Colombia is one of the most vibrant countries in South America. Home to rich art and culture, an astounding amount of biodiversity and yet still overshadowed by its turbulent past, Colombia fulfils and fascinates on every level.
But what is visiting a country without understanding it? These facts about Colombia will provide some much-needed context for your trip, laying the groundwork so that you can continue to learn about this captivating country as you experience it firsthand.
Covering the quirky to the intriguing and the downright bizarre, these facts about Colombia will have you itching to book a flight!
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21 Fun Facts About Colombia
1. Colombians put cheese in their hot chocolate
Did you know that Colombians put cheese in their hot chocolate? Yep, you read that right! There is a saying in Colombia that goes “chocolate sin queso es como amor sin beso”. This translates to, “chocolate without cheese is like love without a kiss”. For the Colombians, hot chocolate without a cheesy treat is just a no-go!
The two types of cheese commonly used in hot chocolate are queso doble crema or queso campesino. Both of these types of cheese have been chosen because they melt while still keeping their shape.
As a serious cheese-lover, I felt rather offended by this Colombian fact when I first heard it. But, if you can’t beat em, you better get slurping to see what all the fuss is about! After exploring the Bogotá food scene myself (where this drink is most popular), I’ve definitely been won over!
2. Pablo Escobar’s hippos are thriving in Colombia
When most of us think about Colombia, the first thing to jump to mind is the moustached face of the most famous drug lord in the world: Pablo Escobar. Through his thriving cocaine business, Escobar became one of the richest men in the entire world and he spent his wealth lavishly.
After building Hacienda Napoles, a luxurious estate east of Medellín, Escobar decided to illegally import a small herd of hippopotamuses and keep them at his ranch. After he died in 1993, the estate was abandoned. However, nobody came to claim the hippos and they began to pop up all over the place.
There are now around 130 hippos in Colombia, all descendants of the original herd that Escobar first brought to his ranch. They have recently been declared an invasive species and the authorities are currently in talks about how to manage them going forward.
3. Medellín was once the ‘Murder Capital’ of the world
Most of you reading this probably know a little about Colombia’s difficult past. Drug trafficking, political corruption and violent crime were just some of the things that the country was known for. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in Medellín, the stronghold of Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.
Back in 1991, there were an average of 16 people murdered every single day inside the city, cementing its reputation as the ‘Murder Capital’ of the world. Despite this grim record, in recent years, Colombia’s City of Eternal Spring has flipped its old reputation on the head, instead becoming the country’s main hub for innovation. The resulting evolution of the city has led to it attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year and even becoming a hub for digital nomads in South America.
4. The percentage of Spanish speakers in Colombia is higher than in Spain
Colombia was colonised by the Spanish in the 1500s and finally became independent in 1819. Although there are 37 languages officially spoken throughout the country, Spanish is still the most popular of these and more than 99.5% of the population speak it – more than in Spain!
Colombian Spanish is quite different from the Spanish spoken in other Latin American countries and it is often said to be one of the clearest and easiest to understand forms of the language. Beware though, if you’re learning Spanish in Colombia, you’ll have to get your head around the numerous slang words and phrases. ¡Que chévere!
Also read: Spanish-speaking countries in South America.
5. Colombia is one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world
There are 17 megadiverse countries in the world. These countries are home to a large number of endemic species and as a result, they rank in the world’s top biodiversity-rich nations.
Although often overshadowed by neighbouring countries Brazil and Ecuador, Colombia is actually hugely diverse, playing host to nearly 10% of the world’s biodiversity. The country is the world leader when it comes to bird and orchid diversity and sits in a healthy second place for amphibians, butterflies, plants and freshwater fish diversity.
Across the country, Colombia is home to 41 national parks, two national reserves, 11 flora and fauna sanctuaries and five biosphere reserves.
6. The ‘Liquid Rainbow’ can be found in Colombia
Colombia’s ‘Liquid Rainbow’ is the stuff dreams are made of. Located in Serranía de la Macarena National Park, Caño Cristales, also known as the ‘River of Five Colours’, is a natural marvel that has to be seen to be believed.
From the months of June to mid-December, the river blooms causing an eruption of colour. When the river weed is at its brightest, it is possible to pick out shades of yellow, green, blue, red and black, giving this river stream an otherworldy appearance.
7. Colombia is the largest cocaine producer on the planet
Unfortunately for the Colombian people, cocaine tends to be the first thing to spring to mind when you think of this country. Even though Escobar’s reign of terror is firmly in the past, the country still hasn’t managed to fully shake off its association with one of the world’s most dangerous drugs.
As of 2020, Colombia still accounts for the majority of worldwide coca cultivation at 61%, however, it is important to note that not all of this coca is being used to make cocaine. Coca leaves are chewed across the Andean nations to offset the impact of living at high altitudes.
8. The first ‘Free Town’ for Africans in the Americas was in Colombia
San Basilio de Palenque, also shortened to Palenque, is a small village located in northern Colombia. Although little visited compared to the heavyweights of Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena, Palenque is hugely historically important.
Declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, Palenque was founded in colonial times by those who had fled their lives of slavery. The small group lived in the mountainous town secretly until 1691, when the Spanish Crown officially freed them from slavery. This made Palenque the first free settlement in the whole of the Americas.
9. Door knockers in Cartagena indicate the social standing of residents
Dating back to colonial times, the door knockers in Cartagena are more than just an elaborate demonstration of creativity. In fact, for those in the know, they indicate rather a lot about the inhabitants of the house.
Back in the day, Colombians used to have a saying “tal casa tal aldaba” which translates to “to each house its door knocker”. This refers to each house having its own door knocker which indicates the profession or social status of those within.
Sea creature and fish knockers indicate that someone from the seafaring community lives inside whereas lion door knockers imply a military connection. Lizard door knockers represent the homes of high society, often with a royal connection. It’s still possible to see examples of these door knockers in Cartagena’s Old Town today.
10. The ‘Lost City’ is older than Machu Picchu
Known locally as ‘Cuidad de Perdida’, the Lost City Trek is one of Colombia’s bucket list attractions. Despite this, it garners far less international interest than Machu Picchu – surprising as it is actually estimated to be over 600 years older than Peru’s Incan citadel! Unlike Machu Picchu, it is only accessible on foot, largely controlling visitor numbers.
The only way to reach this ancient ruin is to take on one of South America’s most iconic hikes. Over four to five days, intrepid adventurers face extreme heat and humidity as they traverse through the jungle, before finally reaching the Lost City.
11. Colombia has access to two coastlines
Colombia is the only country in South America to have access to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The country is famous for its epic beaches and boasts around 1,800km of coastline on the Atlantic side and 1,500km on the Pacific side.
12. Tejo is the national (drunken) sport of Colombia
Do you ever watch cricket and find yourself nodding off? If you’ve answered yes to this question, Tejo could be the game that you’ve been searching for. Colombia’s national sport combines beer, steel projectiles and gunpowder!
Not a lot is known about this raucous game’s origins but it is estimated that it was first played in central Colombia by native indigenous more than 450 years ago! The premise of the sport is surprisingly simple. Essentially, participants throw a metal disk at a board filled with small packets of gunpowder. If the Tejo hits the gunpowder, there is an explosion. This sport is routinely played by people of all stripes, many of whom are often intoxicated. Explosions and alcohol, what could go wrong?!
13. You can find the tallest wax palms in the world in Colombia
Sitting at over 1,800 metres above sea level, the Cocora Valley is a part of Los Nevados National Park. It’s home to the tallest wax palms in the world! Growing up to 200 feet tall, you’ll have to crane your neck skywards to see the tips of these star-grazing palms. A species of monocot, the Quindío palm only thrives at really high altitudes.
Despite the majesty of these trees, they are a threatened species. While there are the obvious culprits to blame – habitat loss and disease – perhaps the most surprising contributor to their demise are the Catholics. In previous years, people from this religious group plucked leaves from the smallest trees for use on Palm Sunday. This destructive act often killed the youngest of the trees. To bring these palms back from the brink, Colombia declared the Quindío palm its national tree and passed legal protections to help them flourish.
14. Former President Alvaro Uribe survived 15 assassination attempts
Do you ever look at politicians and wonder what life is like when you’re that unpopular? Although many politicians are despised the world over, assassination attempts are largely uncommon with most dissenters preferring to express their unhappiness with the government on social media. (How very millennial.)
This was not the case for former president Alvaro Uribe though. Uribe served as president for eight years, from 2002-2010, giving him plenty of time to make some powerful enemies. Throughout his life, the former president has survived a whopping 15 assassination attempts! While this sounds pretty impressive, according to a former Secret Service chief, Fidel Castro survived at least 634 attempts on his life!
15. The Flag of Colombia is laden with hidden meaning
Colombia’s flag is a horizontal striped tricolour design, featuring yellow, red and blue. The yellow section of the flag is the largest and represents the country’s riches, including agriculture and gold. The yellow also has connotations with justice and sovereignty, two factors that are very important to Colombians.
The blue represents Colombia’s azure seas, rivers and the sky overhead. Its more figurative meaning is that of loyalty and vigilance.
The red is a visual manifestation of Colombia’s struggle for independence from the Spanish and is seen as a symbol of the blood spilt during these battles. Red signals victory and also represents both the determination and tenacity of all Colombian people.
16. Colombia is the world’s third-largest coffee producer
It is no secret that South America is known for its coffee. While Brazil is by far the world’s biggest coffee producer, Colombia comes in third on the global scale and produced 810,000 metric tons in 2019.
Nowadays, an estimated 25% of Colombians in rural areas rely on the coffee industry to make a living. Although coffee production is big business in Colombia, small family farms rule the roost and the coffee industry has played an important role in Colombia’s post-conflict future.
17. Pop superstar Shakira is from Barranquilla
Shakira (full name Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll) is one of the world’s most recognisable pop stars. Dubbed the ‘Queen of Latin Music’, Shakira has recorded songs in both English and Spanish (as well as being famous for her very shapely hips).
18. Gorgona Island is home to an abandoned prison
Did you know that on the island of Gorgona, 21 miles off Colombia’s Pacific coast, lies an abandoned prison? Nicknamed the ‘Alcatraz of Latin America’, the maximum-security Gorgona prison was operational throughout the 1960s and 80s and housed thousands of dangerous criminals.
After the prison eventually closed its doors, it fell into disrepair, the ruins of which still stand today. These days, the entire island has been turned into a national park and is home to some breathtaking Colombian wildlife. There is a huge population of venomous snakes on the island so visitors must wear gumboots at all times for their safety.
19. Alcohol bans are put in place to keep the peace during national events
If you’ve ever been to a football match, you’ll be well aware that alcohol is often a precursor to drama. The Colombian government know this too and in a measure to make their streets safer, they impose temporary alcohol bans during national events.
Dry Laws have previously been implemented during The World Cup and presidential elections.
20. The Colombian National Anthem is played twice a day on the radio and TV by law
Originally a poem written way back in 1850, Colombia’s National Anthem ‘¡Oh gloria inmarcesible!’ is played twice a day on the radio and television by law. Appearing at both 6 am and 6 pm every day, the anthem is meant to inspire patriotism around the country.
21. In Colombia, they eat ants as a street snack
Also known as Hormigas Culonas, these leaf-cutter ants are a popular street snack and delicacy eaten in Santander, Colombia. Easily recognisable for their big bums (eat your heart out Kim K), they are harvested for around nine weeks of the year, during the rainy season.
Usually fried or roasted, these ants are a great source of protein while still being low in fat. With both a salty and crunchy texture, they are similar in taste to peanuts shells. It is believed locally that the ants are aphrodisiacs so while not the cheapest Colombian food, they can provide other benefits – if you get what I mean! 😉
Got any more facts about Colombia for our list? Let us know in the comments or our Facebook community!