Colombia - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Colombia: the Bradt Guide

Colombia’s history is nothing short of compelling – just when you think it can’t get any more dramatic, another chapter unfolds. Few countries can claim a historical account so complex and utterly haunting, with Colombia’s past a colourful, if emotional, fusion of intrigue, turmoil, pain, violence and hope. Getting to grips with Colombian history isn’t easy and those who seek a rounded account will need to do some serious study. Numerous sources exist – many of them conflicting. Others hone in on specific themes or eras, such as the modern-day guerrilla confl ict. However, Colombia’s pre-Columbian history is rich in indigenous culture while the colonial period spawned some of the finest architecture in the Americas.

Clock tower gate Cartagena by Jess Kraft, ShutterstockThe historic clock tower gate is the main entrance into the old city of Cartagena © Jess Kraft, Shutterstock

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Colombia: the Bradt Guide

Colombia is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Within its borders you’ll find hot and sticky humidity, chilly high-altitude temperatures, both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, palm-laden islands, mountains reaching 5,000m, dry scrub, volcanic hills and a chunk of thick subtropical Amazon basin that hosts extraordinary, untamed ecosystems. This eco excess is remarkable considering Colombia’s size, and makes the country an extremely attractive destination for wildlife enthusiasts. Colombia supports more species of bird than any other country and the second-largest number of amphibians in the world. To date, over 1,880 species of bird and 700 amphibians have been recorded there. This includes the rather bizarre-looking beached toad discovered in the heart of the Colombian jungle on the Pacific coast in 2010 – a species that is smaller than a human thumbnail. With deep purple skin and small blue blotches, the toad was discovered by a British-led scientific team. They also catalogued a red-legged tree frog with distinctive black streaks from nose to body and a brown toad with red eyes – both also new additions to the zoological record. Other exciting discoveries include a trio of new bird species, with two tapaculos (scytalopus) recorded in the central Cordillera and the Yaringuies brush finch (Atlapetes latinuchus yariguierum) discovered in the Serranía de los Yariguíes. The latter, a vibrantly coloured finch with a scarlet head, gold chest and dark wings and tail, has impressed wildlife enthusiasts globally. In 2010, researchers also discovered a new species of antpitta in the montane cloud forests of western Colombia. The thrush-like bird with brown and grey plumage was captured, banded, measured, photographed and sampled for DNA before being released alive back into the Colibri del Sol Bird Reserve, managed by Fundación ProAves and founded in 2006. Mammals number over 400 and range from jaguars and pumas to spectacled bears. Not surprisingly, plant life is abundant; around 130,000 species have been recorded, of which a third are endemic. Colombia is renowned for its orchids, but there are endless exotic plants, from the wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense; the country’s national tree) to giant water lilies so vast they can hold a child. Sadly, rapid deforestation in Colombia is threatening a growing number of species; a staggering 10,000 plant species are believed to be facing extinction as well as around 10% of the country’s mammal species. Deforestation is depleting forests annually, due to logging, industrial corporations, commercial crops and locally produced charcoal. In addition, strong pesticides deployed in aerial coca crop spraying further threaten the country’s flora with extinction. Numerous zones in the country are pinpointed by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) (www.zeroextinction.org) and a number of environmental groups are now actively involved in conservation such as Proyecto Tití (Project Tamarin) (http://proyectotiti.com) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org/ international/latinamerica/northernandes/colombia).

People and culture

Colombia has a lengthy arts tradition born out of the nation’s innate compulsion to seek out new creative outlets. Colombian artists have been renowned for their energy and spirit throughout history, from great literary and musical movements to the modern mediums of photography, cinema and television. Today, a genuine desire to retain Colombia’s artistic heritage prevails throughout the country along with a considerable commitment to furthering a wide range of contemporary arts across numerous ethnic and mixed-race groups.

In 2011, the Colombian Ministry of Culture and International Council of Museums (ICOM) produced a ‘red list’ of the country’s cultural heritage that is at risk of looting and illegal art trafficking. Containing archaeological artefacts and furniture dating back to colonial times until the early 20th century, the list was circulated to 10,000 police and customs officials, museums, auctioneers, private collectors and art dealers around the world in five languages to help identify and rescue the country’s national heritage. The Colombian government has called on all buyers of Colombian art objects in or outside the country to inform themselves about the origin of the artefacts to avoid being involved in illegal trade. Part-funded by a US$99,000 donation from US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs the list was compiled using ‘red lists’ of endangered cultural assets issued by China, Cambodia, Iraq, Peru, Mexico and African countries, which have successfully retrieved large numbers of stolen or illegally traded art objects. 

Colombians remain hugely proud of their Nobel Prize winners and make much of the fact that more celebrated home-grown poets (men of the pen) than military men (men of the sword) have made it to the presidency role.

Carnaval de Cartagena Colombia by Andrey Gontarev, ShutterstockCarnaval de Cartagena © Andrey Gontarev, Shutterstock

Music

Colombia’s most deeply rooted musical tradition, the folkloric tunes and melodies of the indigenous peoples, is found in distinct geographic pockets in both its pure and modern forms. Spanish elements blend with native rhythms and a hybrid of American, Trinidadian, Cuban and Jamaican styles. Broadly speaking, Colombian music falls into four musical geographic zones: the Andean region, the Atlantic coast, the Pacific coast and Los Llanos (the plains). Andean melodies boast strong Spanish influences. Instruments used include the tiple guitarra and piano in genres such as the bambuco, pasillo guabina and torbellino. Music in the Caribbean (Atlantic) is a pulsating mix of hot, steamy rhythms, such as the cumbia, porros and mapalé. On the Pacific coast the currulao uses heavy pounding drumbeats tinged with some telltale Spanish inflections while the music of Los Llanos (música llanera) is usually accompanied by a harp, cuatro (a sort of four-string guitar) and maracas. 

These older musical styles have been joined by two important newer additions that now dominate Colombia’s music scene countrywide. Because of its popularity, ‘la salsa’ seems endemic to Colombia, yet it didn’t arrive until the late 1960s when it spread like wildfire and is now a music-and-dance mainstay. Sexy, sassy and fluid, new-style salsa has become a symbol of pride and cultural identity for Latinos and is found on every street corner in the salsa epicentres of Cali and Barranquilla. The other omnipresent musical form is the infectious vallenato, a celebrated genre from the northern tip of Colombia that fuses European-style accordion riffs with traditional folkloric themes.

Handicrafts

Colombian handicraft s are easily found in markets, street stalls and shops throughout the country, from the woven shoulder bags of the Arhuaco Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the exquisite sombrero vueltiao made by the people of Córdoba. Other beautifully crafted items include hammocks of San Jacinto in Bolívar, decorated fi gures of Pasto, Nariño, and cheerful pottery of Ráquira in Boyacá – not to mention the Paez people’s wonderfully thick, homespun triangular shawls (ruanas). In Bogotá, in the cloister of Las Aquas, a neighbourhood just off La Candelaria, Artesanías de Colombia stocks everything from straw umbrellas to hand-woven ponchos. Atop Cerro Nutibara in Medellín in the recreated typical Paisa village plaza an impressive range of artesanías sell bags and jewellery, while on the basis of choice alone, the colourful array of handicraft stores in the old dungeons in the walls of Cartagena is difficult to beat.

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