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Colombia, Land and Resources

The distinguishing topographical feature of Colombia is the Andes mountain chain. The Andes are situated in the central and western parts of the country and extend north-south across almost the entire length of Colombia. The western two-fifths of the country lies in the highlands of the Andes. The ranges of the Andes are separated by deep depressions. Almost all of Colombia’s population lives in the narrow valleys and basins nestled among the mountains. East of the Andes, three-fifths of the country consists of portions of the llanos, or grasslands, and selva, or rain forest. The llanos lie on the plain that drains northeast into the Orinoco River, and the selva drains southeast into the Amazon River basin. Along the shore of the Caribbean Sea is a strip of lowland.

The Andes comprise three principal and parallel ranges: the Cordillera Occidental in the west, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Oriental in the east. On the Caribbean coast is the isolated mountain mass known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which includes Colombia’s highest point at Pico Cristobal Colon (5,776 m/18,950 ft).

The westernmost of the three high Andean cordilleras, the Cordillera Occidental, rises upward through successive vegetation zones to culminate in barren volcanic peaks some 3,700 m (12,000 ft) above sea level. This range extends as an almost unbroken wall throughout its length; generally it is not high enough to reach into the zone of permanent snow.

The Cordillera Central contains the volcanic peaks of Huila (5,750 m/18,865 ft) and Tolima (5,616 m/18,425 ft). About 240 km (about 150 mi) south of the Caribbean Sea, the Cordillera Central descends to marshy jungle. The cordillera peaks are perpetually covered with snow; the timberline in these mountains lies at about 3,000 m (about 10,000 ft).

To the east, the Cordillera Oriental rises to a height of 5,500 m (18,000 ft). Unlike the other two ranges, the Cordillera Oriental is densely populated. Most of its inhabitants live in a series of basins in the mountains at an elevation of 2,400 m to 2,700 m (8,000 ft to 9,000 ft). The three largest cities in this region, each occupying a different basin, are Bogota, Chiquinquira, and Sogamoso.

East of the Cordillera Oriental are vast reaches of torrid lowlands, thinly populated and only partly explored. The southern portion of this region, called selvas (rain forests), is thickly forested and is drained by the Caqueta River and other tributaries of the Amazon. The northern and greater part of the region comprises vast plains, or llanos, and is traversed by the Meta and other tributaries of the Orinoco. Between the cordilleras are high plateaus, a number of which are about 2,400 m (about 8,000 ft) above sea level, and fertile valleys, traversed by the principal rivers of the country. The principal river of Colombia, the Magdalena, flows north between the Cordillera Oriental and the Cordillera Central, across practically the entire country, emptying into the Caribbean near Barranquilla after a course of about 1,540 km (about 957 mi). The Cauca, also an important means of communication, flows north between the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Occidental, merging with the Magdalena about 320 km (about 200 mi) from the Caribbean. In the west the Patia cuts its way through the Andes to empty into the Pacific. The coastline of Colombia extends for about 1,760 km (about 1,090 mi) along the Caribbean and for about 1,450 km (about 900 mi) along the Pacific. River mouths along the coasts are numerous, but no good natural harbors exist.

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