South American countries have always had an alluring charm about them. I have been hearing so many good things about Colombia for so many years that I decided I should visit this country soon.
Researching about a place before visiting it is very crucial for me. It helps get a clear idea about the place and plan my trip in an organized manner saving time and maximizing my experience.
What is Colombia famous for? Colombia is a country located in the north of the Southern American continent. It is known for its natural beauty, scenic mountains, tropical rainforests, and beaches. It is also known for its biodiversity, rich cultural history, and heritage. Colombia is also home to some of the oldest indigenous populations in the world whose roots date back to 15,000 BC.
Colombia has slowly come out of its dark past and emerging as a major tourist destination in the world. Colombians are a lively bunch of people and their love for music and dance is well known.
In this blog post, I list interesting facts about Colombia, places to visit and things to do when there.
Colombia has the distinction of being the country with 2nd highest biodiversity in the world. It also accounts for 10% of the world’s flora and fauna.
The country has 311 types of coastal and continental ecosystems, 56,343 registered species out of which 9153 are endemic i.e cannot be found anywhere else and 1879 species of birds. Two of the major biodiversity hotspots in Colombia are – Tropical Andes and Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena.
Colombia ranks first in bird diversity and second in plants, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish diversity in the world. In fact, Colombia is on its way to becoming an ecotourism hotspot especially after the recent end of its civil war.
The Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world with the 2nd most elevated highest peak in the world.
The Andes extend across seven countries including Colombia.
From Snow peaked mountains to Volcanoes to deserts and jungles, the Andes offer Colombia diverse Geography and climate. This provides exciting Hiking options all over Colombia from tough multi-day treks to short trails.
Some of the famous hiking destinations are
- The Cocora valley – Probably the most popular, this 5-6 hour hike goes through farmlands, cloud forests, a hummingbird sanctuary and finishes at the valley of palms with the tallest palm trees in the world.
- Nevado del Tolima – For the adventurous souls, this 3-day hike through the Nevado del Tolima Volcano goes through snow-capped peaks that require expertise to climb. Fitness is a must!
- Quebrada La Vieja – Passing through pine forests, creeks and streams this trek provides a scenic view of Bogota at the end.
- La Chorrera- This is Colombia’s highest multi-drop waterfall and the trek passes through a cloud forest, another waterfall and beautiful farmlands.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Cartagena
A city with great historic value Cartagena’s old town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
A classic example of military architecture of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Cartagena was a major port city in South America during that time and an important link in the route to West Indies.
Colonial-era buildings with cobblestone streets and alleys with bougainvillea balconies and massive churches send you back 400 years. Cartagena is also blessed with beautiful beaches where one can get lost in time.
While known for its history Cartagena is also a modern city with areas like Bocagrande known for its skyscrapers, nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and art galleries. The Bocagrande beach is a popular spot known for its grey volcanic sand.
BONUS: Other places to visit here are – The Clock tower, the working-class neighborhood of Getsemani and the Modern Art Museum.
When it comes to Coffee, Colombian Coffee ranks right up at the top with the best. Colombia is known for producing 100% Arabica Coffee beans, which is the superior bean type giving Colombian Coffee a distinctly high standard.
It is the 3rd largest coffee producing country in the world with close to 500,000 families within the country involved in the business.
Most of Colombia’s Coffee is produced in what is known as the Coffee Cultural Landscape which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising of areas like Caldas, Quindio, Risaralda, etc.
Colombia has the ideal weather and geographical conditions for producing coffee which requires Volcanic soil, High Altitudes and at least 80 inches of rain every year. This combined with their penchant for handpicking the beans during harvest gives Colombian coffee its supreme quality.
Coffee tours are pretty popular which includes visits and stay at the beautiful coffee plantations with their scenic views. Not to forget – a sip of their famous java!
The Amazon Rainforest located in South America is the largest rainforest in the world and represents half of the world’s rainforest. It is spread over many countries and Colombia accounts for 10% of it.
The Amazonas region of Colombia includes 6 departments which comprise 35% of the Country! The rainforest is known for its massive biodiversity where numerous species of plants, animals, and birds thrive in their natural habitat.
The rainforest area is also home to a sizeable indigenous population living in harmony with nature. There are major portions of the Amazonas that are still unexplored owing to the wild environment and difficult terrain.
Lots of towns and villages are established in the Amazonas away far away from the indigenous people. The biggest town is Leticia also known as the “Gateway to Amazon”.
NOTE: To have the Amazon experience, a visit to Leticia is a must where one can get boat rides to different parts of the Amazon along the famed Amazon river.
One can even visit the villages of the indigenous communities who are open to welcoming visitors.
Another lovely place to visit is Puerto Narino also known as “The Cradle of Amazon”. It is a self-sustainable model town that is completely pedestrian and home to the Vicuna tribe of 6000 people.
The precious green colored gemstones are found abundantly in Colombia. In fact, Colombia is known to produce 70-90% of the emeralds in the global market.
A High-quality Colombian Emerald can rival diamond in its price per carat. Emerald mining in Colombia mainly takes place in the eastern region of mount Andes.
Colombian Emerald deposits are the only ones in the world found on sedimentary rocks as compared to other deposits found on igneous rocks which is what makes Colombian Emeralds the purest in the world.
The most well known Emerald mines are Muzo, Chivor, and Coscuez all of which are found in the Colombian Andes Mountains. Emerald mine tours are very popular which include mine visits in the picturesque Andes, where one can learn all about how emeralds are formed and mined and also be a miner for a day!
The most popular sport in Colombia, Football or Soccer is the beating heart of Colombia. The Colombian national Football team was ranked number 3 in the FIFA World Ranking in 2013.
Major Colombian football stars are Rene Higuita, James Rodriguez, Carlos Valderrama, Ivan Cordoba and they have made a strong presence in the international scene like European Football leagues. The Colombian national League itself was ranked the 9th strongest national league in the world in 2014 by IFFHS.
Football was introduced by English Railway Engineers in Colombia in the early 1900s and the Colombian Football Federation was formed in 1924 while the Colombian National team came into being in 1938.
Colombia is one of the formidable teams of Copa America and has a strong history at the Football World Cup with some memorable matches in 1994 including their 5-0 defeat of Argentina.
Colombia’s drug trade past has been a botch on its international reputation. The popularity of football united the Colombians with National Pride and has played a major role in fighting the country’s negative reputation.
City Of Eternal Spring – Medellin
The second-largest city in Colombia, Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring owing to its pleasant warm climate with no humidity. It is located at an altitude of 1500m and surrounded by the greener part of the Andes mountain range.
Medellin is an experience that is not to be missed. The city has a special charm and the people also known as paisas are known for their warm, welcoming hospitality.
It is famous for its nightlife and has a diverse offering of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants.
The city is the capital of the department of Antioquia known for its national heritage towns, farms and natural beauty most of which are a couple of hours’ drive from Medellin.
NOTE: Medellin is also one of the most urban cities in Colombia with its malls, effective transport systems, entertainment centers, upmarket residential projects.
The city has been awarded the most innovative city in the world thanks to social development, education and innovative urban solutions by the Urban Land Institute and it also won the Lee Kuan Yew world city prize in 2016.
With rapid innovation and thoughtful development, Medellin has redeemed itself after a history of dark times during the Cocaine era.
With its abundant biodiversity, National parks in Colombia are a given. Colombia has 60 national protected areas and national parks which cover 14% of the country.
Amazon rainforests, Andes Mountain ranges, Coral Reefs, Deserts, Ancient ruins, customary communities, the diversity on offer in terms of national parks in Colombia are unmatched.
Here are a few of the popular National parks:
- Tayrona National Park – Arguably Colombia’s most famous National park, this park is famed for having a natural rainforest, spectacular beaches and also for its indigenous history. 108 mammal, 300 bird and 31 reptile species including iguanas thrive here along with 401 Sea and river fish species and 770 plant species.
- Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Park- The only underwater park in Colombia, it is also the most visited with 300,000 visitors every year. The clear waters are a snorkeling delight.
- Lguaque Flora and Fauna Sanctuary – The mythical Iguaque lagoon revered among the indigenous tribe as a holy place is the mainstay of this park which also has 7 other lagoons surrounded by some of the most heavenly views on the planet.
- La Macarena National Park – Jaguars, Cougars, and over 550 bird, 1200 insect and 100 reptile species dominate this park also home to the famed river Cano Cristales which we will talk about later.
The River Of 5 Colors
Deep in the mountain ranges of Serrania de la Macarena lies one of the most beautiful creations of Mother Nature – Cano Cristales or the river of 5 Colors.
From July to November, this seemingly simple looking river transforms into what is known as the liquid rainbow and beams with striking colors: Yellow, green, blue, black and the famous red.
Macrenia Clavigera is a plant that grows on the river bed and gives the river its bright red color. Yellow sand, black rocks, green algae, blue water combine with Macrenia Clavigera to create the rainbow effect.
Lack of nutrients and solid rock surfaces make it impossible for fauna to survive thereby also making the river free of animals.
The river has pools, caverns, and waterfalls formed over centuries making it an ideal place to swim and chill. The river is not easily accessible but worth the trouble to see mother nature at her finest.
Shakira And Celebrities
Arguably one of the biggest names in the music business, Shakira was born in Barranquilla, Colombia and is one of Colombia’s greatest contributions to the world of music.
With 3 Grammies, 13 Latin Grammies, 4 MTV Video Music Awards and many other such awards Shakira remains one of the world’s best-selling music artists.
Shakira is also a well-known businesswoman and a philanthropist. Her charity Pies Descalzos or the Barefoot foundation named after her first internationally successful album aims at aiding poor and impoverished children through education and has 5 schools across Colombia providing food and education to 4000 children.
Colombians’ pride in Shakira is pretty evident with the Shakira monument in her hometown of Barranquilla. Made of Colombian iron, it weighs six tons and is inscribed with the quote – “When you look at me, think that you too can accomplish what you want.”
Colombia has also blessed the world with many other international celebrities who have gone on to make Colombia proud on the international stage.
BONUS: Some famous Colombian celebrities are Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, J Balvin, Juanes, Carlos Vives, and many others.
Colombia has a secret obsession- No, it’s not football or music or dance but cycling. Tour de France is one of the most-watched and followed Sporting events in the country.
Colombia has produced some of the most internationally renowned cyclists in the world like Nairo Quintana, Winner Anacona, Fernando Gaviria, Esteban Chaves, Rigoberto Uran, and Sergio Luis Henao among others. The topography of Colombia has played a huge role in developing such world-class cyclists.
Colombians use cycles to travel to different places every day and riding cycles in the high Altitudes, steep roads and hilly terrain of Colombia gift the Colombians with incredible stamina and lower body strength.
Colombia is a great place to cycle and it is probably the best way to relish the natural beauty of the country at a leisurely pace.
Just like football, Colombian cyclists also have been playing a major part in representing Colombia in a positive light on the world stage which makes cycling something beyond just a sport.
Music And Dance
Music and Dance run in their blood and it is one of the ways Colombians truly express themselves. It is known as the land of a thousand rhythms.
The current population of Colombia is a mixture of descendants of the indigenous people, Spanish colonists, African slaves, and the immigrants from the Middle East and Europe all of whom have contributed to the musical and Dance culture of Colombia making it as diverse as its geography and ethnicity.
There are different kinds of music genres and corresponding dance styles in Colombia according to the region of origin.
Some of the top genres are :
- Cumbia, Porro, Gaita, Merecumbe, and Vallenato from the Carribean region
- Bambuco, Pasillo, Valls, Carranga from the Andean highlands
- Joropo from the Eastern plains
- Currulao from the Pacific region
- Salsa music influenced by Cuba Puerto Rico
- Contemporary like Latin Pop, Rock, Indie Music
One thing seems to be for sure – In Colombia, music follows you!
Second Largest Carnival In The World
Every year 4 days before the holy month Barranquilla goes into a festive mode with the 2nd largest carnival in the world – Carnaval de Barranquilla.
Barranquilla Carnival is the most important celebration of Colombia and as such the entire city comes to a standstill during these 4 days giving way to party and celebration.
Colombian music and dance play a major role in the carnival with various music styles like cumbia and dance styles like Paoteo, Congo and Mico Y Micas being the prominent ones.
The Carnival is proclaimed as Colombia’s cultural Masterpiece by the National Congress and has been declared by UNESCO as one of the MAsterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The Saturday before Ash Wednesday is when the Carnival opens with the Battle of Flowers, Sunday is for the great Parade and Monday for the Orchestra Festival with Carribean and Latin bands.
Tuesday is the closing day of the Carnival with the burial of a mythic figure called Joselito Carnaval which has 2 parades, one with the mourners of his death wearing black and white and the other which represents the party mode.
Colombians love to party and celebrate. While Barranquilla is the most famous one, there are other festivals too like – Black and White’s Carnival, Bogota Carnival, Iberoamerican Theatre Festival, Manizales Fair and the Feria de las Flores or the flower fair very popular in Medellin among others.
Colombian cuisine hasn’t gone mainstream yet unlike Mexican cuisine but the food in Colombia is heavily influenced by its diverse ecology & culture.
The availability of a wide variety of diverse ingredients thanks to its natural biodiversity combined with a mix of different cultures like the indigenous population, Spanish Colonists, European and Middle Eastern immigrants, and Africans make Colombian cuisine extremely unique.
The flavors of the land are very Earthy and not necessarily high on the heat content but Colombians are known for their Aji Sauce made with local Aji Peppers readily available anywhere if you want to spice things up. Grilled meats, Soups, and stews are common.
A wide variety of non-yeasty bread called Amasijos is a staple with Arepas being the most popular Amasijos and can be eaten in different forms – sweet, savory, baked, fried or stuffed with cheese, meat, vegetables.
Colombians love their cheese and it is found in almost everything even sweets. Imagine having hot chocolate with cheese or a fruit cocktail with grated cheese on top!
Cooking techniques like smoking, fermenting, grilling and usage of tropical herbs make the food very rustic and hearty. The weather and the geography of the country make it a fruit lover’s paradise and hence juices, fruit preserves, desserts and snacks made of fruits are a common sight.
Some of the top Colombia dishes to savor once here are- The workman’s platter or the Bandeja Paisa, Empanadas, Colombian stew or Sancocho, The full meal – Almuerzo Corriente, Chocolate con queso or Chocolate and Cheese, the hugely popular Arroz con Pollo or simply rice and chicken and Chuzo desgranado among others
Rich Indigenous Heritage
Colombia has a sizeable indigenous population with a rich history whose roots can be traced back to more than 15,000 years ago though some studies suggest they could go as back as 40,000 years! The indigenous people occupied the land before the advent of the Spanish Colonists.
The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia represents the various Indigenous groups of the country.
Some indigenous communities are welcoming of foreigners but others are extremely wary and maintain their distance from the modern world continuing their way of life, based on subsistence living.
The Oro Gold museum containing the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world is a testament to the rich culture and heritage of the indigenous people of Colombia. The museum is a must-visit for anyone interested in the Indigenous history of Colombia and has a huge collection of arts, crafts, and sacred objects of the indigenous people of Colombia.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of San Augustin Archaeological Park is another prime example of Colombia’s indigenous heritage.
INFO: The world’s largest necropolis, it contains megalithic sculptures of religious significance and is believed to date back from 5- 400 AD to the ancient San Agustin Culture of Colombia.
Colombia never ceases to surprise with its uniqueness and one of its greatest unknown wonders is the La Guajira desert in the northernmost tip of the country.
Yes, you heard it right, Colombia also has deserts but what makes this Desert so special is that it borders the Carribean sea.
The sight of huge brown sand dunes right next to minty blue waters of the Carribean sea sounds like a painter’s imagination which nature brought to life. This is also the northernmost point of the continent of South America.
Pink flamingos and Desert Owls inhabit this area and are a rare find especially the owls. The area is inhabited by the indigenous Wayuu people who have found a way to survive in this harsh environment by herding, fishing, and weaving.
Kitesurfing and windsurfing is a popular activity in Cabo de La Vela area and there are hostels where one can take a few classes too. Getting there is considered an adventure as it is not easily accessible and the terrain is difficult.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
If Coastal Deserts were not enchanting enough Colombia also has a famous Coastal mountain – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
One of the highest Coastal mountains in the world, its highest peak is 5775 meters and the distance between the mountain and the Carribean sea is just 22 km making it a majestic sight.
Many of the peaks in this isolated mountain range are visible to each other giving a direct line of sight of up to 500 km which will make it the longest between any 2 points on the planet.
The mountain ranges offer a lot of hiking options including the famous Lost City Trek which is apparently not to be missed.
The mountain ranges are also home to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, Colombia’s 2nd oldest National Park famed for its beaches and snow-capped mountains in addition to the diverse flora and fauna.
Colombia’s numerous museums are essential in preserving and providing information about Colombia’s rich cultural history be it their indigenous heritage or Spanish, French and British Colonial influence. The museum visits in Colombia are a must to get a glimpse into their vast history.
Some of the famous museums to visit are:
- Oro Gold Museum– Focussing on its indigenous heritage, the Oro gold museum is one of the most visited tourist places in Colombia with 500,000 yearly visitors. 55,000 golden crafts like necklaces and sacred items found all over Colombia are classified here as per the community they belong to and the date.
- National Museum of Colombia– The oldest and the biggest museum in Colombia, the National Museum is located in Bogota and served as a prison until 1946. It was transformed into a museum in 1975 and contains 20,000 exhibits related to different eras of Colombian history and some dating back to even 10,000 BC!
- Botero Museum– Containing 208 art pieces donated by Colombian Artist Fernando Botero 123 of which is his own work and others by renowned artists like Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Balthus among others, this museum located in Bogota is an Art lover’s paradise.
- Naval Museum– The Naval Museum is located in Cartagena and is a Colonial building with information on Colonial era warfare, Local Indigenous history, and even recent battles.
- Carribean Museum – A Heritage museum located in Barranquilla this museum is dedicated to the influence of the Carribean region on Colombian culture. It is more of a cultural experience of the region and has a beautiful library, restaurants, gardens and open-air exhibitions.
Being adjacent to both the Carribean sea and Pacific Ocean Colombia is naturally gifted with numerous islands and magnificent beaches making it no less than any island nation in the world.
The Carribean coast is more popular and home to some of its famous beaches while the Pacific is still largely undiscovered by the mainstream crowd giving a secluded experience.
You can find a list some of the top beaches in Colombia below:
- Taganga – Backpacker friendly, this beach used to be a tiny fishing village but is now a booming tourist destination with many hotels & restaurants.
- Capurgana and Sapzurro– Its a small simple coastal village community bordering Panama and the beaches are meant for a laidback experience away from city life.
- Palomino – A secluded experience awaits this beach close to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range. The mountains on one side and the pristine beach on the other make it a memorable visit.
- Islas de San Bernardo– 9 coastal coral islands and 1 artificial island make up Islas de San Bernardo. Highlights include Mangroves, Marshes, and some amazing local food.
- Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona– Ecotourism hotspot, Tayrona National Park is pure paradise with lush green rainforest, palm trees, and golden sand beaches. Oh! and not to forget the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain ranges right behind. Bliss!
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of the most significant authors of the 20th Century and Nobel Prize winner, Colombian novelist, screenwriter, and journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez is Colombia’s pride. President Juan Manuel Santos called him “The greatest Colombian ever lived” in 2014 shortly after his death.
Born in Aracataca, Colombia, Gabo, as he was fondly called, is known for his prized works such as “Love in the Time of Cholera”, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and ” The Autumn of the Patriarch”.
One of the most critically and commercially successful writers of the 20th century, Gabo Popularized Magic Realism in fiction.
His work has been at the forefront of the Latin American boom and has forced critics of Colombian literature to acknowledge its brilliance.
NOTE: In 1982 he became the first Colombian and 4th Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature thereby putting Colombian and Latin American literature on the world map.