Colombia, an overview

Colombia truly is the “Land of Magical Realism”, a phrase used to describe the style of Nobel-prize winning literature written by Colombian native, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Just like Marquez’s ethereal writing, weaving fantasy and reality like a thick ruana[1], the country and its people possess many dream-like attributes layered with dark deposits of a harsh history.Bogota

With extremely varied landscape, proximity to the equator, two oceans and five other countries as borders, Colombia is situated between a land bridge to central and North America, serves as a gateway to the rest of the Southern hemisphere, and is a keystone in Latin American politics and the continent’s economy.

Mountains, jungles, rivers, rich, fertile soil and invaluable natural resources contribute to a promising future in the scope of the world economy, while history, political differences, isolation of different cultures, poverty and crime have detracted from the political and social aspirations of the country.

Bordered by Panama to the north, Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the southwest, Peru and Ecuador to the southeast, Colombia is the only South American country with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and boasts more than 300 beaches.

With 340 different types of ecosystems, Colombia is one of the most bio diverse countries in the world, and is home to 1,879 Regional Costumesspecies of birds, the highest diversity of birds in the world. And it is not very hard to find Colombia’s flora and fauna. Colombia has 58 National Parks (the same number as the US) that cover 55,000 square miles, or 11% of the country.

From ancient times when the indigenous people crafted gold and silver for ceremonial purposes, Colombia has been known for rich and abundant natural resources buried in the earth’s crust and cultivated on verdant sun-drenched fields. Farmers of today raise world-renowned coffee on the Andean slopes. Colombia sells much of the world’s emeralds and considerable amounts of gold, silver, and platinum, and has the continent’s highest coal production. Development of oil resources and investment by large corporations are currently Colombia’s most important economic activity. Last year, Colombia produced 1 million barrels of oil per day of petroleum, including crude oil and natural gas.

gramamaColombia is equatorial. Seasons consist of “rainy” and “dry”, summer comes in December, and winter in June, but variations in temperature depend on altitude. High mountain towns and villages, like Tunja, range from the mid-sixties during the day to lows in the mid-forties, Fahrenheit, at night, while coastal towns like Cartagena and Barranquilla bask in humidity with highs in the 90s with lows in the mid-70s.

Colombia’s multiple climate zones and varying landscapes are divided by three huge cordilleras (mountain ranges) of the Andes that contribute to the concentration of Colombia’s people into separate clusters. Distinct regions of population include the Caribbean lowlands in cities like Barranquilla and Cartagena; isolated mountain valleys include the population centers of cities like Cali and Medellin. Bogotá, the capital and largest city, is situated in a remote mountain basin at 8,200 feet, while steamy, sparsely populated low-lying areas, like Leticia, and Puerto Alegria, situated on the banks of the Amazon River, are gateways to the famous Amazon jungle.

Most Colombians today are of mixed ethnicity, including the ancestors of slaves imported by the Spaniards and Portuguese. (About 90 percent of all Africans forcibly imported into the Americas went to the Caribbean and South America). About 20 percent of Colombians claim European descent. Remaining indigenous populations make up approximately one percent of the population.TemploDoct

The Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1499, conquering the peaceful native inhabitants, who had a highly developed civilization that excelled at agriculture, gold and silver metallurgy and textiles. Colonization rapidly followed by 1525, and the people of “Nueva Grenada” (modern day Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador) gained independence from the Spanish crown in 1820. Since then Colombia has had a turbulent history. Between 1899 and 1902, civil war claimed 100,000 lives.  La Violencia erupted in 1948 when a popular candidate for president was assassinated, and lasted until 1957. Bogota’s downtown was decimated by riots, buidings destroyed and trolley cars burned, causing around  300,000 deaths and the near-overthrow of the Colombian government. From the 1970s to the 1990s the explosion of drug cultivation and exportation brought more violence and crime.

The Rafael Uribe PalaceColombia, however, has made a remarkable transition in recent years from “off-the-radar crime hotspot” to “exotic must-see destination”. An era of headline-grabbing crime cartels and drug wars during the 1980s has ceded to social, legal and legislative reforms that have made the country a safe option for a new generation of curious travelers. Within the last 10 years Colombian drug production has decreased by 60%, violence has markedly abated, and the murder rate is lower than in some US cities, including New Orleans and Baltimore.

According to Luis German Restrepo, executive director of ProColombia, the country’s tourism agency, Colombia is steadily increasing in popularity among North Americans. The total number of visitors to Colombia in 2014 was 2,879,543 a 9.5 percent increase from 2013. The main market for Colombia in 2014 was the United States with 376,410 travelers. Restrepo cited hotel infrastructure, economic stability, investment and product diversity as a few of the reasons Colombia has become a top-notch destination in Latin America.

Colombia’s people are warm, open, polite and friendly. Modern conveniences, like huge supermarkets, malls and freeways lessen the impact of being a foreigner. Retention of the old traditions, tiny villages, and unique regional styles of dress and food, however, keep the experience of living in Colombia fresh and exciting.

Top sites to see:ClaustroSanAugustin

Each region offers a fantastic array of activities that can be enjoyed every day of the year thanks to tropical weather with indiscernible seasons and no hurricanes.

Caribbean Coast:

  • Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site, whose centerpiece is “Cuidad Allmurada,” the city’s huge colonial-era walled city, evokes more than 500 years of history.
  • Barranquilla, best known for its bacchanalian, annual “Carnaval”, with elaborate costumes, parades, music, and dancing in the streets, has earned Barranquilla UNESCO’s World Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
  • Santa Marta, the first permanent Spanish settlement in colonial Colombia, is a major domestic tourist destination. Here, in Tayrona National Park, Cuidad Perdida (the Lost City), discovered in the mid-1970s by treasure hunters, was one of the most important settlements of the indigenous Tayrona people.

Boyacá and the Santanderes:

  • hs2edNorth of Bogota and located in the mountainous highlands, the countryside is dotted with beautiful, well-preserved colonial towns, including Villa de Leyva and Barichara. The area is rich in history, natural beauty, and outdoor activities.
  • Paipa’s thermal hot springs, the magnificent Lake Tota, Colombia’s largest lake, Raquira and other small native villages, and the chilly but European-style capital of Tunja are delightful to explore.
  • Miles of secondary roads serve as training grounds, where international cyclists sharpen their muscles at elevations of 10,000 feet and more.

Medellin and the Coffee Region:

Spanish style architecture and filled with coffee plantations, the region is bordered by a mountainous landscape and is rich in traditions echoed in its crafts, gastronomy, and festivals that preserve its rural folklore and heritage.burroheavyload

  • A UNESCO World Heritage City, with unique traffic-saving cable cars and an elevated Tram, has a vibrant cultural scene and nightlife.
  • Guatape and Santa Fe de Antioquia are rural villages a short distance from Medellin with rustic, colonial charm and friendly locals.
  • Manizales, the capital of the Caldas department, is situated atop meandering mountain ridges. Nearby coffee farms and national parks are perfect day-trip destinations.
  • Salento, located on the western edge of Parque Nacional Los Nevados, is home to cowboys and coffee growers, and close to Valle de Cocora, where wax palms, Colombia’s national tree, rise to dizzying heights of 200 feet.


Colombia’s lofty capital city, located in a mountainous bowl at an elevation of 8,200 feet, displays the fantastic vibe of a modern city full of history and culture with unmatched cuisine and exquisite taste for fashion.

  • IMG_0241The legend of El Dorado is displayed at Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum), tourism thrives in the historic and quirky La Candelaria, and the Plaza de Bolivar serve as the centerpiece of the nation’s capital, where Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos resides in the grand Presidential Palace.
  • Many outstanding art museums, theaters and concert hall, too numerous to name, reside alongside Bogota’s more than one hundred universities, earning Bogota the title of “The Athens of South America”.

Cali and Southwest Colombia

  • Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital is a warm, relaxed city in the Valle de Cauca, where sugarcane fields go on forever. Settled by the native Calima people as early as 1200 B.C.E. Cali’s later railroad system linked it to the rest of Colombia and the world.
  • Popayan, the White City, lies along the banks of the Rio Cauca, and is proud of its place in history as the home of priests, presidents and poets.
  • Tierradentro is an ancient site settled by an agricultural society from 500 to 900 A.D. that is a major indigenous Sogamoso Arch hutsnecropolis with monumental funeral statues and huge burial chambers decorated with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic geometric designs. This archaeological park was declared a World Heritage site in 1995.

[1] Ruana – a very thick, soft poncho-style rectangular or square outer garment with a slit for the head, that can also used as a blanket or cushion. The word “ruana” comes from the Chibcha language meaning “Land of Blankets,” woven by the indigenous Muisca natives. with sheep’s virgin wool


Oicatá – silhouettes of the past guide the future

An ancient sacred spring and observatory of the Muisca

Blanca Ocasion (right), Oicata native, naturalist, historian and photographer lead us to the Sacred Spring and Musica Observatory. Leo Castillo Amezquita, translator (left).

The wind howls across the pastures of Oicatá, whipping the clumps of grasses, bending branches of dark green trees, painting scrub brush with grey dust, and lashing the slate colored mountains of the Cordillera Oriental.

Colombia’s easternmost mountain range, part of the ancient Andes, is the backdrop of this story, and the homeland of the ancient Muisca people.

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada founded the tiny village of Oicatá on May 9, 1593. Located in the department of Boyacá, (the equivalent of a state in the U.S.) the area is well known for its history, because the region was the scene of a series of later battles, which led to Colombia’s independence from the Spanish Crown in 1819.

Prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors, however, an ancient, highly developed society inhabited the area, the roots of which have been traced back to almost 10,000 B.C.E. In the early XVI century, Conquistadors encountered the skillful and populous Muisca Confederation — gold workers, emerald miners, agriculturalists and weavers.


Near the top of the mountain we came upon an ancient, sacred spring. It emminates from beneath a deep.

The Muiscan Confederation, a loose union of states that each retained sovereignty, was not a kingdom, as there was no absolute monarch, nor was it an empire, because it did not dominate other ethnic groups or peoples. The Muiscan Confederation was one of the biggest and best-organized confederations of tribes on the South American continent.

A short drive from Boyacá’s capital, Tunja, the bucolic landscape is one of sharp contrasts – just as the history and pieces of this ancient civilization are similarly juxtaposed. The ancient, ethereal silhouettes of the past loom over the dusty-lime-colored fields, where massive tan gashes mar the vista with scars of man’s determination to develop roads and harvest materials for bricks and the construction of modern edifices. Mountaintops, hillsides and entire escarpments have been slashed away by bulldozers, and whittled by picks and shovels.

After badly needed rainfall the previous day and night, today’s adventure  was to meet a local guide to visit indigenous places– a cemetary or an observatory.  Dressed in jeans with wool knee socks, simple walking shoes and far too many layers of sweaters and jackets, little did I know that we were all embarking on a cross-cultural, spiritual journey of discovery – connected by indigenous sacred sites and important celestial observatories – that would join the paths of the ancient Muisca with the Polynesian voyagers of my Hawaiian home.


The site of the ancient Musica Observatory. During heavy rains this flat rock face becomes a waterfall. The holes are made by centuries of swirling rocks and worn depressions made by the natives during their rituals.

The day was gorgeous – sporting cerulean blue skies — while cottony clouds scuttled across the sky, buffeted by fresh, post-frontal winds.

The name “Oicatá” is the name of the indigenous chief who ruled the area prior to the Spanish invasion. The Cacique (chief) that governed this prehistoric village was the Zaque Hunza. The indigenous Cacique and his tribes paid homage to their deities and held festivals in her honor in the village.


Omar Amezquita, whose family traces four generations in the area, stands at the sacred rocks. When Conquistadors invaded New Grenada they burnt the sacred sites and homes of the natives.

Driven by my host, Omar Amezquita, whose family has lived in the area for four generations, we dashed across dirt roads to the village of Oicatá. There,  we stopped to pick up our guide, Blanca Ocasion, a native of the village.

Ocasion recently won a second term as a representative in local government. She is also an advocate of reforestation efforts, sustainable agriculture and a proponent of the recognition and appreciation of the indigenous culture and their history.  Ocasion greeted us with a dazzling smile.

A short distance past the village we pulled to the side of the road, and surrounded by a cloud of white dust, we prepared for the hike. After slipping around a metal fence with Blanca at the lead, we scaled grassy hills, and descended eroded vales. She explained that in times past, the area had an abundance of water – rainfalls, natural springs, rivers, streams – and thickly-wooded forests.

“When the original inhabitants populated the area, there were many more trees on the land. Most of the trees you see now are introduced varieties, such as Eucalyptus and Acacias, which take a lot of water and are bad for the environment. The water system is deficient; we have very few springs and streams.”

While the indigenous population farmed, mined and wove remarkable textiles, they are not responsible for the erosion visible today. Deforestation to exploit wood for construction, cattle and sheep farming, and excavating the earth for construction materials,  compounded the problem.

We hiked up into a valley where we found an abundant spring emanating from beneath a large cave. This unique spot was the site of the Muisca’s celestial observatory. In ancient times, the indigenous Colombian tribes observed the heavens to discover the best time for planting crops, harvesting, travel and religious ceremonies. Half way across the planet in Hawaii, the Hawaiian chiefs charted the stars for their celestical navigation routes throughout the Polynesain triangle.

On the way we passed by a sunny hillside where Blanca had been busy planting native shrub and tree species.

Miles from the nearest road, and without a visible source of water in sight, Ocasion is determined to bring the landscape back to its original glory, no matter how long the process might take. As the native plants flourish, endemic birds, reptiles and forest animals, such as native foxes, are making a gradual comeback.


Brilliant pink flowers adorn this brushy native plant that thrives in dry conditions

Ducking beneath a patch of non-indigenous trees, Blanca pointed out an emerald green blanket of healthy, native moss, taking advantage of the shade. From this moist ground cover, the possibility of native species taking root will be increased.

A little further along, we stopped to examine some short bushes bearing brilliant bright pink flowers – an example of native species recovery.

While Colombia is witnessing one of the worst El Nino events since 1997, and a state of emergency has been issued by the government for certain areas of the country, Ocasion has reason to hope that one day she and like-minded people witll restore their farms and homelands to thier original forested, stream-crossed glory.

“With new farming techniques, such as using certain types of seeds, composting to enhance soil, water catchment, and drip irrigation, I hope to show others that farming can be profitable,” said Amezquita.