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Tourist Profile: Colombia

With dramatically beautiful rainforests, mountains and beaches, lovely cities and enchanting people, Colombia should be among the world's most attractive and intoxicating destinations. Unfortunately, the current guerrilla war, combined with ongoing activities of cocaine cartels, has made much of Colombia - dubbed 'Locombia' (the mad country) by the press - off limits to all but the most foolhardy travelers. The good news is that it's still possible to enjoy Colombia's colorful swirl of myth and mysticism. As long as you avoid all overland travel and stick to major cities and touristed areas, pay attention to the news, and keep your wits about you at all times, you'll get a safe and healthy dose of what is arguably the most underrated travel destination on the continent.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

The Colombian calendar is awash with festivals, carnivals, fairs and beauty pageants. Some of the biggest events include: Carnaval de Blancos y Negros (Pasto; January); Semana Santa (Holy Week) (most prominent celebrations are in Popayán and Mompós; March or April); Feria de las Flores (Medellín; August); and Reinado del Coco (San Andrés; November).

Bogotá: Bogotá, the country's capital, is the quintessence of all things Colombian: a city of futuristic architecture, a vibrant and diverse cultural and intellectual life, splendid colonial churches and brilliant museums. It is also a city of Dickensian waifs, beggars, shantytowns, drug dealers and traffic jams. This amazing mixture of prosperity and poverty, Maseratis and mules, makes it one of the world's most chaotic, fascinating and aggressive metropolises. Sights to look out for include: Museo del Oro, which contains many relics of pre-Colombian history and is perhaps the most important museum of its kind in the world; Museo Nacional, which contains a wealth of exhibits ranging from pre-Columbian to contemporary art; Iglesia de Santa Clara, with its fresco-lined interior, images and altarpieces; Iglesia de San Ignacio, one of the most richly decorated churches in the country; the colonial barrio of La Candelaria, the oldest quarter in the city; Cerro de Monserrate, a peak flanking the city which is famous as a site of many miracles; and Jardin Botánico José Celestino Mutis, a lovely botanical garden featuring a variety of national flora.


Walking the city's streets and observing the mad to-ing and fro-ing, the avalanches of busetas, the extravagant stores and roadside stalls, is as fascinating as contemplating the serene atmosphere of the city's colonial churches and museums, so give yourself plenty of time for this sort of exploration. It's worth hanging out and watching the buskers at the Plaza de Santander, browsing at the Sunday flea market at Mercado de las Pulgas and looking (but not buying) at the street emerald market at the southwestern corner of Avenida Jiménez and Carrera 7. There is also a lively arts and entertainment scene that features theater and classical musical, discos amplifying sinuous Cuban rhythms in the trendy Zona Rosa, around Carrera 15, plus plenty of venues for watching soccer and bullfighting. Most budget travelers gravitate to La Candelaria, which has cheap accommodation and food. Fifty kilometers (31mi) northeast of Bogotá is the colonial town of Guatavita and the famous Laguna de Guatavita, the ritual center and sacred lake of the Musica Indians, and the cradle of the El Dorado myth.

Cartagena & the Caribbean Coast: Cartagena de Indias are legendary both for its history and its beauty. It has been immortalized on countless canvases, glorified in hundreds of books and had its every detail photographed a zillion times - and, as Colombia's most fascinating city, it deserves every one of these tributes. The walled old town of this fortified Spanish colonial port is a gem. It's packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and noble mansions with overhanging balconies and shady patios. It pays to just wander through the old town, but some of the highlights are the Palacio de la Inquisición; the colonial mansion Casa del Marqués de Valdehoyos; and the lovely old port of Cartagena on the Bahía de las Ánimas. The less touristy Getsemaní, the outer walled town, also has charming pockets but is not so well-preserved. Nearby, there are a handful of impressive Spanish forts, including the 17th-century Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, undoubtedly the greatest and strongest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. The Islas del Rosario, 30km (20mi) offshore southwest of Cartegena, have magnificent coral reefs and abundant marine life, making them popular with snorkelers and scuba divers.

The L-shaped peninsula south of the old town contains the upmarket holiday resorts of Bocagrande and El Laguito. Most budget travelers stay in Getsemaní; there are mid-range options in the old town. Other highlights of Colombia's Caribbean coast include the town of Mompós, which is an architectural showcase; the beaches of the Parque Nacional Tayrona; the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the tallest coastal mountain range in the world; the mud volcanoes of Arboletes; and, deep in the jungle, the ancient city of the Tayrona Indians, La Ciudad Perdida, which is the largest archaeological find in the Americas this century.

The Northwest: The northwest is made up of two large regions: the Chocó department (an extensive stretch of tropical rainforest, sparsely populated, and including the lovely Los Katiós National Park); and the departments of Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío (a mountainous region, predominantly white, and the location of the dynamic industrial and commercial city of Medellín). The oldest town in the northwest is Santa Fe de Antioquia, about 80km (50mi) northwest of Medellín, which still retains much of its colonial architecture and atmosphere.

The Southwest: The two biggest attractions in the southwest are the archaeological sites of San Agustín and Tierradentro, and the colonial city of Popayán. Both San Agustín and Tierradentro are littered with ancient statues, tombs and burial mounds, while Popayán has many churches, museums and streets lined with colonial mansions. Cali, Colombia's third-largest city, is noted more for its laid-back atmosphere than its tourist attractions.

The most pleasant time to visit Colombia is in the dry season, but there are no major obstacles to general sightseeing in the wet period. Most Colombians take their vacations between late December and mid-January, so transport is more crowded and hotels tend to fill up faster at this time.

Currency: Peso ($)

  • Budget: US$2-5
  • Mid-range: US$5-10
  • Top-end: US$10 and upwards
  • Budget: US$5-10
  • Mid-range: US$10-15
  • Top-end: US$15 and upwards

Colombia is not an expensive country. Budget travelers can get by on around US$10 per day; while those staying in more comfortable hotels and eating at restaurants will spend around US$20-30 per day. Splurgers should budget on US$50-70 a day. Some banks change cash and/or travelers' checks, but others don't. Some branches of a bank will change your money while other branches of the same bank will refuse. This seems to vary constantly from bank to bank, city to city, day to day, and can be further complicated by a myriad of local factors, eg the bank may have reached its daily limit of foreign exchange. On top of that, the banks usually offer foreign exchange services within limited hours, which may mean only one or two hours daily; your best chances are in the morning. You can change cash dollars on the street, but it's not recommended.

The only street money markets worth considering are those at the borders, where there may be simply no alternative. You can use credit cards (Visa is the most widely accepted) for car rental, air tickets and in most top-end hotels and restaurants. Plastic money is also becoming popular for purchasing goods and payment for services in many other commercial establishments. There are an increasing number of cajeros automáticos (automatic teller machines); these accept Visa and MasterCard and pay out in pesos.

Pre-Columbian cultures existed in scattered pockets in the Andean region and on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Among the most outstanding were the Tayrona, Sinú, Muisca, Quimbaya, Tierradentro and San Agustín. Many of the tribes produced accomplished goldwork and pottery, and some left behind burial chambers and rock paintings which have helped anthropologists piece together their cultures. Alonso de Ojeda, a companion of Christopher Columbus, landed on the Guajira Peninsula in 1499. The wealth of the local Indians promulgated the myth of El Dorado, and the shores of present-day Colombia became the target of numerous expeditions.

The Indians originally tolerated the arrival of the Spaniards but rebelled when the colonists tried to enslave them and confiscate their lands. Soon, a large part of what became Colombia had been conquered by the Spanish, and a number of towns, including Cartagena (founded in 1533), were prospering. In 1544, the country was incorporated into the viceroyalty of Peru, where it remained until 1739 when it became a part of New Granada (comprising the territories of what are today Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama).Along with slavery, the Spanish monopoly over commerce, taxes and duty slowly gave rise to protest, particularly towards the end of the 18th century.

It was during this period that the first stirrings of national autonomy occurred, but it wasn't until 1819, and the appearance of Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolívar and his army, that independence was achieved. Ten years of uneasy confederation with Venezuela and Ecuador followed in the form of Gran Colombia, until regional differences between the three finally undermined the union. Political currents born in the struggle for independence were formalized in 1849 when two parties (dominated by creole elites) were established: the Conservatives with centralist tendencies and the Liberals with federalist leanings. The parties divided the nation into partisan camps, which eventually heralded insurrection, civil chaos and war. In the course of the 19th century, the country experienced no less than 50 insurrections and eight civil wars, culminating in the bloody War of a Thousand Days in 1899. After a period of relative peace, the struggle between the Conservatives and the Liberals broke out again in 1948 with La Violencia, the most cruel and destructive of Colombia's many civil wars. Close to 300,000 died in the conflict as the Conservatives tried to consolidate a new era of power.

When it became evident that the conflict was developing revolutionary overtones, both parties decided to support a military coup as the best means to retain power and rein in the growing band of rebels camped in the countryside. The resulting coup - by General Gustavo Rojas in 1953 - proved the only military intervention Colombia has experienced this century. It was shortlived, however, falling in 1957 when the Liberals and Conservatives agreed (now under the guise of the National Front) to share power for the next 16 years. The National Front formally came to an end in 1974, when Liberal President Alfonso López Michelsen was elected, but a modified version of the two-party system continued for another 17 years. In the meantime, the political monopoly encouraged the emergence of a number of left-wing guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the April 19 Movement (M19). They failed to dislodge the government, but undermined its ability to govern properly. Another pressing threat was the setting of paramilitary death squads against any group (regardless of political persuasion) that sought to oppose the powerful drug cartels in Medellín and Cali.

By 1990, escalating violence (increasingly leveled at members of the ruling political class) threatened to bring the country to a standstill. A new constitution came into effect in 1991 which provided greater judicial powers and strengthened government control. In June of that year, Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellín cocaine cartel and alleged mastermind of the bloody campaign of terror, surrendered. A year later, he escaped, but was finally located and killed in December 1993. Drug trafficking continues to grow (courtesy of the pragmatic Cali cartel), bringing in an estimated US$5 billion a year. The arrest of Cali cartel leader Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela in June 1995 was a feather in the government's cap but did little to radically alter the dynamics of the Colombian drug trade. Even then-president Ernesto Samper was forced to spend much of his last years in office refuting allegations that drug money financed his election campaign. Samper's Liberal Party succesor, Horacio Serpa, lost the June 1998 presidential election to conservative Andres Pastrana, who in 1994 had blown the whistle on Samper's Cali connections. Despite strong economic growth from 1993 through to 1996, 'things' continue to go wrong for Colombia.

According to SIPRI, el Instituto Internacional de Investigaciòn Sobre Paz, the internal conflict in Colombia is amongst the 10 most bloody in the world and last year almost equalled that of Yugoslavia. The government has suspended peace talks with guerrillas indefinitely. In 2000, the United States approved $1.3 billion in aid to support the Colombian government's struggle against the guerrillas.

Colombia is an ethnic mosaic, reflected in its culture, folklore, arts and crafts. The different roots and traditions of the Indians, Spanish and Africans have produced interesting fusions, particularly in crafts, sculpture and music. Pre-Columbian art consists primarily of stone sculpture, pottery and goldwork. Indian basketware, weaving and pottery date back to pre-Columbian times but now fuse modern techniques with traditional designs. Colombian music incorporates both the African rhythms of the Caribbean, Cuban salsa and heavily Spanish-influenced Andean music. Colombia's literary giant is Gabriel García Márquez, whose works mix myths, dreams and reality in a style critics have dubbed 'magic realism'. García Márquez insists his work is documentary, which says a lot about the nature, rhythm and perception of life in Colombia. The best of Colombia's exciting new writers is Moreno Durán, who has been burdened with the reputation of being the best Latin American novelist to emerge since the regional upsurge in literary talent in the 1950s. Spanish is Colombia's official language and, except for some remote Indian tribes, all Colombians speak it. There are also about 75 Indian languages still used in the country. While the education system includes English in its curriculum, it remains little known and rarely spoken.

Catholicism remains the dominant religion although over three million followers have recently left the Catholic faith and hooked up to other congregations (Anglican, Lutheran, Mormon, etc) or various religious sects. Colombian cuisine consists largely of chicken, pork, potato, rice, beans and soup. Interesting regional dishes include: ajiaco (soup made with chicken and potato which is a Bogotano speciality); hormiga culona (a sophisticated dish, unique to Santander, consisting largely of fried ants); and lechona (whole suckling pig, spit-roasted and stuffed with rice, which is a speciality of Tolima). The variety of fruit is astounding, the coffee and beer more than adequate and the wine execrable.