POPULATION: 36 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish (official); various Amerindian languages
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; native Amerindian religions
Amerindian tribes, including the Páez, inhabited the area of modern-day Colombia before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. By the late 1700s, the Amerindians grew tired of paying high taxes to the Spanish, and decided to fight for independence. On July 20, 1810, they successfully revolted against Spanish officials in the capital, Bogotá. This day is still commemorated as Independence Day.
However, the struggle for independence continued for nine more years. In 1819, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador together became the Republic of Gran Colombia. Before long, though, each became an independent nation.
Colombia has had a democratically elected government since the 1950s. By the late 1990s, illegal activity in drug trafficking threatened the survival of democracy.
Colombia occupies the northwestern corner of South America. It has coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean Sea on the east. The mighty Andes Mountains divide into three long ranges—called cordilleras— that run the length of the country. To the east, there are extensive plains. To the south, a thick jungle extends toward the Amazon River.
Colombia has a population of over 36 million people. The majority of its inhabitants are mestizo— of mixed Amerindian and white heritage.
Spanish is the official language of Colombia. It is spoken with an accent that varies considerably according to region. In addition, various Amerindian groups speak their own languages.
People usually use both their father's and their mother's surnames, in that order. The strong influence of the Catholic Church has made names like María very popular, usually in combination with another name, such as María Cristina or María Teresa. Even men are often named María, in combination with masculine names, such as José María or Pedro María.
Amerindian, black African, and Spanish folk customs have combined to create a rich culture that expresses itself in festivals throughout the year. According to one legend, a mythical hero named Bochica introduced culture and civilization to the people living around Bogotá. He taught them how to build dwellings and introduced laws to govern daily life. Problems started when his wife, Chia the moon goddess, kept leading people astray, encouraging them to break the laws. The couple fought, and Chia used magic powers to make the rivers flood the home the people had built.
Bochica led the people who survived the floods to the top of a mountain. To make sure that Chia would not cause any more trouble, he sent her away to be exiled in the night sky forever.
Barranquilla and other coastal towns celebrate a yearly Carnival. Celebrants wear colorful costumes and masks, and play flutes and African drums.
Roman Catholicism is the religion of Colombia. Amerindians in remote areas practice beliefs that include forms of shamanism (belief in good and evil spirits).
Colombia celebrates Independence Day on July 20 and the discovery of America on October 12. The main Roman Catholic holidays are also observed. Easter (late March or early April) is marked by major religious events. One is the Holy Week procession in the town of Popayán. Statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and saints are paraded by groups of cargueros (carriers) along the streets. Others walk alongside them carrying candles called alumbrantes.
All the main Catholic rituals that mark important phases in a person's life are observed by a majority of the population. Among these are baptism and first communion, as well as Catholic marriage and burial rites. Some practices have included a mixture of either Amerindian or black African customs.
Women usually greet each other with a kiss; men shake hands. Good friends shake hands and pat each other on the back several times as well.
It is considered essential to offer any visitor a small cup of black coffee called a tinto. This is the custom on both business and social occasions. Colombians consider it rude to launch directly into a discussion without first asking about the other person's welfare and that of his or her family.
Living conditions vary greatly according to social class. The wealthy suburbs have modern houses and apartment blocks. In poorer neighborhoods there are often large areas with poorly constructed or rundown shacks. These are called shantytowns.
In mountain villages some houses have adobe walls and thatched roofs. Others have plaster walls and tiled roofs. In hotter climates along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, housing is built from local cane, reeds, and palm branches. In such areas it is not unusual for people to use hammocks rather than beds.
Colombians keep in touch with large extended families through weddings, baptisms, and other special occasions. Close ties with immediate and extended families are an important aspect of Colombian life, providing support in many aspects of life. The family network extends to second and third cousins. Godparents, or padrinos, may also play an important role, helping with tuition or assisting the family in other ways. Family members are also depended upon to provide jobs whenever possible.
Western-style clothing is worn throughout Colombia. However, it varies according to climate. In warm coastal areas, men wear cotton shirts with bright, colorful patterns. In the cooler climate of the Andes mountains, both men and women wear woolen ruanas (capes). Middle-and upper-class women wear stylish versions of the ruana. The most primitive ruanas are made from undyed wool in shades of brown. More stylish versions may be striped or plain, using a wide range of colors. Traditional peasant women in mountain areas wear large, fringed shawls called pañolones. The traditional women's folk costume, seen mostly at festivals, consists of a round-necked, lace-edged blouse and a wide, flowery skirt.
Colombia has a great variety of fruits and vegetables. Cocido, a traditional stew served in Bogotá, can include twenty different kinds of vegetables. Ajiaco, another local dish, includes a bright yellow potato ( papa criolla), chicken, and corn, served with a slice of avocado and cream. A typical dessert is made with sweet, stewed figs called brevas. They are served with arequipe, milk cooked with sugar until it resembles toffee. On the coast a variety of fish are served fried or sometimes grilled, often with rice flavored with coconut milk.
Adapted from Karoff, Barbara, South American Cooking. Berkeley, Calif.: Aris Books, 1989.
Primary education is free in Colombia, but it is not compulsory. About 20 percent of children in cities and 40 percent in rural areas do not go to school.
College and university education has expanded since the 1960s. There are dozens of universities, and technical and commercial institutes. Technical training schools have helped Colombia improve the skills of factory workers.
Colombia has a rich musical heritage that blends Amerindian, African, and Spanish elements. In the Andes region, twelve-string guitars called tiples are often used to sing courtly and romantic songs called bambucos. On the coast, the style of music is the cumbia, played with flutes and drums.
Colombia's main cities, especially Bogotá, have symphony orchestras, theaters, art galleries, bookshops, and many movie theaters. Colombia's most famous novelist is Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez (1928–), author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Small commercial traders and shopkeepers form an important part of the economy. There is also a growing educated class that finds employment in trade, manufacturing, or finance. In addition, jobs are increasing in the fields of engineering, communications, and computers. In rural areas people usually work in the fields. In many parts of Colombia children must work to help the family make ends meet.
The most popular sport is soccer, but many other sports are played in Colombia. These include basketball, volleyball, golf, tennis, and swimming. In cattle-ranching areas there are rodeos. People in river or coastal areas enjoy boating and fishing. Cycling has developed as a competitive sport. A game called tejo, similar to horseshoe pitching, is played in the small towns in the mountainous Andes region. Players try to land a horseshoe over an upright stick fixed some distance away from the thrower.
Colombians participate enthusiastically in the many secular and religious fiestas (festivals) around the country. Many people enjoy festivals that revolve around beauty pageants. Some towns, such as Manizales and Bogotá, have bullfighting seasons that draw large crowds. Movie-going is also popular with Colombians.
Another favorite pastime is the paseo, or outing to the countryside by a group of friends or family members. Some town-dwellers own land or a small farm in the country, or have relatives they can visit in rural areas. Others simply choose a small town or village with beautiful scenery. They and their friends travel there by bus to relax, have a picnic, and spend the day.
Colombians are very fine craftspeople, known for beautiful woodwork, metalwork, and weaving.
The Quimbaya Indians of northwestern Colombia have been skilled gold-and silversmiths since the 1500s. Pottery has also been made in Colombia for centuries, both by the Amerindians and by mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white ancestry) craftspeople.
The tiple, or twelve-string guitar, is still produced by hand. On the coast, an African drum-making tradition was brought to Colombia through the slave trade and continues to this day. Craftspersons also make reed flutes and rattles.
A number of Amerindian tribes weave beautiful bags called mochilas that are hung loosely over the shoulder. Amerindian hammocks in various styles are also produced. In the tropical (hot-weather) zones of Colombia, people often hang hammocks on their front porches.
One of Colombia's most serious problems is the wide difference in the living standards of the rich and poor.
The activities of drug traffickers cause many problems. Drug lords resort to violence to settle scores with rivals and use bribes to obstruct the course of justice.
There are also ongoing conflicts between government army units and guerrilla armies. Both guerrilla armies and drug traffickers often resort to kidnapping in order to obtain ransom money. Sometimes they do it to threaten people they think are interfering with their activities. The resulting atmosphere of insecurity has led to the increased use of security guards. They guard individual citizens who feel threatened and are also used to protect private homes and public buildings.
DuBois, Jill. Colombia, Cultures of the World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1991.
Hanratty, Dennis M., and Sandra W. Meditz, eds. Colombia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1990.
Karoff, Barbara. South American Cooking. Berkeley, Calif.: Aris Books, 1989.
Markham, Lois. Colombia: The Gateway to South America. New York: Benchmark Books, 1997.
Embassy of Colombia, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.colombiaemb.org/ , 1998.
Ruiz-Garcia, Pedro. The Latino Connection. [Online] Available http://www.ascinsa.com/LATINOCONNECTION/colombi.html , 1998.
World Travel Guide. Colombia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/co/gen.html , 1998.