5.1 Colombia and Ecuador


Map of Colombia’s cities

Three ranges of the Andes Mountains run from north to south through Colombia, which is larger than the nine most southeastern US states.

Relief map of Columbia
Relief map of Colombia

With a land area covering about 440,839 square miles, Colombia is more than ten times larger than the US state of Kentucky and close to twice the size of France.

Colombia’s size

Colombia borders five countries, with the Caribbean to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Orinoco River to the east, and a short segment of the Amazon River to the far south. Even though agriculture has been a mainstay of the country’s economic activities, because of the influence of the mountainous terrain, about 75 percent of the population lives in urban areas.

Stratfor: Colombia’s Geographic Challenge

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, lagging only after Brazil which is approximately 7 times bigger. Some animals and plants of Colombia are:

Cashew apples hanging from a cashew tree
Cashew apples hanging from a cashew tree

Colombia was a Spanish colony during the time that Spain controlled most of western South America. Colombia became independent in 1819. The region of Panama, which was first a part of Colombia, broke away in 1903 when the United States backed Panama’s independence movement. After Colombia became independent of Spain, the conservatives (wealthy elite) and the liberals (poor workers) struggled to gain control of the government. Since 1948, the conflict, known as La Violencia, has caused more than two hundred thousand casualties. During the twentieth century, the government in Colombia has not always been peaceful or stable. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the government has become more unified and the country has even witnessed an increase in tourism.

Colombia is ethnically diverse, its people descending from the original native inhabitants, Spanish colonists, Africans originally brought to the country as slaves, and 20th-century immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, all contributing to a diverse cultural heritage.

Colombia’s tropical climate and its many remote areas contributed to its development as a major coca-growing region. By the 1970s, extensive drug smuggling had developed, and powerful drug cartels became major political brokers within the country, competing against the government for control of Colombia. The largest and most organized cartels operated out of Medellin and Cali, the second- and third-largest cities in the country after the capital city of Bogotá.

Monserrate in Bogotá – Monserrate is a high mountain over 10,000 feet high that dominates the city center of Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia.
A man in Bolivia holding a coca leaf.

The coca plant grows throughout the slopes of the Andes, from Colombia to Bolivia. Historically, locals have chewed it or brewed it into tea. Coca can alleviate elevation sickness and act as a mild stimulant. Using modern methods and strong chemicals, the coca leaves can be converted into coca paste and then into cocaine hydrochloride, a powerful narcotic. It often takes up to a ton of such chemicals as sulfuric acid, kerosene, methyl alcohol, and additional substitutes to produce a kilo of cocaine. Once the process is completed, most of the chemicals are discarded and frequently find their way into nearby rivers and streams, which are the same water supplies that local people drink, clean with and bathe in. Birth defects have become a problem in coca-growing regions because of the high levels of chemical pollution in water supplies.

It must be noted that the short, leafy coca plant that cocaine comes from is not the same as the cacao tree that produces the beans that chocolate or cocoa comes from. They are two completely different plants with separate processes.

COCA PLANT: Where Cocaine Comes From – Weird Fruit Explorer
Making cocaine in the Amazon – Bruce Parry – BBC

The three main export products of Colombia are illegal drugs, oil, and coffee. The United States is the largest consumer of all three.

Secret airfields and private boats transport the cocaine from Colombia to distribution centers in Mexico, Central America, or the Caribbean. From there, the drugs are smuggled into the United States. Colombian drugs are a multibillion-dollar industry that makes up a large portion of the Colombian economy. The effect of the drug industry on the people of Colombia is extensive—from the gunfire on the streets to the corruption of government officials. In recent years, the same drug cartels that have operated the cocaine industry have imported opium poppies, which grow well on the higher and more arid slopes of the Andes. Opium poppies are native to Asia but have been transported to South America. Opium is extracted from the seedpod and can be further refined into heroin. Colombian drug cartels, with a Mexican distribution network, have muscled into as much as 20 percent of the US heroin market. The US government has supported the Colombian government in the fight against the drug cartels and the trafficking of illegal drugs out of Colombia.

Vox: Why Colombia is losing the cocaine war
Note: There is a bad word in this video.

Colombia’s two main legal exports to the United States are coffee and oil. Coffee is only grown in the tropics, since coffee trees must be grown in a frost-free environment. Coffee trees, which originally grew in Ethiopia, have since been grown throughout the world. Coffee trees can grow in elevations from sea level to six thousand feet, but most of the best specialty coffee is grown at elevations between three thousand to six thousand feet. Colombia has ideal conditions for growing coffee and was once the world’s largest coffee producer; now Brazil and Vietnam each produce more.

Coffee berries
Coffee berries – Early coffee production in Colombia was initially promoted by Catholic priests who were influential in supporting local parishioners to grow the crop. 

Oil has now become Colombia’s number one legal export. Oil is found in fields in the northern and central regions of Colombia. Immense quantities of coal are also found in the same regions, but oil is more valued on the export market. Pipelines connect the interior oil fields of Colombia with the northern ports. The US market size and population make it the world’s largest oil consumer. US oil companies have been investing in the development of Colombian oil for many years. 

Since the United States is the largest consumer of Colombian oil, it is easy to understand why the United States has a vested interest in the stability of the Colombian government. A sizable portion of Colombia is controlled not by the government but by drug cartels or other insurgent groups. Dozens of guerilla organizations also control portions of Colombia. Some insurgent groups support the government and are against the drug lords, while others fight the government and work independently or with the cartels. Drug sales, kidnappings, and extortion of legitimate businesses provide income to these groups. Thousands of children serve in these groups, and about a third of them are female. The most powerful insurgent group is FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which controls entire regions the size of many US states. FARC is a recognized political entity by neighboring countries but is not given the same recognition by the United States and many external countries of the region.

Insurgent groups control regions in Colombia as large as US states.

The relationship between Colombia and the United States is often conflicting. The US consumer supports the Colombian drug cartels by being the largest consumer of illegal drugs. The US government, under the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has declared a war on drugs and has supported the Colombian government with billions of dollars in foreign aid to fight that war. On another front, US oil corporations have paid insurgent groups to protect their oil assets. Oil is exported to the United States, bringing billions of dollars into the Colombian economy. The chaos in Colombia is directly related to the exploitation and marketing of their resources. It is the people of Colombia that suffer in the cross fire from this civil war of corruption, crime, death, and destruction. The United States is a counterforce partner in this situation but operates from the consumer end of the resource pipeline. The largest consumer market for Colombia’s export of oil, drugs, and coffee is the United States, which is also the largest contributor of foreign aid to Colombia.

Colombian cuisine is a compound of the culinary traditions of the six main regions within the country (Pacific, Amazonian, Andean, Orinoco, Caribbean, and Insular). Colombian cuisine varies regionally and is particularly influenced by Indigenous Colombian, Spanish, and African cuisines, with slight Arab influence in some regions. Some Colombian foods are:

Sancocho de gallina
Sancocho de gallina is a soup made from chicken, plantain, corn, yuca root, and seasonings.
Guinea pig is a traditional dish in the region of  Nariño.
Guinea pig is a traditional dish in the region of Nariño.


Map of Ecuador
Map of Ecuador

Ecuador is located on the equator—hence its name. The territories of modern-day Ecuador were once home to a variety of Amerindian groups that were gradually incorporated into the Inca Empire during the 15th century. The territory was colonized by Spain during the 16th century, achieving independence in 1820 as part of Gran Colombia, from which it emerged as its own sovereign state in 1830. The legacy of both empires is reflected in Ecuador’s ethnically diverse population, with most of its 17.1 million people being mestizos, followed by large minorities of European, Amerindian, and African descendants. 

Huaorani man with the typical Amazonian indigenous clothes

Spanish is the official language and is spoken by a majority of the population, though 13 Amerindian languages are also recognized, including Quichua and Shuar.

Notice the mountains!

The country has four main geographic regions:

  • La Costa (the coast) – the country’s most fertile and productive land and where there are banana plantations.
An Ecuadorian banana plantation
An Ecuadorian banana plantation
  • La Sierra (the highlands) – where there are volcanoes and snow-capped peaks
Quito is the largest city in the La Sierra region and is also Ecuador’s capital.
  • La Amazonia – the area that is made up of huge Amazon national parks and vast stretches of land set aside for Amazon Amerindian tribes to live traditionally.
Amazon rainforest in Ecuador
  • La Región Insular – the area of the Galápagos Islands
Explore the Galapagos Islands with Google Maps

Ecuador is a major exporter of bananas (first place worldwide in production and export), flowers, and the seventh-largest producer of cocoa. One-third of the population in Ecuador continues to live a traditional way of life. Local cuisine reflects the connection to the land. Potatoes, maize, guinea pigs, and fish are common fare in rural areas.

Ecuadorian ceviche, made of shrimp, lemon and tomato sauce
Ecuadorian ceviche, made of shrimp, lemon and tomato sauce
Hornado is a roasted pig, cooked whole.
Hornado is a roasted pig, cooked whole.

Ecuador is one of seventeen megadiverse countries in the world with 15% of the world’s known bird species and over 16,000 species of plants.

Gate1Travel: Discovery Tour of the Galapagos, Ecuador, Andes & Amazon

Key Takeaways:

✎ Colombia used to be a Spanish colony.
✎ The main Colombian exports are cocaine, coffee, and oil.
✎ Ecuador used to be part of the Incan Empire and was colonized by Spain.
✎ The Galapagos Islands are owned by Ecuador.
✎ Ecuador is a major exporter of bananas and is composed of 4 different geographic regions.

Next: 5.2 Peru, Bolivia, and Chile

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Image and additional information credits:

Colombia size comparison
Relief map of Colombia
By Grundkarte Shadowxfox, Relief Alexrk2 – Own workSRTM3, ETOPO1, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9408948
Colombia map with cities
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32235489
By Kreuzberger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80410468
Monserrate info
Cocoa leaf
By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr – Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4053668
Coffee plant
By Jmhullot – http://www.fotopedia.com/items/jmhullot-ohX2WO1-lQc, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7947317
Colombia insurgents
Public domain – CIA World Factbook
Colombia exports
DEA – public domain; R. Berglee – CC BY-NC-SA; Wikimedia Commons – public domain.
By chdwckvnstrsslhm – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1129546
By Halvorsen, Gary – WO3791-33F http://dls.fws.gov/DATA/files/DC167DD6-D43D-4966-B98F0EB749BC3BBC.jpg U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81488415
By Abhishek Jacob – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12698315
By Jdvillalobos – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4397549
By Popo le Chien – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51212769
Guinea pig
By User: (WT-shared) Jtesla16 at wts wikivoyage, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22941406
By Trotskij – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16030704
Ecuador map
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32293855
Ecuador topography
By Sadalmelik – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2236239
Amazon rainforest in Ecuador
By Dallas Krentzel – Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/31867959@N04/7613943940, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53702597
By Rinaldo Wurglitsch – originally posted to Flickr as Ceviche, Ecuador, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9688817
Huaorani man
By Daniel Cima – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cidh/22285708036/in/photolist-5MYYS2-rbP8Tb-fiarAh-4PDUhm-4PzDER-4PzFa2-4PzE9T-fhVaeX-zXjjYN-A1xZZz-zXjdoo-A1xZ7c-z3zTjL-zZZwsZ-z3A6H3-zH76HF-zXjhP7-z47iUg-A1VEM2-zZZq96-z47m96-zYR2wG-zHtSqz-zXj5zs-zYtpgs-z3JF4K, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60539219
By calliopejen – Cuenca market – hornadoUploaded by mangostar, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9044511
Banana plantation
By Philippe Lavoie – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1508332
By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42189280

2 thoughts on “5.1 Colombia and Ecuador

  1. This is a great resource! Just as a note though, Colombia is misspelled as “Columbia” throughout your sources and at least once within the text as well.

    1. Thank you!! We’ll get that fixed up asap!

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