1948. However, once again civil war broke out. La Violencia, as it was called, was one of the bloodiest wars in the western hemisphere. This conflict ended in 1957, when the Conservative and Liberal Presidents came to an agreement that joined the two parties. They agreed to alternate between a conservative and liberal president every four years. This was in place until 1974, when conflict erupted again. Guerrilla warfare and kidnappings became commonplace, and the country was considered very unstable.
The 1970s and 1980s also became a time when illegal drug trade, cocaine specifically, began to be a major problem in Colombia. Drug cartels and guerilla groups were the problems every Colombian leader had to face. In the 1990s, a new constitution was written that brought in legal reforms to try to deal with some of these problems. These reforms were a step in the right direction, but they progressed slowly, pushing Colombia into the 20th century with a bloody and violent past, yet no real stability in place.
- Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Colombia, which points to the country’s Spanish heritage and the long period of Spanish rule.
- The main language of Colombia is Spanish. Colombia has the third largest Spanish speaking population in the world, second only to Spain and Mexico.
- The culture of the Colombian people is clearly influenced by the Spaniards, as well as Africans, Americans, the people of the Caribbean and the native people of the region.
- Festivals are important to the people of Colombia, and they host the world’s biggest theater festival, salsa festival, outdoor horse parade and flower parade.
- Colombia is one of the world’s 18 megadiverse countries in terms of ecology.
- The United States purchases 40 percent of the exports of Colombia.
- In spite of the high crime throughout the country, Colombia’s capital, Bogota, has a lower murder rate than the United States capital, Washington D.C.
- Colombia is the only South American country to have a Pacific and Caribbean coastline.
- Around 3,000 species of butterflies live in Colombia.
- The golden dart frog, found along Colombia’s Pacific coastline, has a poison so powerful that just one gram could kill 15,000 people.
- Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – Soaring 5,770 meters above sea level, this is the highest seaside mountain in the world. Here you can hike, go bird watching or climb to visit a World Heritage Site where 30,000 indigenous people still live.
- Ciudad Perdida – If you are looking for an adventure trek, take the three-day hike to this pre-Columbus lost city.
- Bogota – Colombia’s capital city has it all: a thriving nightlife, noisy marketplaces and cultural attractions and museums.
- Parque Nacional Tayrona – Who needs a Caribbean cruise when you can sprawl out on this beautiful stretch of white sand beaches.
- Providencia – This volcanic island is the place to go if you love scuba diving, and it also boasts beautiful, yet secluded, beaches.
- Parque Nacional el Cocuy – Swim in a glacial lake or hike to the top of a snow-capped peak in this mountainous national park.
- Cartagena – This is the best example of Spanish colonial architecture in all of South America, and well worth the visit if you love history.
- San Gil – Go rafting, abseiling, rock climbing or paragliding in this adventurous area.
- Villa de Leyva – Spend the morning exploring this colonial-era town, then the afternoon hiking or biking through the nearby hills.
Where to Get Cash
- The best way to take care of your money needs while in Colombia is with a credit or debit card. They are becoming widely accepted in well-known establishments, and you can also visit the bank for a cash advance. Avoid changing money on the street, because counterfeit money is quite common.
- ATMs are found at almost all banks. Before you go, find out what the fee would be to use your debit or credit card at the ATM.
- Traveler’s checks are safer than cash and can be exchanged at banks. Try to use American Express Traveler’s Checks if possible, as these are the easiest to change.
- If you need money quickly, find the nearest Western Union. Be prepared for the fee that someone sending you the money will have to pay. This can work in an emergency, however, and Western Union locations can be found in most major Colombian cities.