Colombians are some of the warmest, most friendly and uncannily helpful people you'll encounter in South America. They handle life with good humor and a light-heartedness that is infectious. The country's geographical diversity – mountains and sea – has left discreet influences on the national psyche. While life is industrious and the Spanish crisp and formal in the Andean cities of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, costeños (people from the coast) are more laid back and speak a heavier-accented, more drawling Spanish.

Lifestyle & Attitude

Wealthy urban Colombians live a very different life to their poorer counterparts. Their children go to private schools, they treat intercity planes like taxis and whiz through city streets glued to their smartphones in their 4x4s. They play golf in country clubs at weekends, and, more than likely, they own a small private finca (farm) where they occasionally indulge their rural fantasies.

Poorer Colombians buy their phone calls by the minute in the street, wait in interminable intercity and urban traffic jams, and dream of sending their children to any school at all. Indigenous people and those in isolated rural communities affected by the civil conflict are often focused on ensuring they have enough food to survive and in other senses often live totally outside mainstream society.

Between these extremes, Colombia boasts one of the largest middle-class populations in Latin America, where many of its neighbors suffer great disparity in wealth. The country's free-market policies and relatively low level of corruption have helped the middle class to flourish.

All Colombians, though, are bound by strong family ties, not just to immediate blood relatives but also to their extended family, and childless visitors over 21 years of age will be quizzed endlessly on their plans to start a family. Although the dominant faith is Catholicism, very few people of any class attend Mass.

Women are the heart of a Colombian household. Machismo may be alive and well outside the home, where men are unquestionably in charge, but inside the Colombian home, women rule the roost. That's not the only place they rule. Women make up a significant number of the country's high-ranking politicians and diplomats, including cabinet ministers and ambassadors. In fact, a quota law passed in 2000 requires that at least 30% of appointed positions in the executive branch be filled by women.

Try not to get uptight if a Colombian is late – anything up to 45 minutes – and don't take it personally; instead, perhaps go with the flow and enjoy a culture that truly believes that most things aren't worth rushing for! Bus timetables, in particular, are a laughable fiction.

Most Colombians don't use drugs and you'll find a big taboo about cocaine use (and sometimes even discussing the subject) due to the drug's violent history. Younger people in urban areas do indulge in drug use, though drinking is far more popular – and how. The Carnaval de Barranquilla is a riot of licentiousness and rum-doused ribaldry and it is no exaggeration to call it Colombia's answer to Rio de Janeiro's carnival.

Colombia's Indigenous Peoples

Colombia may be an ethnic mixing pot that can put most countries to shame, but its indigenous people – yet another part of the jigsaw for first-time visitors to explore and encounter – remain in many cases nations apart, often somewhat or totally removed from the mainstream of Colombian society. Comprising around 1.4 million people and divided into 87 different tribes, including some that remain uncontacted, this flipside to mainstream Colombian society is fascinating to explore.

Some indigenous groups you're likely to encounter include the Ticuna in the Amazon, the Wiwa, Kogui and Arhuaco in the Sierra Nevada, the Waayu in La Guajira and the Muisca around Bogotá. Indigenous reserves make up an extraordinary third of the area of Colombia, the land being collectively owned by the indigenous communities there. Yet despite legal protections, indigenous groups have often borne the brunt of the violence in recent decades, their vast reserves making perfect hiding places for guerrillas, paramilitary groups and coca plantations. As if to add insult to injury, the Plan Colombia spraying of many rural areas by the US Air Force to destroy coca farms has also destroyed or damaged perfectly innocent crops that have long been cultivated by Colombia's native peoples, leaving many traditional societies without food.

People & Place: A Cultural Sancocho

With a population of 48.6 million people, Colombia is the third-most populous country in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico, and the figure is rising fast. The rate of population growth in 2017 remained high at 1%.

Each city in Colombia has its own unique cultural mix, making traveling here as satisfyingly varied as a rich sancocho (soup). Many European immigrants populated Medellín, while much of the population of Cali is descended from former enslaved people. Bogotá and the surrounding areas saw much intermarriage between European colonists and indigenous people, while Cali and the Caribbean and Pacific coasts have a high proportion of African-Colombians.

Slavery was abolished in 1821, and the country has the largest black population in South America after Brazil. The last four centuries have seen plenty of intermarriage, meaning a great number of Colombians are of mixed race; indeed it's quite a challenge to picture a 'typical' looking Colombian!

Balls & Bulls

Colombians love soccer. The national league has 18 teams across the country, and attracts rowdy and boisterous crowds during the two seasons (February to June and August to December). The standard of play is often poor, making for comical, error-prone matches.

After soccer, baseball is the second-most popular team sport in Colombia. Cycling is also hugely favored, with Bogotá's Ciclovía each Sunday bringing in thousands of cyclists and skaters to the city's roads, many of which are closed for the day.

Animal-lovers will be disappointed to witness the popularity of bullfighting in Colombia, whether at formal events or at corralejas, the wild-side variant that sees amateurs pitting their addled wits against a charging toro with predictably gory consequences. The formal bullfighting season peaks during the holiday period between mid-December and mid-January, and attracts some of the world's best matadors. The January Feria de Manizales is of great appeal to aficionados. Cock-fighting is also wildly popular in rural areas.