A Brief History of Colombia

A brief history of Colombia for all you Motorcycling Adventure Touring warriors. We thought it a perfect backdrop to many MotoDreamer tours.

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

Are you planning your next motorcycle touring trip and have Colombia on your bucket list?

This is MotoDreamer´s Brief history of Colombia. It is for History Buffs who just happen to love touring on their Adventure Touring Motorcycles

1. We begin with its original people.
2. Fast forward to the Spanish invasion.
3. The legend of El Dorado.
4. The Caribbean and Pacific Regions.
5. Independence Unlocked.
6. Political Violence.
7. Rise of the FARC.
8. Narcos.
9. Is it peace at last?

Colombia’s history is as rich, surprising, startling and complex as its geography.

It’s this history that has led to a blending of people and cultures unique in all of Latin America. 

When you look at the country’s tumultuous, often brutal history, it’s almost miraculous that Colombia has survived at all. Let alone functioning successfully enough to now be attracting record foreign investment and a growing number of tourists year on year. 

Sure, the country has a long way to go in many aspects. But for the international traveler, the Colombian experience will hopefully leave you full of positivity and hope. 

If you want to try and “understand,” Colombia, the best place to start.

We begin a brief history of Colombia with its original people.

Are you aware that Colombia has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years? Unlike the empire-building Inca and Maya, Colombia’s first people, such as the Musica and the Tairona, developed small hunter-gatherer societies. 

We still know relatively little about the lives of Colombia’s original people. What we do know about pre-Colombian society comes from three main archaeological sites in particular: San Agustin, Tierradentro, and Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City.”)

Then a brief history of Colombia needs fast-forwarding to the Spanish Invasion

Did you know that while Colombia took its name from Christopher Columbus, the Spanish explorer (who incidentally had Italian birth roots) never set foot on Colombian soil? It was a companion of Columbus’, Alonso de Ojeda, who became the first European to land on Colombia’s Atlantic coast in 1499.

Here is a black and white drawing of Alonso de Ojeda who became the first European to land on Colombia’s Atlantic coast in 1499. In this iStock pic he is seen talking to the first native indians in their village.

During his exploration of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region, Ojeda was astounded by the wealth of the natives. The local Tairona were skilled metal workers, fashioning exquisite ornaments from the rich gold deposits at the foothills of the mountains.

What they saw gave birth to the legend of El Dorado. A mysterious city of gold, deep in the jungle and overflowing with untold treasures.

On an obsessive quest to discover this mythical city, the Spanish built their first permanent settlement in Santa Marta, with Cartagena following shortly after that. The superior weaponry of the conquistadors easily overcame indigenous tribes who resisted.

By 1549, the region was declared a Spanish Colony, with Bogota as its capital. Back then, Colombia included modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. 

The Spanish never did find their El Dorado, but they struck serious gold nonetheless. Are you aware that an estimated $639,000,000 worth of gold was mined from Colombia from the conquest until 1886? Yes, sadly it’s true.

The Spanish went about spending their newfound wealth on gilded cathedrals and lavish mansions. Always relying on their indigenous “subjects” for labor. However, outbreaks of deadly European diseases swept through indigenous communities. Thus, significantly reducing the indigenous labor force. 

The Spanish sorted out the worker shortage by sending ships full of slaves from Africa, setting up Cartagena as the Caribbean’s most important slave-trading port. 

The Caribbean and Pacific regions, where the Spanish initially docked their slave ships, remain home to Colombia’s largest Afro-Caribbean populations. 

Over time, the three racial groups –  Europeans, Africans, and indigenous Colombians began to mix. Today, many Colombians are mestizos (of European-Indigenous ancestry) and mulatos (of European-African ancestry.) However, class divisions cut deep, and the Spaniards kept a tight fist around their political power and wealth.

This black and white snapshot for this article titled A Brief History of Colombia shows an Indigenous Man standing in the fast flowing water of a Colombian river. Image copyright to MotoDreamer.

Now fast forward another 300 years of a Brief History of Colombia with its Independence unlocked.

After almost 300 years of Spanish subjugation, the native populace decided to make an organized stand. 

Enter “The Liberator,” Simon Bolivar, hero of the independence movement.

Only Simon Bolivar can make such a grand entry to the world of South American politics as the Liberator to over six countries with Colombia as one. Here in this black and white sketch from iStock shows him as a young man destined to become the hero of all South Americans.

Bolivar had already spent a decade fighting the Spanish in his native Venezuela. Now his ragtag army of 2,500 men trudged across the flood-swept plains of Los Llanos.

Not wishing to stop and lose his advantage, he took his men over the frozen mountain pass of the Paramo de Pisba. Now they could march on their way to stop the Spanish reinforcements from reaching Bogota. 

On 7 August 1819, Bolivar’s men successfully intercepted the Spanish troops. The legendary Battle of Boyacá ended with the royalists surrendering after two hours. Finally, Bolivar marched into Bogota without resistance.

Although the fighting continued for several more years, the day became recognized as the definitive moment Colombia gained independence.

1819 marked the formation of a new, independent republic, known as “Gran Colombia,” made up of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador.

Bolivar now elected President, and Francisco de Paula Santander became Vice President. 

Gran Colombia was to be a short-lived dream. A bitter rivalry between the two leaders and simmering regional tensions soon saw Bolivar’s vision of a united Latin America swiftly disintegrating.

In 1828, in an attempt to hold on to power, the “Liberator” appointed himself dictator. But alas, he had to resign in 1830. By which time Venezuela and Ecuador had seceded from Gran Colombia. 

The debacle left Colombia in a precarious state. No less than seven civil wars broke out between 1851 and 1891. With much of the conflict due to antagonism between the country’s two political parties. The Conservatives (supported by the landowners and the Catholic Church) and the workers’ party, the Liberals.

A Brief history of Colombia turned into so much more political violence.

In fact, these warring factions sowed the seeds for another century of political violence. 

Although the early 20th century saw a brief period of peace as the coffee industry brought newfound prosperity to the nation. Colombia remained staunchly divided into two opposing camps. 

In 1899, a full-blown civil war, the War of a Thousand Days killed, tens of thousands on both sides. In 1903, a seriously freaked-out Panama bowed out of its union with Colombia and became independent. 

The struggle between the Conservatives and the Liberals erupted again in1948. Sadly, with one of the bloodiest civil conflicts in modern history. 

La Violencia took place between the paramilitary forces of the Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party. The latter, consisting mainly of armed self-defense groups and military units.

The war cost up to 300,000 lives, and neither side was victorious. A military coup toppled the Conservative government in power. The military rule remained in place until 1957. It resulted in both parties agreeing to overthrow the junta.

That year, the leaders of the two parties signed a power-sharing pact known as the National Front. This would mean that, for the next 16 years, the two parties would alternate in the presidency every four years.

Does that sound reasonable? Well, they also banned all other parties from participating in national politics.

Our Brief history of Colombia now must mention the rise of the FARC.

Resentment soon began to brew, as the Conservative-Liberal cooperation did little to address Colombia’s vast inequalities. Thanks mainly to a Colonial legacy of unjust land distribution and an impoverished mestizo and indigenous underclass.  

Colombia was ripe for an armed communist insurgency. Among the many outlawed political groups that formed during the 1960s

One stood out, the Russian-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known to the world as FARC.

A guerrilla movement that claimed to be fighting for Colombia’s poor, FARC waged a terrorist-style war against the government for 55 years. Until finally, the 2016 peace treaty signaled the end of the world’s most prolonged continuous civil conflict. 

As communism began to crumble, FARC lost the support of Moscow and turned to kidnap, extortion, and the drug trade to finance its struggles.

As FARC territory encompassed vast swathes of prime coca-growing countryside, they became entangled with the drug cartels. Who themselves were growing in power thanks to the rise of the cocaine trade. Thereby creating both allies, enemies, and yet more violence.

This image shows a FARC rally with its leaders standing in front of a loyal crowd of well armed supporters.

A Brief history of Colombia cannot omit the “Narcos” ongoing participation.

The cocaine boom of the 80s saw cartel leaders like Pablo Escobar begin amassing incredible wealth and even political aspirations.

Backed by the US, the Colombian government launched an offensive against the cartels. The cartels asserted their dominance by bombing banks, government buildings, newspaper offices, and even a passenger plane. 

After a decade-long manhunt, Escobar´s story ended when finally tracked down and killed on a rooftop in Medellin in 1993. 

Escobar’s death had little effect on the drug supply. However, his death and several other high-profile arrests led to the eventual dismantling of highly organized crime syndicates.

Numerous smaller enterprises and gangs took their place, often cooperating with the increasingly influential Mexican cartels. 

From the late 80s until the mid-2000s, Colombia was as dangerous for the average civilian as ever. Now with gang warfare on the urban streets and FARC continuing their campaign of bombings and kidnappings in the countryside.

Colombia elected Alvaro Uribe as president in 2002, pinning their hopes on his anti-gang, anti-drugs, and anti-guerrilla campaign. 

Uribe immediately stepped up military action against the guerrillas, successfully liberating many regions from FARC control and restoring a stability Colombians hadn’t experienced in years. 

Still, Uribe’s aggressively pro-military stance was criticized as failing to address abuses committed by the armed forces themselves. Ironically, a primary reason ordinary people took up arms with FARC in the first place.

A very famous snapshot of Pablo Escobar, the Medellin born Drug baron enjoying one of his many pursuits of racing his bikes around his estate with many hench men staying close protecting him.

As we close, for now, our article titled: A brief history of Colombia. We, too, like all Colombians, are asking the same question: Is it PEACE… AT LAST?

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos became elected president. Although Uribe supported his campaign, Santos surprised the world by instigating peace talks with FARC. A treaty conceived to be ratified by referendum but narrowly missed majority support. 

A revised Peace Accord became approved in November 2016. The historic deal finally put an end to Colombia’s two-party system. Now, allowing former FARC members to create their political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force.

The accord also decreed that perpetrators of human rights abuses on both sides of the conflict must hold accountable and restricted from political participation. 

So far, progress has met with numerous hurdles. Most FARC members have disarmed willingly, but whether the negotiations will end the violence entirely remains to be seen. Still, the vast majority of ex-FARC stay in support of peace.

Like the rest of Colombia’s 49 million inhabitants, they are tired of conflict. 

They hope that the next generation of Colombians only knowledge of war and violence are relegated to the history books.

peace treaty colombia

Motorcycling in Colombia not exciting enough for you?

HOW ABOUT A BIT OF A BRIEF HISTORY ON THE SIDE with MotoDreamer Motorcycle Adventure Tours?

There’s much more to MotoDreamer’s tours than riding around dominating the roads like modern-day, motor-powered conquistadors. 

We want you to fall in love with the country. That means getting to know the people and culture and how history has influenced their identity.   

Ancient history buffs should look into tours with visits to important historical landmarks.  

Fascinated by American pre-history? Then why not visit the mystical stone sculptures of San Agustin and the underground burial chambers of Tierradentro. 

Our tours in the Guajira desert take us to the least developed corner of Colombia. The local Kogi and Wiwa people are direct descendants of the Tairona and still hold on to their millennia-old traditions.

Tours can start in Cartagena, the most beautiful of all Colombia’s colonial cities.

It does not matter which tour you choose. You’ll be stopping off in picturesque Spanish-era villages from the gold rush days and interacting with the many diverse cultures of Colombia.

Colombia is a country striving for success against the odds and smiling all the while.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

Edited for SEO optimization by Mike Bowley at www.mikedbowley.com

Colombia is so much more, head to the following articles and learn more about its weather, its biodiversity, and create your bucket list of places to see and experience:

What´s Colombian weather like when MotorcycleTouring? 

Colombia & Biodiversity go hand in hand. 

Destinations in Colombia for your bucket list 

Calendar 

The final image of Simon Bolivar for the article titled A Brief History of Colombia. Copyright belonging to MotoDreamer. Here you see our hero on his famous horse Polarmo.

Inspired to read more on Colombia and its incredible history? Then, experience it up close, and check out the following tours coming in 2022.

All are mouthwateringly amazing opportunities for MotoDreamer to showcase a brief history of Colombia up close to all Motorbike Adventure Warriors who happen to be history buffs as well.

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