Colombia is a country divided by deserts, mountain ranges, rivers, and jungles. Thanks to this diverse topology and its according climates, it became a country that bursts of diversity in any sense of the word.
And, it is not only its topology that brought an interesting factor into the mix, but also its rich history that is tangled with Spanish colonialism, indigenous tribes, slavery and pirates added some interesting flavors.
No wonder that nowadays Colombian culture is so unique and fascinating wherever you go in the country. While traveling you might notice the cultural nuances between regions. They are reflected in their local music, art expressions, language, food, sports, and festivals among others.
However, they will all proudly present themselves as part of a unified Colombian Culture. So, let´s see what makes Colombia so Colombia.
Thanks to its topology and sheer variety of climates that come with it, Colombia is home to an incredible amount of local fruits and vegetables. Each region has its own specialties and follows specific local recipes.
There are so many products tourists have never even heard of: curuba, pitaya, lulo, mamoncillo, just to name a few. When it comes to fruits, Colombia is an absolute paradise for juice lovers.
They make juice with basically any type of fruit that grows in the country and they typically accompany their meals with a fresh juice. It will be an interesting experience trying to discover as many new flavors as possible!
Furthermore, you will probably notice that most of the typical Colombian cuisine isn´t ´fine´ or gourmet. A local meal will usually be served with a portion of white rice, some lettuce and a piece of grilled meat. Other typical side dishes are patacones: fried plantains, and arepas: round mais-cakes.
Portions are usually served generously and meant to fill the stomach. In Medellin you should try to eat some ´Bandeja Paisa´. It´s a local dish that comes with rice, avocado, ground beef, fried plantain, chicharonnes, and sausages. It is often reffered to as a trucker´s meal.
As you will notice, Colombians generally love to eat meat. However, they mainly stick to chicken, pork, and beef. In some regions like the Tatacoa desert and Guajira, where rainfall isn´t common, people do eat lots of goat.
You should also definitely try some Chicharrones, fried pork belly, which is a favorite snack for many.
Not only meat is typical on the menu, also fish, especially in the regions closer to the coast. Don´t miss out on trying some delicious ceviche in Cartagena. But, also try some freshwater trout in the coffee zone. It is typically served on a huge piece of patacon.
In the big cities like Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogota, you will easily find restaurants serving food of whatever thinkable cuisine in the world. But further away from the cosmopolitan cities, you will have to eat local and fresh food.
Each region of Colombia has its own kind of empanadas. These are little meat pies with different fillings. In some regions they eat them fried, others come from the oven.
Usually, they are eaten with some drops of lemon juice and people like to add some áji´, a spicy sauce. The city of Popayan, all the way in the south of Colombia, is known for its empanadas that are served with typical spicy peanut sauce.
As you can see, food is very regional in Colombia. However, there are certain things in Colombian Cuisine that are the same in Colombian culture.
For example, Colombians love their coffee (or ´tinto´ how they call it). Additionally, Colombians have a thing for mixing cheese with sweet and see no problem in drinking a hot chocolate with pieces of cheese in it or adding grated cheese to their fruit salad.
And, I challenge you to try to find a household where they don´t serve arepas as an extra with the meal.
While traveling in Colombia you will probably hear music everywhere and all the time. Blasting speakers will play from little shops trying to lure you in, and also taxis and buses will contribute by playing from their vehicle.
You can still easily buy CD´s and USB-sticks with music from illegal vendors in the streets. It can be annoying sometimes but it is part of Colombian culture and it can be a real pleasure to see the locals enjoy their music in the streets.
However, this doesn´t mean that it is possible to put Colombian music in one single category. Thanks to its rich history and Spanish, indigenous and African influences it is a melting pot of genres.
Here again, you will be able to observe that each region comes with its typical music characteristics. Like African influences in the north, and oral traditions in more southern parts of the country. Add some European or American influences to the mix and you get to a hugely diversified music landscape.
Nevertheless, there are some factors they might have in common. Like for example: rhythm. Colombians love their ´fiesta´ and to dance. This resulted in different music genres that come with their specific way of dancing.
Think about Cumbia (Caribbean region), Vallenato (northern coast), Salsa (Cali), and Champeta (Cartagena) or Merengue. Colombians of all ages still know how to dance these styles and you will see them perform it almost perfectly on weddings or other types of celebrations.
Even though salsa didn´t originate in Colombia, it is a genre that is deeply rooted in Colombian culture. If you love salsa than you should definitely visit Cali. This city is an absolute salsa paradise and you can observe the locals dancing salsa until early in the morning.
For those who love African influences in music, Champeta might just be your cup of tea. It originated in the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia in the 1980´s, especially around Cartagena. There is a direct link with the African descendants living there and it was originally the music of the poor. You might be able to distinguish some clear reggae sounds while listening to Champeta.
Cumbia also comes from the Caribbean region. It was originally music from the African slaves and was later infused with European and indigenous rhythms. Nowadays, you can find this music genre in other Latin-American countries, where they all added their own ingredients to the genre.
Vallenato is from the region in the north that borders Venezuela and typically tells stories and legends. Especially about love and the pain that comes with loving and/or losing a loved one. This music genre originated from the oral tradition in which news traveled from city to city.
The plains of Colombia also have their own type of music and dance. It is called Joropo and just like the Vallenato it is a genre that originates from the oral tradition of passing news from one place to another. Joropa lyrics are typically about daily life situations and the land and nature surrounding the locals. As most Colombians living in the plains are cowboys or own a ranch, many songs are about horses.
Although each region has its own traditional music genre, contemporary music genres are Reggaeton and Trap are immensely popular with the younger generations all over the country. On a bigger scale, names as Shakira, Juanes, Maluma, and J. Balvin are known worldwide and represent present Colombian culture in the field of music.
Many people think of Fernando Botero when Colombian art is mentioned. He is one of the greatest and most famous Colombian artists and many know him as ´the artist who paints fat people´ — which might look so but is technically not true. He likes to play with proportions in order to trick the brain. You can visit his museum in Bogota and admire many of his statues in ´his´ Medellin.
Another artist who is of undeniably value for Colombian culture must be Noble Prize winner Gabriel García Marquez. His books and stories treat us to a glimpse of what living in Colombian must have been like years ago. His writing-style if often referred to as Magical Realism. It seems like events or characters in his stories are exaggerated or impossible, however it was actually never far-fetched from the Caribbean reality who was writing about.
But, there is much more of cultural Colombian value than solely the work of Fernando Botero and Gabriel García Marquez. The renowned Gold Museum in Bogota is home to some of the most ingenious and beautiful pre-Columbian gold craftmanship that dates back to as early as 500 years B.C.
The museum is home to more than 34.000 golden artifacts, making it the largest collection in the world. By visiting this museum, you will be able to learn a lot about the different Colombian cultures that inhabited the country over the years.
If you love to discover archeological sites and learn about mysterious local cultures than you cannot leave out a visit to San Agustin and Tierradentro on your trip to Colombia.
Both places are known for their burial grounds and lots of beautifully crafted monoliths have been found scattered in the mountains surrounding these places. You will be able to admire anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statues of up to 5 meters high and of which no clear explanation has been found yet. They date back to as early as 200 B.C.
Obviously, Colombian art has also been impacted the arrival of the Spaniards. They brought Catholicism to the country and thus you will be able to find a lot of 16th to 18th century-built churches, paintings and statues that are religion-related. Unfortunately, this also meant that working on local handicrafts became less popular.
Luckily from the early 20th century on, there has been a new appraisal for locally made handicrafts in Colombia. The different regions have their own typical work and continue working on it today. Especially the manufacturing of ceramics and textile production have seen a revival in the last decades.
The contemporary art scene of Colombia is also very much alive. And there are different emerging Colombian artists who are gaining worldwide recognition for their work. Think for example about Doris Salcedo, who created the beautiful and very powerful peace monument in Bogota – a must- visit, and Oscar Murillo, an artist who brings socially engaged art of mixed materials to the people.
If there is one thing that unifies Colombians, it must be football. It is the number one sport played and watched in the country and you cannot describe Colombian culture without mentioning it.
Rivalry between local teams is strong and for many Colombians supporting their team became a way of living. But, when Colombia plays internationally, this rivalry melts away and everybody becomes a proud ambassador of the country.
Nowadays, also cycling scores very high on the popularity scale and there are some great Colombian cyclists like Egan Bernal, Nairo Quintana, and Fernando Gaviria, winning races and stages in different important competitions. The Colombian mountain ranges are perfect for practicing cycling at high altitudes.
But, don´t forget names like Juan Pablo Montoya (Formula 1), Édgar Rentería (baseball), Mariana Pabon (BMX), Caterine Ibargüen (high-, long-, and triple jump), and Robert Farah with his double partner Juan Sebastian Cabal who are currently holding the number one position in Double Tennis.
Colombians also score extremely well in skating. But, if there is one sport that is the absolute typical sport and helps define Colombian culture, it must be Tejo. It is a sport or game played countrywide and includes throwing a heavy metal disk to a target of clay that holds triangles of gunpowder. When your disk hits the gunpowder it explodes. People play it locally and especially while drinking beer. Do try when you are traveling in the country!
The official language in Colombia is Spanish. However, if you are familiar with the Spanish from Spain, you might be surprised when you hear Colombians speak for the first time.
Generally, Colombian Spanish is spoken relatively slow. This makes it an excellent country to learn Spanish language or to practice your Spanish speaking skills.
Watch out tough, no Colombian would ever use the ´vosotros´- form (Plural ´You´ in English). They like to address each other with the formal form ´usted´(singular ´you´) and ´ustedes´ (plurarl ´you´) instead. This is especially true in the Bogota-region.
Another concept that is common for most Colombian Spanish is that Colombians love to apply diminutives. While listening to them you will probably notice words ending in -ico/-ito or -ica/-ita, those are diminutives.
An infamous diminutive is ´ahorita´. Meaning ´right now´ linguistically but meaning more like ´right nowish´ in reality.
Of course, Colombia is a huge country divided by coasts, mountain ranges, and jungles. There is no way every Colombians speaks the same. There are different accents, dialects, and expressions depending on the region you find yourself in.
In the North, people speak some kind of Caribbean Spanish, swallowing some of the consonants. For example, instead of pronouncing Cartagena like Cartagena, they will pronounce it like Catagena.
It might surprise you but on the islands of San Andres and Providencia English is also an official language and spoken by almost all of them. However, they often end up speaking in a mix of Creole, English, and Spanish.
Other dialectal zones in Colombia include the coffee zone (Paisa dialect), the Pacific coast (Chocó or Pacific dialect), the highlands in the center of the country (Cundiboyacense dialect), and the south (Pastuso dialect), among others.
All these local dialects are founded on how Spanish was received by the indigenous people inhabiting these regions when the Spaniards arrived.
Even though Spanish is spoken by the majority of Colombians, it is important to keep in mind that 4,4% of the country´s population is still indigenous.
There are currently around 87 official indigenous tribes living in Colombia and they all have their own language. Many of these indigenous members speak Spanish only as a second language, and some of them don´t know Spanish. It is possible to encounter people in the Amazon Jungle who don´t speak Spanish at all.
We can see that Spanish is a very important aspect of Colombian culture, even though each region speaks it slightly differently and appropriated the language in its own ways.
As mentioned before, Colombians love to celebrate and their folkloric festivals and carnivals are a clear example of this. These are usually multiple days celebrations that include colorful parades, costumes, impressive performances by local artists, and delicious local food.
It is a great way to experience Colombian culture all at once as you will be able to witness Colombian artists and music and try regional delicacies while mingling with locals.
The most famous Carnival of Colombian must be the Carnival of Barranquilla. It was even declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003.
This festival is a three days event right before the Catholica fasting period starts. Locals dress up in colorful and exotic costumes and take part in a grand parade through the streets of Barranquilla. Every year a queen is chosen and locals and visitors from all around the world dance on Colombian music genres like cumbia, salsa, and paloteo.
As Colombians are very catholic, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is one of the most important celebrations of the year for many. It is a week of religious processions and ceremonial celebrations that take place especially in the cities of Popayan and Mompox.
In their processions you will be able to observe groups of people carrying big wooden platforms on which scenes from the Bible are depicted. They usually paralyze traffic for hours and prices for hotels and flights skyrocket in this period.
Other important and well-known festivals include the Flower Festival in Medellin, the Salsa festival Cali, and the less known but folklorically very interesting Black and White Festival in Pasto.
All of them are unique expressions of Colombian culture and allow its visitors an interesting peek in the customs and traditions of the Colombians.
As you might have noticed by reading the above information, Colombian culture is not always a common culture shared by all Colombians.
It rather is a colorful mix of regional habits and customs that are flavorfully mixed with indigenous influences, a poof of Spanish colonization, and a pinch of African cultures that were imported through slavery. Each region gives its own twist to what is considered Colombian culture.
This is exactly what makes it so interesting to travel through the country. There is something new and unique to be discovered with every other destination you visit!
If you need help or guidance with the planning process of your trip to Colombia, don´t hesitate to contact us. We have a team of travel experts looking forward to help you have the best holiday of your life.
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