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Colombian States

colombian-states-1While the United States has states, Canada has provinces, and Chile has regions, Colombia has "departamentos"...which are basically states. They are geographical and political divisions of Colombia's territory. There are 32 departments, as well as the Distrito Capital of Bogota. For purposes of tourism, some departments are more important than others. 

If you look at a map of Colombia, you will notice that the three Andean cordilleras, or mountain ranges, run north to south through the western half of the country. The sparsely populated eastern half of the country is a mix of plains and tropical jungles. While there is some tourism here, especially in Leticia in the Amazonas departamento, by and large the eastern half of Colombia is a wild, undeveloped land with little infrastructure or transportation.

The most important departments of Colombia are Antioquia, the largest and home of Medellin, Valle del Cauca, the home of Cali, Cundinamarca, which surrounds the capital of Bogota. Next in importance follow the small but densely populated Atlantico department and its capital of Barranquilla, and its western neighbor Bolivar, whose capital is Cartagena.

Colombians identify strongly with their departments and/or capital cities. When it comes to classic rivalries, none is stronger than the Bogota-Medellin rivalry, or the "paisa" "rolo" rivalry. One should also note that it's easy for Colombians to distinguish geographical regions by their accents. Rolos from Bogota, paisas from Medellin, calenos from Cali, and costenos from the Caribbean Coast all have distinct accents.colombian-states-2

Colombia can roughly be broken down into 10  regions:

Bogota/Cundinamarca: The largest area of the country by population, Bogota is a valley nestled in between Andean cordilleras.

Medellin/Antioquia: Antioquia is a region famed for its wonderful food, such as the bandeja paisa, its European roots, and its hardworking entrepreneurial people.

Cali/Valle del Cauca: This southern city is the capital of salsa, and famed for its steamy climate and vibrant nightlife.

The Caribbean Coast: The country's major tourist destination, with its jewels of Cartagena and Santa Marta, the Caribbean coast stretches from Panama in the west, to the Venezuelan border in the east.

The Pacific Coast: Colombia's Pacific Coast is still in many ways uncharted terrain with little tourism outside Juanchaco and Ladrilleros and Bahia Solano, and a strong Afrocolombian cultural tradition.

The Coffee Zone: It's composed of the tiny but delightful departments of Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindio, and their equally delightful capital cities Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia.

Southwestern Colombia: Southwest Colombia is roughly defined as Cauca and Narino. Popyan and Pasto are both well worth visits.

colombian-states-3The Plains: This area is composed of the departments of Meta, Casanare, and Vichada. The main tourist destination is Villavicencio, the capital of Meta.

The Amazon: While the Amazon River technically only touches the southern department of Amazonas, the vast southeastern third of Colombia is covered by sprawling, uninhabited rain forest. These departments include Putumayo, Caqueta, Guaviare, Vaupes, Guainia, and, of course, Amazonas.

Santander: This region is composed of two departments: Santander and Norte de Santander, that are rugged and mountainous, stretching all the way to the Venezuelan border. While Cucuta is not very inspiring for tourism, San Gil and Bucaramanga are both well worth a visit.

The largest five departments contain half of Colombia's population. Two generations ago Colombia was 70% rural and 30% urban. Those figures have now completely inverted: today Colombia is 70% urban and 30% rural. These mass migrations have largely been caused by geopolitical and economic factors, including Colombia's lengthy armed conflict, and the lack of good paying jobs in rural parts of the country.

If you're looking for a good ice breaker, or to practice your Spanish, a good way to start might be to ask the people you meet what department they're from. Especially in cities like Bogota, Medellin, and Cali, you'll find that many people were born and grew up in other parts of the country. In Bogota, there is an enormous population of "boyacenses" from Boyaca, and "tolimenses" from Tolima. In Medellin, you'll find lots of people from the Pacific department of Choco. And Cali has a fair share of "pastusos" people from the capital city of Pasto, in Narino department.

So, if you're heading to Colombia, remember that there are 32 departmentos, or states, and each has something unique and delightful to offer. How many can you make it to?

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