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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Colombia is in the top four megadiverse countries in terms of diversity of species, along with Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa, according to the United Nations. The country is ethnically very diverse too. It is famous for its cocaine trade, producing 70 per cent of the world’s coca production. For years, Colombia had the world’s highest homicide rate, although it has eased since 2002. Its capital, Bogota, has many universities and libraries and is often called “The Athens of South America.” There are many other interesting facts about Colombia.

Geography

It occupies the northwest corner of South America and is the continent’s only country to border both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean (at the Caribbean Sea). The Andes Mountains dominate the landscape and are the location of most of the nation’s major cities. At an altitude of 8,700 feet, Bogota is the world’s third highest major city after La Paz of Bolivia and Quito of Ecuador, although it is much larger than either of these cities. To the east of the mountains is tropical grassland and in the southeast the Amazon Rainforest. The country is located along the Pacific Ring of Fire and has 15 major volcanoes.

Climate

Colombia’s climate varies from hot and humid in the Amazon jungle to very cold in the mountainous areas with permanent snowy peaks despite its location near the equator. Much of the country has two wet seasons, corresponding to spring and autumn. The Pacific coast is one of the world’s highest rainfall areas, while over 200 inches often falls in the southeast. The country is in the El Nino-Southern Oscillation path, resulting in variable rainfall and severe flooding along the western side. Bogota has a cool climate that hardly varies through the year. Average maximum temperatures by month vary from 63 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit, while average minimums range from 41 to 47 degrees.

History

The territory of what is now Colombia has been occupied by indigenous people for 12,000 years. Their lives were thrown into upheaval by the arrival of the Spaniards in 1499, who set about conquering and colonizing the area. One group refusing to be subjugated was the Whyuu people who were unusual in that they used horses and firearms. In 1718, the governor described them as “barbarians, horse thieves, worthy of death, without God, without law and without a king.” After independence in 1819, Gran Colombia stretched over much of the northern part of the continent and included Panama. The Republic of Colombia dates from 1886, still with Panama which separated in 1903.

People

Most of Colombia’s 45 million people live in the mountainous areas and on the Caribbean coast. Three-quarters of the population are of mixed ancestry. About 58 per cent of residents are mestizo, meaning mixed European and Amerindian background. A further 14 per cent are mulatto or of European and African descent, and 3 per cent are zambo or of Amerindian and African ancestry. Of the remaining quarter, 20 per cent are white, 4 per cent are black and just 1 per cent are Amerindian. Colombia has the third largest number of Spanish speaking people outside Spain, after Mexico and the US. With the protracted internal fighting, more than four million of its population are regarded as internally displaced persons, among the world’s highest number. Ironically, the nation is ranked sixth by the 2009 Happy Planet Index, down from second place in 2006.

Economy

Despite the internal conflict, Colombia’s economy has grown strongly, averaging four per cent annually from the 1970s through to the 1990s. In 2007, it grew by eight per cent. Its stock exchange index jumped from a starting base of 1,000 points in 2001 to 7,300 points by late 2008. However, inequality is high, and almost a quarter of government spending is repaying debt. The country has an abundance of natural resources, and leading exports include petroleum, coal, and gold. Colombia is the world’s leading supplier of emeralds. The 858 carat Gachala Emerald, one of the largest emeralds in the world, was found in Colombia in 1967.

Government and politics

Colombia has long had a constitutional government. Its two major parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, were founded in the 1840s and are among the oldest in the Americas. The two have fought many battles, including the Thousand Days War of 1899-1902, which started over allegations of electoral fraud, and La Violencia, a series of skirmishes from the late 1940s and lasting about a decade. Battles were continuous from the 1960s and escalated in the 1990s due to the cocaine trade. The political situation has been less volatile in recent years, with sharp falls in the number of murders and kidnappings, as well as a weakening of the terrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Transport and communication

Two-thirds of cargo in Colombia is transported by road, and most of the roads are now paved. Rail has been neglected with passenger numbers shrinking from over five million in 1972 to 160,000 in 2005. The country has nearly 1,000 airports, ranking it eighth in the world, although only 107 have paved runways. Waterways are also well developed, but guerrillas control those in the south. Lonely Planet regards Colombia as one of the top 10 destinations. The country has more than 500 radio stations, 60 television stations, and 12 million internet users. There are about 75 mobile phones per 100 persons.

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