Colombia was the first country in South America to be discovered by Christopher Colombus, and the country takes its name from the intrepid explorer. Spanish colonialists followed shortly after, and Colombia became their starting point for their acquisition of most of South America. Along with Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia, Colombia was liberated from Spanish colonialism by the revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar in 1809.
Throughout its history, Colombia has had groups based in rural areas violently opposed to the central government. These groups have financed their activities with funds from the international drugs trade, particularly the sale of cocaine, and kidnapping. This has made certain parts of the country, often the most beautiful parts, very dangerous for visitors. For many years the authorities restricted access to these districts, and some restrictions are still in effect today, for example, the land borders with Brazil and Peru are closed. In recent years, the government has had some success in reducing the activity of the rebels by increasing its presence in the countryside. Although there are still some areas that you should steer clear of, Colombia is not as dangerous as it used to be.
Colombian Spanish (also called Castellano) is very close in grammar and pronunciation to standard Spanish. It is spoken by more or less everybody, although it is possible that some areas in the Andes will still only speak with a native tongue. The most common Indian language is Awa-Cuaiquer, which spoken close to the border with Ecuador. Colombians are taught English in schools, and are increasingly exposed to American exports of popular culture. It is likely that most young middle class people will have some English. There are many American-run schools in Colombia, which are particularly popular with the wealthier class of Colombians.
Colombian Pesos are divided into 100 centavos. As of 25th October 06 the rates were:
- $1 US buys 2,362 COP
- £1 GBP buys 4,434 COP
- €1 Euro buys 3,053 COP
Bogotá has the steady temperature of an equatorial region, but the city’s altitude means it is significantly cooler than other equatorial areas. The temperature doesn’t deviate much from the average of 19 degrees Celsius. The lowland coastal areas are warmer and have a rainy season in the summer.
The most popular tourist attraction in Colombia is the port town of Cartagena. This is one of South America’s best preserved colonial towns, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for the quality and variety of its architecture. It is the setting of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s modern classic ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. Walking through the magical winding streets of the old town, you could easily imagine yourself as a character in a novel. The walls surrounding the town and the adjoining fort are in superb condition and one of Colombia’s best examples of colonial architecture. If you have an interest in history, then the Castillo de San Felipe is an attraction not to miss. Entrance for adults costs 11,000 COP.
One of Colombia’s most popular beaches is a short distance from Cartagena. Playa Blanca is so called because of its bright white sands. It has sleepy mangroves, clear waters, colourful coral, and an infrastructure designed to satisfy the desires of the beach goers. There are several good quality seafood restaurants nearby, including the recommended ‘Nelson Mandela.’
San Agustin Park is Colombia’s prime site of archaeological interest. From the 1st to the 8th century, the region’s Andean Indians crafted huge sculptures of warriors, gods and animals. The sculptures are carved out of volcanic rock, and some are over 4 metres tall. This world heritage site is South America’s largest collection of the kind, and has facilities including a learning centre and small theme park for children.
The best place to shop for leather and textiles is Medellin, the country’s centre of textile manufacturing. You can get high quality garments at reasonable prices. You will find a variety of good quality traditional arts and crafts in local markets. If someone approaches you trying to sell a souvenir, it is likely to be mass-produced and not worth buying.
The best way to experience Bogotá nightlife is in the northern barrios of the city, where there are several good clubs and a lively bar scene. The official curfew is 1 o’clock, but there are plenty of ‘reservados’ - places which pay the police to stay open later. Cartagena is also packed with lively cafés and bars, which are particularly pulsating during the various arts festivals the city holds.
Roads are generally good quality in Colombia, although driving in the Andean regions and parts of the rainforest will require a 4x4. Driving along east of the Andes is not recommended, as incidences of kidnapping and carjacking are high. The drink-driving limit is 0.04% alcohol in your bloodstream.
Food and Drink
Colombia’s cuisine varies depending upon which region you are in. The Caribbean coast features some of the best cooking in Colombia. The abundance of fresh seafood and fruits makes for some mouth watering and healthy dishes. This changes completely in the Andean regions, where fresh fish isn’t available, and corn, maize, beans and roots are the staple ingredients. American fast food is available in cities, but there are higher quality Colombian fast food restaurant chains available as well. These include ‘Presto’ and ‘El Corral’.
Aguardiente, the national drink, has a strong aniseed flavour and is very alcoholic. Colombia’s abundance of fruit means that fresh tropical fruit juice, including pineapple, mango and guava, is readily available.
- Colombia Tourism, Bogota
- Telephone: +57 (0)1 212 6315
All car hire locations in Colombia
- Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport
- El Dorado International Airport
- Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport
- Ernesto Cortissoz International Airport
- Jose Maria Córdova International Airport
- Matecaña International Airport
- Palonegro Airport
- Perales Airport
- Rafael Nuñez International Airport
- Simón Bolívar International Airport