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COLOMBIA is situated in the north of South America, and most of the country lies between the equator and 10°N. The Andes Mountains are split into three ranges in Colombia: the Cordillera Occidental, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Oriental. The most westerly range is the Cordillera Occidental, which consists of fairly low but rugged foothills that rise behind the Pacific coast. On the east side of these, the River Cauca flows from south to north, joining with Colombia’s main river, the Magdalena, 322 kilometers or 200 miles south of the Caribbean coast. Rising on the eastern side of the Cauca valley, the Cordillera Central’s high peaks attain more than 5,029 meters or 16,500 feet, and many are active volcanoes. On the far side of these lies the great Magdalena river, running northwards for a distance of over 15,289-kilometers or 9,500 miles, which is nearly the entire length of the country. To the east again are found the Andean range of the Cordillera Oriental, a region of plateaux, plains, peaks, and lakes.
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One of the plateaux is situated in the capital city, Bogotá, built at an altitude of 2,590 meters or 8,500 feet. However, Colombia’s highest mountain is not found in the Andes but is located in a separate group called the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, situated just behind the Caribbean coast. The peak is named Pico Cristobal Colon and is a massive 5,800 meters or 18,500 feet in height. Half of Colombia lies east of the Andes, and much of this region is covered in a tropical grassland. Towards the Amazon Basin in the south, the vegetation changes to tropical forest. Because of its varied topography, Colombia has a wealth of habitats that provide a home for many different plants and animals. Many of these are thriving in areas that are relatively untouched by any human activity.
The forest animals include jaguars, monkeys, snakes, pumas, alligators, peccaries, sloths, tapirs, anteaters, and armadillos. The climates in Colombia include equatorial and tropical according to altitude. Very little of the country is under cultivation, although much of the soil is fertile, and the range of climates results in an extraordinary variety of crops. Colombia’s most important crop is coffee, but bananas, sugar cane, rice, cocoa beans, flowers, cotton, tobacco, and potatoes. Cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses are the most important farm animals.
The country has large natural reserves of minerals and precious stones, particularly emeralds, silver, gold, petroleum, coal, natural gas, platinum, nickel, and copper. It is South America’s leading producer of coal, while petroleum is the country’s most important foreign revenue earner.
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The country consists of four main geographic regions: the Central Highlands (including the three Andean ranges and the lowlands between them), the Atlantic Lowlands, the Pacific Lowlands, coastal regions, and the Eastern Plain. Among the unusual animals that thrive in Colombia are the jaguar, puma, ocelot, peccary (a small hog-like animal), and armadillo. Native birds include the colorful red-billed emerald hummingbird, found along the coast and in the forested lower slopes of the mountains, and various eagle, hawk, falcon, vulture, and condor. Several poisonous snakes inhabit the tropical forests, including the South American rattlesnake, the anaconda, and various coral snakes.
Colombia sits on the extreme edge of the South American Tectonic Plate. Just to the east is the Nazca Plate, and immediately to the north is the Caribbean Plate. Subduction (one plate pushing under another) at these plate boundaries has pushed up the rock, resulting in the mountains on Colombia’s coasts. This process also formed volcanoes, and many of them remain active. Folding and faulting of Earth’s crust resulted in seismic fault lines between the mountain ranges. The continued movement of the plates subjects Colombia to frequent earthquakes, some of which are very destructive.
The Caribbean Sea, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, lies northwest of Colombia. The waters along the Caribbean coast are attractive to snorkelers and scuba divers from around the world, since the water is clear and the coastal areas are lined with extensive coral reefs. Colombia has a southwestern coastline along the Pacific Ocean, which is separated from the Caribbean Sea by the Isthmus of Panama.
Rich marine life fills the Pacific Ocean waters along Colombia’s western coast, influenced by the Humbolt Current. It is common to see dolphins here, and deep-sea fishing is a popular tourist activity. From July through September, humpback whales populate the waters during their mating season.
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In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s volcanic mountains, the town of Arboletes is especially known for its pungent mud volcanoes, which, instead of spewing molten rock, bubble and spatter a mixture of hot water and clay or mud from deep within Earth. One of its volcanoes has a large crater that is filled with a lake of mud. Locals and tourists alike enjoy swimming and soaking in the lake.
Colombia has two archeological sites designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Tierradentro is a complex of hypogea (underground chambers) located in San Andrés de Pisimbalá in the southern Andes. The underground structures are ancient burial chambers that have been decorated with black and red geometric figures representing the decorations of homes from the time period in which they were created (between the sixth and tenth centuries). Several large animal-like statues surrounding the chambers were most likely meant to serve as guards to the tombs. San Agustin, located in the mountains and canyons just to the south of Tierradentro, is a similar site containing many burial mounds, tombs, small temples, and large monolithic animal sculptures. Researchers believe that this area was a ceremonial site where natives worshipped nature and death as symbols of continuity and evolution.
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