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Colombian Island Culture – Everything you need to know

Culture of the island region Rosario Islands

Updated on 03/15/2024

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Everything about the island region in Colombia

The island region of Colombia includes the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, where various islands, bays and islets are located. Some of these islands are continental, meaning they are offshore and geologically connected by the underwater platform. Others are oceanic, meaning they are far from shore and emerge from their own underwater ridge.

With more than 80,000 inhabitants and an area with an approximate area of more than 300 km2 and a maximum altitude of 5 meters above sea level, the island region is mainly made up of several islands.

In the Caribbean Sea

  • Archipiélago de San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina
  • Isla Tortuguilla
  • Rosario Islands
  • San Bernardo Archipelago
  • Baru Islands
  • Santa Catalina Island
  • Bomb Land Islands
  • Strong Island

In the Pacific Ocean

  • Gorgonay Island Gorgonilla
  • Malpelo Island
  • Cacagual Island
  • El Morro Island
  • Rooster Island
  • Tumaco Island
  • Cascajal Island
  • Sanquiaga Island

  • Climate: This region has a tropical climate and average temperatures between 24° C and 30° C. This makes the region a perfect tourist destination for diving, snorkeling and other water sports.
  • Economy: The economy is based primarily on tourism, fishing, mining and forestry.
  • Ecological importance: There are several nature reserves in this region. These include the Old Province McBean Lagoon National Natural Park, the Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo Islands National Natural Park, the Gorgona Natural National Park and the Malpelo Natural National Park.

The island culture

The history of this region dates back to around 1510, when Spanish colonists first set foot on the island country with slaves brought from Africa, sailing from Jamaica to Miskitos. According to historians, there is strong evidence that local indigenous people such as the Miskito, a tribe from Central America and other Caribbean communities, had already settled on these islands many years earlier to make their economic living through practices such as fishing.

Later, ethnic groups called “Raizale tribes” arose from the mixture of Africans, Europeans and Indians throughout history. About a century later, European powers such as France, England, and Holland waged battles and conflicts to gain territorial control and establish a place to trade and carry out their activities. The islands were perfect because of their isolated location and strategic importance. Today the islands are home to a cultural mix. Languages range from Spanish, and English to San Andrés Creole.

Finally, these cultures were shaped by various geographical factors, external influences, the development of multicultural traditions and island-specific customs. The Colombian government had a major influence on the region’s economic and cultural development by introducing new administrative measures that would ultimately have a cultural and economic impact on the region.

The natural environment in the island region

The environment of this region is diverse and has unique characteristics due to its geographical isolation. The region is home to a variety of ecosystems such as forests, mangroves, coral reefs and mountainous areas.

Many of these islands are of volcanic origin, creating mountainous landscapes and, in some cases, active volcanoes. These geological conditions have influenced the formation of white and black sand beaches as well as the presence of hot springs.

In terms of biodiversity, there are about 2,600 plant species and about 400 animal species, half of which are endemic. This means that they only occur in certain areas. One could say that the relationship of the natural environment to the tribes was sacred in this past time because the tribes used the knowledge of the life cycles of marine species and their migration times.

Due to increasing tourism, conservation and sustainability measures are currently being implemented to protect and preserve the resources of the natural environment on each of these islands.

Innovation in Island Agriculture

On islands with mountainous terrain, tribes built flat platforms to grow food. The tribes used the humidity and fertility of the soil to grow plants and roots “tubers”. They also used the technique of planting different crops on a plot at different times of the year to prevent soil nutrient depletion and preserve food. However, they didn’t really have the scientific knowledge of how crop rotation worked. Nevertheless, it is an intuitive technique that is perfectly tailored to sowing and maintaining crops and soil.

The tribes developed their own knowledge that seeds were hardier and more productive in tropical climates. In the long term, they selected and distributed the seeds of the most productive and healthiest plants. They also used tools that they found in their environment. Sticks and stones were used to till the soil and sow seeds. All this knowledge was passed on “empirically” from generation to generation.

Spirituality in island culture

Island culture is a set of practices or beliefs that usually have a strong relationship between humans and nature.

Natural cycles

One of the most notable features of island spirituality is its connection to natural cycles. The rhythm of dawn and dusk, the flow of the tides, the seasons and celestial movements are interpreted as manifestations of spiritual forces.

Rituals and ceremonies

Rituals and ceremonies are the essence of spirituality within the island culture. These activities are often carried out in places considered sacred, such as forests or beaches. These practices include dancing, singing and the participation of spiritual guides.

For example, initiation rituals that mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood may include trials in nature, such as spending a night in a sacred place or facing challenges in natural environments, symbolizing the connection between individuals and ecosystems.

Spirituality and balance

In the tradition of island culture, maintaining a balanced relationship with nature and spirits is believed to be essential to individual and community well-being. The search for this spirituality is reflected in daily practices and interaction with the environment. After a good harvest or successful fishing, gratitude rituals can be carried out in which the food obtained is offered to nature as a sign of respect and recognition.

The Ancestors

As in many other ethnic cultures, respect for ancestors plays a fundamental role in the spirituality of the island culture. The spirits of ancestors are believed to influence the world and people’s daily lives, which is why thanksgiving ceremonies are usually held to ask for their protection and well-being. Offerings of food and symbolic objects are common in rituals and are made with this intention.

The typical crafts of the island region

Fabrics made from coconut fibers

Coconut fiber weaving is an artisanal manifestation that uses fibers extracted from coconuts to create a variety of functional and decorative objects. The fibers are frayed and intertwined to form baskets, loincloths, hats, and bags, among other things, generally using the same technique.

Shell and snail jewelry

Shell and snail jewelry is an art form that uses marine elements to create accessories. The shells and snails are polished and strung into necklaces, bracelets, earrings and headbands. These types of jewelry emphasize the natural beauty of the materials and often feature symbolic designs that illustrate communities’ connection to the sea, the sun and the moon.

Loom embroidery

This type of textile art is used to make blankets, hammocks and traditional clothing. Artisans use handlooms to create complex weaving patterns. Embroideries add highly decorative details and incorporate designs that represent elements such as nature, spirituality and everyday life.

Dry coconut art

Dried coconut art involves carving and converting dried coconuts into decorative and functional objects, such as decorating keychains, lamps, sculptures, and other carved utensils. Creations made from this material capture the tropical essence of the region and show how natural resources can be transformed into valuable works of art.

Customs and traditions of the island culture

The origin of traditions lies in the need to adapt to the island environment. These practices merged with religious rituals, such as the worship of the guardian deities of the sea, as well as with harvest time celebrations and the building of social relationships.

On the other hand, the most commonly used languages such as Spanish and English were established, which are predominant in the tradition of each of the islands. The indigenous and African languages disappeared as Europeans established their new cultural structures.


With the colonization of the Dutch, Irish and English in the 17th century, who occupied the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, the English language came to the island region. Later this language was officially introduced for trading.


With the conquest of the islands by Spanish sailors in 1510, Spanish came to the island region, they introduced Hispanic culture and over time Spanish became the predominant language in this region.


Creole is the only language of local origin due to the mixture of words in traditional Jamaican English, African languages, and sometimes mixtures of Spanish words. Currently, Creole is the language that defines the Raizal cultural identity of this region, particularly for the San Andrés culture.

The most popular festivals in the island culture

The Green Moon Festival

  • Features: Cultural and music festival celebrating the Rastafarian heritage of San Andrés Island.
  • Frequency: Annually.
  • Origin: It emerged as a way to honor Rastafari culture and promote unity and cultural diversity in communities.
  • Meaning: The “Green Moon” represents a moment of spiritual connection and respect for nature and also promotes reggae music and multicultural coexistence.

Crab festival

  • Features: Celebration celebrating marine resources, particularly the crab.
  • Frequency: Annually, in July.
  • Origin: It derives from the importance of fishing and marine life in the region, as well as local culinary traditions.
  • Significance: The festival highlights the relationship between island communities and the sea and promotes marine conservation and local island gastronomy.

International Coconut Domination

  • Features: Event where a representative is selected who embodies local culture and beauty.
  • Frequency: Annual, but varies by island.
  • Origin: The origin lies in the economic and cultural importance of the coconut in the region as well as the promotion of tourism and island identity.
  • Meaning: The dominion celebrates the culture, beauty and heritage of the islands and also seeks to strengthen the identity and self-esteem of local women.

Race Day

  • Features: National celebration commemorating the meeting of cultures during the colonization process.
  • Frequency: Annually, October 12th.
  • Origin: The celebration emerged as a way to reflect on the encounter between different cultures and their impact on today’s society.
  • Significance: This celebration highlights the cultural and ethnic diversity of the islands and promotes respect and coexistence of different ethnic cultures in the same space.

What do community and family mean on the island?

Society is characterized by the fact that it is collective. They promote solidarity among small communities and emphasize mutual support in important activities of this culture such as fishing and agriculture. Community celebrations are fundamental to the integration and transmission of traditions, with families being “essential” in keeping customs and traditions alive across generations.

Another clear example could be the practice of fishing: community members come together to fish and collect shellfish. Everyone is actively involved in the preparation and execution of the fishing, from the preparation of the nets to the departure of the boat. This type of shared activity not only ensures successful fishing but also strengthens bonds between community members through the exchange of experiences and knowledge about the best areas to conduct the next fishing and the use of appropriate techniques.

Oral traditions of the island culture

Oral traditions played an important role in the culture of the island region. The main goal was to preserve identity and cultural wisdom. In addition to conveying values, education was also conveyed through word games and mystical stories. Social bonds were also strengthened through exchanges at meetings or events. Ultimately, these traditions gave the region a cultural identity and strengthened the sense of belonging to the individual island communities.

Here I present to you some of the most important oral traditions of the island culture:

The Legend of Henry Morgan’s Treasure

  • Features: It is a story about how the pirate Henry Morgan would have hidden a treasure on one of the islands in the island region.
  • Origin: It has its origins in the stories that have been told for generations about the pirates who traveled the surrounding waters.
  • Meaning: The preservation of maritime history and the spirit of adventure is part of local folklore.

The story of the flying fish

  • Characteristics: This story depicts a fish that can fly. Conveys curiosity and courage.
  • Origin: A story shared between families to teach children values and lessons.
  • Meaning: Instilling values of exploration, courage, and wonder in the face of nature while teaching the importance of overcoming obstacles.

The mythological Agüita bird

  • Properties: Legend tells of a bird with the power to purify water. The topics covered in it deal with nature and mysticism.
  • Origin: It arises from the close relationship between island communities and their vital dependence on water.
  • Meaning: Emphasizes the importance of protecting water and nature, as well as highlighting the connection between life and spirituality.

Puzzles of endless waves

  • Features: It is a poetic riddle that describes the waves of the sea. It contains characteristic elements of nature and mystery.
  • Origin: Its origin is believed to lie in seaside activities and wave watching in the daily life of locals.
  • Meaning: Encouraging observation and connection with nature as well as fun and challenging ingenuity.

Crab tongue twister

  • Characteristics: This involves the repetition of similar phonetic sounds, the mixture of humorous elements and linguistic challenges.
  • Origin: It arises from informal conversations and leisure activities between friends and family.
  • Meaning: The goal is to have fun and entertain, and it is also an interactive way to play with words and language.

How did music originate in the island region?

Around the 15th century, European explorers and colonizers arrived on the islands, bringing with them their own musical traditions (Spanish and English music), which later mixed with indigenous and African musical traditions.

The African influence on the island region’s music was significant due to the long-standing slave trade on the islands. The slaves brought with them their own traditions and percussion rhythms, which fused with European rhythms, mixing and eventually creating genres such as calypso, mento, reggae and socca.

It should be emphasized that island music is very diverse and has numerous variants, which is why it is currently evolving and adapting, as the island region continues to be a center of cultural exchange and musical creativity.

The most popular instruments in the island region

El Raizal

  • How to use: It is a percussion instrument that is played by hitting the stretched skin with the hands or sticks. It is used to mark characteristic rhythms and accents in traditional Pacific music.
  • Features: It is an instrument made from a wooden cylinder and animal skin. It is an instrument with a characteristic “resonant” sound.

El Cuatro

  • How to use: Instrument in which the strings are played with the fingers of the dominant hand while the other hand presses the frets on the neck to change the notes. In general, it accompanies rhythms and melodies with its characteristic sound.
  • Features: This instrument has four double strings, they are tuned in the fifth tone and its shape resembles a small guitar. The small resonance box gives the island folk music a very special touch.

El Scrappers

  • How to use: Scratch or rub with a wooden stick to make noise when rubbing the carved grooves. It has a characteristic sound of the archipelago’s traditional music.
  • Features: It is made of metal or wood, and usually has a series of grooves on the surface and each groove produces a different sound.

Steel pan

  • How to use: It is played by hitting the steel surfaces in different places with mallets of different sizes and strengths. Each section of the drum produces a specific note to play much more complete melodies. We also know it as “steel band” music.
  • Features: Made from recycled steel drums, the steel pan is hammered and shaped to create different stress ranges in the metal. It has a characteristic “vibrating” sound.

La Quijada

  • How to use: The Quijada is played by rubbing, hitting or shaking. Generally, a horse’s jaw is used as a percussion instrument.
  • Characteristics: La Quijada is the jaw of the lower part of an animal, only the teeth remain to easily produce sounds by rubbing with a stick.

Rhythms and music genres of the island region

The history of music genres in the region is shaped by the interplay of local musical traditions as well as European and African influences. This fusion of musical cultures gave rise to several musical genres.

El Mento

It is a musical genre originating in the Bahamas and Jamaica that has influenced the traditional music of the island region. It presents syncopated and happy rhythms with lyrics that address humorous, loving and social themes, sometimes also cultural aspects of the region. Instruments such as the Raizal drum and the Quijada are common in this genre. This genre is generally played at festivals, celebrations and social events. People dance in circles or in pairs to the characteristic rhythms of mento.

Music Artists: Louise Bennett-Coverley and The Jolly Boys

La Socca

This upbeat and infectious musical genre evolved from calypso and combines danceable rhythms with creative lyrics, sometimes lyrics in a political context. The lyrics mostly contain puns and double meanings. Socca is an integral part of the island region’s festivals and celebrations, especially during Carnival. It is a dance genre and singing competitions are developed for this specific genre.

Music Artists: Lordy Shorty and Machel Montano

Vals Isleño

It is a regional variant of the European waltz. It is characterized by its moderate rhythm, and its elegant and atmospheric melodies. Instruments such as the cuatro and the treble are used, which give this genre its characteristic sound. It is performed at formal occasions and special occasions such as weddings and high society parties.

Music Artists: Joseph Spence and Elkin Robinson

El Pasillo Isleno

It is an adaptation of the Colombian pasillo to the island culture. It contains melancholic melodies and romantic lyrics that reflect the feelings and life in the region. This genre is played at social events, festivals and meetings. People come together to listen and enjoy this genre while the dancers develop choreographies.

Music artists: Mary Posada and Margarita Laso


This genre of music originated in Jamaica and has spread throughout the Caribbean over the years. It is characterized by relaxed rhythms, lyrics with politically charged social messages and his signature “prostitute” rhythm. He can be heard on the radio as well as at all kinds of cultural events. This genre has profoundly influenced the region’s culture by fusing other distinctive elements with other local traditions, thus creating a new genre with a new identity.

Music Artists: Kings of Creole and Red Crab

Typical dishes of the island region

The cuisine in the island region reflects a historical mix of ethnicities and cultures. These dishes were adapted to local conditions and used seafood, vegetables, spices and other resources typical of the island. Due to their gastronomic diversity, they have also been attracting tourism for years.

Crab back

  • Soft-shell crabs are cooked in a Creole-seasoned broth with onions, sweet chili, and tomatoes, then served in the crabs’ shells.
  • Preparation method: The crabs are cleaned and cooked in a mixture of onions, tomatoes and chili. They are served with the cooking juice (broth), which is very aromatic and full of flavor.

Run Down ( Rondon )

  • Fish or seafood stew prepared with a base of grated coconut and stew accompanied by yucca and green plantains.
  • Preparation method: Seafood or fish is cooked in a mixture of grated coconut, stew with onions, tomatoes and vegetables such as sweet chili. Cassava and green plantains are added to round out the dish.

Pig tail

  • Pork tail with stew and spices, with yucca and green banana.
  • Preparation method: Cook the pork tail until tender and juicy. Then yuca and green plantains are added, which are also boiled until soft and finally seasoned with spices to suit your taste.

Fish, crab or lobster meatballs

  • Fish, crab or lobster balls or minced fish mixed with breadcrumbs, egg and spices.
  • Preparation method: Mix the chopped seafood or fish with breadcrumbs, egg, chopped onions and spices, form balls and fry them in a bowl with oil until golden brown and crispy. Finally, season with onions and pepper.


  • Cooked snail balls, mixed with breadcrumbs and season to taste.
  • Preparation method: Cook the snails until soft, add the breadcrumbs, egg and spices, then form the mixture into a ball and then fry it in oil until golden brown and crispy, usually serve with rice and patacones fried in oil.

Minced fish

  • Fish in Creole stew with tomatoes, onions and chili.
  • Preparation method: Put the sliced fish in a pan and cook the fish for a few minutes until it is no longer translucent. Then add the chopped tomato and onion until they soften with the fish. Finally, add the Creole seasoning and stir well to blend the flavors.

Coconut candy

  • Dessert made from cooked shredded coconut mixed with sugar, condensed milk and cinnamon.
  • Preparation method: Heat the grated coconut over medium heat, add the sugar and condensed milk to the pan and stir, then add the cinnamon and continue stirring over low heat until a sticky consistency is obtained.

The typical dances of the island region

Traditional dances are a way to transmit and preserve the region’s folklore, they are an expression of cultural diversity and each dance reflects specific rhythms and clothing that make it different. These dances are considered cultural heritage and are kept alive thanks to the participation of tourists and locals.

El Mento

It is a happy and energetic dance with a mix of African and European roots. It is characterized by being a dance with lots of hip, foot and hand movements, performed to a “syncopated” musical rhythm.

  • How to dance: The dancers form pairs and develop steps with light and flowing hip movements, the feet must follow the rhythm with quick steps and turns.
  • Typical costumes: Women wear a wide, colorful skirt with hand-embroidered blouses, while men wear linen trousers and shirts, often accompanied by hats and small fabrics as decoration.

The Calypso

It is the most typical dance on the islands of San Andrés and Providencia. It has energetic and celebratory characteristics, it honors its Afro-Caribbean roots and this dance utilizes improvisation and storytelling.

  • How to dance: It is danced in pairs and the dancers move in time, jumping and turning their bodies in different directions, generally, they have to be spontaneous movements.
  • Typical costumes: The outfits are colorful and eye-catching, often decorated with shiny elements and feathers, necklaces and accessories are intended to reflect the festive character of the dance.

The quadrille

This dance is a ballroom dance that combines European and local elements. It is danced in pairs or groups, with the main feature being following a pattern or choreographic track.

  • How to dance: The dancers form squares and perform coordinated movements while changing partners during the dance, the steps are elegant and fluid, they also include slight turns with the body.
  • Typical costumes: Women should wear colorful wide skirts with ankle-length embroidery in “pastel colors” and complement them with accessories such as handles or scarves; men should wear light-colored clothing, bow ties and wide-brimmed hats.

The polka

It is a European dance adapted to the island culture with a Caribbean touch.

  • How to dance:  The dancers hold hands and have to perform quick steps with jumps in a highly synchronized choreography. The movements are full of liveliness, creating an atmosphere that infects everyone present.
  • Typical costumes: Women wear long, colorful dresses decorated with lace to create a movement effect, and men should wear light-colored trousers and long-sleeved shirts with vests, as well as hats and sometimes scarves.

The San Andresano Waltz

It is a romantic and elegant dance with Caribbean and European influences. This dance is a representation of love and gallantry to convey deep feelings.

  • How to dance:  The dancers must move in circles, with gentle steps and slight body turns, the movements must be delicate and fluid and convey a feeling of lightness.
  • Typical costumes: Women should wear long dresses with colors such as blue, pink or lavender, lace embellishments and floral details, long sleeves and accessories such as necklaces or pearls. Men should wear light-colored trousers and white shirts with dark vests, including ties or bow ties.

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About Author



Hello! I'm Frank Spitzer, the founder and the heart behind Pelecanus, a specialized tour operator for Colombia travel. My journey in travel is vast and rich – I've explored over 60 countries, absorbing cultures, experiences, and stories along the way. Since 2017, I've been channeling this wealth of global experience into creating unforgettable travel experiences in Colombia. I'm recognized as a leading authority in Colombian tourism, with a deep-seated passion for sharing this beautiful country with the world. You can catch glimpses of my travel adventures and insights around Colombia on my YouTube channel. I'm also active on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, where I share the vibrant culture and stunning landscapes of Colombia. For professional networking, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Join me on this incredible journey, and let's explore the wonders of Colombia together!

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