Colombia is nicknamed the "gateway to South America" because it sits in the northwestern part of the continent where South America connects with Central and North America. It is the fifth largest country in Latin America and home to the world's second largest population of Spanish-speaking people.
Colombia is a land of extremes. Through its center run the towering, snow-covered volcanoes and mountains of the Andes. Tropical beaches line the north and west. And there are deserts in the north and vast grasslands, called Los Llanos, in the east.
Dense forests fill Colombia's Amazon Basin, which takes up nearly the country's entire southern half. In northwest Colombia, a warm, wet, jungle-filled area called the Chocó reaches across the Panama border.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Colombia's people are as varied as its landscape. Most citizens are descended from three ethnic groups: Indians, African people brought to Colombia to work as slaves, and European settlers. This rich cultural mix makes the country's foods, music, dance, and art diverse and unique.
With its vast rain forests, sprawling savannas, huge mountains, and 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) of coastline on two oceans, Colombia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on Earth. Even though it takes up less than one percent of the world's land area, about 10 percent of all animal species live in Colombia.
Much of Colombia's forest habitats have been undisturbed for many millions of years. This has given wildlife a chance to evolve into many different species. Animals from jaguars to caimans to poison dart frogs all call Colombia's jungles home. The mountains provide habitat for huge Andean condors and rare spectacled bears, South America's only bear species.
Thousands of years ago, Colombia was nearly completely covered in jungle. But people have cleared most of the trees to create farmland, and now only a handful of areas have their original forests. The government has set up several national parks to protect habitats, but damage to the environment continues.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Colombia has a long history of democracy. Like the United States, the country is run by a president, who is elected every four years. Laws are made by a House of Representatives and a Senate.
Colombia's biggest trading partner is the United States, which buys 40 percent of the country's exports. Colombia sends a variety of items overseas, including coffee, bananas, oil, coal, gold, platinum, and emeralds.
One of Colombia's worst exports, though, is illegal drugs. With help from the United States, the Colombian government is carrying out Plan Colombia, a costly and wide-ranging effort to rid the country of the gangs, called cartels, that produce illegal drugs for sale around the world.
Archaeologists think the first people to arrive in Colombia came about 20,000 years ago. Some 8,000 years after that, settlers in the Magdalena Valley in the western part of the country grew into a civilization called the Chibcha. From the Chibcha arose the Muisca, an advanced culture that became the dominant power in Colombia by A.D. 700.
Spanish explorers arrived in Colombia in 1500 but didn't establish a settlement until 1525. These settlers were obsessed with finding gold and other valuables, and by 1538 they had conquered the Muisca and stolen all their gold and jewels. Colombia remained under Spanish rule for nearly 250 years.
By the late 1700s, people in Colombia had grown tired of Spanish rule. In 1811, the city of Cartagena declared independence and Bogotá soon followed. Spanish soldiers tried to reclaim control in 1815, but Colombian forces led by the famed Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish in 1819.
After independence, Colombia became part of a large country called New Granada. This country fell apart by 1835, and Colombia became a separate nation. Fights soon broke out between political groups over who would lead the country. Since then, Colombia has had several civil wars and relatively few times of peace.