Colombia culture, you’ll be pleased to know, is as confusing as it is exciting, and, yes, even magical. The Colombia we are blessed with today is a land and way of life made up of intense contradictions and cohesions; which can all be traced back to the consequences of colonial Spain’s thirst for gold. From this simple desire arose the intricate fusions and disparities that mark the different regional cultures as emphatically diverse, and at the same time distinctively Colombian.
Despite this colonial thirst for riches, the age-old spirit and practices of the country’s first nations have left their indelible mark on Colombian food and traditions – not only in the richness of the surviving indigenous cultures, but also in Colombia as a whole. Added to this foundation is the massive influence the conquistador’s customs and religion have had over the land and its people’s psyche. Thus, we are welcomed with a nation overwhelmingly Catholic and centred on the family, that entertains palpable pride in its religious and social freedoms. A country with a rich inheritance of democracy; that also tells a history of political struggle, inequality, and insurgency.
The conspicuously wealthy living right next to the desperately poor; and a burgeoning middle class starting to make its presence felt. Obvious social injustice combined with a triumphant celebration of diversity. A remarkably generous interpretation of queuing married to the most polite form of Spanish you’re likely to hear. Five intensely different regional identities – growing out of the wildly differing geographies of the Andes, the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Amazon, and the plains – all unquestionably and stoically Colombian. Mestizos, Caucasians, Afro-colombians, Amero-indians and Jews all shaking their thangs on the country’s dance-floors.
It would be hard to over-state the importance of this last factor of Colombian culture. Music and dancing is ingrained in this country’s genetic make-up. Be it salsa, cumbia, vallenato, merengue, or reggaeton; music is ubiquitous and essential. It blasts from taxis, out of homes, in clubs and bars; and everyone everywhere seems to joyously know all the moves and lyrics. Food is also a hot topic of conversation around these parts: from the particular merits and differences of ajiaco and sancocho; to whether the international cuisine of Bogota can match the heady fusion of flavours in Cartegena; or what different kinds of dishes will benefit from the addition of cheese; to how one can exactly fit sufficient carbohyrdrates into a meal. All of these disputes are easily resolved, or at least forgotten, over a shot or two of the local fire-water, aguardiente.
Music may be the life-blood of Colombia, but the other arts – from world-class street art to the unmistakable brilliance of Fernando Botero’s oeuvre; literature spearheaded by a certain Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and theatre celebrated in the largest festival of its kind – are held in high, well-deserved regard. Culture bursts out in countless music, art, and dance festivals all year long and countrywide; and in raucous carnivals, such as those in Baranquilla and Pasto. Beautiful, well-designed, and highly popular libraries and museums are liberally distributed throughout the major cities; while another, more physical Colombian passion, football, is followed with religious fervour throughout the land.
If told they’re from the happiest country in the world, a Colombian may point to their conflict-ravaged past and the countless social problems still facing them. Then they’ll probably smile in resignation and bust out a salsa move. Colombia is a country pulling itself out of an often-dark past by its bootstraps; and is doing so with an unrushed, seemingly carefree flair. Join in the dance: you may just become intoxicated with its bewildering energy and inconsistencies; and find it kind of hard to stop your hips from swaying.