Among the smaller towns which deserve mention are Ambalema on the upper Magdalena, celebrated for its tobacco and cigars; Buenaventura (q.v.); Chaparral (9000), a market town of Tolima in the valley of the Saldaña, with coal, iron and petroleum in its vicinity; Honda (6000), an important commercial centre at the head of navigation on the lower Magdalena; Girardot, a railway centre on the upper Magdalena; and Quibdó, a small river town at the head of navigation on the Atrato.
Communications.—The railway problem in Colombia is one of peculiar difficulty. The larger part of the inhabited and productive districts of the republic is situated in the mountainous departments of the interior, and is separated from the coast by low, swampy, malarial plains, and by very difficult mountain chains. These centres of production are also separated from each other by high ridges and deep valleys, making it extremely difficult to connect them by a single transportation route. The one common outlet for these districts is the Magdalena river, whose navigable channel penetrates directly into the heart of the country. From Bogotá the Spaniards constructed two partially-paved highways, one leading down to the Magdalena in the vicinity of Honda, while the other passed down into the upper valley of the same river in a south-westerly direction, over which communication was maintained with Popayan and other settlements of southern Colombia and Ecuador. This highway was known as the camino real. Political independence and misrule led to the abandonment of these roads, and they are now little better than the bridle-paths which are usually the only means of communication between the scattered communities of the Cordilleras. In some of the more thickly settled and prosperous districts of the Eastern Cordillera these bridle paths have been so much improved that they may be considered reasonably good mountain roads, the traffic over them being that of pack animals and not of wheeled vehicles. Navigation on the lower Magdalena closely resembles that of the Mississippi, the same type of light-draft, flat-bottomed steamboat being used, and similar obstacles and dangers to navigation being encountered. There is also the same liability to change its channel, as shown in the case of Mompox, once an important and prosperous town of the lower plain situated on the main channel, now a decaying, unimportant place on a shallow branch 20 m. east of the main river. Small steamers also navigate the lower Cauca and Nechi rivers, and a limited service is maintained on the upper Cauca.
With three exceptions all the railway lines of the country lead to the Magdalena, and are dependent upon its steamship service for transportation to and from the coast. In 1906, according to an official statement, these lines were: (1) The Barranquilla and Savanilla (Puerto Colombia), 17½ m. in length; (2) the Cartagena and Calamar, 65 m.; (3) the La Dorada & Arancaplumas (around the Honda rapids), 20½ m.; (4) the Colombian National, from Girardot to Facatativá, 80 m., of which 48½ m. were completed in 1906; (5) the Girardot to Espinal, 13½ m., part of a projected line running south-west from Girardot; (6) the Sabana railway, from Bogotá to Facatativá, 25 m.; (7) the Northern, from Bogotá to Zipaquirá, 31 m.; (8) the Southern, from Bogotá to Sibaté, 18 m.; and (9) the Puerto Berrio & Medellin, about 78 m. long, of which 36 are completed. The three lines which do not connect with the Magdalena are: (1) the Cúcuta and Villamazar, 43½ m., the latter being a port on the Zulia river near the Venezuelan frontier; (2) the Santa Marta railway, running inland from that port through the banana-producing districts, with 41½ m. in operation in 1907; and (3) the Buenaventura and Cali, 23 m. in operation inland from the former. This gives a total extension of 383 m. in 1906, of which 226 were built to connect with steamship transportation on the Magdalena, 49 to unite Bogotá with neighbouring localities, and 108 to furnish other outlets for productive regions. There is no system outlined in the location of these detached lines, though in 1905–1908 President Reyes planned to connect them in such a way as to form an extensive system radiating from the national capital. Tramway lines were in operation in Bogotá, Barranquilla and Cartagena in 1907.
The telegraph and postal services are comparatively poor, owing to the difficulty of maintaining lines and carrying mails through a rugged and uninhabited tropical country. The total length of telegraph lines in 1903 was 6470 m., the only cable connexion being at Buenaventura, on the Pacific coast. All the principal Caribbean ports and department capitals are connected with Bogotá, but interruptions are frequent because of the difficulty of maintaining lines through so wild a country.
There are only five ports, Buenaventura, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta and Rio Hacha, which are engaged in foreign commerce, though Tumaco and Villamazar are favourably situated for carrying on a small trade with Ecuador and Venezuela. Colombia has no part in the carrying trade, however, her merchants marine in 1905 consisting of only one steamer of 457 tons and five sailing vessels of 1385 tons. Aside from these, small steamers are employed on some of the small rivers with barges, called “bongoes,” to bring down produce and carry back merchandise to the inland trading centres. The coasting trade is insignificant, and does not support a regular service of even the smallest boats. The foreign carrying trade is entirely in the hands of foreigners, in which the Germans take the lead, with the British a close second. The Caribbean ports are in frequent communication with those of Europe and the United States.
Agriculture.—The larger part of the Colombian population is engaged in agricultural and pastoral pursuits. Maize, wheat and other cereals are cultivated on the elevated plateaus, with the fruits and vegetables of the temperate zone, and the European in Bogotá is able to supply his table very much as he would do at home. The plains and valleys of lower elevation are used for the cultivation of coffee and other sub-tropical products, the former being produced in nearly all the departments at elevations ranging from 3500 to 6500 ft. This industry has been greatly prejudiced by civil wars, which not only destroyed the plantations and interrupted transportation, but deprived them of the labouring force essential to their maintenance and development. It is estimated that the revolutionary struggle of 1899–1903 destroyed 10% of the able-bodied agricultural population of the Santa Marta district, and this estimate, if true, will hold good for all the inhabited districts of the Eastern Cordillera. The best coffee is produced in the department of Cundinamarca in the almost inaccessible districts of Fusagasagá and La Palma. Tolima coffee is also considered to be exceptionally good. The department of Santander, however, is the largest producer, and much of its output in the past has been placed upon the market as “Maracaibo,” the outlet for this region being through the Venezuelan port of that name. Coffee cultivation in the Santa Marta region is receiving much attention on account of its proximity to the coast.
The tropical productions of the lower plains include, among others, many of the leading products of the world, such as cacáo, cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco, and bananas, with others destined wholly for home consumption, as yams, cassava and arracacha. Potatoes are widely cultivated in the temperate and sub-tropical regions, and sweet potatoes in the sub-tropical and tropical.Rice is grown to a very limited extent, though it is a common article of diet and the partially submerged lowlands are naturally it is found growing wild, cacáo is cultivated to a limited extent, and the product is insufficient for home consumption. Cotton is cultivated only on a small scale, although there are large areas suitable for the plant. The staple product is short, but experiments have been initiated in the Santa Marta region to improve it. Sugar cane is another plant admirably adapted to the Colombian lowlands, but it is cultivated to so limited an extent that the sugar produced is barely sufficient for home consumption. Both cultivation and manufacture have been carried on in the old time way, by the rudest of methods, and the principal product is a coarse brown sugar, called panela, universally used by the poorer classes as an article of food and for making a popular beverage. Antiquated refining processes are also used in the manufacture of an inferior white sugar, but the quantity produced is small, and it is unable to compete with beet-sugar from Germany. A considerable part of the sugar-cane produced is likewise devoted to the manufacture of chicha (rum), the consumption of which is common among the Indians and half-breeds of the Andean regions.