This week we’ll explore the intriguing South American country of Colombia. Thanks in part to its location; the country has long been at the centre of affairs that stretch far beyond its own borders.
- Capital (and Largest City): Bogotá
- Population (2016): 48,464,200 (29th)
- Total Area: 1,141,748 km² (26th)
- Official Language: Spanish + 68 recognized national languages
- Currency: Colombian peso ($) (COP)
During pre-Columbian times, the region was inhabited by not one, but a variety of different indigenous tribes. These included the Tairona, Muisca, and Quimbaya as well as the powerful Inca who expanded into the southern part of the country. The tribes had developed power structures, farming systems, and engaged in trade with one another.
In 1499-1500, the Spanish arrived in what is now Colombia. About a decade later, they had established their first permanent settlement, and soon were erecting cities including Cartagena and Santa Marta. Much of the area soon became known as the New Kingdom of Granada. Many conquistadors and explorers were drawn to region in search of wealth – partly due to the legend of El Dorado (the fabled ‘city of gold’).
New Granada soon came under the sway of another Spanish colony, Peru. During this time, the indigenous population suffered greatly from war and disease. As a result, many slaves were shipped over from Africa to keep the colonial possessions functioning. It wasn’t until 1717 when the Viceroyalty of New Granada was established (with the capital at Bogotá), that the region could claim equal standing with other Spanish possessions on the continent.
As we move forward into the 19th century, rumblings of independence from Spain began to take hold. After declaring Cartagena independent in 1811, a period of civil strife began which was known as the ‘Foolish Fatherland’. After over a decade of fighting (which included conflict over the nature of an independent government), Colombia (and nearby Venezuela) had defeated pro-Spanish forces. Colombia became the first constitutional government in all of South America with two established parties prior to 1850.
The early 20th century was welcomed with US intervention in the region, namely when it came to constructing the Panama Canal. The end result was the separation of Panama from Colombia (of which it was a part). The US would later pay a reparation fee in 1921. As we move forward, things didn’t get much easier. The 40’s and 50’s were known as ‘La Violencia’ due to tensions between the two political parties. The next couple decades also saw Colombia fight in the Korean War alongside the Americans, as well as the establishment of a military junta. Before things could go any further, the two parties came to an agreement to establish the National Front (a rotational policy), which ended La Violencia and sought to enact reforms.
While partly successful, many systemic problems remained and this gave rise to numerous guerilla groups (including FARC), who struggle against the government to this day. A low intensity conflict has continued in the country, with the US supporting the government forces against left-wing groups (particularly during the Cold War). The 80’s also saw the rise of powerful drug lords (especially Pablo Escobar) who made billions through drug smuggling.
Recently the activities of both anti-government armed groups and drug traffickers have declined greatly. Talks between the government and FARC continue positively, though the conflict is not put to bed quite yet. This, along with recent economic growth, makes it appear as though Colombia is well poised as we move forward.
As it is with most countries in Latin America, Colombian culture is primarily a mix of both Spanish and indigenous traditions. Its northern location in South America has also led to Colombia having a degree of influences from Central and North America. African influence is also felt within the country, while the Catholic Church has always had a great impact over the way of life of a large degree of the population.
Cuisine in Colombia varies between areas, with dishes consisting of local produce. Beans, chicken, corn, potatoes, seafood on the coast, barbequed meat, and more are all staples of a Colombian diet depending on where you are. In addition, Colombia is well known as one of the world’s major coffee producing countries, having been associated with the drink for a long time.
While the national sport of Colombia is Tejo (which involves launching projectiles at a target and is played on a team), the most popular is soccer. The national team won the Copa América in 2001 and reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2014. Recently the country has produced world-class stars such as James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao.
Colombia is a large country that spans a variety of ecosystems. These can generally be divided into the Pacific Coast, the Andes Mountains, the Caribbean Coast, the plains, the Amazon rainforest, and islands off the coast. While the rainforest dominates a large portion of the country, the Andes are the most imposing feature and are home to the majority of the population (alongside the coastal regions).
Colombia is home to multiple large cities numbering around or over 1 million people. These include the capital Bogotá as well as the second largest city of Medellin.
Did you know?
- Cheese in hot chocolate is a Colombian custom
- Colombia’s winter is pretty much non-existent thanks to its equatorial location
- The name of the country comes from Christopher Columbus
- Pop star Shakira is from Colombia
- The country is a major hub for plastic surgery
- The Ring of Fire passes through Colombia, making it vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanoes
- It is the second most biodiverse country on earth
Despite a difficult mid 20th century, Colombia has made great progress and is now one of the most welcoming and forward-looking Latin American countries.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).
Stay informed. Stay Current.