Colombia has significant natural resources and its diverse culture reflects the indigenous Indian, Spanish and African origins of its people.
But it has also been ravaged by a decades-long violent conflict involving outlawed armed groups, drug cartels and gross violations of human rights, although since 2002, the country has made some progress towards improving security.
The fourth largest country in South America and one of the continent's most populous nations, Colombia has substantial oil reserves and is a major producer of gold, silver, emeralds, platinum and coal.
It also has a highly stratified society where the traditionally rich families of Spanish descent have benefited from this wealth to a far greater degree than the majority, mixed-race population. With few avenues for social mobility, this provided a natural constituency for left-wing insurgents.
However, the lucrative returns from drugs and kidnapping came to dominate the rebels' agenda, and largely replaced ideological motivations. The conflict has dragged on for decades, and at one point the government effectively lost control of large swathes of Colombian territory to the rebels, especially in the north and east.
However, since 2002 the government has managed a string of spectacular successes against the left-wing rebels, regaining control of much of the rebel-held territory and raising hopes that the conflict may be drawing to a close.
AT A GLANCE
Security: A deadly campaign by left-wing Farc rebels continues; right-wing groups are disarming under a peace initiative; the cocaine trade fuels the conflict
Politics: The popular President Uribe was barred by the constitution from running for a third term. His successor is a close political ally
Economy: Despite strong growth in recent years, millions live in poverty; a free trade deal with the US has been signed
International: Colombia is a big recipient of US aid and is a staunch ally of Washington
The government has been leading efforts to rebrand the country and shake off its image as a trouble spot associated with drugs and kidnapping.
It says major advances have been made in security, demobilisation of illegal armed groups, drug eradication and economic development. It said in early 2012 that 94% or country was safe for travel and that only 6% of its territory was under potential threat from terrorist groups or organised criminal bands.
Some travel writers also say that the ''country has left the mess of 15 years ago behind'' and that it has much more to offer the traveller than turmoil and strife.
Several foreign governments, however, maintain travel warnings. The US State Department says that security has improved significantly in recent years, but that violence by narco-terrorist groups continues to affect some rural areas and large cities. Britain's travel advisory in early 2012 says that there is a high threat from terrorism, with continued, indiscriminate attacks targeting government buildings, public transport, public spaces, and other areas frequented by foreigners.
Critics argue that while weakened, the rebels' backbone has not been broken, and that the underlying causes of the conflict have not been tackled. New illegal armed groups have also arisen, and little progress has been made in combating drug-smuggling.
At the other end of the political spectrum from the left-wing rebels are illegal right-wing paramilitary groups, who are sometimes in the pay of drug cartels and landowners, and have at times been backed by elements in the army and the police.
Many of these groups, which have have targeted human rights workers, peasants suspected of helping left-wing guerrillas, street children and other marginal groups, have demobilised under a government peace initiative, but there are doubts about how genuine the process is.
The US, a key market for Colombian cocaine, has bankrolled the fight against the trade to the tune of billions of dollars. But critics say "Plan Colombia" has had little impact on the supply and price of drugs.
Juan Manuel Santos, who won an easy victory in the second round of presidential elections in June 2010, is no stranger to high office.
Mr Santos maintains his predecessor's tough stance against Farc
He comes from a powerful Colombian family. His great-uncle, Eduardo Santos, was president from 1938 to 1942 and owned the country's largest newspaper, El Tiempo.
Juan Manuel Santos has himself held a number of ministerial posts, most recently that of defence minister.
He served in this post under President Alvaro Uribe from 2006 until 2009, playing a key role in implementing the president's tough policies against Colombia's main left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).
He oversaw Operation Checkmate, the successful rescue by the military of 15 high-profile hostages, and was also in charge when the Colombian military mounted a controversial air raid into Ecuador that resulted in the death of senior Farc leader Raul Reyes.
The improved security achieved during his term as defence minister earned him considerable credit and helped to pave his way to the presidency.
During his campaign for the presidency, Mr Santos insisted that he would continue the policies of President Uribe, with a strong emphasis on combating the drugs trade and Farc.
Shortly before taking office in August 2010, he rejected a Farc offer of peace talks, saying that the rebels would have to release all their hostages before any talks could take place.
He has also promised to develop the country's infrastructure and to create more jobs, vowing to make Colombians less dependent on the informal economy.
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