Colombia Culture – Heritage and Traditions of Colombia

The Paez, one of Colombia's indigenous groups [Image by Wildwood72, via Wikimedia Commons]
The Paez, one of Colombia's indigenous groups [Image by Wildwood72, via Wikimedia Commons]

You could spend a long, long time studying the culture of Colombia and still not cover all there is to know. Needless to say, I’m not going to attempt that! What I will do is give you a bird’s eye view of Colombia’s people, festivals, arts, entertainment, and food.

Colombia Culture: People

Columbia’s complex history has created a diversely mixed population, including:

  • Mestizo (Mixed Spanish)
  • White
  • Zambos (Mixed African)
  • Indigenous Natives
  • Various Immigrants

The first group is the indigenous people native to Colombia. They represent about 3.4 percent of the current population of some 45 million Colombians or about 1.5 million persons.

The original inhabitants of the country were pretty much decimated by the Spanish conquistadors. The majority of these folks live either on the Pacific, below Cali toward the borders of Ecuador and Peru, or the Caribbean, to the East of Cartagena. These are locations noted in our Colombia weather section if they seem familiar.

A group of men and women sit on the street, dressed in bright blue robs and black hats. They appear to be selling crops that are laid out in front of them.
The Paez, one of Colombia’s indigenous groups

The Spanish brought with them, among other things, Roman Catholicism, a caste system with white Europeans at the top, slavery, and a protection racket. Of course, that’s the way things look now, but this was pretty standard colonizing behavior in the 1600’s! They also brought their architecture, their food preferences, their music and dances, and their genes.

As time went on there arose a growing population of Mestizo, the result of children born to indigenous women but sired by Spanish men. There also arose another group known as Zambos, the people of which were a mix of indigenous and African, both groups used as slaves.

Finally, there are various immigrant groups present in Colombia. This includes members of Roma, followers of the Hebrew religion (there are five synagogues in Bogotá), and the offspring of Chinese railway builders from Panama who have settled on the Pacific next to the groups of people who are descendants of Japanese fishermen.

European immigrants include the German people who developed and populated Bucaramanga, now the fifth largest and highly productive city in Colombia.

There are also religious groups such as the Mennonites of Colombia, some of whom have emigrated from Mexico. All of these people and others brought their songs and dances to blend into the culture of Colombia.

Colombia Culture: Traditions

Every culture in the world has customs and traditions important to them, and this is no different in Colombia where unique traditions formed from the wide variety of cultures that melted together over time. 

Traditions: Carnival

A photo of a carnival actor, dressed in a very blue costume, face painted blue and white, holding a yellow drum

Colombians have 18 holidays that fall on a Monday, meaning one-third of their weekends are 3-day, “long” weekends. Colombians use this free time wisely by hosting more carnivals than we could ever write about. Nearly every city and the town celebrates at least one carnival in the year, and they feature parties, food, music, dancing, parades, costumes, and more. 

The most popular carnivals include:

  • Pasto’s Black and White Carnival: This 5-day festival is the largest celebration in southern Colombia. Every day brings different themes including religious blessings, celebrations of a variety of races and heritages, a celebration of food, lots and lots of parades, and even a tribute to rock music. This festival was heralded by UNESCO, in 2009, as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” 
  • Barranquilla Carnival: A 4-day celebration of Colombians folklore and music. This is one of the largest carnivals in the world. In 2003, UNESCO declared this carnival a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” 
  • Vallenato Legend Festival: A celebration of the local vallenato music genre that features instruments from indigenous Colombia, Germany, and Africa.
  • Cali Salsa Fair: A grand celebration of salsa music and dancing
  • Huila’s Bambuco Pageant and Folkloric Festival: A beauty and talent contest rating participants on their Sanjuanero dance, beauty, general knowledge, popularity, punctuality, and performance of regional dance.

The above list barely scratches the surface of all the carnival options available throughout the year in Colombia.

Traditions: El Paseo de Olla (The Pot Gathering)

Popular in rural areas, this custom encourages Colombian families to travel to a central location of their choosing, usually a local river. They then gather around pots of sancocho, a traditional stew, cooked over an open flame. After lunch, there is plenty of swimming and beer drinking. 

Traditions: Grandmother’s Remedies

Every area of the world has grandmothers who insist they have a secret cure for every ailment. Like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who sprayed Windex on everything and everybody. In Colombia, traditional medicine includes spearmint, chamomile, aloe vera, calendula (a marigold flower), and aguapanela (cane syrup). 

Traditions: Christmas

Christmas is a great time of year in many parts of the world, but especially so in a country like Colombia which enjoys any excuse to party. Traditional foods include natilla (flan-like custard) and bunuelos (fried balls of dough). Colombians also celebrate with Novena de Aguinaldos, where the family celebrates in a different home for nine consecutive nights.

What Cultures Influenced Colombia?

An older man wearing a black fedora hat stands in a market, where we can see bunches of vegetables

Colombia is a melting pot of various cultures from around the world, mostly due to immigration that occurred during the Colonial period. The primary cultural influences are:

  • Indigenous Natives: When the Spanish arrived in 1509, there was an estimated 2 million native Colombians inhabiting the land. These consisted of several hundred tribes, many of which spoke different languages and dialects. Some of this native culture has been preserved and is can be seen on display at various carnivals. The huge diversity of native tribes is a major reason you will find unique traditions as you travel from region to region in the country.
  • Spanish: During the Colonial period, the Spanish colonized (invaded) the land of Colombia and decimated the native population with war and disease. Needless to say, the Spanish culture came to dominate the country. The Spanish and native gene pool started mixing and, eventually, the country’s dominant Mestizo (Mixed) culture was developed. Colombia did not become independent from Spain until 1810.
  • Europeans, especially Germans: Nearby Venezuela was home to several German settlements, and some of those folks eventually migrated over to Colombia. A second major wave of immigration occurred before, during, and after World War II.
  • Middle Easterners: Due to the turmoil caused by the Ottoman Empire, a sizeable number of Lebanese and Turkish citizens immigrated to Colombia. 
  • Africans: During the Colonial period, boatloads of African people were forced into Colombia as slaves, as the rapidly declining native population caused a shortage of cheap labor. Over time, the African genes were mixed with native genes to form the Zambos (Mixed African) people. Slavery was abolished in 1851, and the Zambos have struggled to become economically and socially equal. Today, there are an estimated 5 million Zambos in Colombia, mostly inhabiting the western cities near the Pacific Ocean. 

Top 10 Things Colombia is Famous For

Brown coffee beans are scattered on a wooden table, with three bright green coffee leaves laying on top

If you ask random people in the world what Colombia is known for, the most common answers would be:

  1. Coffee: The mountains of Colombia are the exclusive home of the Arabica coffee bean, with its world-famous flavor and aroma. The coffee plant is not native to Colombia and was introduced around 1790. The country has been exporting its coffee crop for almost 200 years. At 11 million bags per year, it is now the third-largest coffee producer in the world, behind Brazil and Vietnam.
  1. Emeralds: Colombia is the world’s top exporter of emerald jewels, producing an estimated 70%-90% of the emeralds in the world. Scientists and jewelers call the Colombian emerald the purest on the planet.
  2. Flowers: Colombia exports over $700 million in cut-flowers each year, nearly all of which is sent for sale in America. That makes flowers the second-largest farm crop in the country, behind only coffee. The most popular flowers are roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums. It exports over 4 billion roses to America, mostly for Valentine’s Day. The country is also known for its orchids, with the country being home to over 1,000 species of orchids. The Cattleya Trianae Orchid is the National Flower as it has colors similar to the Colombian flag.
  1. Birds: Colombia has the highest number of bird species on the planet, being home to over 1800 species of birds, which is more species than North America and Europe have combined. The country’s unique geography produces a wide range of ecosystems, which then support a wide variety of birds.
  1. Whales: Every year, thousands of humpback whales leave their icy home in Antarctica and come north to the warm Colombian waters to have their babies. The large presence of whales and pristine environment make the country a favorite for whale-watching travelers.
  1. Rainforests: One-third of Colombia’s land is considered Indigenous Reserves. The country has 567 reserves, home to 800K people, and covering 140K square miles. The Amazon rainforest covers much of South America, and about 10% of the Amazon can be found within the Colombian borders.
  1. Celebrities: Some famous folks to come out of Colombia include actress Sofia Vergara (the highest-paid actress in 2020), singer Shakira, actor John Leguizamo, Tour de France winner Egan Botero, painter Fernando Botero, and many more.
  1. Carnivals: Brazil may take the prize for the largest carnival in South America, but Colombia comes in a close second place. Nearly every city and town celebrates at least one carnival in the year, and they feature parties, food, music, dancing, parades, and costumes. The 18 National holidays recognized by the country provide great opportunities to party.
  1. Graffiti (Street Art): Graffiti became a part of the Colombian culture during its long-running modern civil war, especially in the capital city of Bogotá. The graffiti slowly matured into a formal street art scene. In the last decade, street art was legalized in Bogotá and now street artists from all over the world visit the city to contribute to its colorful street displays.
An abstract cartoon street painting of a man holding a sledgehammer
  1. Salsa Dancing: The city of Cali, Colombia is the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world. Salsa dancing is everywhere, from high-end clubs to local street corners. The city is home to over 200 dance schools. The city hosts several salsa-related carnivals, culminating in the Festival Mundial de Salsa where over 5,000 dancers compete to see who is the best salsa dancer in the world.

Top 10 Colombian Culture Facts

The following is a quick list of facts about Colombian culture (some of which has been described in more detail in the article above)

  1. Hablan Mucho Español: Nearly 100% of Colombians speak Spanish. With a population of 50 million people, Colombia is second only to Mexico for the largest number of native Spanish speakers.
  1. Coffee is a Heritage: Colombia’s world-famous coffee crop is not only of major economic importance but also cultural. In 2011, the “Coffee Cultural Landscape” of Colombia was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Colombia is also one of the countries in the world where you’ll even find children drinking coffee.
  1. National Anthem: All public radio and television stations are required to play the National Anthem at 6 am and 6 pm every day.
  1. National Holidays and the 3-Day Weekend: The country celebrates 18 National Holidays, making it one of the most celebratory in the world. These holidays all fall on a Monday, meaning one-third of their weekends are 3-day, “long” weekends
  1. The Birthplace of the Arepas: Growing increasingly popular around the world are these little corn cakes, used as a tortilla, and stuffed with various meats and cheeses, or eaten plain. They are similar to gorditas from Mexico and pupusas from El Salvador. Some will say that Venezuela invented the arepas. The truth is, the arepa was created 3,000 years ago by the natives that lived in an area spanning both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border.
  1. The World’s Largest Flower and Salsa Festivals: Colombia is known for its large variety of carnivals. Two of these festivals are the world’s largest. The Flowers Festival takes place in Medellín, Colombia, and stretches to the nearby flower farming village of Santa Elena. During this 10-day celebration, the town is covered in beautiful flowers. There are also a variety of concerts, sporting events, and cultural activities. The Festival Mundial de Salsa takes place in the city of Cali, the salsa capital of the world. This festival is a dance competition where 5,000+ salsa dancers from around the world compete to crown a champion. 
  1. Tejo is the National Sport: Tejo is a sport unique to Colombia and has been practiced for over 500 years. It is similar to American horseshoes. Instead of a sandpit, there is a pit of clay mud. Instead of a metal stake in the ground, there is a round metal pipe. You get points for getting closest to the pipe and the first to 21 points wins. What makes this game unique is that little fireworks are placed near the metal pipe, and they explode a bit on impact. You get extra points for making them explode.
A gold color statute of an indigenous man, supposedly a god, throwing a tejo disc
  1. Aguardiente is the National Drink: This is a liqueur derived from sugar cane and flavored with aniseed. Each area of the country makes its own official versions of the drink, and the locals have access to plenty of homemade moonshines.
  1. Graffiti is Legal in Bogota: During its long-running modern civil war, graffiti became a tool for political propaganda and resistance in the capital city of Bogota. Grafitti has since been legalized in the city, and the practice has matured into a formal street art scene. Street artists from around the world come to Bogota to add their mark to the city’s walls.
  1. Home of the “Lost City”: Peru’s ancient city of Machu Picchu is one of the most famous ruins in the world. Colombia has its own ancient city ruins, which actually predate Machu Picchu by 600 years. Visiting this city requires a long trek through beautiful but unforgiving rainforest. 

Colombian Wedding Customs

A photo of a very ordained catholic church full of really big candles and lots of white flowers

Colombian marriage ceremonies are similar to that of America. You can choose to be married by an official (a notary) or in a church (usually Catholic). As you can imagine in a country known for its flowers, the ceremony is going to be full of floral arrangements. And in a country known for carnivals, the multi-day wedding reception is quite a party. Some ways that Colombian weddings differ from America include:

  • There are no bridesmaids and groomsmen, instead, there is a Godfather and Godmother standing at the side of the couple
  • The men attending the wedding will likely be wearing all-white Guayabera suits
  • At the end of the wedding, the man will hand his new wife 13 coins, called las arras, which symbolizes “what’s mine is now yours”.
  • Instead of throwing a garter, the single men place a shoe under the bride’s dress, the bride chooses a random shoe, and that man is said to be the next to get married.
  • There is also a competition where the men take off their belts and the longest belt wins
  • A “Crazy Hour” separates the formal reception from the party and it’s like a crazy carnival experience
  • There is dancing; so much dancing

Colombia Culture: Language

Nearly 100% of Colombian residents can speak Spanish. Other languages appearing in small pockets of the country include 65 Amerindian native languages, 2 Creole languages, Portuguese, and English. A large variety of other languages may be spoken by recent immigrants to the country. 
Only about 4% of the Colombian population can speak English as the language is not taught much in public schools. Folks looking to live in Colombia will need at least basic Spanish-speaking skills. Also, you should be aware that there are a variety of different dialects of Spanish spoken within the country, so some effort may be needed to customize your Spanish studies to target the particular area(s) you wish to live in.

Colombia Culture: Arts & Entertainment

In the whole of the country but particularly in the cities, the cultural entertainment scene is bountiful, often boisterous and flourishing. Every city has live stage theaters, music venues, art galleries, and movie theaters. Nightclubs with live entertainment abound, many with dance floors.

There are film production studios, pottery-making dens, painter’s lofts, and sculptor’s workrooms everywhere. Comedy is thriving here, with comedy clubs and stage shows. This is a vibrant country when it comes to cultural endeavors, but sports also play a role in the entertainment scene. Football (soccer) is very popular, followed by baseball.

The music scene is particularly lively in the country that claims the origin of Cumbia, a mixture of indigenous and African rhythms and movements that has become representative of Latin American music throughout this part of the world.

Many other music and dance forms that accompanied immigrants to Colombia have found a home, blended into the musical mosaic, including Jamaican themes and German accordion music!

Colombia Culture: Food

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Every region, city and town has its own specialty, dependent on what’s grown or raised locally, together with spices and culinary flavor additions from around the country.

Rice and beans (“gallo pinto”) are a staple in most of Latin America, but they can be a side dish to a huge array of foods, including seafood on the coast and beef dishes in the hills.

Many cities offer a soup as their first course, full of vegetables and spices, with yucca, coconut, garlic, onions, ginger and other flavorful additions.

A perfect evening snack in Bogota. There are many different varieties of "arepa" (made of corn flour) in Colombia. [Image by William Neuheisel from DC, US, via Wikimedia Commons]
A perfect evening snack in Bogota. There are many different varieties of “arepa” (made of corn flour) in Colombia. [Image by William Neuheisel from DC, US, via Wikimedia Commons]

Shopping in Colombia

Western style shopping malls are a symbol of success in Colombia and every city features this style of shopping, with many American store brands.

Marketplaces also thrive and often bargains can be had here. As mentioned on our page about cost of living, prices for imported goods are often higher than where they are made.

Habla español? If not, this course is for you.

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