Life in Colombia

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.

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Same-sex marriages came into being in Colombia in 2013, though until 2016 there was no formal legal mechanism for it. Since 2016, however, same-sex marriage has been legal and simple.

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James Rodríguez, known simply to most Colombians as James (pronounced Ha-mes), is currently the most famous footballer in the country and one of the most promising young players in the world, as the highest scorer of the 2014 World Cup tournament.

The Arts

Ask most people to name three famous Colombian artists, and you'll get Gabriel García Márquez, sculptor Fernando Botero and perhaps Shakira. But Colombia's artists have a lot more to offer than magic realism, fat-bottomed statues and hip-swinging pop.

Music

Colombia is famous for its music, and silence is a very rare commodity anywhere in the country. Indeed, once you've heard the volume at which music is played in a Colombian bar or nightclub, you'll find a new appreciation for both silence and earplugs.

Vallenato, born a century ago on the Caribbean coast, is based on the German accordion. Carlos Vives, one of the best-known modern Latin music artists, modernized the form and became a poster boy for the music. Vallenato's spiritual homeland is Valledupar. The style is not to everyone's taste, but if you leave Colombia without having danced to it a dozen times, you haven't really been there.

Cumbia, a lively 4/4 style with guitars, accordion, bass, drums and the occasional horn, is the most popular of the Colombian musical styles overseas. Groups such as Pernett and The Caribbean Ravers have modernized the sound, as have Bomba Estéreo. The funkiest group of recent years has been ChocQuibTown, a Pacific coast hip-hop band, who mix incisive social commentary with tough beats.

Salsa spread throughout the Caribbean and in the late 1960s it hit Colombia, where it's been adopted and made its own. Cali and Barranquilla are its heartland, but it's loved everywhere. The country went into mourning when Joe Arroyo, known locally as El Joe, died in 2011. The modern, tough urban salsa style is best typified by La 33 of Bogotá.

Joropo, the music of Los Llanos, is accompanied by a harp, a cuatro (a type of four-string guitar) and maracas. It has much in common with the music of the Venezuelan Llanos. Chief proponents Grupo Cimarrón will dazzle you with their virtuosity and rapid footwork, and any visitor to La Macarena or Villavicencio will have a chance to watch this music be performed.

Colombia has also generated many unique rhythms from the fusion of Afro-Caribbean and Spanish influences, including porro, currulao, merecumbe, mapalé and gaita. The Cartagena-born sound of champeta, meanwhile, mixes African rhythms with a bumping, rough-cut, block-party attitude: check it out in Cartagena's less touristy venues, such as Bazurto Social Club. Reggaeton, with its thumping bass-snare loops, is popular as well, along with the rhythmically driven and heavy-on-the-downbeat merengue.

Colombian Andean music is strongly influenced by Spanish rhythms and instruments, and differs noticeably from the indigenous music of the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands. Among typical old genres are the bambuco, pasillo and torbellino, instrumental styles featuring predominantly string instruments.

In the cities, especially Bogotá and Medellín, many clubs play techno and house; big-name international DJs sometimes play both cities.

Colombian Literature

Colombia's long (if modest) literary tradition began to form shortly after independence from Spain in 1819 and gravitated towards European romanticism. Rafael Pombo (1833–1912) is generally acclaimed as the father of Colombian romantic poetry and Jorge Isaacs (1837–95), another notable author of the period, is particularly remembered for his romantic novel María, which can still be spotted in cafes and classrooms around the country.

José Asunción Silva (1865–96), one of Colombia's most remarkable poets, is considered the precursor of modernism in Latin America. He planted the seeds that were later developed by Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Another literary talent, Porfirio Barba Jacob (1883–1942), known as 'the poet of death,' introduced the ideas of irrationalism and the language of the avant-garde.

Talented contemporaries of literary Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez included poet, novelist and painter Héctor Rojas Herazo, and Álvaro Mutis, who was a close friend. Of the younger generation, seek out the works of Fernando Vallejo, a highly respected iconoclast who has claimed in interviews that García Márquez lacks originality and is a poor writer. Popular young expat Santiago Gamboa has written travel books and novels; Mario Mendoza writes gritty, modern urban fiction; and Laura Restrepo focuses on how violence affects the individual and society – they are prolific writers who have each produced major works in recent years.

Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia's Nobel Laureate

Gabriel García Márquez remains the titan of Colombian literature, despite his death in 2014. Born in 1928 in Aracataca, he wrote primarily about Colombia, despite actually living most of his life in Mexico and Europe.

García Márquez began as a journalist in the 1950s and worked as a foreign correspondent, criticizing the Colombian government and forcing himself into exile. His breakthrough novel came in 1967, with One Hundred Years of Solitude. It mixed myths, dreams and reality, and single-handedly invented the magic realism genre.

In 1982 García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the years following he created a wealth of fascinating work, including Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), a story based loosely on the courtship of his parents and The General in his Labyrinth (1989) recounts the tragic final months of Simón Bolívar's life. Strange Pilgrims (1992) is a collection of 12 stories written by the author over 18 years. Of Love and Other Demons (1994) is the story of a young girl raised by her parents' slaves, set amid the backdrop of Cartagena's inquisition.

In 2012, García Márquez' brother revealed that Gabo, as he was affectionately known to Colombians, was suffering from dementia, accelerated by his chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer. Following his death in 2014, García Márquez was buried in Mexico City, with the presidents of both Colombia and Mexico in attendance. His home town, Aracataca, inspiration for the fictional Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, held a symbolic funeral for him as well.

You'll find editions of García Márquez' works on sale in English all over Colombia, and while there's a good reconstruction of his family home that serves as a museum in his hometown of Aracataca, the town itself will be a letdown for anyone wanting to get a geographic sense of García Márquez' books. For a better taste of Gabo's world, head to Cartagena or – better still – the isolated colonial town of Mompós, a modern-day Macondo that will delight any fan of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Art & Abstraction

Fernando Botero is to Colombian painting what García Márquez is to the country's literature – the heavyweight name that overshadows all others. Two other famous Colombian painters, often overlooked, are Omar Rayo (1928–2010), known for his geometric drawings, and Alejandro Obregón (1920–92), a Cartagena painter famous for his abstract paintings.

Colombia is also home to a good deal of colonial religious art. Gregorio Vásquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638–1711) was the most remarkable painter of the colonial era. He lived and worked in Bogotá and left behind a collection of more than 500 works, now distributed among churches and museums across the country.

Since the end of WWII, the most distinguished artists have been Pedro Nel Gómez, known for his murals, watercolors, oils and sculptures; Luis Alberto Acuña, a painter and sculptor who used motifs from pre-Columbian art; Guillermo Wiedemann, a German painter who spent most of his creative period in Colombia and drew inspiration from local themes (though he later turned to abstract art); Édgar Negret, an abstract sculptor; Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, who expressed himself mostly in geometric forms; and Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, Colombia's most famous monument maker.

These masters were followed by a slightly younger generation, born mainly in the 1930s, including artists such as Armando Villegas, a Peruvian living in Colombia, whose influences ranged from pre-Columbian motifs to surrealism; Leonel Góngora, noted for his erotic drawings; and the most internationally renowned Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.

The recent period has been characterized by a proliferation of schools, trends and techniques. Artists to watch out for include Bernardo Salcedo (conceptual sculpture and photography), Miguel Ángel Rojas (painting and installations), Lorenzo Jaramillo (expressionist painting), María de la Paz Jaramillo (painting), María Fernanda Cardozo (installations), Catalina Mejía (abstract painting) and Doris Salcedo (sculpture and installations).

Fernando Botero: Larger Than Life

Fernando Botero is the most widely recognized Colombian painter and sculptor. Born in Medellín in 1932, he had his first individual painting exhibition in Bogotá at the age of 19 and gradually developed his easily recognizable style – characterized by his figures' massive, almost obscene curvaceousness. In 1972 he settled in Paris and began experimenting with sculpture, which resulted in a collection of gordas and gordos (fat women and men), as Colombians call these creations.

Today, his paintings hang on the walls of world-class museums and his monumental public sculptures adorn squares and parks in cities around the globe, including Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Florence and New York.

Moving from his typically safe subject matter in 2004, he shocked Colombia with a collection of works examining the country's civil war; and in 2005, he produced a controversial series of images that split critical opinion, featuring scenes from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, where US forces tortured and humiliated detainees. While some lauded Botero's move into more political matters, others regarded it as too little, too late, and still others thought this out-of-character development was inappropriate. He has since returned to his more recognizable still lifes.

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Bogotá is Colombia's cultural capital. For a taste of what's on, check out www.culturarecreacionydeporte.gov.co.

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Telenovelas (soap operas) are Colombia's cultural barometer. Although they aren't high art, they reflect the country's concerns and passions as faithfully as any documentary. One of the most famous was Chepe Fortuna (Fishing for Fortune), a gloriously improbable tale of love, politics, environmentalism and, er, mermaids.

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The Bogotá Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro, the world's largest such event, was set up in 1976 by Colombia's most influential actress, Fanny Mikey (1930–2008). See www.festivaldeteatro.com.co for more.

The Natural World

From snowcapped, craggy Andean mountains and the vast plains of Los Llanos, to the lush tropical forests of the Amazon basin and rolling green valleys full of coffee, Colombia is a mind-blowingly beautiful and varied country. What's more, it harbors astonishing biodiversity, being the second most biodiverse country on earth after neighboring Brazil.

The Land

Colombia covers 1,141,748 sq km, roughly equivalent to the combined area of California and Texas (or France, Spain and Portugal). It is the 26th-largest country in the world, and the fourth-largest in South America, after Brazil, Argentina and Peru.

While most people assume that Colombia is just a tropical land, the country's physical geography is amazingly varied. The country's environment is generally divided into five habitat categories: wet tropical forests, dry tropical forests, tropical grasslands, mountain grasslands, and deserts and scrublands.

The western part, almost half of the total territory, is mountainous, with three Andean chains – Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental – running roughly parallel north–south across most of the country. A number of the peaks are over 5000m, making them higher than anything in the USA. Two valleys, the Valle del Cauca and Valle del Magdalena, are sandwiched between the three cordilleras. Both valleys have their own eponymous rivers, which flow north, unite and eventually empty into the Caribbean near Barranquilla.

Apart from the three Andean chains, Colombia features an independent and relatively small range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which rises from the Caribbean coastline to soaring, snowcapped peaks. It is the world's highest coastal mountain range, and its twin summits of Simón Bolívar and Cristóbal Colón (both 5775m) are the country's highest.

More than half of the territory east of the Andes is vast lowland, which is generally divided into two regions: Los Llanos to the north and the Amazon River basin to the south. Los Llanos, roughly 250,000 sq km in area, is a huge open swath of grassland that constitutes the Orinoco River basin. Colombians say it is like an internal, green sea. The Amazon region, stretching over some 400,000 sq km, occupies Colombia's entire southeast and lies in the Amazon basin. Most of this land is covered by a thick rainforest and crisscrossed by rivers, and remains totally cut off from the rest of the country by road, though sadly this doesn't stop illegal logging.

Colombia also has a number of islands. The major ones are the archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia (a long way off in the Caribbean Sea, 750km northwest of mainland Colombia), the Islas del Rosario and San Bernardo (near the Caribbean coast), and Gorgona and Malpelo (along the Pacific coast).

Wildlife

This huge variety of climatic and geographic zones and microclimates has spawned diverse ecosystems and allowed wildlife to evolve independently. And how. Colombia claims to have more plant and animal species per square kilometer than any other country in the world. Its variety of flora and fauna is second only to Brazil's, even though Colombia is seven times smaller than its neighbor.

Animals

From pink dolphins to colorful parrots, tiny cats to giant rats, Colombia has some of the most unusual animal life on the planet. It has nearly 1700 recorded species of birds – 74 of which are native to the country – representing about 19% of all the birds on the planet. Colombia also has about 450 species of mammal (including 15% of the world's primates), 600 species of amphibian, 500 species of reptile and 3200 species of fish.

Some of the most interesting mammals include sleek cats such as the jaguar and the ocelot, red howler monkeys, spider monkeys, the three-toed sloth, giant anteaters, the goofy piglike peccary and tapir, and the hideous-looking capybara, or chiguiro, the world's largest living rodent that can grow to 48cm tall and weigh 55kg.

The waters of Colombia's Amazon are home to the famous rose-colored boto (Amazon River dolphin), the Amazonian manatee, and one of the most feared snakes, the anaconda (Eunectes murinus) that can grow to 6m.

Colombia's famous aviary includes 132 species of hummingbirds, 24 species of toucans, 57 types of colorful parrots and macaws, plus kingfishers, trogons, warblers and six of the world's seven vultures, including the Andean condor – a national symbol of Colombia.

There is also abundant marine life in the country's extensive river systems and along its two coastlines. The islands of San Andrés and Providencia boast some of the largest and most productive coral reefs in the Americas, now Unesco listed as the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in order to protect the ecosystem. The reefs are considered among the most intact in the Caribbean and play an important ecological role in the health of the sea. They provide feeding and nesting grounds for four species of endangered sea turtles and numerous types of fish and lobster. It has been determined that the health of certain fish stocks in the Florida Keys hinges directly on their ability to spawn in the Colombian reefs. The island of Providencia itself is home to the Providencia black crab (Gecarcinus ruricola), a unique species of crab that lives on the land, but completes an extraordinary annual migration to the sea to lay and fertilize eggs.

Endangered Species

The vast savanna of Los Llanos is home to some of the most endangered species in Colombia. Among them is the Orinoco crocodile, which can reach 7m in length. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, only 200 of these crocs remain in the wild in Colombia, making it one of the most critically endangered reptiles in the world, mainly due to the creatures' valuable skin. The good news is that between 2015 and 2016, over 40 juvenile Orinoco crocodiles were released into Tuparro National Park as part of the Proyecto Vida Silvestre program, which promotes conservation efforts in Los Llanos. Other endangered creatures from the region include the Orinoco turtle, giant armadillo, giant otter and black-and-chestnut eagle.

The cotton-top tamarin, a tiny monkey weighing just 500g, and its larger cousin, the brown spider monkey, are two of the most critically endangered primates in the world, according to the 2014 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Other critically endangered or endangered animals on the IUCN list include Handley's slender mouse opossum, mountain grackle and the mountain tapir. And two of the Amazon River's most famous residents, the pink river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, are considered vulnerable.

Note that some remote restaurants and bars offer turtle eggs, iguanas and other endangered species on their menus. It's also worth noting that the pirarucú (a fish popular in the Amazon basin region around Leticia) has been subject to overfishing; locals routinely ignore regulations preventing fishing for this species when it's spawning. These animals are endangered and eating them may hasten their extinction, so think before you order: there are normally other fish available on menus in the Amazon.

The Great Providencia Crab Migration

It truly is one of the most extraordinary sights you'll ever see: for a whole week in April the uniquely terrestrial Providencia black crab comes down from its habitat in the mountains and makes its way awkwardly towards the sea, where the females lay their eggs and the males then fertilize them, before returning inland shortly afterwards. During this time, the one road that rings this tiny Caribbean island is closed, and life for many becomes very static and even quieter than usual, with islanders only able to move around the island on foot.

A few months later, usually in July, the hatched juvenile crabs, still tiny, crawl out of the sea and head to the mountains. During this second migration the island shuts down again, and the sound of rustling is permanent day and night as the tiny crabs make their inelegant way up the hillside in their millions. If you're lucky enough to arrive on Providencia during either of these times, you're in for an unforgettable, if somewhat Hitchcockian, experience.

Plants

Colombia's flora is equally as impressive as its fauna and includes more than 130,000 types of plant, a third of which are endemic species. This richness does not convey the whole picture: large areas of the country, such as the inaccessible parts of the Amazon, have undiscovered species. It is estimated that, at a minimum, 2000 plant species have yet to be identified and an even greater number have yet to be analyzed for potential medicinal purposes.

Colombia has some 3500 species of orchids, more than any other country. Many of them are unique to the country, including Cattleya trianae, the national flower of Colombia. Orchids grow in virtually all regions and climate zones of the country, but are mostly found in altitudes between 1000m and 2000m, particularly in the northwest department of Antioquia.

Further up into the clouds you will find the frailejón, a unique, yellow-flowering, perennial shrub that only grows at altitudes above 3000m. There are some 88 species of frailejón, most native to Colombia. You'll find them in protected places such as Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Sierra Nevada del Cocuy and Santuario de Iguaque.

National Parks

Colombia has 59 national parks, flora and fauna sanctuaries and other natural reserve areas, all administered by the government's Parques Nacionales Naturales (PNN) de Colombia.

Unfortunately, simply declaring an area a national park has not stopped guerrilla activity, drug cultivation, illegal ranching, logging, mining or poaching. Most parks in the Amazon basin and along the Ecuadorian border should be considered off-limits. Other parks, such as Los Katios, a Unesco World Heritage Site near Darién Gap, are open but remain dodgy and access is limited; check the current security situation before proceeding.

On the bright side, many parks that were off-limits in recent years are now open for tourists and are included in our coverage. With the recent growth in tourism and ecotourism, the government is finally pumping pesos into its long-underfunded national parks system. New parks have recently opened and more are in the planning stages. Established parks are finally getting much-needed visitor amenities such as lodging and dining facilities, a rarity in Colombia.

This has not been without controversy. PNN has begun contracting with private companies to develop and operate tourist facilities inside some national parks, a move that some environmentalists fear will lead to overdevelopment. Some are concerned that prices will also increase and make the parks inaccessible to average Colombians. However, environmentalists have in recent years had some success checking such planned developments.

Colombia's most popular parks are situated along the country's pristine beaches. PNN Tayrona is by far Colombia's most popular national park, followed by Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo and Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Isla Gorgona.

Many other national parks offer just simple accommodations including basic cabins, dorms or campsites. Travelers wishing to stay overnight must book ahead with the PNN central office in Bogotá. There are also PNN regional offices in most large cities and at the parks. Most parks have an admission fee, payable at the entrance or at a regional PNN office.

It is always a good idea to check ahead of time with tour agencies and the parks department for up-to-date security and weather conditions for any park before visiting.

Private Parks & Reserves

In recent years the number of privately owned and operated nature reserves has increased. These are run by individual proprietors, rural communities, foundations and nongovernmental organizations. Many are just small, family reserves, sometimes offering accommodations and food. About 230 of these private parks are affiliated with the Asociación Red Colombiana de Reservas Naturales de la Sociedad Civil.

Yet another new player in the park scene is the corporation. Future parks might look a lot more like the new Parque Nacional del Chicamocha, near Bucaramanga. This for-profit, corporate-run resort opened in 2006, at a reported cost of US$20 million. In addition to hiking and trekking opportunities, this commercial theme park features dozens of restaurants, cafes, thrill rides, a zoo, cable cars and water park.

Environmental Issues

Many challenges remain, not least of which are the problems of climate change, habitat loss, and a loss of biodiversity through giant agribusiness megaplantations. The rapid push to develop a market-based economy and compete globally has put pressure on Colombia to build on its land and exploit its natural resources; these include farming, legal and illegal logging, mining and oil exploration. Such deforestation has increased the rate of extinction for many plant and animal species and destabilized soils, leading to the silting of rivers and devastation of marine species.

Even more troubling is the environmental impact of the illegal drug trade. Other illegal cash crops include marijuana and opium poppies. Attempts to stop farmers cultivating coca simply cause the producers to relocate. They move higher up the slopes and to the more remote, virgin forests of the Andes (aided by an increase in opium cultivation, which favors higher altitudes) and deeper into parks and the Amazon basin. In addition, antidrug efforts by the Colombian government (and, in large part, funded by the US war on drugs) have also taken some toll: the most common method of eradication has been aerial fumigation of coca fields; these hazardous herbicides destroy not just the coca plants, but surrounding vegetation as well, and no doubt seep into the watershed.

Sadly, the retreat of the FARC in many rural areas of Colombia has actually led to an acceleration in deforestation, as the rebels carefully controlled logging in order to keep their own locations covert. The FARC's surrender has left a power vacuum in many places and in 2016, deforestation jumped by an extraordinary 44% on the previous year to 178,597 hectares.

Green Fever

Colombia produces the largest percentage of the world's emeralds (50%; compared to Zambia's 20% and Brazil's 15%). Some estimate that the mines inside Colombia may actually contain up to 90% of the world's emerald deposits. This is good news for emerald prospectors but may not bode so well for the local environment – and perhaps Colombia as a whole. The fighting and destruction related to the production of these glamorous gems has had an impact on the country not so different from cocaine and heroin.

The main emerald-mining areas in Colombia include Muzo, Coscuez, La Pita and Chivor, all in the Boyacá department. Although the Muisca people mined emeralds in pre-Columbian times, the Spanish colonialists went crazy for the shiny green stones and greatly expanded the operations. They enslaved the indigenous locals to mine the gems and eventually replaced those workers with slave labor from Africa. Many of today's miners are the direct descendants of those slaves and live in only slightly better conditions.

The rich deposits in these areas have led to several environmental and social problems. Rampant digging has torn up the countryside and, in an attempt to find new digging sites or to improve their squalid living conditions, miners have continuously pushed further into the forest. Fierce battles have repeatedly been fought between rival gangs of miners, claiming lives and ravaging the mines. Between 1984 and 1990 alone, in one of the bloodiest 'emerald wars' in recent history, 3500 people were killed in Muzo. Yet 'green fever' continues to burn among fortune hunters and adventurers from all corners of the country and it may not stop until the last bewitching green gem is mined.

Sidebar: 1

Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (1998), by Alan Weisman, tells the story of Colombian villagers who transformed their barren hamlet in Los Llanos into a global model for a sustainable community. See www.friendsofgaviotas.org for more information.

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Colombia is the only South American nation to have coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

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The famous German geographer and botanist Alexander von Humboldt explored and studied regions of Colombia and described it all in amazing detail in Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799–1804.

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Bird-watching enthusiasts should pick up A Guide to the Birds of Colombia (1986) by Stephen L Hilty and William L Brown. Two great online resources for bird-watchers are www.colombiabirding.com and www.proaves.org.

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Colombia is the world's second-largest exporter of cut flowers, after the Netherlands. About US$1 billion worth of flowers are exported every year, mostly to the US. Americans buy 300 million Colombian roses on Valentine's Day, as the country's equatorial location means the roses grow perfectly straight.

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Conservación Internacional is one of Colombia's most influential environmental advocacy groups. To learn more about its positive work, check out www.conservation.org.co.

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With 18 official public holidays a year, Colombians have more days off annually than any other country except India and Sri Lanka. Colombians often joke that they have no idea what most of the celebrations are for, although nobody seems to object!