Describing Colombia

The Republic of Colombia is usually referred to as, simply, Columbia. The Spanish arrived first in 1525. It is the only country of the South American continental mainland to have coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It has borders with five other countries. Panama is to the northwest, Venezuela and Brazil to the east, and Peru and Ecuador to the south. The long Pacific Ocean coast is to the west and the Caribbean Sea is to the north. The country’s current borders were finally established in 1934. The country went through many periods of civil unrest and revolution from about 1800 till almost 2000. The problems involved drug cartels and paramilitary groups. Some negotiations are still ongoing but the country is now relatively stable.

Perhaps surprisingly Columbia is a representative, presidential democracy with a bicameral parliament and an independent judiciary. The current constitution was promulgated in 1991 after the December 1990 elections for the National Constituent Assembly. The Executive Branch of the government consists of the President and vice-President both of whom are elected for a four year terms. They are eligible for re-election only to one subsequent consecutive four year term.

The legislative branch is the two chamber Congress comprising a 102 member Senate and a 161 member Chamber of Representatives. Members may be re-elected indefinitely. Two seats in the Senate are reserved for indigenous members.

The independent judiciary is at the highest level appointed, with checks and balances, by the president and the legislative branch. The Ministry of Justice administered by the Minister of Justice is concerned with the passage of laws through Congress ands with penalties for transgressions. This is the way that the elected representatives in Congress are concerned with the judicial branch of Government.

Its chequered history has not prevented people from moving to Colombia. As long ago as 1950 some top British football (soccer) stars moved to the Bogota based team Santa Fe. At the time wages in the British Football League were controlled and transfer signing-on fees were illegal.

Colombia lies totally within the tropics. The equator cuts across the southern part of the country. The capital Bogota is at 4.6º N and 74.1º W and is at an altitude of 2625 metres (8610 Feet). With a population of almost 8 million it is one of the largest cities in the world. The height moderates what would otherwise be a tropically hot climate. It is impossible to generalize about the climate and weather of Colombia because of its size and varied topography.

The highest point is Pico Cristobal Colon at 5775 metres (19,000 Feet) which, surprisingly, not in the Andes Range but a peak in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the Caribbean plain although Nevado del Huila, reaches 5,365 metres (17602 Feet) which is in the Andes runs it close. Sea level on the Pacific coast is the lowest point. The major South American mountain range, the Andes, divides in Colombia into three branches. Most of the main urban centres are in these regions as this map shows.

Railways are underdeveloped in Colombia and are now used much less than was the case some fifty years ago.There was some refurbishment from 2004 to 2006 on the 1500 kilometre Bogota - Caribbean line and the 500 kilometre Pacific coastal line.

The road system is extensive although it carried only about 106,000 tones of cargo in 2005. This did represent almost three-quarters of the cross border dry freight. About 70% of the total of 164,000 kilometres of roads are paved and said to be in good condition.

Air transport is employed extensively in Colombia at about 1,000 airports of which some 10% have paved runways. Of seventy-five major airports almost a third can accommodate jet aircraft and two have runways in excess of 3,000 metres. Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport handles over 550 million tonnes of freight and 22 million passengers a year. Colombia is well connected to the rest of the world by air and is within easy reach of the United States of America but not by a direct flight.

The other major transport infrastructure in Colombia is comprised of the 14,000 kilometres of pipelines. In these are transported gas, oil and other refined products. The Caribbean export terminal at Puerto Coveñas is served by four pipelines.

Internet usage in Colombia has increased fivefold since 2005 from less than 5 million to 25 million at the end of 2011. Bogota, Medellin and Cali accounted for about 50% of the telephone land lines in use in 2005. The mobile market had outstripped land line usage by mid-2004 and Colombia has highest mobile ‘phone density in Latin America in 2005 (90% compared with a regional figure of 70%). Images of the telephone and internet services and users provide some interesting statistics and show growth patterns clearly. The Expat Exchange web site provides good information on communications services including such services as Skype.

Good health services are available in Colombia at prices considerably less than in the United States of America. Comments on the health care system and care available can be seen from an expatriate’s blog on the Expat Exchange web site. Basic health care statistics can be found at the World Health Organization web site.

The United States of America is by far the greatest trading partner of Colombia, with trade being three times the value of the second country, China. The U.S.A. conducted some $35 billion worth of trade in 2011.

The population of Colombia is almost 48 million and the life expectancy of over 73 years indicates a good health system and well developed social conditions and services. The proportion below the poverty line is some 45% which confirms the Third World status of the country.

Police and military forces are 450,000 strong and there are varying periods of national (conscription) service required of citizens on attaining 18 years of age depending upon which branch of the forces is concerned. The periods would seem to be inversely proportional to the degree of risk of injury or death in the various branches of the defense force. The country spends about 6% of its G.D.P. on the defense forces.

The seasons and climate of Colombia do not depend upon its geographical location. The country lies entirely in the tropics, mostly between the Equator and the northern Tropic of Cancer. Climatic variation is governed solely by altitude. There are frozen zones, tropical rain forests and most variations between these extremes including steppes, deserts and savanna areas.

Tourism is an increasingly important and developing part of the Colombian economy. From a low of about half a million visitors in 2003 some 3 million visited in 2011. The Colombian road, rail and air transport facilities have been mentioned above as have the much improved urban transport systems in the major towns such Bogota and Medellin. The latter even has an overhead cable way which connects outlying areas to the Metro of Medellin, the street light rail system.

Colombian coffee is World famous. The growing region is in West Central Colombia known as the coffee triangle of the Andean region. The altitude is from 900 meters to just over 2100 metres and is also on the Cauca River. The towns of the area range from cold to warm. Manizales (18ºC - 64ºF) has a cold climate while  Pereira (21ºC – 69ºF) and Armenia (20ºC – 68ºF) are mainly temperate.

The Boyacá region of the eastern Andean mountain range has topographies as varied as sea level with 35ºC (95ºF) temperature to snow covered peaks at 5490 metres at El Cocuy. It is both a mining, coal and iron, and agricultural, cattle and crops, region and includes gemstone (emeralds) production and local handicrafts.

These examples from across the country give some idea of the varied nature of the country and its attractions which include over a dozen national parks. There are a vast variety of local festivals and cuisines to be experienced by visitors. The future of the tourist industry can only be bright.

There is a wide range of wild life. Images of the fauna of Colombia show clearly range of native birds, reptiles, mammals, including primates, amphibians and fish. The range of plants is also impressive. Included is the national flower, the orchid Cattleya trianae. Images of the flora of the country are spectacular

Football, soccer, is by far the most popular sport in Colombia. The country’s national team has enjoyed good success at both the Olympic Games and the World Cup (F.I.F.A.). With government support cycling is also of increasing importance. There has been some individual success in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. Almost every other sport both conventional and extreme and including water sports is available in Colombia.

The links at the "Resources" tab of this site and the book "How to Retire in Colombia" by Les Johns expands on all of the above points. The book is available from this site.

Other Considerations

Although Colombia lies totally within the tropics a full range of climatic conditions can be found because the great variation of altitude. From tropical beaches to snowy conditions and everything between these extremes is available. The major towns are modern with all of the usually expected facilities for comfortable living being present. Good international transportation by major airlines is available particularly from the capital Bogota. Reasonably priced electronic communications, telephones and the internet, can be obtained in most centres. Care should be taken and good local information obtained before traveling to “rural” areas, such as Leticia, where the possibility of the use of credit/debit cards is doubtful if not impossible.

Visitors from many countries of Western Europe, the Americas, Japan, Australia and New Zealand do not need visas. A stay of up to 90 days is possible and an extension of 30 days is often granted. It is important to be sure to get the period of stay endorsed in the passport at the place of entry. Many service providers and authorities have a right and need to see an entry stamp in a passport and exit can be difficult and expensive if the visit has not been correctly recorded. It is the case that the easy visiting rules that apply to tourists make the application of the “Golden Rule" - visit before settling - very easy.

The many links at the "Resources" tab of this site and the book "How to Retire in Colombia" by Les Johns will make light work of any intended retiree's initial research. The book can be bought directly from this site.