The Colombian Andes consist of three parallel mountain chains: Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental. The Andean Natural Region is Colombia's most populated natural region, containing most of the country's urban centers.
In the south of Colombia, just north of the border with Ecuador, the Andes Mountains divide into three parallel mountain chains (Cordilleras).
From south to north, the three ranges begin at the Huaca Knot, a group of snow-capped volcanoes. Further north is the Pasto mountain knot, an important source of many of Colombia's rivers. This is where the three cordilleras begin.
These ranges, which trend generally north and south, are known as the Occidental (western), Central (middle), and Oriental (eastern).
Deep intermediate depressions often separate these ranges. Other small mountain chains rise on the sides of the main ranges.
The Colombian Andes is considered part of the Tropical Andes, a climate-delineated region of the Andes mountain system.
The Cordillera Occidental, the westernmost range parallel to the coast, is the least populated of the three cordilleras. The average altitude is 2,000 m (6,600 ft), and the highest peak is Cerro Tatamá at 4,100 m (13,500 ft).
The range extends from south to north, eventually receding within three smaller ranges into the Caribbean plain and the Sinú River Valley. The relatively low elevation of the cordillera permits dense vegetation, which on the western slopes is truly tropical.
The Cordillera Occidental is separated from the coastal Baudó Mountains by the Atrato River and the Cordillera Central by the deep rift of the Cauca Valley.
Map depicting the location of the Cordillera Occidental in Colombia
The Cordillera Central exhibits the highest elevations of the three branches of the Colombian Andes. The range is a north and south trending 800 km- (500 mi-) long rock wall dotted with snow-covered volcanoes.
Most of the volcanoes of the zone are in this range. The highest peaks include Nevado del Tolima at 5,215 m (17,105 ft), Nevado del Ruiz at 5,400 m (17,717 ft) and Nevado del Huila at 5,750 m (18,865 ft).
At about a latitude of 6° N, the range widens into a plateau. This is where Medellín is situated, Colombia's second-largest city.
The Cauca River Valley bounds the Cordillera Central in the west and the Magdalena River Valley in the east. Toward its northern end, the cordillera separates into several branches that descend toward the Caribbean coast.
Map depicting the location of the Cordillera Central in Colombia
The Cordillera Oriental, the easternmost range, is the widest of the three branches of the Colombian Andes. It extends south to north, splitting into the Serranía del Perijá and the Cordillera de Mérida in the Venezuelan Andes. The highest peak is Ritacuba Blanco at 5,410 m (17,750 ft) in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy.
Located in this range is the Altiplano Cundiboyacense, a high plateau covering parts of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. The altiplano corresponds to the ancient territory of the Muisca. The Colombian capital of Bogotá is located here.
Map depicting the location of the Cordillera Oriental in Colombia
Andean Natural Region
The Andean Natural Region is Colombia's most populated natural region. Along with its many mountains, it contains most of the country's urban centers. These urban centers were also the location of the most significant pre-Columbian indigenous settlements.
Beyond the Colombian Massif in the southwestern departments of Cauca and Nariño, the Colombian Andes divide into three branches:
The Cordillera Occidental runs adjacent to the Pacific coast and is home to the city of Cali.
The Cordillera Oriental extends northeast towards the Guajira Peninsula and includes the cities of Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Cúcuta.
The Andean Natural Region has a wide range of temperature zones. Therefore, the vegetation of the region varies considerably according to altitude.
Terre Caliente (warm land) primarily consists of river valleys and basins below 1,000 m (3,280 ft) in elevation.
Tierra Templada (temperate land) is generally found at elevations between 1,000 and 2,000 m (3,280 and 6,560 ft).
Tierra Fría (cold land), at elevations between 2,000 to 3,200 m (6,560 to 10,500 ft), includes the most productive land and most of the population.
The alpine conditions of the zona forestada (forested zone) exist at 3,200 m to 3,900 m (10,500 to 12,800 ft), páramos at 3,900 m to 4,600 m (12,800 to 15,100 ft) and tierra helada (frozen land) at 4,600 m (15,100 ft) and above.
Numerous Colombian National Parks are located in the Andean natural region.
Map depicting the location of the Andean Natural Region of Colombia