With snow-capped mountains, dense jungles, vast flat lands and gorgeous beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Colombia is a treasure trove of ecological wonders. For many years, however, Colombia's considerable natural gifts were held hostage by civil unrest, powerful drug cartels and homicide rates that were among the highest in the world [source: Frommers].
Luckily, Colombia’s security situation has improved dramatically in recent years. Thanks to tough policies enacted by president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón and former president Álvaro Uribe, the U.S. upgraded Colombia’s human rights score in 2009 [source: Associated Press]. Popular travel guides like Frommers now hint that Colombia is “poised to become the next big ecotourism destination” [source: Frommers]. Positive profiles on travel shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” have helped pique considerable interest in Colombia’s food, culture and its many natural beauties.
Colombian traditions are as varied as its topography. From food and clothing to music and dance, Colombian customs have been shaped as much by their region of origin as by the Spanish, Caribbean and African influences brought in by outside settlers. Regional pockets -- beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, vast swaths of rainforest in the southern interior, grassy plains (llanos) in the northern interior and breathtaking mountain vistas in the Andean region --kept settlers isolated and nurtured the development of distinct regional traditions.
Therefore, in order to fully understand Colombian traditions, we must first know a little bit about the country's history and how cultural differences evolved among its various geographic regions. In the next section, we'll see how African and Caribbean influences shaped the country's coastal areas, how Spanish colonialism molded culture in the interior and how the customs of Colombia's indigenous population blended with outside influences to create one of the most diverse collections of traditions in Latin America.
Explore the many faces of Colombia on the next page.
The Many Faces of Colombia
Before European colonization, Colombia was populated by indigenous Amerindian populations such as the Chibchas. In 1525, the Spanish established their first permanent colony, Santa Marta, on Colombia's Atlantic coast near the Santa Marta Mountains [source: State Department]. The Spaniards brought with them African slaves, Catholicism and an elaborate caste system, which placed the Spanish at the top of the social pecking order and indigenous peoples at the bottom. This social segregation led in part to the development of distinct regional microcultures; however, Colombia's topography also played a role.
For much of Colombia's history, the country's rugged and varied terrain made travel among interior, coastal and low-lying areas a challenge. The lack of easy transport inhibited residents from intermingling and encouraged the development of regional customs. Colombia can be broadly divided into three regions [source: Frommers]:
- The Andean region: Colombia is bisected by three cordilleras (ranges) of the northern Andes Mountains. Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, the majority of its population and the bulk of its economic development lie in the Andean region. Populated mostly by Colombians of Spanish or mixed-race descent, Andean Colombia is largely urban and modern.
- The Coastal region: Colombia is the only country in South America with land on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Colombia's coastline is split by the Isthmus of Panama. Colombia's Atlantic coastlines are located north of Panama, and Colombia's Pacific beaches are found to the south. Colombians of African or mixed-race descent largely populate this area. Colombian's coastal culture has also been heavily influenced by Caribbean traditions.
- Everything else -- Rainforests and llanos: The Guaviare River splits Colombia's low-lying areas to the east of the Andes. South of the river lies the thick jungle of the northern Amazon rainforest. North of the Guaviare, jungle gives way to the llanos: large, grass-covered lowland savannahs. Though home to fascinating rainforest and wetland ecologies, these areas are also inhabited by vast numbers of guerilla militants and cocaine farms.
As you can imagine, these diverse people groups added their own special flavors to Colombia's cultural melting pot -- and what better place to immerse yourself in all that traditional culture-goodness than a Colombian festival?
Traditional Colombian Festivals
No article on Colombian traditions would be complete without an overview of Colombia's famous carnivals. These colorful celebrations are often multiday events featuring elaborate parades, beauty contests, spirited performances and delicious regional fare. They provide the perfect forum to see, hear and experience the Colombian clothing, music, dance and food we'll be discussing in the rest of this piece. Many travel and tourism sites such as Frommers and ProExport have comprehensive lists of Colombia's major festivals. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Carnaval de Negros y Blancos: Held each January in Pasto, the "Carnival of Blacks and Whites" dates back to ancient Pasto and Quillacinga Indian celebrations held in honor of their moon goddess. Today's event is a celebration of Colombia's multicultural heritage [source: ProExport].
- Carnaval de Barranquilla: Billed as the most colorful carnival in the world, Colombians take to the streets for this annual four-day bacchanal, fusing aboriginal ceremonies with the Afro-Colombian music of Colombia's coastal regions and Catholic festivities brought to the region by Spanish colonists [source: ProExport].
- Ibagué Folk Festival and Bambuco National Folk Festival: These two festivals celebrate the music of Colombia. Ibagué, in the Tolimia region of the Andes, is considered Colombia’s cradle of musical culture. Ibagué’s folk festival, held each June, showcases a variety of Colombian musical styles, including sanjuaneros, bambucos and pasillos [source: ProExport]. The Bambuco National Folk Festival, held in Neiva each June, began as a 10-day rural feast honoring St. John the Baptist. Today, it celebrates Colombia’s bambuco style of music and dance with performances, parades and a beauty pageant [source: ProExport].
- Wind and Kite Festival: Strong winds blow through Villa de Leyva each August. Since 1975, the city has been celebrating with a two-day festival of kites. This Colombian festival is a little off the beaten path and will give you a great excuse to explore Villa de Leyva, a city replete with Spanish colonial architecture and boasting the Plaza Mayor, one of the largest town squares in South America [source: The New York Times].
There are literally dozens of other Colombian festivals, including the Feria de las Flores (The Flower Fair) in Medellin, Carnaval de Bogotá and the Festival Nacional del Joropo. Each has its own local flavor, and you can often spot regional costumes in living color at these festivals.
Speaking of which, let's check out the traditional clothing of Colombia in the next section.
Traditional Colombian Clothing
Today, most Colombians wear Western-style clothing. Urban professionals from the Andean interior tend toward conservative, dark-colored suits, while farmers and members of the lower classes prefer loose skirts or pants [source: Árquez and Roadfield]. Modern dress in Colombia’s coastal regions is a little more free-wheeling, with loose-fitting styles and bright colors or prints that reflect the region’s Caribbean influences.
During national festivals like the Carnaval de Barranquilla however, Colombia's traditional fashions take center stage. La Pollera Colora ("brightly colored skirt") is probably Colombia's most well-known national costume for women. It consists of a vividly colored skirt paired with a matching, round-necked blouse, which bares (or partially reveals) the shoulders. Ruffles and lace line the neck and knee lines, and designs range from horizontal bands of brightly contrasting colors to intricate floral or native prints. For parades and performances, men don similar outfits -- matching pants ruffled at the ankle, vivid capes and elaborate headdresses.
One piece of traditional Colombian clothing that's still a common piece of everyday wear, especially in the cooler Andean regions, is the ruana (cape.) Something like a cross between a shawl and a Mexican poncho, the Colombian ruana is a wide swath of cloth wrapped around both shoulders, or wrapped around one shoulder and loosely draped over the other. Colombian farmers and tradesmen of both genders wear ruanas made of primitive, undyed wool. Andean city folk attire themselves in highly fashionable ruanas in any number of styles and fabrics.
Another traditional Colombian fashion still favored by Colombian men today is the sombrero vueltiao. Originally a rustic headpiece worn by peasants, today the sombrero vueltiao is one of Colombia’s national symbols. The term sombrero vueltiao loosely translates as “turned hat.” Handcrafted out of natural palm fibers using a traditional Zenú technique, these sombreros can be beautiful pieces of textile art, depicting religious scenes or everyday activities like hunting and fishing [source: ProExport Colombia].
The sombrero vueltiao, as well as many traditional Colombian textiles, are on display at the Museo de Trajes Regionales de Colombia (Museum of Regional Colombian Costumes) in Bogotá. However, Colombia’s endlessly colorful festivals (which we mentioned above) are the best places to view traditional Colombian fashions, as well as to experience Colombian music and dance.
Hold on to your sombreros, folks; we'll talk about cumbia, currulao and bambuco in the next section.
Traditional Colombian Music and Dance
If Colombia's traditional costumes reflect a blend of the country's Amerindian, Spanish, Caribbean and African influences, the nation's music is even more of a mixed bag. Colombia's Andean region is home to more than 100 indigenous groups whose native music, used in rituals for healing and magic, has influenced many of Colombia's traditional styles of music and dance. On the opposite side of the spectrum, cumbia, a style of music and dance that is widely heralded as a national tradition, originated as a courtship dance meant to mimic Colombia's Spanish colonizers [source: Mauleon]. Below are just a few of the many delightful styles of regional Colombian music and dance:
- Andean music and dance: One of the predominant styles of music in the Andean region is bambuco, which sounds a little like Spanish guitar music but can incorporate rhythmic elements rooted in the currulao music of Colombia's Pacific coast [source: Varney]. Bambuco is also performed as a couples' dance, which is something like a sensual waltz with moments of brief, delicate contact. The bambuco style of music is celebrated from June 22 to July 2 every year during the Bambuco National Folk Festival [source: ProExport].
- Colombian Atlantic music and dance: Cumbia, which is probably Colombia's most well-known and most popular traditional music style, originated during the Spanish colonial period. African drums and Indian flutes dominate the sound [source: Mauleon]. Cumbia is so celebrated in Colombia that a monument to this style of music and dance has been erected in the town of El Banco.
- Colombian Pacific Music and Dance: Heavily influenced by the music of Africa, currulao is played with folk instruments such as the marimba de chonta, the guasá (a hollow cylinder filled with light seeds) and the cununo drum. A lead singer voices the main melody and an answering choir responds [source: Jaramillo]. As with bambuco and cumbia, currulao is a style of dance, as well as a style of music.
Other flavors of traditional Colombian music and dance include porro and vallenato (from Colombia’s Atlantic coast) and joropo from the Orinoquía region (llanos) of Colombia’s interior.
If Colombian music and dance got your toes tapping in this section, Colombian food will make your taste buds tingle in the next.
Traditional Colombian Food
Colombia's national dish, bandeja paisa, is so rich and satisfying that you might feel the need to unbutton your pants afterward. True to its name, bandeja paisa ("paisa platter") is generally served on a large tray (bandeja) rather than a normal-sized plate. On it, you'll find red beans and rice, ground beef, chorizo, plantains, arepa (cornmeal bread) and avocado. The entire work is topped with fried eggs and, to make the dish even more decadent, sometimes a large slice of chicharron (fried pork belly) is added. Wash it all down with a large glass of mazamorra (cold milk with crushed maize) and be sure to wear elastic-waist pants for maximum enjoyment!
- Llanos region: Indigenous tribes who inhabited the grassland areas of Colombia's northeast created a regional delicacy that is still enjoyed today. Hormigas culonas (literally, "big-butt ants") are harvested during the rainy season, soaked in salt water and roasted in a ceramic pot. While ants may be considered a delicacy by locals, people from other regions of Colombia wouldn't necessarily agree. The llanos region is also known for its barbecued meats, which may be prepared in the traditional way on a vertical spit over an open fire.
- Coastal regions: Coconut rice (arroz con coco) is a mainstay along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Colombia. Arepa (cornmeal bread) is served in many variations on the coast, including stuffed with cheese (arepa de queso) and served with egg (arepa de huevo). In general, food in Colombia's coastal regions tends to be spicy. Some of it, such as mote de queso con hogao (a soup with cheese and yam, topped with hogao, a savory condiment made from tomatoes, onions and peppers) reveals a blend of African and Criollo influences.
- Andean region: Ajiaco (chicken soup with corn, potatoes, avocado and guascas, a local herb) and changua (breakfast soup made with eggs, milk and scallions) are favorites of the Andean region.
A list of Colombian food wouldn't be complete without a mention of Colombia's exotic fruits, including lulo, curuba, mamoncillo, uchuva, chontaduro,zapote and many others.
We hope you enjoyed this taste of traditional Colombian culture. If you're still hungry, satisfy your curiosity by checking out the Lots More Information section on the next page.
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- Associated Press. "U.S. Ugrades Colombia's Human Rights Score." The New York Times. Sept. 11, 2009. (Aug. 13, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/12/world/americas/12colombia.html?ref=Colombia
- "Background Note: Colombia." U.S. Department of State. July 13, 2011. (Aug. 13, 2011.) http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35754.htm
- Carr, David. "Villa de Leyva, a Graceful Window on Colonial Colombia." The New York Times. Oct. 22, 2009. (Aug. 13, 2011) http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/travel/25explorer.html
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- Jaramillo, Andrés Muñoz. “A Small Trip Through Colombian Music.” physics.montana.edu. Oct. 15, 2007. (Aug. 13, 2011) http://solar.physics.montana.edu/munoz/AboutMe/ColombianMusic/English_Content.html
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