Official name : Republic of Colombia
Area: 1,138,910 square kilometers (439,736 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Pico Cristóbal Colón (5,775 meters/18,947 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Northern and Western
Time zone: 7 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 1,700 kilometers (1,056 miles) from north-northwest to south-southeast; 1,210 kilometers (752 miles) from north-northeast to south-southwest
Land boundaries: 6,004 kilometers (3,731 miles) total boundary length; Brazil, 1,643 kilometers (1,021 miles); Ecuador, 590 kilometers (367 miles); Panama, 225 kilometers (140 miles); Peru, 1,496 kilometers (930 miles); Venezuela, 2,050 kilometers (1,274 miles)
Coastline: Total: 3,208 kilometers (1,993 miles); Caribbean Sea, 1,760 kilometers (1,100 miles); North Pacific Ocean, 1,448 kilometers (905 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers 12 nautical miles
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Located in the northwest corner of the South American continent, Colombia is the only country in South America with both Atlantic (Caribbean) and Pacific Ocean coastlines. It is the fifth-largest in size of the Latin American countries. It shares borders with Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador. With an area of about 1,138,910 square kilometers (439,736 square miles), the country is slightly less than three times the size of Montana. Colombia is divided into thirty-two departments and one federal district.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Colombia has no outside dependencies or territories.
Temperatures throughout the country are dependent more on altitude than on a change in seasons. The hottest area, also known as tierra caliente , is a tropical zone that extends vertically from sea level to about 1,100 meters (3,500 feet). In this area, the temperature is usually between 24 and 27°C (75°F and 81°F), with a maximum near 38°C (100°F) and a minimum of 18°C (64°F). A temperate zone, or tierra templada, exists at elevations between 1,100 and 2,000 meters (3,500 and 6,500 feet), with an average temperature of 18°C (64°F). Rising to elevations between 2,000 and 3,000 meters (6,500 and 10,000 feet), one encounters the tierra fría, or cold country, which has yearly temperatures averaging 13°C (55°F). Above 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), one encounters more frigid temperatures, often between -17°C and 13°C (1°F and 55°F).
The seasons are determined by changes in rainfall. Areas in the north generally experience only one rainy season, lasting from May through October. Other areas of the country, particularly on the western coast and near the Andes, experience alternating three-month cycles of wet and dry seasons. Annual rainfall averages 107 centimeters (42 inches).
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
The country consists of four main geographic regions: the Central Highlands (including the three Andean ranges and the lowlands between them), the Atlantic Lowlands, the Pacific Lowlands and their coastal regions, and the Eastern Plain. Among the unusual animals that thrive in Colombia are the jaguar, puma, ocelot, peccary (a small hog-like animal), and armadillo. Native birds include the colorful red-billed emerald hummingbird, found along the coast and in the forested lower slopes of the mountains, and various species of eagle, hawk, falcon, vulture, and condor. Several species of poisonous snake inhabit the tropical forests, including the South American rattlesnake, the anaconda, and various coral snakes.
Colombia sits on the extreme edge of the South American Tectonic Plate. Just to the east is the Nazca Plate, and immediately to the north is the Caribbean Plate. Subduction (one plate pushing under another) at these plate boundaries has pushed up the rock, resulting in the mountains that exist on Colombia's coasts. This process also formed volcanoes, and many of them remain active. Folding and faulting of Earth's crust resulted in seismic fault lines between the mountain ranges, and the continued movement of the plates subjects Colombia to frequent earthquakes, some of which are very destructive.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
The Caribbean Sea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, lies northwest of Colombia. The waters along the Caribbean coast are attractive to snorkelers and scuba divers from around the world, since the water is clear and the coastal areas are lined with extensive coral reefs. Colombia has a southwestern coastline along the Pacific Ocean, which is separated from the Caribbean Sea by the Isthmus of Panama.
Rich marine life fills the Pacific Ocean waters along Colombia's western coast, influenced by the Humbolt Current. It is common to see dolphins here, and deep-sea fishing is a popular tourist activity. From July through September, humpback whales populate the waters during their mating season.
Sea Inlets and Straits
The Gulf of Morrosquillo is located on the Caribbean coast, south of Cartegena. Further south, the Gulf of Urabá cuts sharply into the mainland just before the Isthmus of Panama.
The Pacific coast is very irregular, featuring many alternating bays and capes. From north to south, the sea inlets are the Gulf of Cupica, the Gulf of Tibugá, and at the southernmost point, Tumaco Bay.
Islands and Archipelagos
Colombia possesses a few islands in the Caribbean Sea and some in the Pacific Ocean. The combined area of these islands does not exceed 65 square kilometers (25 square miles). Off Nicaragua, about 644 kilometers (400 miles) northwest of the Colombian coast, lies the San Andrés y Providencia Intendency, an archipelago of thirteen small cays grouped around the two larger islands of San Andrés and Providencia. Other islands in the same area—the ownership of which has been in dispute—are the small islands, cays, or banks of Santa Catalina, Roncador, Quita Sueno, Serrana, and Serranilla. Off the coast south of Cartagena are several small islands, among them the islands of Rosario, San Bernardo, and Fuerte.
The island of Malpelo lies in the Pacific Ocean about 434 kilometers (270 miles) west of Buenaventura. Nearer the coast, a prison colony is located on Gorgona Island. Gorgonilla Cay is off its southern shore.
The Atlantic Lowlands consist of all land in Colombia north of an imaginary line extending northeastward from the Gulf of Urabá to the Venezuelan frontier at the northern extremity of the Cordillera Oriental. The region corresponds generally to one that is often referred to as the Caribbean Lowland or Coastal Plain. This Atlantic Lowland region is roughly the shape of a triangle, the longest side of which is the coastline. Inland from the coastal cities are swamps, hidden streams, and shallow lakes that support banana and cotton plantations, countless small farms and, in higher places, cattle ranches. The northernmost extension of the Atlantic Coast is Point Gallinas.
The Pacific Lowlands are a thinly populated region of jungle and swamp with considerable but little-exploited potential wealth in minerals and other resources. Buenaventura, at about the midpoint of the 1,287-kilometer-long (800-mile-long) coast, is the only port of any size. On the east, the Pacific Lowlands are bounded by the Cordillera Occidental, from which run numerous streams. The peaks of the Cordillera Occidental provide a barrier to rainclouds; as a result, the rainfall along the coast is heavy. The rainforest that lines the coast is dense, with a rich diversity of plant, animal, and bird life. From north to south along the Pacific Coast are Point Marzo, Point Solano, and Cape Corrientes.
6 INLAND LAKES
While Colombia has several lakes, none of them are very large and data concerning the area of each lake is scarce. Laguna de la Cocha, a volcanic lake located in the department of Nariño, and Lake Fúquene (with an area of 30 square kilometers/11 square miles), a shallow lake that lies in the Cordillera Oriental, are both being considered by the international organization RAMSAR as wetlands of international significance.
Lake Tota near Bogotá supports tourism with abundant resources for fishing and boating. The largest lake in the north is Laguna de la Plaza. It is located in the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy Mountain Range near the border with Venezuela and has a shore lined with rock formations. Another lake in the area is Laguna Grande de los Verdes. Lake Zapatosa is the largest of the many lakes of northern Colombia.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
The Amazon River is the longest river in South America and the second-longest river in the world. The Amazon starts in Peru and touches the southernmost part of Colombia before coursing through Brazil to flow eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. The total length of the Amazon is about 6,570 kilometers (4,080 miles). It has a total of eighteen major tributaries, including ten that are larger than the Mississippi River. The river is also known as having the world's largest flow of water, with about eighty million gallons of water per second emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The main Colombian rivers that serve as tributaries to the Amazon are the Vaupés, Apaporis, Caquetá, and the Putumayo.
The Magdalena River rises near a point some 177 kilometers (110 miles) north of Ecuador, where the Cordillera Oriental and the Cordillera Central diverge. It is fed by numerous mountain torrents originating high in the snowfields, where for millennia glaciers have planed the surface of folded and stratified rocks. The Magdalena is navigable from the Caribbean Sea as far as the town of Neiva, deep in the interior, but is interrupted at the midpoint of the country by rapids at the town of Honda.
Running parallel to the Magdalena and separated from it by the Cordillera Central, the Cauca River has headwaters not far from those of the Magdalena. The Cauca eventually joins the Magdalena in swamplands of the Atlantic (Caribbean) coastal region. Further west, the navigable Atrato River flows northward to the Gulf of Urabá.
There are no great rivers in western Colombia, as the mountains lie too close to the coastline. The longest rivers in this region are the San Juan and the Patia. East of the Andes, however, there are many large rivers, including several that are navigable. The Orinoco River flows north along part of the border with Venezuela. Many of Colombia's eastern rivers flow into it. The Guaviare River and two rivers to its north, the Arauca and the Meta, are the Orinoco's major Colombian tributaries. The Guaviare serves as a border for five political subdivisions, and it divides eastern Colombia into the Eastern Plains subregion in the north and the Amazonas subregion in the south.
In the plains region of the northeast, between the Meta River and the Cordillera Oriental, some of the terrain is dry. This region may resemble desert during periods of drought, but there is no true desert terrain in Colombia.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
The Eastern Plains lie east of the Andes and are crisscrossed from east to west by many large rivers. The Spanish term for plains ( llanos ) can be applied only to the open plains in the northern part where cattle are raised, particularly in piedmont areas near the Cordillera Oriental.
The narrow region along the Pacific coast, known as the Pacific Lowlands, is swampy, heavily forested, and sparsely populated. Along the Atlantic coast, the Atlantic Lowlands also consist largely of open, swampy land, but there are cattle ranches and plantations there, and settlements centered on the port cities.
The Cordillera Occidental is separated from the Cordillera Central by the deep rift of the Cauca River Valley. This tropical valley follows the course of the Cauca River for about 241 kilometers (150 miles) southward from a narrow gorge at about its midpoint near the town of Cartago. The cities of Cali and Palmira are situated on low terraces above the floodplain of the Cauca Valley. It is a fertile sugar agricultural zone that includes the best farmland in the country.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
Beginning near the border with Ecuador, the Andes Mountains divide into three distinct cordilleras (mountain chains) that extend northward almost to the Caribbean Sea. The Cordillera Occidental in the west roughly follows the Pacific coast. Slightly inland, the Cordillera Central extends parallel to the Cordillera Occidental, while the Cordillera Oriental lies furthest east. Altitudes in these ranges reach almost 5,791 meters (19,000 feet) and the mountain peaks are permanently covered with snow. Below the summits, the elevated basins and plateaus of these ranges have a moderate climate that provides pleasant living conditions and enables farmers in many places to harvest twice a year.
The Cordillera Occidental range is the lowest and the least populated of the three and supports little economic activity. It is separated from the Cordillera Central by the deep rift of the Cauca River Valley. A pass about 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) above sea level provides the major city of Cali with an outlet to the Pacific Ocean. The relatively low elevation of the cordillera permits dense vegetation, which on the western slopes is truly tropical.
The Cordillera Central, also called the Cordillera del Quindío, is the loftiest of the mountain systems. Its crystalline peaks form a 805-kilometer-long (500-mile-long) towering wall dotted with snow-covered volcanoes, several of which reach elevations greater than 5,500 meters (18,000 feet). There are no plateaus in this range and no passes below 3,352 meters (11,000 feet). The highest peak, the Nevado del Huila, rises 5,750 meters (18,865 feet) above sea level. Toward its northern end, this cordillera separates into several branches that descend toward the Atlantic coast, including the San Jerónimo Mountains, the Ayapel Mountains, and the San Lucas Mountains.
The Cordillera Oriental is the longest of the three systems, extending more than 1,200 kilometers (745 miles). In the far north, where the Cordillera Oriental makes an abrupt turn to the northwest near the Venezuela border, lies the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated mountain system near the Caribbean coast in the northern, semiarid Guajira Peninsula. It is the tallest coastal mountain range in the world. The range includes many tall peaks, as well as some active volcanoes. Its slopes are generally too steep for cultivation. In the southern part of the peninsula, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rise to a height of 5,775 meters (18,947 feet) at Pico Cristóbal Colón, the highest peak in Colombia.
DID YOU KNOW?
In the volcanic mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the town of Arboletes is especially known for its pungent mud volcanoes, which, instead of spewing molten rock, bubble and spatter a mixture of hot water and clay or mud from deep within Earth. One of its volcanoes has a large crater that is filled with a lake of mud. Locals and tourists alike enjoy swimming and soaking in the lake.
To the west of the Atrato River, along the Pacific Coast and the Panama border, rises the Serranía de Baudó, an isolated chain that occupies a large part of the coastal plain. Its highest elevation is less than 1,829 meters (6,000 feet).
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
There are no major caves or canyons in Colombia.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
North of Bogotá, the densely populated plateaus of Chiquinquirá and Boyacá feature fertile fields, rich mines, and large industrial establishments. The average elevation in this area is about 2,438 meters (8,000 feet).
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
There are two major dams in Colombia, both of which are built on fairly small but fast-flowing rivers. The Guavio Dam, on the Guavio River near Bogotá, is the tenth-highest dam in the world at 243 meters (797 feet). This hydroelectric dam produces most of the electricity for the surrounding areas. The Urrá Multipurpose Dam Project is located on the Sinú River, which flows south of the town of Montería in northwest Colombia. Besides serving as a source of hydroelectric power, this dam is expected to regulate the annual downstream flooding.
DID YOU KNOW?
Colombia has two archeological sites that are designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Tierradentro is a complex of hypogea (underground chambers) located in the town of San Andrés de Pisimbalá in the southern Andes. The underground structures are ancient burial chambers that have been decorated with black and red geometric figures representing the decorations of homes from the time period in which they were created (between the sixth and tenth centuries). There are a number of large animal-like statues surrounding the chambers, which were most likely meant to serve as guards to the tombs.
San Agustin, located in the mountains and canyons just to the south of Tierradentro, is a similar site that also contains a number of burial mounds, tombs, small temples, and large monolithic animal sculptures. Researchers believe that this area was a ceremonial site where natives worshipped nature and death as symbols of continuity and evolution.
14 FURTHER READING
Dydynski, Krzysztof. Colombia: A Travel Survival Kit. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1995.
Lessard, Marc. Colombia. Montréal, Canada: Ulysse, 1999.
Morrison, Marion. Colombia . New York: Children's Press, 1999.
Pollard, Peter. Colombia Handbook. Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 1998.
Williams, Raymond L., et al. Culture and Customs of Colombia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Colombia. http://www.geo.ya.com/travelimages/unesco-colombia.html (accessed June 13, 2003).