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Updated on January 6, 2012

In the 70 years up to 1903, Colombia was ravaged by 27 civil wars. The strife between political factions continued and culminated in 'The Violence' of 1948-53, when 200,000 people lost their lives. The scale of this slaughter shocked Colombians, and led to a compromise that has left Colombia as one of the few democracies in Latin America. In 1957, after four years of military intervention, the liberals and conservatives agreed to support a joint presidential candidate, alternating the choice between the parties every four years and sharing the other offices between them. The system worked. In 1974 the pact was modified to allow each party to put up a separate presidential candidate.

Three Andean ranges, the Cordilleras Occidental, Central and Oriental, form Colombia's backbone. Between are the fertile valleys of the Cauca river, with rich volcanic soils, and the Magdalena river, which opens to the Caribbean and Barranquilla, the chief port. The valleys produce coffee, tobacco, beef and dairy produce. These are also raised in fertile mountain basins such as those centered on the cities of Medellin, which also makes 80% of the country's textiles, Manizales, which produces 30% of Colombia's coffee, and the nation's capital, Bogota. The Cauca valley also produces rice and tropical fruits, cotton and sugar.

East of the Andes are the rain forests of the Amazonian lowlands, which cover more than half the country. To the west, the Pacific coastal plain rises northwards to the Serrania de Baudo. Inland from the plain the Atrato marshes are useless for farming, but gold and platinum are dredged from the Atrato river.

People and History

Colombia's highlands cover only 45% of the country, bur they contain 98% of its people. Mestizos, people of mixed Indian and European blood, arc the largest ethnic group. Indians of nearly 400 tribes survive, including the Chibcha - who live in ancient farming communities in the highlands and whose ceremonies at Lake Guatavita near Bogota probably gave rise to the legend of Eldorado - and the fierce Jivaro of Amazonia, who are noted for their custom of shrinking the heads of fallen enemies.

About 60% of the population live in cities. Unlike most Latin American states, Colombia's capital does not dominate the urban scene.

The country has 15 cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, which reflect the different characters of its sharply divided regions. The regions also vary widely in standards of social welfare, health and education. Only about 65% of all Colombians are literate.

Spaniards in search of gold opened up Colombia and founded Cartagena in 1533 and Bogota in 1538. The colony of New Granada - Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and parts of Panama - was established in 1718.

In 1819, Simon Bolivar, the South American revolutionary, defeated the Spaniards at Boyaca. He became president of the Republic of Great Colombia, but by the time he died in 1830, Venezuela and Ecuador had broken away.

Conflicts between the conservatives, who wanted a strong church and central power, and the liberals, who wanted a federal system, culminated in the civil war of 1899-1 902, in which more than 100,000 died. Panama seized the opportunity and broke away in 1903.

In the 1930s liberal presidents sought to diversify the economy, expand communications and introduce tax and educational reforms. However, the country was still dominated by a few aristocratic families who owned most of the land.

Demands for social and economic reform grew, and eventually erupted in 'The Violence' of 1948-53.

Since the agreement of 1957, political stability has made possible some economic progress and social reform. But in the late 1970s growing anti-government guerrilla activity cast a shadow over Colombia's future stability.


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