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Colombia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Colombia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Kate Cathey

Colombia is a magical country, full of spectacular varied landscapes, rare ecosystems, succulent tropical fruits, salsa and cumbia music, and kind, fun-loving people. The modern culture is a synthesis of Spanish, indigenous, and African traditions, evident in the music, the food, and Barranquilla’s famous Carnaval. The country’s major cities are modern


Colombia is a magical country, full of spectacular varied landscapes, rare ecosystems, succulent tropical fruits, salsa and cumbia music, and kind, fun-loving people. The modern culture is a synthesis of Spanish, indigenous, and African traditions, evident in the music, the food, and Barranquilla’s famous Carnaval. The country’s major cities are modern and cosmopolitan, with an international style and consumerism that makes them feel more like cities in the USA than Latin America. Yet, five minutes into the countryside, its distinct rural charms reveal a slower and more bucolic past.   In the collective imagination, Colombia is exotic, lawless, and dangerous—an illegal narcotics trade and the ongoing armed conflict have contributed to its bad-boy image. But things are changing, and there is so much more than that.   Entrenched social inequality has led to strife, manifest in the long-lived left- and rightwing rebel movements and a cycle of appalling violence that has saturated four decades with an undeclared civil war. And still, the Colombians are animated, lighthearted and fun—always ready to laugh and enjoy the moment. They have found strength in each other, in their families, and closest friends who are the cornerstones of their lives. Culture Smart! Colombia shows how the country’s rough geography and tumultuous history have shaped modern values and attitudes. It looks at the public realm and at life at home with the family. It introduces you to Colombia’s distinct and delicious cuisine, and reveals what people think about each other, their neighbors, and foreigners. There is advice on the safest ways to get around; on how business is done; and how Colombians communicate. Culture Smart! Colombia explains the intricacies of a culture that is both modern and steeped in tradition, international and regional, cosmopolitan and agrarian, very rich and very poor, and after more than four decades of undeclared civil war is happily emerging from tough times and getting ready for the future.

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By Kate Cathey

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-549-1




Colombia sits at the northwest corner of South America, wedged between Ecuador and Venezuela. The fourth-largest country in South America, it enjoys two long coastlines, one on the Pacific Ocean and the other on the Caribbean Sea. The equator runs through Colombia's southern jungles after it passes through Ecuador and on its way to Brazil. Just offshore from the northern coastal city of Cartagena sit the Islas del Rosario, in the Caribbean Sea. Further north off the coast of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast are two palm-lined Colombian islands, Providencia and San Andrés. A speck of Colombia touches Panama to the northwest, once part of Colombian territory. Colombia shares borders with Venezuela to the northeast, Brazil to the southeast, and Peru and Ecuador to the south.

The Andes mountains define Colombia's landscape and have dictated its settlement and development since pre-Hispanic times. Three rugged mountain ranges extend from north to south, dividing the country — the Cordillera Occidental, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Oriental, whose peaks reach above 16,000 feet (5,000 m) in places. Where there are no mountains, there are fertile river valleys and high altitude plateaus, tropical beaches, dense jungle, and the páramos: rare high elevation ecosystems consisting of glacier carved valleys, plateaus, lakes, forests, deserts, and wetlands.

To the west of the Cordillera Occidental lies the hot and humid Pacific coast. To the east the agricultural lands of the Cauca River Valley feed the departamento of Antioquia and the Zona Cafetera, where Colombia's famous coffee is grown. The Cordillera Central cuts down through the center of the country, Colombia's backbone. The Magdalena River, Colombia's main artery, flows northward, following the Cordillera Central until it empties into the ocean at the Caribbean port of Barranquilla. To the east, the Cordillera Oriental marks the beginning of Los Llanos de Orinoco, vast grasslands that stretch all the way to Venezuela and Brazil. To the south, Colombia's Amazon rain forest reaches into Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.

Colombia is stunningly beautiful, with vast regions of unimaginable biodiversity. On a short trip you can enjoy snow tipped mountains, green rolling hills, cloudy highland plateaus, steamy tropical beaches, hot tangled jungles, emerald lakes, verdant river valleys, and more than 50 percent of the world's páramos. The world's largest páramo, El Páramo de Sumapaz, is only 23 miles (37 km) outside Bogotá. In these bewildering and unique ecosystems thrive thousands of endemic species. Colombia's biodiversity is well documented, boasting 1,880 species of birds, 700 species of amphibians, 400 species of mammals, and 3,500 species of orchids. In Colombia, plant and animal species are still being discovered.


Although Colombia officially is in the Tropics, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, not all of Colombia has tropical weather. Colombia's climate varies depending on altitude and rainfall. Chocó, on Colombia's Pacific coast, receives some of the highest levels of annual rainfall in the world, up to 228 inches (6,000 mm) of rain a year! Coastal and jungle areas are hot and humid, while the highland plateau enjoys a milder climate and cooler temperatures.

The country is divided into three temperature zones, the tierra caliente, tierra templada, and the tierra fría. The hot lands, tierra caliente, start at sea level and go up through 3,608 feet (1,100 m). Sitting a little higher are the temperate lands, tierra templada, ranging from 3,608 feet to 9,842 feet (1,100 to 3,000 m). Highest and coldest are the cold lands, tierra frí a, above the tree line.

Most of Colombia's population live in the temperate zone where higher altitudes provide relief from the hot weather of the lowlands. The temperate zone consists of the Cauca River Valley (around Cali), the Magdalena River Valley (departments of Quindio, Caldas, Tolima, and Cundinamarca), and the Aburra Valley (department of Antioquia), as well as the highland plateau region in and around Bogotá (departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá). Colombia has experienced mass urbanization over the last forty years due to economic pressures and the ongoing armed conflict. Now, over 70 percent of the population live in urban areas.

Since Colombia is near the equator, temperatures and daylight remain nearly the same all year-long. With minimal variation, the sun rises at 6:00 a.m. and sets at 6:00 p.m. every day of the year. Colombia has typical tropical wet and dry seasons running in three-month cycles. December through February are dry, then March through May are rainy, and so on.

Bogotá's high altitude, 8,661 feet (2,640 m), makes for chilly weather all the year. The city's weather might be like living in constant fall, but it is exciting and dynamic, and Bogotanos say that you can see four seasons in one day. Days typically range between 57 and 66°F (14 and 19°C), with nights falling to 48°F (9°C). It rains an average of 185 days a year in Bogotá so Bogotanos are used to rainy weather and don't let it affect their daily life. When the sky looks dark and threatening you will hear "Tiene ganas de llover," " It really wants to rain badly," or "Amenaza lluvia," "It is threatening to rain." When a downpour is coming you will hear "Va a caller un lago de agua," "An entire lake of water is going to come down." Make sure to pack your umbrella.

Off the high plateau, Colombia's weather warms up quickly, and at sea level it is truly tropical. Medellín, northwest of Bogotá at an elevation of 4,905 feet (1,495 m), is considered "the city of eternal spring," where temperatures remain a pleasant 71°F (22°C) during the day and 55°F (13°C) at night, inspiring flowers to bloom perennially. In late July and early August, Paisas (people from Antioquia) celebrate the blooms with the Festival de Las Flores, their annual Flower Festival. In Cartagena, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, days and nights are Caribbean hot — 89°F (32°C) during the day and 73°F (23°C) at night. October through May is considered the "high" season, when the heat is accompanied by slightly cooling trade winds. June through September, without that mitigation, it feels even hotter.


Colombia is a democratic sovereign republic with a central government that delegates certain powers to its departments, similar to states in the USA. Colombia is divided into 32 departamentos, or departments, with a capital district in Bogotá. Each department is governed by an elected governor and a department assembly. Departments are divided further into municipalities, which are governed by a mayor.

Most Colombians live in and around four major cities, Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. Small rural villages dot the landscape throughout much of the country when the topography allows. Only 3 percent of the population lives in Colombia's vast southern departments, which make up more than half the area of the country.

Many regions of Colombia are so mountainous or so tangled in jungle that they stay untamed. Much of the southern jungle area along the Ecuadorian and Peruvian borders continues to be lawless and controlled by illegal armed groups and narco-traffickers, a no-go zone for travelers. Many departments, such as Tolima, Valle de Cauca, Meta, and Nariño, are still hot spots in Colombia's forty-five-year armed conflict. Some regions remain untouched by the modern world. In the most southern department of Amazonas, near Leticia, there is said to be an indigenous tribe that has not yet revealed itself to the outside world.

Historically, Colombia's rough terrain has made building infrastructure and moving around the country difficult. Without effective transportation and trade routes, regions remained isolated. Fertile lands and abundant natural resources allowed communities to be self-sufficient. In this environment, distinct cultural identities and a strong sense of regionalism developed and still exists today. Ask a Colombian where he is from, and he will tell you, "I am Antioqueño" (from the department of Antioquia), before he will say, "I am Colombian."


Colombia's 45 million people are a multiethnic group. Almost 80 percent of the population is of mixed race, diversity resulting from Spanish colonization and slavery. Today more than half, about 58 percent, of the population is mestizo, a mix of native Amerindians and Spanish Europeans, while 20 percent are of pure European descent. Even though Europeans have been the minority, they have held the power since colonial times.

Afro-Colombians, descendants of African slaves brought to Colombia by the Spanish to work in the gold mines, and Colombia's indigenous peoples have traditionally held the lowest positions in society, and experience the most discrimination. Most of the Afro-Colombian population settled along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, where some 14 percent of the population is mulatto (black mixed with white Europeans), 4 percent Afro-Colombian, and 3 percent Zambo (African mixed with Amerindian.) An estimated 90 percent of the population of the department of Chocó is black. Only 1 percent of Colombia's indigenous population remains today, and are among the most affected by the continuing armed conflict.

Of course, Colombia's first immigrants were Spanish, but small numbers of European groups immigrated in the 1940s during the Second World War. Colombia has not experienced the same degree of immigration as Argentina or Venezuela, due to economic and security issues, but there has been some. The largest immigrant population comes from nearby Venezuela, followed by the USA and Ecuador, closely followed by Peru, Argentina, and Mexico. Immigrants of Arab descent — Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian — have settled on the Caribbean coast. The Romani "gypsy" population is prominent in many cities. There are German areas of Santander where it is common to see blonde-haired, blue-eyed peasants. Small populations of Spanish, French, Italian, British, and Chinese have also settled in Colombia. Former presidential candidate and two-time mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus is the son of Lithuanian immigrants.


Colombia's history has been a violent one, an endless conflict over lack of equality, social justice, power, and money. It has also been convoluted and confusing, with rebels becoming political leaders, and it is hard to separate the good guys from the bad. After Simón Bolívar liberated Colombia from Spanish rule, his ideas of social equality were quickly forgotten. In the newly independent Colombia not much changed. Society remained highly stratified, the heirs of the Spanish remained at the top of society, and most everyone else fell to the bottom.

In this rigid class system the disparity between the haves and the have-nots was enormous, with extreme wealth countered by extreme poverty. Frustration spawned a renegade tradition of outlaws, banditos, guerrillas, and militias that have been at the core of Colombia's armed conflict. The roots of lawlessness and violence run deep. The untamable terrain and the independent nature of the people have made it difficult to govern. Since the colonial period, no leader has been able to completely unify the country and its people.

Indigenous Groups

When the Spanish first set foot on Colombian soil in the sixteenth century, they encountered numerous nomadic and agricultural tribes, some hunter-gatherers, others subsistence farmers. Some were talented goldsmiths and artisans, others great engineers and builders.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, Colombia's indigenous inhabitants were not as populous or as developed as the great civilizations of Mexico and Peru, largely due to the constraints of the terrain. These were the San Augustíns — considered somewhat of a mystery and known for the giant carved stone figures they left behind — and the Chibchas. Of the many Chibcha tribes, historians know most about the Taironas and the Muiscas.

The Taironas made their home at the lower elevations of the isolated Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria, the mountains that rise up above Santa Marta on the northern Caribbean coast. They appear to be the only precolonial Colombians to achieve real urban civilization, and are known as the builders and engineers of the urban complex of La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) that dates from 800 CE.

The Muiscas were less creative than the Taironas, but far outnumbered them. They are thought to be the largest indigenous group, topping 600,000 at the time of the Spanish conquest. Farmers and weavers, they cultivated corn and potatoes in the fertile Sabana de Bogotá soil.

One thing we do know is that the native Colombians had a fondness for gold. Some mined it from their own lands, and those who could not acquired it through trade. They became excellent goldsmiths, modeling elaborate jewelry, ceremonial vessels, and even ceremonial clothes hammered from glittering sheets of gold. Today Colombia has very few communities of unassimilated native peoples. The Spanish quickly wiped out most of the native Colombians through disease and conquest, and easily assimilated most of the rest.

Without searching, the regular tourist to Colombia won't feel the indigenous presence because most exist in remote areas, many in the Amazon jungle. The remaining native peoples have been severely affected by years of armed conflict and the narcotics trade. The Nukak Makú, Colombia's last nomadic tribe, numbering about six hundred, have been displaced from their jungle territory in the department of Guaviare by years of cocaine trafficking and fighting, and now face an uncertain future, while the Guambiano people in the department of Cauca have also suffered from guerrilla and narcotics trade violence.

Colonial Colombia

The Spanish arrived on Colombian shores in the early 1500s. Within thirty years they had permanent settlements along the Caribbean coast, first in Santa Marta, then in Cartagena. By 1536, explorers were pushing inland in search of riches. Lured by talk of wealthy kingdoms and tales of El Dorado, three independent Spanish expeditions were working their way toward the interior of Colombia, all from different directions.

From Venezuela, Nicolás Federmann crossed over the empty, barren, and often flooded Llanos grasslands towards Muisca territory. Sebastián de Benalcázar forged north from Ecuador into Colombia through the Amazon jungle, laying claim to Popayán and Cali along the way. But when Federmann and Benalcázar reached Muisca territory, they found Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada already there.

Quesada had set off from Santa Maria with eight hundred men in search of the famed golden kingdoms. On the way to the highlands Quesada lost most of his men, to disease, starvation, and exhaustion. With only two hundred men left he finally made it to the interior, where they found the Muiscas living on fertile lands, harvesting corn and potatoes, and decorating their houses with gold leaf ornaments. Quesada's men were delighted, easily subdued the Muiscas, and made off with large amounts of gold. In 1538 Quesada declared Bogotá the new Spanish capital of the conquered lands, which he named New Granada after his hometown in Spain.

The Spanish were consumed by their quest for gold. They were convinced the Muiscas had vast gold mines, which, in fact, they did not. The Spanish did, however, end up finding substantial quantities of gold in Colombia. Under colonial rule, gold was the country's main export. Historians often say that Colombia was a disappointment to the Spanish, and indeed their gold output never equaled the great amount of silver that Peru and Mexico produced. But Colombia was profitable for Spain, producing more gold than any other colony in the Spanish empire.

As in all their other colonies in Latin America, the Spanish needed native labor to make the colony profitable. In Colombia, they put the natives to work in the mines and fields under what they called the encomienda system. The natives "worked" for the Spanish in exchange for room and board and a small salary that was paid back to the Crown in the form of taxes. Effectively, the landholders owned the natives and held them in a type of slavery. The native population were overworked and undernourished, and vanished quickly. This left a void in the labor force, which the Spanish filled by bringing slaves from Africa to supplement the workforce in the fields and mines. Cartagena was the primary port and the center of the slave trade in Colombia. Today most of the population along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts are descended from former slaves who, over time, mixed with indigenous Colombians and criollos (Spanish born in Colombia), giving the Caribbean coast its distinct cultural flavor.

Independence and El Libertador

Almost every Colombian town has a Plaza Simón Bolívar, Parque Bolívar, or Calle Bolívar, a tribute to El Libertador, "The Liberator." Soldier, leader, revolutionary, and hero, Venezuelan born Símon Bolívar (1783–1830) led the armies that freed Colombia — along with Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia — from Spanish rule in the early 1800s. Today Bolívar is both a national hero and an ideal. His name represents a united South America that is egalitarian and fair.


Excerpted from Colombia by Kate Cathey. Copyright © 2011 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kate Cathey is a writer and anthropologist currently based in Bogotá, Colombia. Born in the USA, she attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she studied Art History, and later graduated with a BA in World Arts and Cultures, concentration in Anthropology, from the University of California, Los Angeles. Since then, she has traveled extensively in Latin America, researching and writing about regional cultural and culinary traditions. She has lived in Mexico City, where she attended and wrote about small town fiestas, ferias, and festivals throughout the country, and studied indigenous gastronomy and ritual at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In 2009 Kate moved to Colombia where she continues these pursuits. She also directs cultural travel programs and is a regular contributor to Bogotá’s English-language newspaper, The City Paper.

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