Colombia's diverse culture is a product of its unique history, and its African, European and Native Indian influences. Due to its rich heritage, Colombia boasts:
- Over 87 indigenous ethnic groups that represent 1.5 percent of the country’s total population and speak 64 native languages that belong to 22 linguistic families;
Several million Afro-Colombians who represent nearly 16 percent of the population;
- Over 30 million mestizo inhabitants with an immense variety of cultural traditions; and
- Nearly 12,000 gypsies who descend from Colonial times, and several other non-traditional immigrant groups in different regions of the country.
The first inhabitants of modern day Colombia arrived in 10,000 BC, and lived in the area that is now the capital city of Bogotá. However, it was around the first millennium AD that over 12 more advanced indigenous groups settled in the Colombian territory – prior to the Spanish Conquest – and left vestiges of the surprising level of development they had attained. Towns and stone paths, enigmatic statues, burial urns and impressive gold and pottery, constitute part of a cultural heritage that provides insights about their beliefs and way of life.
One of these early groups were the Muisca Indians, who were farmers on the highland plains. They were excellent goldsmiths and potters who left invaluable treasures. Part of their legacy is the myth of El Dorado, which is believed to have inspired the conquest of the continent. The king or chief priest of the Muisca was said to be ritually covered with gold dust at a religious festival held in Lake Guatavita, near present-day Bogotá. As a consequence, many Spaniards believed that there were gold treasures to be found in the depths of the ceremonial lake (photo left of the Raft of El Dorado, part of the collection of Bogotá's Gold Museum).
The Quimbaya, Sinu, Tayrona and Calima tribes are also known for their pottery and gold work, which is on display in Bogotá at the Gold Museum of the Banco de la República, the Archaeological Museum Casa del Marqués de San Jorge, and the National Museum; in Armenia at the Museum of Quimbaya Culture; in Santa Marta at the Museum of the Tayrona Culture; and in Cartagena at the Museum of Sinú Culture.
In the early 1600s the Spaniards began to settle in Colombia, and many towns were established. During this time, land was distributed among the conquerors, and the exploration of salt, gold and emerald mines was organized. Christianity was established as the dominant religion. The coexistence of the Spanish colonizers, the Native Indians and African slaves gave origin to Colombia’s diverse cultural heritage.
Many cities in Colombia today bear witness to the influence of Spanish culture. For example, Santa Cruz de Mompox, a port on the Magdalena River, was one of the grandest towns of the period because of its importance as a trading post for the Spanish settlers. Buildings such as the church of Santa Barbara reflect the European architectural conventions of the time.
In addition, the capital of the Spanish viceroyalty was established in Bogotá, home of the government and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In the barrio of La Candelaria (photo below) and adjacent areas, old mansions and churches are preserved that house the treasures of the viceroyalty. Many of these buildings have been turned into museums and churches where visitors can admire the artistic and cultural expressions of Colombia’s forbearers.
The cities of Popayan and Tunja are also home to colonial areas full of charm – from grand churches adorned with baroque decorations clad in gilt to narrow streets, quaint squares and stately houses – all of which transport visitors back to the 16th century.
Cartagena de Indias was coveted by the English for its strategic position on the coast and for being the principal marketplace for slaves in the New World. Fortresses were constructed that made it the best-protected port in South America. The history of Cartagena and its most important civil and religious buildings are preserved within the walled section of town, known as the “old city.” The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared it a World Heritage Site.
Across the country, there are towns and villages that played an important role during the colonial period, such as Pamplona in Norte de Santander, Giron and Barichara in Santander, Villa de Leyva in Boyacá and Santa Fe de Antioquia near Medellín.
Colombian Cultural Traditions
Colombian handicrafts are world-renowned. The shoulder bags made by the Arhuaco Native Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the sombrero vueltiao of the plains of the Department of Córdoba, the hammocks of San Jacinto in the Department of Bolívar, the figures decorated with barniz de Pasto in Nariño and the pottery of Ráquira in Boyacá, are just a few examples of handicrafts that are known for their distinct style and beauty.
Throughout its history, the country’s ethnically diverse population has enriched Colombia with a wide range of cultural expressions in music, art and literature, which can be admired in museums, art galleries, libraries and public spaces.
The Carnival of Blacks and Whites in Pasto at the beginning of each year;
The Manizales Fair in January;
The Barranquilla Carnival in February (photo right);
The Biennial Bogotá International Theater Festival around Easter;
The Vallenato Legend Festival in Valledupar, by the end of April;
The Colombian Folkloric Festival in Ibague and the Bambuco National Pageant in Neiva in June;
The Medellín Flower Fair in August;
The Cuadrillas de San Martin in November;
The November 11 Feasts in Cartagena; and
The Cali Fair in December.
In addition, Colombia is also home to a number of international cultural events. The Cartagena Film and Hay Festivals, the Manizales Theater Festival, the Bogotá Book Fair and Jazz Festival and the International Poetry Festival in Medellín are some of the events that take place year round.
Cumbia is the most recognized musical style in Colombia. The genre, which originated on the Atlantic Coast, dates back to the early 19th century and is strongly influenced by African culture. The instruments used in cumbia are drums, the gaita (a Native Indian flute), claves, trombones, guitars and maracas, which are used to accompany the voices of talented singers. It emerged from musical and cultural syncretism between Indians, Africans and Europeans in the Magdalena delta region. Cumbia combines the contributions of these distinct cultural groups. It is performed in groups by couples who dance in a circle to the beat of the drums, while holding a lit candle in their hands.
The word vallenato, which translates to “born in the valley,” originated in the valley between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serranía de Perijá mountain ranges. Vallenato was originally a means of spreading news between towns with the accompaniment of the accordion. Combining the sounds of an accordion, a small drum called the caja vallenata and a wooden ribbed stick and fork known as the guacharaca, vallenato is one of Colombia’s most popular traditional forms of folk music.
Referred to most often as joropo llanero, this style relies heavily on European instruments such as the harp and the guitar. It is performed along the plains (los llanos) east of the Andes between Colombia and Venezuela.
Today, vallenato and Colombia’s pop music are well known on the world’s musical scene. Colombian music is an ever-evolving melting pot of sounds and rhythms.
Italian composer Orestes Sindici wrote the national anthem to celebrate Cartagena’s Independence Day (November 11). The music was composed in 1887, with lyrics by Rafael Nuñez.
The tejo (quoits) is a modern version of the Muiscas’ ancient turmeque, a game played more than 500 years ago in Cundinamarca and Boyacá. It consisted of throwing a gold disk, called zepguagoscua, and through the centuries evolved into the game of tejo, which is played in Colombia and neighboring countries. Today, it consists of putting an iron quoit into a metal circle or bocin, of which the edges are loaded with firecrackers, or mechas. Whoever causes more explosions wins the game.