Colombia Country Information
Colombia is a land of contrasts, a country whose turbulent history is written large across its equally varied landscape. The Andes mountain range and Amazon Rainforest extend into Colombian territory. It is the only South American country to have both Pacific Ocean and Caribbean coastlines. The inland savanna (los llanos) and the rainforest regions are sparsely populated, with most of Colombia's population of 45 million residing in the Andean highlands or along the coast.
The WorldTeach Colombia program originated in the Isla Baru which was settled by Afro-Colombian slaves who escaped Cartagena to the isthmus over 200 years ago. Many predominantly Afro-Colombian settlements along the Caribbean coast remain underdeveloped; according to the World Bank, restricted participation in higher education and less access to public infrastructure are two of the factors that have contributed to a poverty gap between Afro-Colombians and other sectors of Colombian society. Like other islands in the area, Isla Baru's tourist-filled beaches and unpaved roads epitomize the socioeconomic disparities that remain as a legacy of the region's colonial past and reflect the uneven distribution of wealth from the current development boom.
The Colombia program quickly grew to include placements in Cartagena de Indias, founded in 1533 by the Spanish. This harbor town grew and prospered under Spanish rule; despite several damaging pirate attacks it survived to become in the 18th century the de facto capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (a colonial jurisdiction encompassing modern-day Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela). UNESCO declared Cartagena's harbor area and fortress a World Heritage Site in 1984, stating that "Cartagena is an eminent example of military architecture of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the most extensive of the New World and, at present, one of the most complete." The modern day city of 1.2 million continues to serve as an economic hub for the Caribbean as well as a popular tourist destination.
Historically, coastal Colombian culture blends influences from the Spanish settlers, the indigenous tribes who populated the area prior to Spanish colonization, and the slaves imported into Colombia from as early as the 1520's onward. The principal language is Spanish, though accents and diction differ slightly throughout the country. Popular musical styles along the coast include the rhythmically complex cumbia and the vallenato, both of which have grown from their rural origins into staples of national culture. In addition to exporting popular musical stars such as Juanes and Shakira, Colombia also has a long history of literary excellence. Nobel prize winner Gabrial Garcia Marquez calls Cartagena home, and both his fictional and journalistic works channel the struggles and resilient vibrancy of contemporary Colombian life.
The program has since grown to include placements in Bogota (Colombia's capital), Manizales (a university town in the Zona Cafetera), Monteria (a predominantly agricultural city), and Soledad (near the metropolitan area of Barranquilla) and others.
Unique Challenges for Colombia Volunteers
Communication: Although Colombians are rightly known for being some of the friendliest people in the world, volunteers often struggle in communicating with them. Colombians are known for their indirect form of communication. They often do not say what they mean or do not communicate important information to volunteers. This could mean anything from neglecting to tell volunteers that there will be no school for several days in a week to inviting a volunteer for a relaxing trip to the countryside when they have no intention of following through with this invitation.
Dealing with Uncertainty and the Unknown: It's very common in Colombia, especially in Colombian schools, for things to be planned at the last minute or for things to change overnight. Oftentimes, specific placements are not confirmed until shortly before volunteers leave for Colombia, and most volunteers won't know what grades they'll be teaching, their schedules, or other specifics until the first day of school (or later!). Some volunteers expect to teach high school only to arrive and be told they'll be teaching primary school. Likewise, housing situations are usually confirmed in the week or two before volunteers move to them. This can be challenging and stressful for people who are accustomed to planning things out and are uncomfortable with change or uncertainty. Colombia offers a great opportunity to learn to live in the moment and adapt a more go-with-the-flow attitude.
Tranquilo Lifestyle: Although many volunteers accept the welcomed change of a more relaxed lifestyle, some volunteers have trouble adjusting to this type of culture. Everything moves a little slower in Colombia, and it can be hard to leave behind the gringo focus on progress and efficiency to accept a more leisurely way of life.
Co-teachers: With the exception of some volunteers in the university setting, who most likely will be teaching on their own with little guidance from the institution and other professors, most WorldTeach Colombia volunteers work closely with Colombian co-teachers in the classroom. While many co-teachers are receptive to volunteer involvement and the open exchange of ideas, others do not have such peaceful relationships with the volunteers. Some volunteers might be left to do all of the work while the co-teacher drinks coffee in the patio. Others might be reduced to pronunciation assistants in class and might have little responsibility in preparing or executing the lesson. Many co-teachers have no previous experience sharing their classrooms and it can be difficult to establish the role of the volunteer and the co-teacher so that both feel valued by the students.
Note about safety:
Colombia is experiencing a period of increased domestic stability but there are still areas that are not safe for volunteers to travel. For this reason, volunteers in Colombia are strongly urged to follow the information published in the State Department Travel Warnings.
Web Resources for Colombia
- Embassy of Colombia to the United States
- Embassy of the U.S. to Colombia
- Program Nacional de Bilingüismo | Information on Bilingual Education in Colombia (in Spanish)
- Fundación Mario Santo Domingo | NGO that founded the Instituto Ecologico Barbacoas on Baru
- El Tiempo | Leading Colombian newspaper (in Spanish)
- BBC on Colombia | News and Country Profile
- New York Times on Colombia | News, Country Profile, and Travel Guide
- Background Notes | From the US State Department
- CDC | Health Information
- Latin American Network Information Center | Comprehensive list of Colombia links, including many Spanish-language media resources.
- Political Database of the Americas | Georgetown University Site providing comparative resources on democracy in the Americas
- Visit Colombia | Official Site of the Ministry of Tourism
- TrekEarth | Colombia Photo Gallery