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Magdalena River

Magdalena River

Magdalena River, a waterway in Colombia, important for centuries as the principal artery linking the interior of the country with the Caribbean Sea. Navigable for most of its length of 956 miles, the Magdalena flows northward between the Central and Eastern Cordilleras and empties into the Caribbean near Barranquilla. Its major tributary is the Cauca River.

The mouth of the river was first sighted by Rodrigo de Bastidas and Juan de la Cosa in 1501. With the establishment of Santa Marta nearby in 1526, Spaniards became interested in exploring the river in order to move south and possibly reach Peru. In 1536 the ships of the expedition led by Gonzalo Jiménez De Quesada reached a point on the river near modern Barranca-Bermeja before Jiménez abandoned the river to strike inland to the east. From the founding of Bogotá in 1539 until well into the twentieth century, the Magdalena offered the only practical means of transporting cargo and passengers between the interior and the Caribbean coast. Indian canoes and keelboats were initially used to navigate the river; steam-powered vessels began to flourish in the mid-1840s. By the late twentieth century, the construction of roads and railways and the development of aviation had lessened the economic importance of the river, but it remained a vital part of Colombia's transportation system.

The Magdalena River Basin is the most important region of Colombia in terms of development and economy. About 80 percent of the nation's population lives in this basin, and historically, its waters have produced more than 60 percent of fish consumed in the country. However, from a production high of nearly 80,000 tons per year in the 1970s, in 2006 the basin's fisheries produced only one-tenth of that amount. This fall in production was due to overfishing by landless, displaced peasants trying to survive as fishermen.

In early 2007 oil drilling and extraction activities in the upstream areas of the basin were altering wildlife habitats by consuming large quantities of water and releasing pollutants. In addition, there have been frequent spills and leakages from oil pipelines.

See alsoColombia, Pacific Coast; Fishing Industry.


Robert Louis Gilmore and John P. Harrison, "Juan Bernardo Elbers and the Introduction of Steam Navigation on the Magdalena River," in Hispanic American Historical Review 28 (1948): 335-359.

Additional Bibliography

Galvis, Germán, and José Iván Mojica. "The Magdalena River Freshwater Fishes and Fisheries." Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management 10, no. 2 (April 2007): 127-139.

Peñuela Ramos, Aristides. Los caminos al Río Magdalena: La frontera del Carare y el Opón, 1760–1860. Santa fé de Bogotá: Insituto Colombiano de Cultura Hispánica, 2000.

Posada-Carbo, Eduardo. The Colombian Caribbean: A Regional History, 1870–1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Rodríguez Cuenca, José Vicente, and Arturo Cifuentes Toro. Los Panches: Valientes guerreros del valle alto del río Magdalena. Bogotá: Secretaría de Cultura, 2003.

                                    Helen Delpar

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