Colombia is twice the size of France and almost twice the size of Texas, with long coastlines on the Caribbean and Pacific, as well as mountainous regions and even Amazon jungle areas in the interior. It also has a wide variety of ethnic groups and cultures. The country has something to offer almost every traveller.
Pick a climate and it’s yours – if you find Bogotá’s light jacket weather cold, drive an hour through the mountains and sunbathe by the pool at your rental hacienda. If you don’t want to sit still, head to the Amazon or one of the many other inland jungles, snow-capped volcanoes, rocky deserts, endless plains, lush valleys, coffee plantations, mountain lakes, remote beaches.
In terms of culture, intellectual Bogotá may lead the rest of Latin America in experimental theatre, independent rock and the sheer number of bookshops, but you can also get a totally foreign education in an Amazonian malocca, or immerse yourself in the huge Latin music scene of salsa and cumbia, with Barranquilla’s carnival being the most exciting dance spectacle.
Wander the narrow streets of Bogotá, South America’s first capital, visit ancient Spanish colonial towns such as Villa de Leyva, trek through the dense jungle of the northeastern mountains to the lost city of the Tayrona Indians. Walk the walls of Cartagena’s magnificent old town and admire the fortress walls that have guided South America’s colonial history.
As far as nightlife is concerned, bustling Cali has become the salsa capital of the world, competing even with the other lively party scenes of Colombia’s major cities, where music is played until the early hours of the morning. The El Poblado neighbourhood in central Medellín is a playground for hippies.
When it comes to food, you’ll find everything from the ubiquitous and delicious cheap Colombian home cooking to the more upmarket and modern cuisine of the big cities, with cuisines from all over the world represented.
And for relaxation, you’ll find beautiful tropical beaches along Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts, but you’ll find even more relaxing and peaceful places on the idyllic and unspoiled Caribbean island of Providencia.
Political violence has eased considerably in much of the country and savvy travellers from around the world have already flocked here – get here before everyone else does!
Colombia’s geography is characterised by six major natural regions, each with its own characteristics: the Andean region, shared with Ecuador and Venezuela; the Pacific coastal region, shared with Panama and Ecuador; the Caribbean coastal region, shared with Venezuela and Panama; the Llanos (plains), shared with Venezuela; the Amazonian forest region, shared with Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador; and the island region, which includes the islands of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans
Colombia is bordered by Panama to the northwest, Venezuela and Brazil to the east, Ecuador and Peru to the south, and has established its maritime borders with neighbouring countries through seven treaties on the Caribbean Sea and three on the Pacific Ocean. It lies between latitudes 12°N and 4°S and longitudes 67° and 79°W.
As part of the Ring of Fire, a region of the world prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Colombia is dominated by the Andes (where most of the country’s urban centres are located). Beyond the Colombian massif (in the departments of Cauca and Nariño, in the southwest of the country), they divide into three branches called cordilleras (mountain ranges): Cordillera Occidental, which runs along the Pacific coast and includes the city of Cali; Cordillera Central, which runs between the valleys of the Cauca and Magdalena rivers (to the west and east); Cordillera Atlantic, which runs between the valleys of the Cauca and Magdalena rivers (to the west and east); and Cordillera Arctic, which runs between the valleys of the Magdalena and Arctic rivers. East) and includes the cities of Medellín, Manizales, Pereira and Armenia; and the Cordillera Oriental, which extends northeast to the Guajira Peninsula and includes Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Cúcuta.
The peaks of the Cordillera Occidental exceed 4,700 m, in the Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental they reach 5,000 m. Bogotá, at 2,600 m, is the highest city of its size in the world.
To the east of the Andes is the llano savannah, part of the Orinoco basin, and to the south-east is the jungle of the Amazonian forest. Together, these lowland areas account for more than half of Colombia’s territory, but are home to less than 6% of the population. In the north, the Caribbean coast, home to 21.9% of the population and the major port cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena, is generally composed of low-lying plains, but also includes the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, which includes the country’s highest peaks (Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar) and the La Guajira desert. In contrast, the narrow and irregular lowlands of the Pacific coast, surrounded by the Serranía de Baudó, are sparsely populated and covered with dense vegetation. The main port on the Pacific is Buenaventura.
The main rivers in Colombia are the Magdalena, Cauca, Guaviare, Atrato, Meta, Putumayo and Caquetá. Colombia has four main drainage systems: the Pacific drainage, the Caribbean drainage, the Orinoco basin and the Amazon basin. The Orinoco and Amazon rivers mark Colombia’s borders with Venezuela and Peru, respectively.
Protected areas and the “national park system” cover an area of approximately 14,268,224 hectares (142,682.24 km2 ) and represent 12.77% of the Colombian territory. Compared to neighbouring countries, Colombia’s deforestation rate is still relatively low. Colombia is the sixth country in the world in terms of total renewable freshwater supply and still has large freshwater reserves.
With an estimated population of 48 million in 2015, Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico. It is also home to the third largest number of Spanish speakers in the world after Mexico and the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, Colombia had a population of about 4 million. The birth rate remained high until the early 1970s, but since then Colombia has experienced a steady decline in fertility, mortality and population growth rates. It is projected that Colombia will have 50.2 million inhabitants in 2020 and 55.3 million in 2050. These trends are also reflected in the country’s age profile. In 2005, more than 30% of the population was under 15 years of age, while only 6.3% of the population was 65 years and older. The total fertility rate was 1.9 births per woman in 2014.
The population is concentrated in the Andean highlands and along the Caribbean coast; population densities are also generally higher in the Andean region. The nine departments of the eastern plain, which account for about 54% of Colombia’s land area, are home to less than 6% of the population. Traditionally a rural society, Colombia experienced a major migration to the cities in the mid-20th century and is now one of the most urbanised countries in Latin America. The percentage of the population living in cities rose from 31% in 1938 to almost 60% in 1973, and in 2014 it was 76%. The population of Bogotá alone has grown from just over 300,000 in 1938 to around 8 million today. A total of 72 cities now have a population of 100,000 or more (2015). In 2012, Colombia had the largest IDP population in the world, estimated at 4.9 million.
Life expectancy is 74.8 years in 2015 and infant mortality is 13.6 per thousand in 2015. In 2013, 93.6% of adults and 98.2% of youth were literate, and the government spends about 4.9% of GDP on education.
Colombia is ethnically diverse, with a population descended from the original indigenous peoples, Spanish settlers, Africans brought to the country as slaves and 20th century immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, all of whom contribute to the diversity of the cultural heritage. The demographic distribution reflects a pattern influenced by colonial history. Whites live mainly in urban centres such as Bogotá, Medellín and Cali and in the emerging cities of the highlands. Mestizos also live in the larger cities. Mestizocampesinos (people who live in the countryside) also live in the Andean highlands, where some of the Spanish conquerors mixed with the women of the Indian chieftaincies. Mestizos include artisans and small traders who have played an important role in the urban expansion of recent decades.
According to the 2005 census, the “non-ethnic population”, composed of whites and mestizos (people of mixed white European and Amerindian descent), represents 86% of the national population. 10.6% are of African descent. Indigenous Americans make up 3.4% of the population. 0.01% of the population is Roma. According to an unofficial estimate, 49% of the Colombian population is of mixed European and Amerindian origin, and about 37% is white, mainly of Hispanic origin, but there is also a large population of Middle Eastern origin; among the upper class there is a significant proportion of Italian and German origin.
Many indigenous peoples declined in population during Spanish rule and many others were absorbed by the mestizo population, but the remainder now represent over eighty different cultures. The reserves (resguardos) established for the indigenous peoples occupy 30,571,640 hectares (305,716.4 km2) (27% of the total area of the country) and are inhabited by more than 800,000 people. Some of the most important indigenous groups are the Wayuu, Paez, Pastos, Emberá and Zenú. The departments of La Guajira, Cauca, Nariño, Córdoba and Sucre have the largest indigenous populations.
The Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC), founded at the first national indigenous congress in 1982, is an organisation representing the indigenous peoples of Colombia. In 1991, Colombia signed and ratified the current international law on indigenous peoples, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989.
Black Africans were brought as slaves mainly to the coastal lowlands from the early 16th century until the 19th century. Today, there are large Afro-Colombian communities along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. The population of the department of Chocó, which stretches along the northern part of Colombia’s Pacific coast, is more than 80% black. British and Jamaicans migrated mainly to the islands of San Andres and Providencia. A number of other Europeans and North Americans migrated to the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including people from the former USSR during and after the Second World War.
Many immigrant communities have settled on the Caribbean coast, including recent immigrants from the Middle East. Barranquilla (the largest city in the Colombian Caribbean) and other Caribbean cities have the largest populations of Lebanese, Palestinians, Phoenicians and other Middle Easterners. There are also large communities of Chinese, Japanese, Gypsies and Jews. There is a strong trend of Venezuelan migration due to the political and economic situation in the country.
The National Statistics Administration (DANE) does not collect statistics on religion and it is difficult to obtain accurate reports. However, according to various studies and a survey, about 90% of the population profess Christianity, the majority of which (70.9%) are Roman Catholics, while a significant minority (16.7%) adhere to Protestantism (mainly Evangelicalism). About 4.7% of the population are atheists or agnostics, while 3.5% claim to believe in God but do not follow any particular religion. 1.8% of Colombians belong to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Adventism, and less than 1% to other religions, such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism, indigenous religions, the Hare Krishna movement, the Rastafari movement, the Catholic Orthodox Church and spiritual studies. The remainder did not respond or responded that they did not know. In addition to the above statistics, 35.9% of Colombians stated that they do not actively practice their faith.
Although Colombia remains a predominantly Catholic country in terms of the number of baptisms, the Colombian Constitution of 1991 guarantees freedom of religion, and all religious denominations and churches are equally free before the law.
Historically an agrarian economy, Colombia rapidly urbanised during the 20th century, resulting in a situation where only 17% of the active population was employed in agriculture, generating only 6.1% of GDP; 21% of the active population was employed in industry and 62% in services, responsible for 37.3% and 56.6% of GDP respectively.
Colombia’s market economy grew steadily during the second half of the 20th century, with gross domestic product (GDP) increasing at an average rate of over 4% per year between 1970 and 1998. In 1999, the country experienced a recession (the first full year of negative growth since the Great Depression), and the recovery from this recession was long and painful. In recent years, however, growth has been impressive, reaching 6.9% in 2007, one of the highest growth rates in Latin America. According to International Monetary Fund estimates, Colombia’s GDP (PPP) was US$500 billion in 2012 (28th in the world and 3rd in South America).
Total public expenditure represents 28.3% of the national economy. Public debt represents 32% of gross domestic product. A strong fiscal climate was confirmed by an improvement in bond ratings. The annual inflation rate ended 2015 at 6.77% (compared to 3.66% in 2014). The average national unemployment rate was 8.9% in 2015, with informality being the biggest problem in the labour market (the income of formal workers increased by 24.8% in 5 years, while the labour income of informal workers increased by only 9%). Colombia has Free Trade Zones (FTZs), such as the Zona Franca del Pacifico in the Valle del Cauca, one of the most visible areas for foreign investment.
Colombia is rich in natural resources. Major exports include mineral fuels, oils, distilled products, gems, forest products, pulp and paper, coffee, meat, cereals and vegetable oils, cotton, oilseeds, sugar and sugar mills, fruits and other agricultural products, food processing, processed fish products, beverages, machinery, electronics, military products, aircraft, ships, automobiles, metal products, ferro-alloys, household and office supplies, chemicals and health-related products, petrochemicals, agrochemicals, inorganic salts and acids, perfumery and cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, plastics, animal fibres, textiles and fabrics, clothing and footwear, leather, construction equipment and materials, cement, software and others.
Colombia is also known as an important global source of emeralds, and more than 70% of cut flowers imported by the US come from Colombia. Non-traditional exports have fuelled the growth of Colombia’s foreign sales, as has the diversification of export destinations through new free trade agreements. The main trading partners are the US, China, the EU and some Latin American countries.
Electricity generation in Colombia is mainly from renewable energy sources. 70.35% is obtained from hydroelectric power generation. Colombia’s commitment to renewable energy was recognised in the 2014 Global Green Economy Index (GGEI), ranking among the top 10 nations in the world for greening efficiency sectors.
The financial sector performed well due to the good liquidity of the economy, credit growth and, in general, the positive performance of the Colombian economy. The Colombian stock exchange provides a regional market for trading shares through the Latin American Integrated Market (MILA). Colombia is now one of only three economies with a perfect score on the World Bank’s Legal Strength Index.
In 2015, the National Administrative Office of Statistics (DANE) reported that 27.8% of the population lived below the poverty line, of which 7.9% were in ‘extreme poverty’. 171,000 people were lifted out of poverty. The government has also developed a process of financial inclusion among the country’s most vulnerable population.
Recent economic growth has led to a significant increase in the number of new millionaires, including new entrepreneurs, Colombians with a net worth in excess of $1 billion.
Tourism in Colombia is an important sector of the country’s economy. The number of foreign tourist visits increased from 0.6 million in 2007 to 2.98 million in 2015.