Located in northwestern South America, Colombia boasts the world’s third largest Spanish-speaking population, after Mexico and Spain. In the past decade its government has made great progress in reducing internecine violence, allowing it to open up its vast natural and cultural landscape to visitors from around the world.
Native American groups including the Tayronas and Muiscas had already established politically advanced societies in Colombia when Spanish conquest of the region began in 1508. As a Spanish colony, Colombia was included with Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela as the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Numerous liberation movements marked the country’s colonial history, which finally came to fruition under the leadership of Símon Bolívar with significant aid from the newly independent nation of Haiti. The country changed its name to Gran Colombia, then later to the Republic of Columbia as it lost territory through the secession of its other constituent states. A series of civil wars and border disputes punctuated the end of the 19th century in Colombia, followed by a period of relative stability in the early 20th century; however, disagreement between the country’s two major political parties erupted into a ten-year armed conflict called “La Violencia” in 1948. A power-sharing deal was brokered in 1964, but this only instigated resentment among excluded political elements, who formed anti-government militias and gained control of large parts of the country. A new party to this conflict emerged in the 1970s, as powerful drug cartels, made wealthy through the international cocaine trade, sought to establish a government sympathetic to their interests.
Although the armed insurgency continues to the present day, it has waned considerably, along with the resources and popular support of the militant factions. Most of Colombia has thus become much safer for foreigners and citizens alike, and tourism has naturally flourished. The country offers a wide variety of travel destinations, from snowy mountains to pristine beaches, vibrant cities like Bogotá to the Amazon rainforest, and ancient colonial and Native American ruins. Despite the violence, Colombia has displayed steady economic growth. It has successfully transitioned to a service-based economy, although it is still most widely known for its agricultural exports, especially coffee.
Colombian society is a rich melting pot, composed primarily of indigenous, Spanish, and African influences. Numerous immigrant communities are present, representing cultures from around the world. Although immigration declined sharply during the twentieth century, the recent increase in domestic security has drawn increasing numbers of expatriates to this vibrant nation over the past decade. Numerous large corporations provide job opportunities to qualified foreigners, although fluency in Spanish is often a prerequisite for employment. English teaching, NGO work, and volunteering, especially in development and environmentalism, are options worth looking into as well.
Colombian Spanish is noted for its crisp, clear accent, making it an ideal medium for Spanish study. Current Spanish speakers should note that Colombians tend to be somewhat socially conservative, and may take offense at the more informal speech patterns common in other countries. Over 60 indigenous languages are still spoken, and are co-official in their respective regions.