Colombia is the fourth largest and second most populous country in South America. Located on the northwestern part of the continent, it is bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north by Panama and the Caribbean Sea. Its neighbors to the east are Venezuela and Brazil and to the south, Peru and Ecuador. The equator passes through the country's southernmost regions. Colombia was named for Christopher Columbus, the explorer who claimed much of the New World for Spain in the late 1400s.

The landscape features rugged mountains, high plateaus, and deep valleys as well as vast expanses of lowland tropical forests and grasslands. Varied climates, soils, vegetation, and mineral resources, together with the difficulty of travel in the mountains, have led to the development of several different ways of life. Food, dress, housing, and livelihoods vary significantly from region to region.


Land Regions. Three great ranges of the Andes Mountains divide the country into three major regions—the highlands, the eastern plains, and the coastal lowlands.

Rivers. The principal river of Colombia is the broad Magdalena. It flows northward for about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) between the central and eastern Andean ranges and empties into the Caribbean.

Natural Resources. Soils are Colombia's most important natural resources, owing to the country's dependence on agriculture.

For many years rain forests in the Amazon Basin have been cleared for a variety of commercial reasons. Thus, the preservation of Colombia's forest resources has become a matter of international concern.


Colombia's economy, once dependent on agriculture, has become increasingly diversified. Today, agriculture accounts for 19 percent; manufacturing and mining together account for 26 percent; and services account for 55 percent. Not included in Colombia's official statistics is the estimated $300 million brought in annually through the cultivation of coca and the illegal cocaine trade.

Cultural Heritage

Music. Colombian music expresses the diversity of its people. Oldest in origin is the music performed on simple wood flutes, still favored in the Andean highlands. The African tradition is evident in dance music called cumbia, which combines native flutes with African-style drums, shakers, and scrapers. Also African in origin is currulao, or marimba, music. Vallenata, a type of music that originated among the mestizos, features the accordion. Salsa incorporates bits of several traditions in a modern jazz style.

Art and Architecture. Native art—gold works, stone carvings, utensils, textiles, and other objects dating from before the colonial era—are featured exhibits at the Archaeological and Gold museums in Bogotá. Modern artists are also celebrated, among them Omar Rayo and Fernando Botero. Architecture traditionally shared many features of Spanish colonial style but has been modified over time.

Literature. Colombia is sometimes called the land of poets, because it has produced so many fine writers of verse. One of the best-known Colombian writers of fiction is the novelist Jorge Isaacs (1837–95). His romantic novel María, published in 1867, is still widely read. Gabriel García Márquez (1927– ), the most widely acclaimed Colombian novelist of recent times, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.


Colombia is a republic. It is headed by a president, who is elected for a 4-year term and cannot serve two terms in succession. The president appoints a cabinet to help run the national government.

The legislative body is the Congress, composed of a senate and a house of representatives. Members are elected for 4-year terms at the same time as the president. Local government is managed within 32 departments, or states, each with its own elected governor. All citizens 18 years or older may vote.

In 1991, Colombia's constitution was revised, primarily to modernize the judicial system and reduce political interference in court proceedings.


Early History. Colombia's first inhabitants are believed to have come down from Central America. Because the first people built with wood rather than stone, little remains of their ancient cultures.

Spanish Colonial Period. When the first Spanish expeditions into Colombian territory began in 1499, three large groups of Indians lived in what is now Colombia—the Chibcha, the Quimbaya, and the Chocó.

The first permanent European settlement in Colombia was made at Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, in 1525. The Spanish conquistador (conqueror) Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada journeyed up the Magdalena River to conquer the Chibcha, and in 1538 he founded the city of Bogotá. The Indians survived the Spanish conquest. But their numbers were greatly reduced by disease and warfare.

In 1549 the former Chibcha Empire was incorporated into the new Spanish colony of New Granada, along with territories that later became the countries of Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama. After two centuries of foreign rule, however, the people of New Granada began to demand independence.

Independence. Colombia's Independence Day, July 20, commemorates the day in 1810 when patriots set up the first free Colombian government. But it was nine years before the country was really free of Spanish rule. During that time, the battle for independence was led by a Venezuelan, Simón Bolívar.

James J. Parsons
University of California, Berkeley
Author, Antioqueño Colonization in Western Colombia

Reviewed by Thomas E. Skidmore
Brown University
Author, Modern Latin America

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