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The Country Primer

Before we get into individual stories, here’s a primer, a quick country overview. I think this is important for context going forward.

Colombia is a country of more than 49 million people living in an area of 440,831 square miles. That’s roughly 10,000 square miles larger than Texas and California combined, but still 220,000 square miles smaller than Alaska. Colombia is divided into 32 departments (similar to the states of the United States) and one capital district, which is the city of Santa Fe de Bogotá.


With a population of almost 9 million people Bogotá is a dense metropolis similar to New York City. Folks are busy in Bogotá. If you’re a working stiff you may have to get up at 5 in the morning to ride the crowded Transmilenio bus system to get to work by 7:30. No one on the Transmilenio smiles; frequently in the morning they’re sleeping. It’s not a game, exactly like commuting in New York. So, Los Rolos, as they call people from Bogotá don’t have time for foolishness (similar to New Yorkers), but they’ll take a quick moment to give you directions.

Other principal cities are Santiago de Cali, Medellin, Barranquilla, and Cartagena with populations of 2.4 million, 2-2.5 million, 1.4 million, and 950,000 respectively.

Cali is known as the world capital of Salsa. Medellin has the reputation of being the world’s most innovative city. Barranquilla is a port city on the Caribbean coast. Cartagena is on that coast too, west of Barranquilla. It was featured in the 1984 movie Romancing the Stone with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.

A favorite city I have to add to this list is Manizales. That’s where I first lived when I came to Colombia. It’s a small city of about 400,000 people. It still has the feel of a pueblo because of its size, but it’s surprisingly bustling. There are several universities, it’s in the middle of the principal Colombian coffee region. Interestingly enough, many South American businesses place their customer support call centers in Manizales because Manizaleños have the reputation of having a neutral Spanish accent.

The city of Santa Marta also deserves mention. It’s on the coast, east of Barranquilla and is billed as the oldest continuously inhabited city in South America, founded in 1525. It’s both beautiful and seedy, a must-visit on any country tour.

Where is it?

Located on the northwestern tip of South America, Colombia is bordered by Panama on the northwest, Venezuela on the east, Brazil on the southeast, and Ecuador and Peru on the south. Geographically, Colombia has it all: glaciers, live volcanos, Amazon rainforests, tropical savannas, and deserts. There is a Caribbean and a Pacific coast. Most of the country’s climate is tropical, at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,000 meters (3,284 and 6,562 ft). In the mountainous regions of the Andes, the temperature depends on elevation. Above 4,000 meters (13,123 ft) it’s glacial cold. Between 2,000 and 3,000 meters (6,565 and 9,843 ft) it’s just cool (12 to 17 oC). That’s where you’ll find the páramos, alpine-like, treeless grasslands. Think above the tree line but below the permanent snowline. Páramos are important ecosystems where the country’s waterways are born.

Ecologically-speaking Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world, behind Brazil. According to Wikipedia, there are 56,343 species of plants and animals registered in Colombia, with the largest variety of orchids and birds in the world and the second greatest variety of plants, amphibians, butterflies and fresh water fish. It falls third in the number of species of palm trees and reptiles globally and fourth in biodiversity of mammals. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos was once quoted as saying that biodiversity is to Colombia what oil is for the middle east.

Quick Economics

Colombia’s gross domestic product per capita is $7,384.02. It’s the 91st largest in the world. The United States’ GDP per capita was $45,759.46 per capita in 2007, the eighth largest in the world.

Rich in natural resources. Wikipedia lists Colombia’s exports as mineral fuels, oils, distillation products, fruit and other agricultural products, sugars and sugar confectionery, food products, plastics, precious stones, metals, forest products, chemical goods, pharmaceuticals, vehicles, electronic products, electrical equipment, perfumery and cosmetics, machinery, manufactured articles, textile and fabrics, clothing and footwear, glass and glassware, furniture, prefabricated buildings, military products, home and office material, construction equipment, software, among others. Principal trading partners are the United States, China, the European Union and some Latin American countries.

A Really Short History

The name “Colombia” is derived from the last name of Christopher Columbus. It was conceived by the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda as a reference to all the New World then known. Historically, the name has referred to various collections of territories including what is now Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and northwest Brazil. The designation Republic of Colombia was attributed to what became known as the modern-day country in 1886.

How The Government Works

The government of Colombia is a democratic republic divided into an executive branch, a legislative branch and a judicial branch. The president serves as both head of state and head of government.

The current president is Juan Manuel Santos who, in 2016, received the Nobel Peace Prize for the peace agreement currently being implemented between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), essentially ending a more than 50-year armed conflict. Although advancing in its implementation, the peace accords are controversial in certain Colombian political circles and was voted against by a majority of the Colombian citizenry, mainly for being too lenient punitively toward the FARC.

Dice, Slice and Paint

Ethnically diverse, Colombians descend from the original native inhabitants, Spanish colonists, Africans brought to the country as slaves, and 20th-century European and Middle Eastern immigrants.

There is an expansive artistic tradition in Colombia, dating back to the pre-Columbian era. N terms of modern contributions, the country is perhaps most famous, for the Nobel laureate writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But he is just one among many. Notable authors include Eduardo Caballero Calderón, Manuel Mejía Vallejo, and Álvaro Mutis, a writer who was awarded the Cervantes Prize and the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters. Other leading contemporary authors are Fernando Vallejo, William Ospina (Rómulo Gallegos Prize),  Germán Castro Caycedo, and a writer I’m beginning to enjoy more and more, Fernando Quiroz.

World class Colombian artists include Fernando Botero, Doris Salcedo, Santiago Martínez Delgado, Enrique Grau, Guilloume Perez-Zapata, Omar Rayo, Pedro Nel Gómez, Andrés de Santa Maria, Feliza Bursztyn, and Guillermo Silva Santamaria.

These are very abbreviated lists.

The Down Side

Of course, not everything related to Colombia is positive. The most infamous smear on the Colombian world reputation is its status as a cocaine producer.

Peru and Bolivia dominated coca-leaf production before the 1990s. Manual eradication campaigns there, dismantling the transportation routes for Bolivian and Peruvian coca leaf to Colombia for production into cocaine, and a fungus that wiped out a large percentage of Peru’s coca crops made it more difficult for the cartels to obtain coca from these countries.

Colombia’s drug cartels consequently purchased land in Colombia to expand production, pushing coca cultivation into areas of southern Colombia then controlled by the FARC. Colombia replaced Bolivia and Peru as the primary producer of coca leaf between 1996 and 1997, but fell back behind Peru again in 2012. Early this year newspapers reported that Colombia again occupied the position as the country with the most coca production.

Colombian coca farmers use between 69,000 and 188,000 hectares, approximately, to produce the country’s cocaine. Because of the lack of state control, the land is available for all kinds of illegal or informal activity. The UN estimated that in 2015 some 64,500 Colombian farming families, a population of more than 300,000, live off coca.

Authorities are trying to curb coca cultivation by eradicating plants and, until recently, spraying chemicals over areas where coca fields are most prevalent. Nevertheless, Colombia last year had a potential cocaine production of 487 tons, more than half of what is consumed globally.

Cocaine in Colombia is real and a complex problem. But it’s not the number one preoccupation of the average Colombian. Nor is it the prevalent force in cities like Medellin, as it was 20 years ago, when Medellin was listed as one of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world.

So, while coca cultivation may once again be on the rise, the focus of world drug trafficking has relocated to other countries, Mexico most prominent on the list.

With the signing and current implementation of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, Colombia is entering a new era of peace and growing prosperity. Construction is rampant all over the country, and businesses and entrepreneurs seeking to legitimately connect Colombia to the rest of the world are on the rise.

Spreading this prosperity across the entire country remains difficult, however. There are huge swaths of populations, mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous, who suffer from lack of services and rates of illiteracy, unemployment and disenfranchisement high above national averages.

Statistically Speaking

Following are data to give you a better idea of where Colombia stands in the world. These statistics come from Wikipedia and Nationmaster.com.

  • Colombia leads the annual ranking of the best clinics and hospitals in Latin America.
  • Unemployment was 10.4% in 2012, while in the U.S. it was 8.1% that same year.
  • Colombia’s adult literacy rate was 94.7% in 2015, 54th in the world. Estonia and Cuba are listed as numbers one and two with rates at 99.8% for both countries. There are no reports on this statistic for the United States, Canada or Australia.
  • The Colombian population below the poverty line was 34.1% in 2011, fifth in the world. The U.S. population below the poverty line was 15.1% in 2010, 34th in the world for that year.
  • The average monthly disposable salary was $474.66 for 2014. That’s 125th in the world. For the U.S., it was $3,258.85 (13th in the world).
  • Colombia falls eighth in the world for number of murders, sandwiched in between South Africa and Russia. Brazil is number one and the U.S. is 14th.
  • Colombia was 53rd in the world in the number of assaults recorded by police in 2011, with 63.4 assaults per 100,000 people. Canada was 10th in the world with 737.5 assaults per 100,000. Number one on this list was Scotland with 1,655 assaults per 100,000 people. Last on this list of 92 countries was Pakistan with 0.1 assaults per 100,000 for the subject year.

I feel very safe in Colombia, by the way. And over the past five years as a Black American I’ve felt less safe in the country of my birth (mostly around and because of the police).

  • In 2002, the total number of people incarcerated in Colombia was 54,034 (30th in the world). The U.S. is first in the world with 2.02 million prisoners. China is second with 1.55 million prisoners. For additional reference, the U.S.’s national population was 321.4 million in 2015, while China’s was 1.371 billion that same year. Pakistan is twelfth on the list with 87,000 prisoners. I include Pakistan because of their exceptionally low incidence of assaults. Their population was 188.9 million in 2015. Unfortunately, I can’t make the same comparison reference with Scotland, the country with the most assaults, because that country doesn’t appear on the Nationmaster incarceration list.
  • In 2002, Colombia was at level 4 on the Global Terrorism Indicator. It shared that level with Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, and Turkey, among others. In the same year, the United States was listed at level 3. Also listed at level 3 were China, Iraq, Lebanon, and Mexico. Countries at level 1 in 2002 included Algeria, Indonesia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and India. (The Global Terrorism Indicator is a one-to-five scale that measures terrorism in a country. Level 5 – More than 1,000 deaths; Level 4 – 201-1,000 deaths; Level 3 – 101-200 deaths; Level 2 – 21-100 deaths; Level 1 – 0-20 deaths or no incidents recorded.)
  • Colombia is one of the countries with the most displaced populations, 7.7 million. Much of this population is Afro-Colombian and indigenous. Only Syria, with 12 million, surpasses Colombia. Third, fourth and fifth on this list are Afghanistan with 4.7 million, Iraq with 4.2 million and South Sudan with 3.3 million at the end of 2016. (This comes from a United Nations report on refugees.)
  • In 2011, total life expectancy at birth was 73.57. In the U.S. it was 78.64.
  • In 2005, Colombia had an infant mortality rate of 21.72. The rate for Latin America and the Caribbean was 23.27. For Hong Kong, Canada and the European Union, it was 2.97, 4.82 and 7.46 respectively.
  • In 2008 Colombia was 110th in the world in adult obesity at 17.3%. The United States was 18th with an adult obesity rate of 33%, tied with Saudi Arabia.
  • Colombia is the third-most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. It is also home to the third-largest number of Spanish speakers in the world after Mexico and the United States.

Next week we’ll zoom in and get more personal.

There’s a lot more to tell … On Colombia