Innovation in Colombia grows in response to increased stability


Colombia constitutes a distinctive blend of ethnicities, cultures and geography. It has the second-largest population in South America and is the continent’s fourth-largest country. With two coasts on two different oceans, it is located at a natural crossroads between the Caribbean, Central and South America. In spite of its heavy focus on natural resource exports, the country has rebounded from a commodity-induced slowdown in the middle of the decade, and now boasts a particularly positive economic outlook for 2019 and into 2020. After spending much of the second half of the twentieth century embroiled in the world’s second-longest modern civil war, the 2016 peace accord brought a formal end to the conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) and the government, although other armed groups, some of them FARC splinter factions, remain active in the country.

The end of the formal conflict has boosted the country’s image abroad, allowing the tourism industry to fulfil its potential in areas that were previously out of bounds. Medellín, once known as a home of drug cartels, is now a focal point for innovation in Latin America. As such, it is set to become a regional leader in creative industries, an incentive reinforced by President Iván Duque and his Orange Economy Agenda. Meanwhile, the long-term Fourth Generation road infrastructure project is making considerable progress in its ambition to reduce journey times between major cities and industrial centres.

Demographics & Ethnicity

Colombia is the world’s 29th-most-populous country, with an estimated population of 49.85m in 2019. The country has a relatively young population, with a median age of 30 and a fertility rate of two children per woman, which means the population is stable.

However, after decades of emigration by Colombians to Venezuela as a result of conflict, Colombia has recently experienced a huge growth in the number of Venezuelans seeking refuge from economic hardship in their own country. The arrival of these migrants – 1.2m are estimated to have entered the country – has contributed to a slow but positive annual population growth rate of 0.78%. The significant rise in the number of Venezuelans crossing into Colombia is likely to put a medium- to longterm strain on public finances, which is likely to first become evident in demand for public services.

Mestizo, meaning of mixed European and indigenous heritage, is the main ethnic group in Colombia, comprising 53.5% of the population; white Colombians represent 30.7%; African Colombians, 10.5%; native South Americans, 3.4%; and others, 1.9%. Life expectancy for males is 71 and for females 78.


Colombia covers 1.1m sq km and is the fourth-largest country in South America, after Brazil, Argentina and Peru. Over twice as big as Spain, it is also the continent’s only country with coasts on both the Pacific Ocean (1300 km) and the Caribbean Sea (1600 km), which is geographically part of the Atlantic Ocean. It borders Panama to the north, with 266km of border between them, Venezuela to the east (2219 km), Brazil to the south-east (1645 km), Peru to the south (1626 km) and Ecuador to the south-west (586 km). The Andes, the world’s longest above-water mountain range, straddles Colombia from the north-east to the south-west. As a result of this, Colombia’s three largest cities are situated at high altitudes: Bogotá, the capital, is at 2625 metres above sea level, Medellín at 1460 metres and Cali at 1018 metres.


As a result of the range of elevations, Colombia has a variety of climates. However, because of its near equatorial latitude, they all have very little temperature variation throughout the year. The majority of Colombians live in the highlands. The capital’s temperatures range from highs of 18-20°C to lows of 6-9°C, with an annual rainfall of between 800-1000 mm, depending on the area of the city. Medellín, which is known as the city of eternal spring, has average highs of 27-29°C and lows of 17-18°C, with a total annual rainfall of 1500 mm. Barranquilla is representative of the country’s coastal climate, with highs of 31-33°C, lows of 23-25°C and a total annual rainfall of 815 mm.

Natural Hazards

Three smaller tectonic plates converge on Colombia, namely the Caribbean, the Panama and the Nazca, which all meet the South American Plate in Colombian territory or Colombian waters. The ensuing tectonic activity is responsible for the country’s mountainous topography, its active volcanoes and all seismic activity, which largely occurs in the country’s west, along what is known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. There are 15 volcanoes that are considered active, all of them in the Andes.

In 1985 the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano caused four heavy mudflows, known as lahars, down the mountainside, effectively burying four small towns. Worst affected was the town of Armero, where the lahars killed more than 20,000 of the town’s 29,000 inhabitants. This event was later recognised as the 20th century’s second-most-deadly volcanic eruption. Despite Colombia’s position at the confluence of a number of plate boundaries, fatal earthquakes are a relatively rare occurrence. The last major one took place in 1999, in which approximately 1000 people died, mainly as a result of structures having been built on poor-quality soil, or constructed before a change in regulations implemented in 1984.

Due to Colombia’s location in the tropics, bi-yearly monsoons in April and October lead to significant precipitation, especially in the rainy Pacific lowlands in the south-west. These rains often affect rural areas disproportionately, in particular houses built on hilly terrain. April 2017 saw 250 deaths in Mocoa, in the country’s south-west. Two years later, in April 2019, a similar mudslide took the lives of at least 33 people, including six children, in the town of Rosas. Very occasionally tropical storms and hurricanes enter the country via the Caribbean.

Language & Religion

Spoken by an estimated 99.2% of the population, Spanish is the predominant language in Colombia. The constitution stipulates that Spanish and all languages and dialects spoken in Colombian territory are classed as official languages in their own regions. Moreover, the constitution establishes that indigenous tribes with linguistic traditions other than Spanish should receive education in both Spanish and their native tongue. There are 68 indigenous languages in Colombia.

Although Colombia has had no official religion since 1991, as with many countries in South America its population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. The last major international study on religion in Colombia was conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2014, according to which 79% of the population are Catholic, 13% Protestant and 6% unaffiliated, while 2% are of other religions, including other varieties of Christianity. In addition, there are an estimated 15,000 Jews in Colombia, mainly residing in Medellín, Bogotá and Cali.

Culture & Heritage

Like the ethnicity of many Colombians, the country’s heritage is largely derived from a mix of indigenous and Spanish culture. African culture is also a significant influence, especially on the Caribbean coast, manifest across the entire country in music, food and dance. Some of the most distinctive elements of modern-day Colombian culture bespeak Afro-Caribbean roots.

Barranquilla carnival, held in February, is the world’s second largest and is a major tourist attraction. Other cultural events are well attended, among them the Cartagena Film Festival, the Bogotá Book Fair and jazz festivals, and the Medellín Flower Fair. Popular Colombian music styles such as Cumbia, Vallenato and Llanera all involve drums, guitars and accordions, and have garnered international recognition and popularity. Colombia is home to six UNESCO cultural World Heritage sites, among them the port and fortress of Cartagena and the coffee-growing landscape. The country also has two natural landscapes on the World Heritage list: Los Katíos National Park, and Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary. In addition, it boasts one mixed world heritage site, Chiribiquete National Park.

One of the Spanish speaking world’s most wellknown and critically acclaimed writers, Gabriel García Márquez, was born in the small northern town of Aracataca in 1927. His novels include One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch and Love in the Time of Cholera. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 and died in 2014, with then-President Juan Manuel Santos naming him the greatest Colombian who ever lived.

Urban Centres

In the mid-20th century Colombia began a process of rapid urbanisation, such that by 2017 around 80% of its population lived in cities, a figure that is comparable to levels in European countries such as France and Spain.

Bogotá is the largest city in the country. Home to over 10m people, it is the fourth-largest metropolis in South America, after São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. It constitutes the country’s cultural, financial and political centre and serves as an important hub for the Andean region.

With a total metropolitan population of 3.7m, Medellín is the country’s second-largest city. It is the capital of the Department of Antioquia, and in recent years the city has developed into a focal point for the creative industries, and has been recognised internationally for its urban planning efforts and innovation drive (see ICT chapter).

Meanwhile, with approximately 2.4m people living in the metropolitan area, Cali is the country’s third-largest city. Due to its location in the southwest, it serves as a gateway to Ecuador and also to the Pacific Ocean through Buenaventura Port, the largest in the country. As it is the capital of the traditionally agricultural Department of the Valle de Cauca, industry in Cali is focused largely on agriculture and foodstuffs, beverages and tobacco.

Barranquilla is Colombia’s fourth-largest city, with a total metropolitan population of 1.2m people. It was once the country’s second-largest, growing in importance throughout the early-20th century as a cultural and commercial hub. Barranquilla remains the most important industrial and trading centre of Colombia’s Caribbean region.

Also on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena de Indias is the country’s fifth-largest city, with a population of just under 1m. It was an important port during the colonial era, and today is a popular tourist destination, in part thanks to the walled city, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Taking advantage of its coastal location Cartagena is also a major petrochemicals and maritime hub.


Colombia’s economy is the fourth-largest in Latin America, after Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Heavily dependent on natural resource exports, growth tailed away due to the commodity price fall of 2014, with the lowest recorded growth during the decade being in 2017, at 1.8%. However, it seems that the economy will strengthen going forward, with an expansion of 2.7% in 2018 and 3.5% forecast for 2019. It is hoped that President Duque’s tax reforms will further boost economic growth into 2020, thanks to lower corporate taxes designed to attract more inward investment.

The most important export is crude petroleum, followed by coal briquettes, coffee, refined petroleum and gold. The US is the country’s largest export destination. Colombia is also the third-biggest recipient of foreign direct investment in the Latin American region, after Mexico and Brazil. Colombia has 12 free trade agreements with a variety of countries and blocs, including the US, South Korea and the EU. It was a founding member of the Andean Community in 1969, enabling free trade with Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Colombia also has tariff-free access to Mercosur countries, meaning that it has free trade access to almost all of South America, with the exception of Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana. A key economic sector being pushed by the 2018-22 administration is the creative industry segment, also known as the Orange Economy. Before his presidency, Duque worked at the Inter-American Development Bank where he focused on this topic. IT services are already Colombia’s second-biggest export. By grouping this field together with innovation in industry and creative industries, President Duque hopes the segment will make up an increasing proportion of the economy throughout the next decade (see ICT chapter).


Colombia is one of the world’s biggest producers of a number of commodities. It is the second-largest producer of cut flowers, with 82% going to the US. Coffee, which made up over half of the country’s exports just 35 years ago, still remains an important commodity for export. Indeed, Colombia is the world’s third-largest producer of coffee globally, as well as the third-largest producer of oil in Latin America. Additionally, Colombia’s two eastern departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá are home to a sizeable gemstone industry, a sector which has, however, historically been associated with illegality, and in particular smuggling. Gold, another precious metal found in Colombia, has been mined since before the arrival of the Spanish, and had high value in pre-Hispanic communities.

Social Structure

Like many countries in Latin America, Colombia is a highly stratified society with wide income inequalities that date from colonial times. The country has a unique social stratification system that originated in Bogotá in the 1980s and now covers most urban areas. Originally designed to ensure the wealthiest paid the most tax, the system has come to symbolise the rigidity of the country’s social classes. Housing stock is ranked on a range of strata that goes from one to six, classifying the country’s poorest to richest housing.

In recent years however, upward social mobility is on the increase. According to government statistics, for the first time in the country’s history, in 2014 people in the middle class outnumbered those living in poverty. By 2020 it is expected that 37% of Colombians will belong to the middle class, with this figure rising to 46% by 2025.

Pre-Hispanic & Colonial History

The first inhabitants of what is now Colombia are thought to have been hunter-gatherers who arrived over 16,000 years ago, most probably via the territory now occupied by Panama. Around 5000 years ago the first settled civilisations started to appear. The principal two are often referred to collectively as the Chibcha culture. They were the Muisca, who lived on the Andean plains in central Colombia, and the Tayrona, who were concentrated in the north, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Chibcha civilisation had extensive mathematical knowledge, which enabled them to read the stars and develop sophisticated agricultural techniques. Farming was the mainstay of the economy, alongside animal rearing and the trading of ceramic art. The city of Bogotá was named after the Muisca’s southern capital, known as Bacatá. The civilisation was at its height between 600-1600 CE, its downfall precipitated by the arrival of the Spanish.

Independence & The Early Republics

The Spanish first arrived in 1525 and founded Bogotá in the years 1536-38. The country was initially part of the viceroyalty of Peru, but in 1717 became a significant part of the new Nueva Granada viceroyalty, which had Bogotá as the capital and included what are now Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador.

The political and military leader Simón Bolívar led the liberation of these countries in 1819 and became the president of the short-lived republic of Gran Colombia. This partly dissolved in 1830, with Venezuela and Ecuador splitting off to leave what are now Panama and Colombia to form the Republic of New Granada. As a result of the internal power struggles that defined Colombia for most of the 19th century, this Republic was followed by various short-lived incarnations of nation states within the same territorial boundaries, such as the Granadine Confederation (1858-63) and the United States of Colombia (1863-86), before being replaced by today’s Republic of Colombia.

A politically turbulent 19th century finally wound up with the Thousand Days’ War between Liberals and Conservatives, which lasted between 1899 and 1902. Under pressure from the US, which was protecting its interests in the region in preparation for the construction of the Panama Canal, the Department of Panama became an independent country in the same year that the war ended.

20th-Century Tensions

Colombia’s sociopolitical issues during the 20th century were sparked by the assassination of populist left-wing presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. This ultimately led to the decade-long civil war known as La Violencia (the violence) which is estimated to have killed up to 200,000 people. Tensions escalated in subsequent decades, made worse by economic woes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In response, various guerrilla groups emerged, among them the People’s Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and FARC, both of which had links to Cuba or the Soviet Union.

Economic conditions improved throughout the late 1960s, and by the time of the 1970 election for the first time in the country’s history the majority of the population lived in cities. Colombia became richer but also increasingly unequal, further exacerbating social tensions between social classes. In parallel, it became a major player in the burgeoning international drugs trade, at first through marijuana and latterly cocaine. This led to the establishment of two substantial drugs cartels, one in Medellín, led by Pablo Escobar, and the other in Cali. These grew in power during the 1980s, leading to increased violence throughout the decade. The 1990s saw a new president, César Gaviria Trujillo, and a new constitution in 1991. In addition, an attempt was made at peace talks with FARC and the ELN, but these were broken off in 2002 with the election of a new president, Álvaro Uribe.

Plan Colombia

With the US seeing Colombia as a geopolitical challenge in the region, the Clinton administration together with the Colombian government designed the $1.3bn Plan Colombia package in 2000. This programme involved a combination of security and social assistance, with a heavy focus on the former. After the election of Uribe in 2002 the security situation in the country improved notably, although the existence of armed groups in marginal rural areas has remained a significant challenge.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Colombia 2019. Explore other chapters from this report.

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