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> Colombia Starter Kit, All the basic background info about Colombia and travel there
mcguinnessdave
post Apr 7 2009, 09:00 AM
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Introduction

Colombia is located on the Northwest coast of South America and is the point where South America joins Central America making it a traditional trading path and thus resulted in the most ethnically diverse population in South America. Colombia shares a border with Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Panama and Venezuela, and has two important coastlines the Pacific and the Caribbean. It is the world's 2nd largest nation of Spanish-speakers (behind Mexico). In recent times famous for terrorists, kidnapping and cocaine, Colombia has cleaned up its act a lot in recent years bring a new level of security and prosperity to Colombians who have been very happy with the changes they have seen in their country and their standard of living: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/5172254.stm. Anyone who has been there will know what I mean. The level of security for travellers has also improved immensely so now is the time to see this fantastic country before the crowds discover it.

People
Religion & Culture
While about 90% of Colombians are Roman Catholic, a religion brought over by the colonial power Spain, people's beliefs are often influenced by other cultures' beliefs from African, indigenous and other regional spheres. Mormons, evangelicals and Protestants have been winning converts in recent times but still only represent a small minority.

Population
Colombia's population is roughly 45 million, giving it the third highest population in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico, and the second highest Spanish-speaking population in the world after Mexico. The capital city Bogota has around 8 million inhabitants. The three main origins of Colombian people are Spanish, African and various indigenous tribes.

Language
Spanish is the official language of Colombia and apart from a small handful of indigenous tribes, all Colombians speak it. English is commonly spoken on the islands of San Andres and Providencia. 65 indigenous languages and over 300 dialects are also spoken within Colombia's borders.

Food
Colombian food is essentially Creole and is quite varied ranging from guinea pig (a favourite in the Andes) to lobster (on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts). A typical lunch or dinner in Colombia consists of meat or chicken served alongside frijoles (kidney beans) or lentils, fried plantain, rice and a small salad. Coffee is tasty and ubiquitous. But the fruit of Colombia is the real surprise treat being both extremely varied and delicious.

Environment
Geography
Colombia covers over 1.1 m sq kms, making it roughly the size of France, Spain and Portugal combined. The Western region is dominated by mountains including 3 Andean chains and there are several peaks above 5000m. 49% of the country surface is forested and the Southeast of the country is dominated by the Amazon lowlands - thick rainforest where access is by river only. Tatacoa, a tiny desert between these two regions, also boasts its own unique eco-system.

Flora & Fauna
Colombia claims to have more plant and animal species per square kilometre than any other country in the world. In fact only Brazil (7 times the size of Colombia) can boast more. Colombia hosts more than 350 mammals (including 15% of the world's primates), over 18% of the world's birdlife and a staggering 130,000 plants. From eagles to anacondas, piranhas to orchids, turtles to condors, Colombia is home to an incredible 10% of the world's biodiversity!

Climate
Being close to the equator, temperatures don't change much throughout the year. Altitude is a major determinant of temperature - with about 6C decrease for every 1000m increase in altitude (though the difference is more at night). The average daytime temperature is around 30C at sea level. Dry and rainy seasons vary from place to place.

History
Colombia's history is as colourful as it can be dramatic - from the ancient peoples of San Agustin, of whom we know very little other than their beautiful statues, through to Spanish conquest and colonisation. From the independence wars through post-independence violence, drug trafficking and civil war, Colombia has known much strife. The last few years have seen increasing stability, security and prosperity however, and most Colombians look forward to a brighter future.

Economy
The Colombian economy has never suffered from the hyper-inflation or economic collapse that many of its neighbours have. In recent years GDP growth has regularly been above 5%, and unemployment has been below 15% for many years. The US is the biggest market for Colombian exports (both legal and illegal!) followed by Venezuela - and its main exports are petroleum, coffee, coal, nickel, emeralds, clothing, bananas and cut flowers.

Travel
Southern Colombia
The South of the country is incredible, and more off-the-beaten-track. I am a huge fan of San Agustin, where you find incredible statues, beautiful scenery and the most friendly people on the planet. Also the Tatacoa desert is an incredible place and one very few tourists visit, though you might need Spanish if you are to get the full value of an independent trip here as there are no English-speaking guides around.

Make sure you stay on a tradtional farm if you go to the coffee district for a beautiful and colonial experience. The hike in Parque Nevado de la Ruiz is also worthwhile, hiking up na active volcano

There are also some brilliant Amazon trips here where you won't see any other tourists (or even any other people other than your guide and tracker) for days. The Amazonian communities are very hospitable too when you cross over into Peru (unofficially).

As for Bogota, the Gold museum is the main attraction along with the walk up to Monserate for stunning views of the city. Do this on the weekend for security or at least check the security. It has gotten at lot safer on other days but take recent advice. The Botero museum is also worth a visit and there are plenty of lovely churches dotted around the centre. Stay in the Platypus for a budget small dorm option, or Casa Platypus for nicer private rooms. And make sure to meet German, the owner, who knows Colombia like no one else.

Northern Colombia
Northern Colombia is more travelled and better documented so I will keep it short here. The main places of attraction in North Colombia are Taganga (good for diving and general chilling out), the Lost City trek is my favourite trek of all time (organised from Santa Marta) , and of course Cartagena is beautiful. Parque Tayrona also has some of the most beautiful beaches in Colombia and is good for a relaxing stay though accommodation is quite basic. La Guajira is also a beautiful and less visited part of North Colombia.

Offshore
If it's a beautiful place to relax you are after you can't go wrong with Providencia. This super-chilled Caribbean island is stunningly beautiful and very relaxing with very friendly locals who do not try to exploit the few tourists they have. The old American taxis move around the island of 400 people at a snails pace and the locals wave and nod to everyone they pass. "Hey man!". "Alright!". If you can't relax here you will never relax! It's also a great place for diving and snorkelling with incredibly clear blue Caribbean seas.

If I can help at all, drop me a message.

Enjoy!
Dave


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