Before European colonization opened the “New World,” present-day Colombia was made up of Amerindian tribes settled at the intersection of Central and South America. Throughout this region, the Musica, Tairona, and Quimbaya tribes raised crops, produced crafts, and traded in exquisite works of gold. Some villages were highly specialized to produce certain goods at superior quality before sophisticated trade networks brought them to regional marketplaces.

The tribes formed agrarian societies with political structures similar to Europe’s feudal kingdoms. The organization, architecture, and technology of the indigenous Colombians were just as sophisticated as the Inca, Maya, and Aztec empires situated all around them.

Golden mask in the Gold Museum, Bogota, Colombia

By the start of the Age of Exploration in the early 16th century, popular legends surrounding gold began to lure Spain’s conquistadors, or conquerors, deeper into South America. The legend of El Dorado, a city of gold rumored to be possessed by the Musica tribe, was the foundation for exploration and colonization of Spain’s first major colony, Colombia.

The city of Santa Marta was among the first Spanish settlements along Colombia’s north coast, founded in 1525. The popular coastal city of Cartagena was founded a few years later, and today, the two cities are among the oldest in South America. Along with Lima, Peru and Mexico City, Mexico, Colombia’s future capital, Bogota, became a major administrative city for Spain’s colonial holdings in the Americas.

Columbus arrives in America

As the Spanish moved farther inland, they quickly established a large colonial state called the “New Kingdom of Granada,” and later the “Viceroyalty of New Granada.” In the 17th century, increasing numbers of Spaniards and Catholic missionaries began immigrating to the colony, along with imports of African slaves, to subdue the region further as an economic boon for Spain.

However, the administration of Spain’s colonies was not without challenge from other European colonial powers. Spain fought a series of conflicts in the New World with Great Britain in what were truly the original “world wars.” To defend their settlement, the Spanish built the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a massive stone fortress still standing today in Cartagena. Although construction of the fortress began once Spain arrived in Colombia, the colonizers continually expanded and strengthened the complex over the next two centuries. San Felipe proved vital to Spain’s defense of Colombia from invading land forces throughout the Anglo-Spanish Wars.

Castillo San Felipe Barajas, impressive fortress located in Lazaro hill, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Despite keeping its colony intact in the face of other foreign occupiers, by the 19th century, Spain was headlong into the Spanish-American Wars of Independence against its own subjects. It was during this period that Simon Bolivar led the eventual military overthrow of Spanish rule, liberating a colony in northern South America roughly the size of Kazakhstan.

Bolivar established a newly independent state called Gran Colombia, made up of modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, with parts of Peru, Guyana, and northwest Brazil. As a successor state to Spain’s New Granada, Gran Colombia was envisioned as an independent federal republic. Internal political divisions ensured that Gran Colombia was a short-lived experiment, yet the legacy of Bolivar remains strong across the region today. In Bogota, the seat of the Colombian government is located in Bolivar Square. Venezuela’s capital, Caracas similarly hosts its federal institutions in Bolivar Plaza in honor of the South American founding father.

Postage stamp Colombia 1969 Simon Bolivar Entering Bogota

Bogota remains a testament to Colombia’s inheritances. The city’s historic quarter, La Candelaria, hosts beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, and the Primary Cathedral of Bogota showcases Colombia’s adoption of Roman Catholicism in terrific splendor. As a modern nation, Colombia’s identity draws its inheritances from Spain, the history of its indigenous population, and the culture of Africans. In Bogota, one gets a great sense of how this unique country strikes its balance between these distinct cultural legacies. Colombia is truly South American melting pot.  

Palace Tours has recently added four tours in Colombia. Call 609-683-5018, or visit our website to experience this country for yourself.

Panorama in the coffee triangle region of Colombia