Colombia is the only South American country with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Three mighty north-south Andean cordilleras separate the western coastal lowlands from the almost empty eastern jungles, with 54 percent of Colombia's land but only 3 percent of the people. Most Colombians are of mixed ethnicity; about 20 percent claim European descent. Native Indians, about one percent of the population, live in the eastern jungles.

The Andes contribute to the concentration of Colombia's people into separate clusters. Some live in the Caribbean lowlands in cities like Barranquilla and Cartagena; some live in isolated mountain valleys in cities like Cali and Medellin. Bogotá, the capital and largest city, is in a remote mountain basin at 2,500 meters (8,200 feet).

Colombia has had a turbulent history. Civil war (1899-1902) claimed 100,000 lives, and La Violencia (1948-1957) cost 300,000 more. Starting in the 1980s, as the government worked with the U.S. to disrupt the lucrative illicit drug trade, violence came from cocaine traffickers, who targeted judges, newspaper editors, and community officials. The drug cartels continue to be a disruptive force into the 21st century, in spite of efforts to arrest the more powerful leaders.

Farmers raise world-renowned coffee on the Andean slopes. Colombia sells much of the world's emeralds and considerable amounts of gold, silver, and platinum and has the continent's highest coal production—most from the Guajira Peninsula. However, oil development suffers from sabotage by guerrilla groups, and large parts of Colombia are beyond government control.