By Bob Schulman
If you're planning a trip to Colombia on July 20 or August 7, you should know those days are major holidays honoring the country's national hero, Simon Bolivar. Carnival-like parades, block parties, backyard barbeques, dances and the like on both dates celebrate key events in the country's drive – led by Bolivar – for freedom from Spanish rule.
On July 20, 1810, a military junta declared the independence of New Granada (now Colombia). Years of political and military upheaval followed, as did Spain's reconquest of the region, but Bolivar's rebel army at last won a decisive battle for freedom on August 7, 1819, at a city called Boyaca. He went on to free Bogata, the country's capital.
Look around Colombia and you'll see Bolivar's name shows up on roads, businesses and lots of statues. The country's international airport at Santa Marta is named after him. Ditto for the biggest park in Bogata.
July 20 and August 7 are two of Colombia's 18 national holidays. Among the others, some are non-religious, such as Labor Day (May 1) and Columbus Day (October 12), but most honor Catholic saints or events.
Beyond national holidays, individual cities and regions across the country stage a total of 122 traditional and cultural festivals each year. For instance, if you happen to be in the southern Colombian town of Pasto in early January, you'll find yourself right in the middle of the famous Mardi Gras-ish Blacks and Whites' Carnival. Or if you're in Cali in late January you can do some serious hip-swinging in their annual Feria de Cali salsa dancing contest. Does the whole town look like a flower garden? Yes, if you're in Medellin in August for the colorful Feria de Las Flores flower festival there.
Other celebrations are more practical. Take the Yipao (jeep) Festival in the town of Armenia in central Colombia, a coffee-growing center. Each June, hundreds of jeeps parade through the town loaded down with coffee sacks.
Colombians are typically very friendly, so don't be surprised if you're invited to chow down at a backyard party or to join a parade during local celebrations. Or maybe even ride on a coffee sack.
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