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Colombia: Transportation and Communications
Country Study > Chapter 3 > The Economy > Services > Transportation and Communications


Colombia's mountainous terrain has been a perennial obstacle to economic development. As recently as the early 1900s, it took days to travel between the larger urban centers, and major connecting roads to coastal areas did not exist until the early 1960s. Although road and rail networks expanded, albeit slowly, the nation was not easily traversed by any means until the completion of regional and international airports in the 1940s.

People and cargo still traveled primarily by road in the late 1980s. In 1987 the government reported a total of 104,000 kilometers of finished roads, 10,300 of which were considered paved. Road construction and repair remained a chronic problem. Responsibility for roads rested with municipal, departmental, and national entities, under the coordination of the Ministry of Public Works. Funds supporting road projects were obtained from local public revenues, the National Highway Fund (El Fondo Vial), and loans from development agencies. Fuel taxes and toll collections were the main sources of local funds. In 1987 the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) arranged for road construction loans amounting to US$180 million and US$220 million, respectively.

In the late 1980s, Colombia had three main highways, two of which ran north to south on either side of the Cordillera Central The western highway, doubling as the Pan American Highway for part of the way, began at the border with Ecuador and passed near Cali on its way north through Medellín to the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena. The eastern highway ran north from Bogotá to Cúcuta and the Venezuelan border. It also linked up with the Pan American Highway west of Bogotá. The third major highway ran east to west through the northern Caribbean lowlands, circumventing the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and meeting up with the eastern highway at Cúcuta.

A highway running north from Bogotá between the eastern and central mountain ranges connected with the eastern highway, and a second horizontal link was made from Bogotá to the western highway. Another paved road was completed south of Bogotá into the department of Huila. Although many improved secondary paved roads were added in the late 1980s, particularly in the central highlands, many areas of the country remained virtually inaccessible. Two such areas were the eastern plains and the Amazon region. Although the Barco government was committed to extending roads into these marginal areas, swamps and dense forests precluded construction.

In 1983 over 75 percent of all cargo and 80 percent of all vehicular passengers moving through Colombia were transported by automobile. In 1985 more than 1.2 million vehicles were registered in Colombia, including 19,000 buses and 60,000 transport trucks.

The rail system had been in decline since the 1960s. Colombia's terrain had been even more challenging to the railroads than to the surface road system, and maintaining the railroads was very expensive. As a result, the road network continued to take business away from the failing railroad system. In 1987 there were some 3,300 kilometers of railroad track, but only 2,600 were in use, and no more than 20 percent of the nation's locomotives were in operation. Although the Barco government proposed that a comprehensive study be done to develop a strategy to revitalize the rail system, a coordinated response had not been made as of mid1988 .

By the late 1980s, mass transit rail systems for urban areas were in the early stages of development. Work had already begun on a system for Medellín, and the government was calling for bids on a subway system to serve Bogotá. Construction in Bogotá was to begin in 1988, and the finished subway system was to be linked to existing railroads.

In the late 1980s, transport by water was still very important to Colombia. Shipping operated out of five key ports: Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and Buenaventura and Tumaco on the Pacific coast. Buenaventura was the most important trading port, but Barranquilla was gaining in stature because of the increasing amount of oil exports, all of which left Colombia through this northern terminal. A major port rehabilitation project supervised by the Colombian Port Authority (Empresa Puertos de Colombia) was being partially financed by the World Bank.

Inland waterways were historically important modes of transportation, but by 1987 they carried only 2 percent of the nation's cargo. Inland waterways consisted of 5,445 kilometers of navigable rivers, but many of the river facilities had become dilapidated by the late 1980s, and business had fallen to an alltime low. The Río Magdalena and Río Cauca were the most used waterways, providing transport from the mountainous interior to the Caribbean ports; the volume of traffic on these estuaries was diminished, however, by more modern transportation options, including the expanding road network and air transport services.

Colombia was served by five international airports and more than forty regional airports located throughout the country. Hundreds of smaller airfields in remote areas catered to both legal and illegal transport. Colombia had one of the oldest privately operated national airlines, dating back to 1919. The National Airline of Colombia (Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia -- Avianca) dominated the Colombian airline business from its inception and flew regularly to many countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 1986 it carried 5.4 million passengers and nearly 85,000 tons of cargo.

In 1962 the government established a small company, Air Navigational Service to National Territories (Servicio de Aeronavegación a Territorios Nacionales -- Satena), to provide cargo and passenger services to the eastern periphery of the country. In 1988 Satena continued to operate with the assistance of the military.

Telecommunications, which were still lacking in many of the more secluded areas of the country, improved markedly after the 1960s in western and northern Colombia. Once a fragmented system of local companies virtually incapable of communicating with each other, in the 1980s the telephone system became modernized, using satellite technology to link most of the larger towns with the outside world.

The National Telecommunications Company (Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones -- Telecom) provided local telephone and telex service to nearly 500 of the larger cities and towns. Local companies that could hook up to the national system served more than 2,800 small communities. As many as 60 percent of the rural communities, however, were still without telephone service. In 1987 there were an estimated 1.6 million telephones in Colombia.

Broadcasting included approximately 500 radio and 100 television stations. Equipment was in poor condition, and the quality of broadcasts, particularly for television, could not be guaranteed. The government's national television and broadcasting network, the National Institute of Radio and Television (Instituto Nacional de Radio y Televisión -- Inravisión), produced for most affiliate stations; many of these, however, were privately operated.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

Colombia Main Page Country Studies Main Page

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