Colombia Culture, People and Entertainment

RetirePedia's Roving Reporter Jim VeinotBy Jim Veinot

You could spend a long, long time studying the culture of Colombia and still not cover all there is to know. Needless to say I’m not going to attempt that! What I will do is give you a bird’s eye view of Colombia's people, festivals, arts, entertainment and food.

Colombia Culture: People

There are different groups of people from different times, in unique settings in a country where cities are far apart.  The first group are the indigenous people native to Colombia. They represent about 3.4 percent of the current population of some 45,000,000 Colombians or about 1.5 million persons.

The original inhabitants of the country were pretty much decimated by the Spanish conquistadors. The majority of these folks live either on the Pacific, below Cali toward the borders of Ecuador and Peru, or the Caribbean, to the East of Cartagena. These are locations noted in our Colombia weather section if they seem familiar.

Colombia Culture: The photo shows the Paez, one of Colombia's indigenous groups.The Paez, one of Colombia's indigenous groups [Image by Wildwood72, via Wikimedia Commons]

The Spanish brought with them, among other things, Roman Catholicism, a caste system with White Europeans at the top, slavery and a protection racket. Of course that’s the way things look now, but this was pretty standard colonizing behavior in the 1600’s! They also brought their architecture, their food preferences, their music and dances and their genes.

As time went on there arose a growing population of mestizo, the result of children born to indigenous women but sired by Spanish men. There also arose another group known as zambos, the people of which were a mix of indigenous and African, both groups used as slaves.

Finally there are various immigrant groups present in Colombia. This includes members of Roma, followers of the Hebrew religion, (there are five synagogues in Bogotá) the offspring of Chinese railway builders from Panama who have settled on the Pacific beside the groups of people who claim Japanese fishermen as their ancestors. 

European immigrants include the German people who developed and populated Bucaramanga, now the fifth largest and highly productive city in Colombia.

There are also religious groups such as Mennonites of Colombia, some of whom have emigrated from Mexico. All of these people and others brought their songs and dances to blend into the culture of Colombia.

Colombia Culture: Carnaval

In Colombia there are more carnivals than I could possibly write about! There are fifteen in the month of January alone, the first one lasting for 5 days with a different theme every day.

In keeping with the sense of renewal that accompanies the beginning of the New Year, this festival, Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Carnaval of Blacks and Whites), celebrates the people of Colombia in the city of Pasto.

The story is that people covered their face with talcum powder, (now they use flour) and then found as many people as they could to apply the same treatment to them. They found their victims at the King’s Mass celebrating the Epiphany and a powdering free-for-all took place on the celebrant’s exit from the church.

The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Carnaval of Blacks and Whites), celebrates the people of Colombia in the city of Pasto.Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in Colombia. People covering theirs and others' faces with flour or talcum powder. [Image by camiloAndres, via Wikimedia Commons]

Many other local celebrations got added to the mix until this one carnaval pretty much encompassed everyone in the area in one way or another. As themes changed days were added until the festival stretched from Jan 2 until Jan 7. 

Jan 5 was known as the Festival de Negros y Blancos, as this day had been decreed a holiday (Holy Day) in 1605 after a slave rebellion. It was usually celebrated by a game between black and white players, although mestizo played for the blacks if there weren’t sufficient numbers available.

This festival was heralded by UNESCO, in 2009, as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

 Every city and town in Colombia has a festival at some time, based in local folklore as well as the church calendar, with all beliefs celebrated together. 

Colombia Culture: Arts & Entertainment

In the whole of the country but particularly in the cities, the cultural entertainment scene is bountiful, often boisterous and flourishing. Every city has live stage theater, music venues, art galleries, and movie theaters. Nightclubs with live entertainment abound, many with dance-floors. 

There are film production studios, pottery making dens, painter’s lofts and sculptor’s workrooms everywhere. Comedy is thriving here, with comedy clubs and stage shows. This is a vibrant country when it comes to cultural endeavors, but sports also play a role in the entertainment scene. Football (soccer) is very popular, followed by baseball.

The music scene is particularly lively in the country that claims the origin of Cumbia, a mixture of indigenous and African rhythms and movements that has become representative of Latin American music throughout this part of the world. 

Many other music and dance forms that accompanied immigrants to Colombia have found a home, blended into the musical mosaic, including Jamaican themes and German accordion music!

Colombia Culture: Food

Every region, city and town has its own specialty, dependent on what’s grown or raised locally, together with spices and culinary flavor additions from around the country.

Rice and beans (“gallo pinto”) are a staple in most of Latin America, but they can be a side dish to a huge array of foods, including seafood on the coast and beef dishes in the hills. 

Many cities offer a soup as their first course, full of vegetables and spices, with yucca, coconut, garlic, onions, ginger and other flavorful additions.

A perfect evening snack in Bogota. There are many different varieties of arepa in Colombia.A perfect evening snack in Bogota. There are many different varieties of "arepa" (made of corn flour) in Colombia. [Image by William Neuheisel from DC, US, via Wikimedia Commons]

Shopping in Colombia

Western style shopping malls are a symbol of success in Colombia and every city features this style of shopping, with many American store brands.

Marketplaces also thrive and often bargains can be had here. As mentioned on our page about cost of living, prices for imported goods are often higher than where they are made.

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