This article will bring you practical as well as descriptive information about the most visited places to visit in Colombia, popular dishes and some general tourism-related info about this beautiful and diverse country. We will also talk about some basic historical events that were significant for the region and last but not least, we will attempt to answer the question about safety in Colombia.
Understanding the culture
Colombia is the only country in South America with both, Pacific as well as Atlantic oceans. To give you an idea about its geographical size, Colombia would take up 11% of the whole European Union. It’s nearly 5 times larger than the United Kingdom and it would cover the area of France and Spain together. To talk about the national identity of Colombia is therefore a rather broad and difficult matter.
Given its location and historical consequences, Colombia’s DNA is rather rich. Except for the numerous pre-Colombian native ethnicities, there were numerous immigration waves that led to mixing Asian, Middle Eastern, Jewish, North American, European and African cultures together. It is estimated that about 75% of the population of the country is of mixed heritage.
Now, if we take these historical consequences, Colombia’s rugged character and the caste system that Spanish introduced in the country into consideration, it becomes clear why defining the national identity of Colombia is not easy. Colombians are basically divided by the mountains, social classes and the country’s troubled history, in which the horrible longest-lasting Civil War in the World only appears like the tip of the iceberg.
But then there are many unifying elements, such as music and dancing, where it would be hard to ignore the omnipresent existence of salsa or cumbia in every region. There are also numerous unifying public figures and artists such as the Nobel Prize laureate for literature Gabriel García Márquez but also the footballers, like Carlos Valderrama or René Higuita, who are Colombians proud off for one thing or another.
Basic history of Colombia
There are several significant archaeological findings in Colombia from the pre-Columbian period. Whether it is El Morro del Tulcán pyramid from 1600 – 500BCE or various cultures, like the Quimbaya civilization (700 – 100BCE), San Agustín culture (200BCE), Tierradentro culture (200BCE – 1700CE) and many other sites, some of which are declared as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
If we jump to the conquistador period, we’d have to start with the Caribbean city of Santa Marta (1525), the first Spanish settlement in the region and one of the oldest surviving cities in South America. Colombia’s current capital, Santa Fe de Bogotá has been established 11 years later, in 1536.
The independence movement kicked in full gallop when Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish in the Vargas Swamp Battle (1819), which was an event that resulted in forming Republic of Gran Colombia. The Republic covered present-day Colombia, together with territories of Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.
Gran Colombia and Nueva Granada (1819 – 1858)
Gran Colombia however lasted only 11 years, until the separation of Venezuela and Ecuador in 1830. Present-day Colombia and Panama then become a state known as Nueva Granada. Unfortunately, a conflict between regional leaders that wanted to seize the power over the country however resulted in a Civil War that became known as The War of the Supremes (1839).
The next major event to be mentioned takes us to 1848-49 when Liberal and respectively Conservative political parties entered the political scene in Colombia. Back then, nobody knew then that they were to play a very significant role in the country’s history, mainly during the century to come but also even until the present day.
The names of the respective parties give a hint of what could be the difference between their goals. Liberal Party rule between 1861-85 first divided the territory into nine semi-autonomous entities and separated the church from the state. However, with the turn of events, in 1885 the Conservatives came to power. In the following 45 years, they have re-centralised the power and restored the influence of the Catholic Church.
Guerra de los Mil Días and La Violencia (1899 – 1958)
The increasing heat between the two political rivals resulted in yet another Civil War that became known as The War of the Thousand Days (1899-1903), in which around 120 thousand people died and Panama became an independent state. Liberals returned to power in 1930 to allow the newly elected President Olaya Herrera to introduce social legislation and encourage trade unions in the country.
These sharp political swings however went even further, which has proven very unfortunate for many Colombians. In 1946 Conservatives returned to power. Only two years later a leading opponent of the use of violence, a presidential hopeful left-wing candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, which ignited massive riots (El Bogotazo).
The following events resulted in yet another Civil War La Violencia. Nearly 300 thousand people died. In a bid to end this conflict, Conservatives and Liberals agreed to form National Front in 1958, from which they’ve excluded other political parties, which was a move that proved to be catastrophic for the decades to come.
El Conflicto (1958 – present)
Excluding other parties from the peace talks led to the formation of various armed factions of political movements. The result was/is the longest-running Civil War conflict on the planet. I’ve prepared a separate piece to cover the basic facts and general misunderstandings about this Civil War and recent Colombian history. Find it here, in case you were interested.
FYI, that extensive article covers the country’s journey from the social and political struggle; through more than 5 decades of a bloody Civil War; the rise of the bloody narco-trafficking and the terror it came with; up to the 2016 peace agreement and the subsequent political aftermath. The post also lists all of the 28 military groups, both paramilitaries and guerillas, that took (or are still taking) part in this tragic conflict.
To be honest, switching from the dark events in Colombian history to food sounds weird. Anyway, it’s good to move on to brighter subjects. When it comes to food, Colombia is IMHO up among the best in the whole Latin World, even though it’s not as internationally acclaimed as for example Peruvian, Mexican or Argentinian cuisines. Maybe it’s the country’s massive diversity, maybe it’s the way the cuisine was influenced by a mix of indigenous and immigrant way of preparing meals, I don’t know, I just loved it.
Overall, it’s still pretty much about variations of potatoes, beans, corn, rice and meat as in the whole region but – how can I say it – it could get very yummy, while I’d say that quite a few meals are rather thick and stomach-filling like. Bellow, I’ll list some of the major dishes, I would certainly recommend trying upon your visit to this beautiful country.
- Bandeja Paisa is a Colombian national dish. It’s a yummy mix of a lot of ingredients, typically you’d get a steak, ground beef, chicharrones, rice, beans, egg, avocado, arepa and plantains
- Ajiaco is my fav Colombian dish. Imagine an epic stew made of chicken, three types of potatoes, corn, capers, avocado and sour cream
- Cazuela de Mariscos is considered to be an aphrodisiac. I’m not sure about that but I can tell you that the sounds you’ll make once you taste it might come across as affirmative. As the name suggests, it’s an ocean-product based meal. We’re talking about gorgeous thick soup that should include lobster, shrimp, white fish, and vegetables, all in a broth of creamy coconut milk. So it must be an aphrodisiac then 🙂
- Sancocho is a yummy broth (or a thick soup?) that is made of chicken, beef and pork (or fish) with vegetables and tubers
- Arepa is flat corn that works as a side dish to accompany any Colombian and pretty much any Latin American meal
- Tamales: Depending on the region, Tamales are either meat (mostly pork belly, chicken or pork ribs); cheeses; fruits; vegetables and/or chillies wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. Yummy!
- Empanadas: the ever-present empanadas can’t be missed in Colombia either. Here they are smaller, deep-fried and corny. Fillings are usually the classic mix of shredded beef and pork
- Patacones or tostones are twice-fried plantain slices of green plantains
- Buñuelos are usually considered to be Christmas treats in this part of the world. They are something like cheese fritters with a hint of sweet taste
Tourism in Colombia
It’s crazy how fast things can change. 15-20 years ago, it would be considered rather insane to travel in many parts of Colombia, then one of the most dangerous countries to visit, while neighbouring Venezuela and its people would still be flourishing from the profits of its rich oil industry. Thousands of Colombians would be looking for a better life in Venezuela, then a major tourist destination as well as economic power in the region.
Both countries made a long way since then and things are the exact opposite of what it was back then. Flights from Europe to Bogotá are now some of the cheapest to get to South America due to the high demand. In the multiple forms of increased security, one can still observe the echoes of the conflict – that is by the way not entirely over – but the numbers of tourist in the country have risen by a tremendous amount, making Colombia one of the 10 fastest-rising tourist destination on the planet.
When to visit Colombia
As most of you know, because of its geographical proximity to the equator, Colombia isn’t a four-season country so it requires a bit of planning to catch the suitable weather for your activities. The best time to visit the country is December to March/April, however, due to the huge diversity of the country, the climate and weather patterns are a bit more complex than that.
I guess that the main question people normally ask about Colombia is: Is it safe? Well, the picture below suggests that is not unsafe, otherwise, the numbers of tourists simply wouldn’t be going steadily up. Personally, I haven’t experienced or witnessed any dangerous situation. But I admit, the security measures in the whole country are immense if compared to European levels but there are not many places that aren’t. Anyway, what exactly is safe?
Yes, in some places I was very cautious – far more cautious than if I were in for example Prague. But it still doesn’t answer the question of what exactly is being a safe destination. It all depends on what kind of traveller you are and what are things you are looking for. If you are looking for trouble, I’m sure that you can find it even in Iceland.
Taking all that into consideration, the only answer I can give you is that there certainly are areas in Colombia where tourists are as safe as anywhere else in the world, like for example Cartagena. But there are also areas, where even the locals wouldn’t go unless they had to…
I can say that if you stick with the tourist places and/or if you use reasonable precautions, adequate for the area you are in, you should be fine. Here are more details and practical tips about safety in Latin America, in case you were interested.
Colombia: Places to visit
Please note that this section is to be updated asap
- Southern Colombia: Nariño Province, Popayán, Cali, Guaviare, Tatacoa Desert and many more
- Central Colombia: Bogotá, Medellín, Villa de Lleyva, Ráquira and many more
- Caribbean Colombia: Santa Marta, Cartagena, Rincón del Mar, Necoclí and Capurganá and many more
I’ve loved Colombia and its people. IMHO, it’s the only country that could match the friendliness of Argentinians, from within a tough competition of general friendliness that goes on in the Americas. Maybe it’s because tourism in many parts of the country was literally nonexistent and seeing tourists is still a somewhat exotic experience for the locals who lived under the self-governed rules of paramilitaries or guerillas for decades. Well – I don’t know that for sure – it’s just my theory.
The fact is that you will have a chance to have numerous real conversations with locals as opposed to purchase-orientated conversations in other countries, with a more evolved tourist industry. I’m talking about a wide range of topics, such as life, politics, sports – you name it. Colombians were very curious about my culture, how people live in my country if my folks are doing well and so on. For me, that was extremely refreshing, especially after visiting Cusco, where I felt like a walking wallet on many occasions.
Please note that due to the many factors, many of which are caused by the ongoing policies of President's Duque's government regarding the marginalised communities in Colombia, the country has been experiencing escalating violent and deadly protests. I would personally not recommend travelling to the country right now. It's not just the road blocks. It's far worse, bloody and dangerous. Let's hope that situation will calm down. Colombians have suffered more than enough already ):