Introduction to Geography of Colombia

Colombia, or Republic of Colombia, a country in northwestern South America. It lies on the Equator and fronts on both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It is bordered by Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador.

Facts in brief about Colombia
Capital: Bogota.
Official language: Spanish.
Area: 439,737 mi2 (1,138,914 km2). Greatest distances—northwest-southeast, 1,170 mi (1,883 km); northeast-southwest, 850 mi(1,368 km). Coastline—580 mi (933 km) along the Pacific Ocean; 710 mi(1,143 km) along the Caribbean Sea.
Elevation: Highest—Cristobal Colon, 18,947 ft (5,775 m) above sea level. Lowest—sea level, along the coasts.
Population: Current estimate—43,127,000; density, 98 per mi2 (38 per km2); distribution, 75 percent urban, 25 percent rural. 2005 census—41,242,948.
Chief products: Agriculture—bananas, beef cattle, cassava, coffee, corn, cotton, milk, potatoes, rice, sugar cane. Manufacturing—cement, chemicals, metal products, processed foods and beverages, textiles and clothing. Mining—coal, emeralds, gold, iron ore, natural gas, petroleum, salt.
Flag: Colombia's flag, adopted in 1861, has a yellow stripe for the golden New World, a red stripe for the blood shed for independence, and a blue stripe for the Atlantic Ocean (top to bottom).
Coat of arms: The coat of arms, adopted in 1834, is topped by a condor. It shows a pomegranate, horns of plenty, a liberty cap, and the Isthmus of Panama (once part of Colombia).
Money: Basic unit—Colombian peso.

Physical Geography

ColombiaColombia is a country in northwestern South America.

The Andes—South America's great mountain chain—occupy most of western Colombia. They consist of three distinct ranges, called cordilleras. From west to east they are the Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera Oriental. They begin in a mountainous knot near the Ecuadorian border and extend north- and north-eastwards as far as Venezuela. All three ranges attain elevations of more than 13,000 feet (3,960 m); the two easterly ranges reach heights exceeding 18,000 feet (5,490 m). The highest of Colombia's Andean peaks is snowcapped Nevado del Huila (18,865 feet [5,750 m]) in the central range. Here too are most of Colombia's volcanoes.

Lowlands occupy the area north of the Andes as far as the Caribbean Sea. In many places, especially along the major rivers, the land is often marshy. At the coast, near the Venezuelan border, stands the enormous mountain block known as Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It rises abruptly to an elevation of 18,947 feet (5,775 m) at Cristóbal Colón Peak, the loftiest in Colombia.

Along the Pacific coast are both lowlands and mountains. The lowlands—wide, marshy, and sparsely inhabited—occupy the southern half of the coast. The north is dominated by the Serranía de Baudó, a low but rugged mountain range with peaks of almost 6,000 feet (1,830 m).

The region east of the Andes accounts for some three-fifths of Colombia's total area but most of the region is undeveloped and sparsely settled. The northern part is spanned by grassy plains, called llanos. The southern portion is lowland covered primarily by dense rain forests of the Amazon basin.


The 1,000-mile (1,600-km)Magdalena and its largest tributary, the Cauca, are Colombia's chief rivers. Both begin in the Andes of southern Colombia and drain northward to the Caribbean. For centuries they provided the principal avenues into the mountainous interior. Virtually all the other rivers of the Andean and coastal regions are short and relatively unimportant. In the eastern region many large rivers flow eastward as part of either the Orinoco or the Amazon system. Among them are the Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Meta rivers. There are no large lakes in Colombia. Small ones, however, dot the Caribbean lowlands, especially the areas along or near the rivers.


Colombia has an equatorial location, but its climate varies enormously, primarily because of differences in elevation and location. The coastal areas are hot, with temperatures ranging from 75° to 100° F. (24°-38° C.), while cooler temperatures are found at higher elevations. At any one location, however, there is little seasonal variation in temperature. The greatest change in temperature occurs from night to day. Some areas in the high mountains are permanently covered by snow.

Precipitation also varies greatly from place to place. Most of Colombia, including the Andean region, receives 40 to 80 inches (1,015 to 2,030 mm) a year. The region in the Amazon basin gets considerably more. As much as 400 inches (10,160 mm) a year falls in the Pacific coastal area, including the Atrato river valleys—one of the rainiest regions in the world. Parts of the Caribbean coast, particularly the Guajira Peninsula, are semiarid, with less than 25 inches (635 mm) annually. Some areas are rainy all year; others have either one or two distinct rainy seasons, followed by dry periods.

Plants and Animals

Because of the wide climatic range in Colombia, vegetation is extremely diverse. There are tropical rain forests and grassy savannas in the tropical lowlands, while mossy tundra vegetation is typical in the bleak, high mountains. At middle elevations in the Andes, where the climate is subtropical or temperate, there are woodlands, and forests resembling those in the United States. More than 7,000 species of plants are found in Colombia.

Wild animals still abound, especially in the sparsely populated parts of the country. Large mammals include jaguars, pumas, bears, and tapirs. There are also peccaries, deer, sloths, anteaters, opossums, monkeys, and many rodents. Reptiles, such as caimans, turtles, lizards, and snakes, are abundant in the lowland areas. Colombia's bird life is exceptionally rich.


Farming provides a livelihood for roughly one-fourth of the working population. Manufacturing and commerce have made tremendous gains since the 1950's and have greatly reduced the country's dependence on farming. Mining, too, is a major industry and is increasing in importance. Particularly important are the mining of coal and the production of petroleum.

Colombia has a sizable illicit economy based on the processing of the coca leaf, the source of cocaine. Much of the world's supply of this drug originates in Colombia.


Because of the wide range of climatic conditions, there is great diversity in the kinds of crops grown. The farms range from modern plantations for large-scale commercial production to small plots where farmers eke out a bare subsistence.

Coffee has long been Colombia's leading legal commercial crop and export. It is noted for its mild flavor, sells at premium prices, and accounts for much of Colombia's total export earnings. In annual production, the country ranks second only to Brazil as the world's largest coffee producer. Most of the crop is grown in the Cordillera Central.

Bananas are the second most important export crop. Other crops, grown commercially and partly for export, include cotton, sugarcane, tobacco, and cacao. Plantains, potatoes, cassava, rice, and corn are among the staple foods grown.

Cattle, the most numerous kind of livestock, are raised mainly in the Caribbean lowlands and the llanos, primarily for the domestic market. Dairying is concentrated around Bogotá and other large urban areas. Hogs and sheep are also raised. Horses, donkeys, and mules are widely used as draft and pack animals.


Colombia's industries produce a variety of consumer goods, such as processed foods, beverages, textiles, shoes, clothing, and household items. Most manufacturing is located in or near the largest cities, particularly Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. The textile industry, which mainly produces cotton goods, is especially well developed and centers in Medellín and Bogotá. There is also a sizable production of industrial goods, including metal products, chemicals, machinery, paper, and cement. Heavy industry is poorly developed but growing steadily, especially the iron and steel industry.


Since Spanish colonial times, when gold and silver accounted for much of Colombia's wealth, mining has been important. Today, precious metals are still among the more valuable products. By value, however, fossil fuels make up the leading group. Coal has become increasingly important since the mid-1980's, when one of the world's largest and most productive coal mines opened on the Guajira Peninsula. There is a sizable output of crude petroleum from oil fields in the north and in the southwest, near the Ecuadorean border. Natural gas is also produced.

Colombia normally accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world's annual output of gem emeralds, production of which is a state monopoly. Copper, iron, and nickel are among other minerals produced.


Colombia's rugged terrain has hindered the development of road and rail transportation routes. Except for those connecting the major cities, few roads are paved. Cities in the interior, including Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali, are linked by railway with Santa Maria on the Caribbean coast and Buenaventura on the Pacific.

Airplanes are a common means of transportation in Colombia. There are 11 international airports; many smaller airports are located throughout the country. Colombia's main national airline, Avianca, established in 1919, was the first airline in South America.

Almost all inland waterway traffic, including passengers as well as cargo, is carried on the Magdalena River. Along its valley are also a major railway and a highway. Principal seaports are Buenaventura, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Tumaco.

The People

About 68 per cent of the people are mestizos (of mixed Indian-white descent) and 20 per cent are white. The rest are mulattos, blacks, Indians, and zambos (of mixed Indian and black ancestry).

Language and Religion

Spanish, the official language of the country, is spoken by everyone except the members of a few Indian tribes. There is religious freedom but about 95 per cent of the people are Roman Catholics.


Primary education is free and compulsory. It begins at age six and lasts five years. Secondary education lasts up to six years—four years of general studies followed by an optional two years of vocational education. Public education is financed jointly by the national, departmental, and municipal governments. About 85 per cent of the people are literate.

The National University of Colombia (founded 1867) is in Bogotá. There are more than 40 other institutions of higher learning in Colombia.


Colombia is governed under the constitution of 1991. It is a republic, with executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The executive branch is composed of the president, his cabinet, a vice president, and the heads of the administrative departments. The president is elected for four years by direct vote and may not succeed himself.

Legislative power is vested in Congress, which consists of the Senate and House of Representatives. Members are directly elected by the people to terms of four years. Colombia has universal suffrage for persons 18 years of age and older.

The judiciary consists of the supreme court in Bogotá, superior courts in each of the judicial districts, regional courts, a number of lower courts, and a constitutional court. There is no capital punishment. Colombia maintains an army, a navy, an air force, and a national police force.