Once considered the most dangerous country in the world, Colombia, having implemented security improvements over the last decade, is slowly emerging from the internecine bloodshed of the 1980s and 1990s. Homicide rates in many Colombian cities, once among the highest in the world, have fallen below levels of many U.S. cities. Political kidnappings are a thing of the past. Since the early 2000s, a strong military and police presence have made land transportation reasonably safe again. With the conflict with the FARC coming to a close, expect things to get even better.
Thanks to this improved security situation, Colombia is a country ripe for discovery by foreign tourists. Though politically one nation, it is made up of three distinct regions, each with its own customs and traditions. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts, inhabited mostly by descendants of African slaves, are culturally linked to the Caribbean, rich in musical tradition and spectacular tropical scenery. The central and most densely populated portion of the country, crowned by the Andes Mountains, has managed to grow and prosper despite its unforgiving terrain. Dotted by most of Colombia’s largest cities, it is the economic engine of the country. The sparsely populated eastern portion of the country is inhabited by tough, hard-working farmers and traditional indigenous tribes; it’s a land of vast planes, thick jungle, unmatched natural beauty, and, unfortunately, high levels of guerrilla activity and cocaine production.
Like most of the developing world, Colombia is a country of contradictions. Hip yuppies dress to the nines and sip $14 cocktails at über-upscale bars, while the poorest Colombians can barely afford life’s necessities. Cosmopolitan cities offer luxury condos, theater, international cuisine, and all the amenities of the modern world, while many small pueblos seem stuck in the 19th century, stunted by high unemployment and old-fashioned attitudes. Despite all its woes—economic, social, and political—Colombia remains a fascinating country to visit.
The Making of Colombia
Colombia’s vibrant, at times violent, history has shaped the modern society in ways that we may never fully understand. Simultaneously a romance and a tragedy, the story of Colombia is more complex and interesting than cable news would have you believe. Dating back tens of thousands of years, from when the first migrants traveled down through Panama, human history in the region has been shaped by waterways and mountains and thick forest cover. Natural forces like earthquakes and floods, not to mention the unexpected arrival of the Spanish and forced arrival of African slaves, have all contributed to the diverse society that inhabits the country today.
Prehistory (20,000 B.C.–1000 B.C.)
While Colombia does not have as extensive of an early history as other Latin American countries such as Peru and Mexico, it is located almost directly in between the two. Most historians think the first inhabitants crossed the Bering Strait in Asia during the last ice age, migrated their way down through North and Central Americas, and settled in the region around 20,000 B.C. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived mostly along the coasts, river valleys, and highlands. In remote Chiribiquete National Park, archaeologists have uncovered cave paintings that date back more than 10,000 years. Images include jaguars, crocodiles, and deer, painted in red on vertical rock faces. The oldest pottery fragments, believed to be more than 6,000 years old, were found at the San Jacinto archaeological site. Still, very little is known about early human settlement in present-day Colombia.
Pre-Columbian Cultures (1000 B.C.–A.D. 1499)
While there were no colossal civilizations like the Aztecs and Incas to develop in Colombia, lesser-known cultures that were nearly as sophisticated did arise here, as archaeological evidence suggests. The country’s geography often confined cultures to particular regions, such as the Andes or near the coasts. While these agrarian societies traded among each other, there were never conquering forces that took over vast pieces of the country, like there were in Peru.
A dozen or so cultures—like the Calima, Muisca, Nariño, Quimbaya, San Agustín, Sinú, Tayrona, Tierradentro, Tolima, Tumaco, and Urabá—left behind artifacts like intricate gold work and ceramics.
Several cultures left behind significant monuments, too. In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and along the Caribbean coast, the Tayrona built settlements with roads, plazas, aqueducts, and stone stairways. Their signature achievement has become known as Ciudad Pérdida, or the lost city. Set high in the jungle-clad mountains, in a setting as majestic as Machu Picchu, the city may have housed as many as 8,000 people at its peak. In San Agustín in the southwest, past inhabitants left behind hundreds of megalithic sculptures of gods and mythical animals that date from the 1st to the 8th centuries. Not far away in Tierradentro, underground tombs dating from 600 to 900 A.D., some measuring as much as 12m (40 ft.) wide and unlike anything else in the Americas, reveal a complex social structure and belief system.
Spanish Conquest & Colonialism (1500–ca. 1800)
Columbus and his pals landed in the Americas in 1492, with the first European—Alonso de Ojeda—reaching Colombia in 1499. During a brief exploration of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, he was impressed by the amount of gold he encountered with the local Indians, and they told him of more wealth in the interior. This gave birth to the legend of El Dorado, which would later be attached to the Muiscas, who tossed gold into the Laguna de Guatavita as a ritual offering.
Small Spanish settlements began appearing on the coast in the following years, though it wasn’t until Rodrigo de Bastidas founded Santa Marta in 1525 that any of them were permanent. Eight years later, Pedro de Heredia would build Cartagena, which became the primary point of access into the continent and a center of trade. A massive fortress was built there to guard the growing collection of gold from pirate attacks.
In 1537, Jiménez de Quesada pushed into Muisca territory, which was split into two rivaling factions, the Zipa and the Zaque, allowing him to conquer the group relatively quickly. A year later, he founded Santa Fe de Bogotá at Bacata, the center of power of the Zipa. Around the same time Sebastián de Belalcázar, who deserted Francisco Pizarro’s army while they were in the middle of conquering the Incas, founded Popayán and Cali. Various Spanish factions fought for power of the country until 1550 when King Carlos V of Spain established a colony under the control of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
In 1564, the Nuevo Reino de Granada was established, which included present-day Panama and most of Colombia. It was during this period that Cartagena was granted the privilege of being the exclusive slave-trading port in the colony, drastically changing the cultural make-up of what would become Colombia. Many of the African slaves worked in mines and coastal plantations. In 1717, the growing Spanish Empire in the New World pushed the colony’s borders outward. Ruled from Bogotá, the Virreinato de Nueva Granada comprised the territories of present-day Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
The Fight for Independence (1793–1819)
As Spanish power grew in the region, mounting taxes and duties met with protests from inhabitants. The 1781 Revolución de los Comuneros in Socorro was the first major rebellion against the crown. When Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as monarch in 1808, many cities refused to recognize him and declared independence. After the collapse of the First Republic of Venezuela in 1812, Simón Bolívar joined the growing Colombia independence movement, winning six battles against Spanish troops before being defeated. After Spain wrestled the throne back from Napoleon, they quickly regained full control of the colonies. In 1816, Bolívar returned and formed a new army and marched over the Andes from Los Llanos, eventually joining forces with a British legion. They successfully defeated the Royalists and won a decisive battle in Boyacá on August 7, 1819. Bolívar and his troops then marched into Bogotá 3 days later. He was named president of what would become known as Gran Colombia (Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador) and held the office until 1828.
Gran Colombia (1820–1921)
Right from the beginning, Gran Colombia was troubled. While President Bolívar was away fighting for independence in Ecuador and Peru, his vice president, Francisco de Paula Santander, held power. The territory was big and hard to manage. Laws were introduced to abolish slavery and to redistribute indigenous lands, but by 1830, the union was over. Venezuela and Ecuador broke away and a new constitution was written. Two political parties came to power: the Conservatives, who preferred centralized power, and the Liberals, who favored more power with the states. More than 100,000 people died in 1899 alone as a result of a liberal revolt that turned violent, called the War of a Thousand Days. Turmoil in the country allowed the United States to push a secessionist movement in Panama and in 1903; it too broke away and allowed the construction of the Panama Canal across the isthmus.
La Violencia (1948–1960)
After several decades of relative peace and stability, Colombia’s most deadly civil war up until that point broke out, called La Violencia. After the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, riots erupted all over the country. One of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of the Western Hemisphere, more than 300,000 people were killed in the fighting that followed. In 1953, the military, led by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, took over the country and ended La Violencia. By 1957, the two parties signed a pact, agreeing to alternate power every 4 years. The agreement outlawed other political parties, which planted the seeds of guerrilla insurgency.
The Civil War (1960–2005)
Social and political injustices continued, and dissidents were unable to have their voices heard. In 1964, following the fraudulent election of a Conservative candidate, the FARC was formed by Marxist–Leninist Manuel Marulanda Vélez. The Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army/ELN) and more than a dozen other guerrilla groups developed around the country during this period, each with their own philosophy. To counter the insurgency, paramilitary groups were created by landholders and even drug cartels, often using weapons supplied by the U.S. Murder and acts of terrorism became commonplace in Colombia. As communism fell around the world, the two major guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN, lost foreign support and turned to more desperate measures such as kidnappings, extortion, and threats.
The Cartels (1980–1995)
At the same time, the illegal drug trade grew more intense as newly wealthy drug lords fought with guerrilla groups, leading to more kidnappings and death squads. Under pressure from the U.S., the government began cracking down on the drug trade, even while Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel bribed or murdered countless public officials, founded its own political party, established newspapers, and financed public housing projects. Escobar and his crew lived a life of luxury, and his personal wealth was estimated at $2 billion. The turning point came in 1989, when the cartels killed presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán. The government responded with the confiscation of cartel properties and a new extradition treaty with the U.S. The cartels called for all out warfare by detonating bombs in banks, houses, and an Avianca flight from Bogotá to Cali with 107 people onboard. After extensive negotiations with the government of César Gaviria, Escobar turned himself in and was put under house arrest, but later escaped. After a 499-day search, he was killed in Medellín in 1993. Around the mid-1990s, as the street price of cocaine fell, the cartels lost power and the guerrillas took over the trade.
The Road to Peace (1995–2015)
From 2002 to 2008, right wing, Harvard-educated president Álvaro Uribe took power with an anti-guerilla agenda. Murder rates fell dramatically and highways became safer. In a risky mission, the military rescued high-profile kidnapping victims from FARC, taking away much of its negotiation strength. Uribe approved a risky bombing mission over the border in Ecuador that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes, leading to a wider regional conflict. Despite a high approval rating, his administration was plagued by charges of violence and corruption.
Juan M. Santos was elected president in 2010, and in 2012 he began peace talks with the FARC in Havana, an effort that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. They reached a bilateral ceasefire agreement in July of 2016, ending 50 years of bloodshed.
While still fragile, a gradual peace has come to Colombia. The world’s longest civil war has officially come to a close, and guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug cartels are no longer the threat they once were. A bigger issue now is re-integrating everyone back into a normal society. This is a country on the upswing. Now Latin America’s fourth-largest economy, Colombia is in the middle of a historic boom. Poverty levels have dropped from 65% in 1990 to 24% in 2015. The GDP increased from $120 billion in 1990 to nearly $700 billion in 2015. Tourism is growing 12% a year, and new parts of the country are opening up.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.