Like many Latin American countries, Colombia offers a rich hodgepodge of ethnic influences, most of which date back to the 16th century conquest by Spain. Along with the country's magical natural wonders, International Expeditions' Colombia tours  also expose you to the region's rich culture.
As indigenous native populations (primarily the Muisca, of what is now the country’s Eastern range, and the Tairona of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region) mixed with the Spanish criollos, slaves brought over from Africa, and European-born whites, a distinctively Colombian culture gradually began to emerge.
By the end of the era of regional isolation and racial segregation in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the rise of mixed-race zambos coincided with the increasing popularity of pan-cultural Carnival celebrations to create a thriving Colombian arts scene.
Archaeologists believe ceramic art was produced on Colombia’s Caribbean coast earlier than anywhere else in the Americas outside the lower Amazon basin, with relics dating back to 3100 BC. The Piartal culture (750-1250 AD) created vessels with patterns inspired by animal and snakeskins, which were used in burials to hold relics and jewelry.
The San Agustín culture (200 BC-800 AD) were stonecutting artisans, erecting anthropomorphic and zoomorphic monoliths up to five meters high. Gold ultimately played a pivotal role in luring the Spanish to Colombia, and the Quimbaya and Zenú people were both masters of intricate gold work. To see stunning examples of their ancient craftsmanship, visit the Zenú Gold Museum in Cartagena.
After the Spanish invasion, 16th to 18th century Colombian art was largely devoted to Baroque-style religious depictions. But by the early 20th century a more distinctive style of modern art had begun to emerge.
Influenced by the Mexican muralists, painters such as Santiago Martinez Delgado and Pedro Nél Gomez fused neoclassic and Art Nouveau elements. Alejandro Obregon mixed Andean and European influences such as surrealism and Cubism, emerging in the 1950s as one of “The Big Five” Colombian artists. But perhaps the most famous Colombian artist is Fernando Botero, who’s known internationally for his large, exaggerated figures. His famous sculpture “La Gordita” can be found in Cartagena’s Plaza Santa Domingo.
Dancing has been an integral aspect of Colombian cultures for centuries, and you can see numerous traditional and modern styles performed Cartagena.
Bambuco is a traditional folkloric dance most popular in the country’s Andean region. Though you’re unlikely to see anyone rocking this style at a nightclub, its influence can be seen in numerous modern dance forms. Porro, which originated in Sucre, is more formal, resembling a military march. Merengue and Salsa are both very popular, but they’re not native to Colombia: They were imported from the West Indies and New York, respectively.
Mapale is a style you’re likely to see on the streets of Cartagena, with colorfully costumed troupes of drummers and dancers performing around Parque Bolivar, Plaza Santa Domingo and the Plaza de las Coches. Originally brought to the region by slaves from Angola, the energetic dance represents an erotic couples’ courtship that resembles the movements of the Mapale fish when it’s taken out of water.
The country’s most popular dance style is Cumbia, which also happens to be one of the most popular music forms in all of Latin America.
Originating as a courtship dance among West African slaves in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region and Panama in the early 19th century, the Cumbia was originally performed using only drums and claves. Eventually the music incorporated influences from the indigenous Kogui and Kuna tribes (including flutes and percussion), the Spanish (European guitars), and even German immigrants (who brought the accordion to Barranquilla in the 19th century).
By the mid-20th century (a.k.a. “The Golden Age”), Colombian artists such as Pablo Galán and Lucho Bermúdez had crafted a refined form of Cumbia, which helped the music spread to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and beyond.
These days, traditional Cumbia is often blended with dancehall reggae, hip-hop and electronic musical influences to create a more modern, accessible sound. And while the pop music of Shakira and Rock en Espanol of Juanes may be more widely known in the U.S., it’s Cumbia that is the epitome of Colombia’s rich, distinctive cultural fusion.