Colombia is often referred to as the “Country of the Sacred Heart” because of its annual consecration to Jesus Christ by the president. While this suits their Catholic identity, it could also refer to the multitude of natural gifts that have been bestowed on the country. Stunning coasts, mountains and colorful festivals combine to make Colombia a fascinating travel destination.
Colombia’s rich colonial history makes for prime sightseeing, particularly the huge ancient statues of the San Agustín Archaeological Park and the wrought iron buildings of the World Heritage listed Santa Cruz de Mompox old town. Whale watching is one of the unexpected delights, with humpback breeding grounds off the coast offering seasonal viewing opportunities. A tour of the plantations in the “Coffee Triangle,” a UNESCO World Heritage site is another must do.
Colombia is not yet a booming tourist hotspot, which is great for those looking for a more off the beaten path location. It is quite affordable with accommodation ranging from cheap hostels to five-star resorts. Food is plentiful, nutritious and well priced particularly for those wanting to sample the local fare, although western style dining is readily available, particularly in tourist areas.
The constant year round temperatures make Colombia a pleasant destination any time of year. December to March sees many colorful festivals and events take place, particularly during January with major celebrations such as the Festival of Blacks and Whites in Pasto. The period from June to July is also popular with visitors, but these peaks also correspond with higher prices and lower availability for flights and hotels.
Easter Holy Week in late March/early April is a major religious celebration when lots of locals will be traveling, many businesses closed and food, transportation and accommodations booked solid. Since there is not a great variation in temperatures, it’s easy to visit off-season without the crowds.
Currency: Colombian Peso (COP)
Official language: Spanish
About 12,000 years ago, Indigenous hunter-gatherer people including Muisca, Tairona and Quimbava inhabited what is now Colombia. By the first millennium, farming and a pyramidal power structure had developed.
The Spanish explored the region in 1500 and began colonization of Colombia soon after with Santa Marta founded in 1525, followed by Cartagena in 1533, the New City of Granada (soon renamed Santa Fe) in 1535, and Cali in 1536. European diseases such as smallpox reduced the indigenous Caribbean population when slaves were imported from Africa.
The Spanish rule lasted from about 1525 until 1808, during which time; the Royal Audience of Santa Fe de Bogota controlled the region of New Granada even though the Council of the Indies made most of the major decisions. Spanish farmers colonized the area and the remaining indigenous people were moved to specially designated reservations in Colombia. In 1713, the settlement of Palenque de San Basilio, established by escaped slaves in the 15th century, was granted legality through royal decree.
Colombia’s turbulent history has created a racially tolerant, proud culture made up of people with Spanish, indigenous and African heritage. While Colombians are often happy to interact with foreigners, discussions or jokes about politics, religion or drugs are only appropriate amongst close friends. Large scale Catholicism of the nation took place under Spanish rule, incorporating tribal elements into the festivals. Carnivals are the best example of this, colorful celebrations of ethnic diversity and unity, incorporating time honored traditional dance, costume, instruments and cooking, usually in honor of a Catholic saint.
Colombians are also creative people who have been producing paintings, sculptures, and jewelry for centuries, with many contemporary artists globally recognized today. The Colombians also have a strong oral folklore, written literary and filmic traditions as evidenced by events such as the massive Bogota International Book Fair and film festivals hosted by Cartagena. No discussion of Colombian culture would be complete without a mention of the national love of football (soccer), which enjoys huge popularity in the country.
Colombia is located near the equator so it does not have extreme variations in temperature, although there is a wet and dry season. The climate changes with the altitude, hotter at sea level and cooler at higher elevations, with some peaks bearing snow year round. Temperatures below 2,953 feet average between 75°F and 100°F, while the mid and highlands enjoy a milder weather between 50°F and 69°F. The high mountains above 14,764 feet are always cold and covered in snow and ice.
Most of the population lives in the temperate coffee growing regions above 2,953 feet or in the colder wheat and potato growing lands between 6,496 and 11,483 feet. Wet seasons is from April-June and September-November with Colombia’s Pacific coast getting slammed with one of the world’s highest amount of precipitation per year, around 200 inches. The Guajira Peninsula is the driest part of the country, receiving only about 30 inches of rain a year.
The citizens of India are required to obtain a visa to enter Colombia. Visas may be obtained from the Embassy or Consulate of Colombia in India. A Colombia visa for Indians can be private, tourist, business and work – depending on the purposeof a visit.
Airport taxis across Colombia are regulated, safe and an easy to spot bright yellow color. Taxis Libres (+57-1-311-1111) and Radio Taxi (+57-1-288-8888) are two companies in Bogota with good reputations. Fares across the country are usually higher on Sundays, holidays and during non-business hours. Be aware that some cabs can be dangerous as there have been many reports of passengers being robbed en route, particularly by unlicensed operators, some of whom will even put the logo of legitimate brands on their car to fool victims. The best way to avoid this is to book one by phone and request the vehicle number so you know it’s an official carrier.
Colombia’s mountainous terrain has contributed to the growing popularity of cable car across the country. There are networks for getting up and down the mountains at Antiogquia, Jardin, Jerico, Manizales, Medellín, Sopretran and Sn Andres de Cuerqia. Santander has a scenic cable car ride that offers views over the Chicamocha river and canyon.
Colombia doesn’t really have trains except for the metro system in Medellin, which is a fast, cheap and easy way to get around. The metro also includes two cable car lines for getting up and down the mountains.
Bus is the primary means of transportation for locals in Colombia both around town and between cities; although visitors may prefer air travel for longer journeys as the roads can be arduous. Advanced booking is strongly recommended for intercity trips as buses often fill up well ahead of time. The local bus service is often run by a modern rapid transit system such as the Transmilenio in Bogota, Medellin’s Metroplus, el Mio in Cali, Barranquilla’s Transmetro, Bucaramanga’s Metrolinea or the Megabus in Pereira. Travelling by bus is safe and efficient, although it is wise to keep valuables hidden. Colectivos are a shuttle bus service that operates on set inner city routes which depart once a minimum number of passengers have boarded.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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