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?