The delta of the Magdalena River
Map of the Magdalena River watershed
EtymologyBiblical figure Mary Magdalene
Physical characteristics
SourceLa Magdalena lagoon
 • locationColombian Massif, Colombia
 • coordinates1°56′3″N 76°36′29″W / 1.93417°N 76.60806°W / 1.93417; -76.60806
 • elevation3,685 m (12,090 ft)
MouthCaribbean Sea
 • location
Barranquilla, Colombia
 • coordinates
11°7′0″N 74°51′0″W / 11.11667°N 74.85000°W / 11.11667; -74.85000
 • elevation
0 m (0 ft)
Length1,528 km (949 mi)[1]
Basin size257,438 km2 (99,397 sq mi) to 271,807 km2 (104,945 sq mi)[2]
 • locationCalamar, Bolívar[3]
 • average(Period: 1975–1995)7,200 m3/s (250,000 cu ft/s)[3] (Period: 1991–2020)8,058 m3/s (284,600 cu ft/s)[2]
 • minimum2,000 m3/s (71,000 cu ft/s)
 • maximum12,000 m3/s (420,000 cu ft/s)
Basin features
 • leftPáez, Saldaña, La Miel, Nare, Cauca, San Jorge
 • rightCabrera, Bogotá, Negro, Carare, Sogamoso, Cesar
Official nameSistema Delta Estuarino del Río Magdalena, Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta
Designated18 June 1998
Reference no.951[4]

The Magdalena River (Spanish: Río Magdalena, Spanish pronunciation: [ˈri.o maɣðaˈlena]; less commonly Rio Grande de la Magdalena)[5] is the main river of Colombia, flowing northward about 1,528 kilometres (949 mi) through the western half of the country. It takes its name from the biblical figure Mary Magdalene. It is navigable through much of its lower reaches, in spite of the shifting sand bars at the mouth of its delta, as far as Honda, at the downstream base of its rapids. It flows through the Magdalena River Valley.

Its drainage basin covers a surface of 273,000 square kilometres (105,000 sq mi), which is 24% of the country's area and where 66% of its population lives.


Magdalena River in CundinamarcaTolima

The Magdalena River is the largest river system of the northern Andes, with a length of 1,612 km.[6] Its headwaters are in the south of Colombia, where the Andean subranges Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental separate, in Huila Department. The river runs east then north in a great valley between the two cordilleras. It reaches the coastal plain at about nine degrees north, then runs west for about 100 km (62 mi), then north again, reaching the Caribbean Sea at the city of Barranquilla in the zone known as Bocas de Ceniza.

Flora and fauna

See also: Biodiversity of Colombia


See also: List of fishes in the Magdalena river

The river near Villavieja, Huila

The Magdalena River basin, which includes the Cauca River and other tributaries, are very rich in fish. As of 2008, 213 fish species were known from the basin.[7] Since then several new species have been described from the basin such as five Hemibrycon in 2013,[8] two Ancistrus in 2013[9] and a Farlowella in 2014.[10] Among the more famous species in the basin are Kronoheros umbriferus, Ctenolucius hujeta, Geophagus steindachneri, Ichthyoelephas longirostris, Panaque cochliodon, Pimelodus blochii, Potamotrygon magdalenae, Prochilodus magdalenae, Pseudoplatystoma magdaleniatum and Salminus affinis. About 55% of the fish species in the basin are endemic, including four endemic genera: The catfish Centrochir and Eremophilus, and the characids Carlastyanax (often included in Astyanax) and Genycharax.[11] In general, the fish fauna shows connections with surrounding basins, notably Atrato and Maracaibo, but to a lesser extent also AmazonOrinoco.[11]

The most productive fishing areas in Colombia are in the basin,[12] but there has been a drastic decrease in the annual harvest with a fall of about 90% between 1975 and 2008.[13] The primary threats are pollution (such as human waste, mining, farming and deforestation causing siltation) and habitat loss (such a dams). Additional dams are being constructed, including El Quimbo (opened in 2015) and Ituango (expected operational in 2018), which has caused some controversy.[14][15] As a result of the pollution, heavy metals have also been detected in some commercially important fish in the river.[16] As of 2002, 19 fish species in the river basin were recognized as threatened.[12]

Other animals

The Magdalena River and its valley crosses a wide variety of ecosystems, like páramo in its headwaters, dry forest in the upper part of its valley, rainforest in its middle course, and swamps and wetlands in its lower course.[17] The spectacled caiman, green iguana and brown pelican are abundant in these ecosystems but other animal species like the West Indian manatee, Magdalena tinamou, Todd's parakeet, American crocodile, Colombian slider, Magdalena River turtle, Dahl's toad-headed turtle and red-footed tortoise are in danger of extinction.[18]

In addition, there is a possible risk posed by invasive hippopotamus. Originally imported by Pablo Escobar, these hippopotami became feral following his demise, and have since expanded beyond their original home on Hacienda Napoles into nearby regions of the Magdalena River.[19][20]


Champán on the Magdalena, c. 1860, aquatint by Ramón Torres Méndez

Due to its geographical position in the north of South America, the Magdalena River was since precolumbian times a route towards the interior of present-day Colombia and Ecuador. Several Carib-speaking peoples such as the Panche and the Yariguí ascended through the western bank of the river, while its eastern portion was inhabited by the Muisca civilization, which called the river Yuma.

Likewise, the Spanish conquistadores who arrived to today's Colombia early in the 16th century used the river to push to the wild and mountainous inland after Rodrigo de Bastidas discovered and named the river on April 1, 1501. During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the river was the only transport link communicating Bogotá with the Caribbean Sea port Cartagena de Indias and thus with Europe.

The Magdalena Campaign of Pierre Labatut and Simón Bolívar took place along the Magdalena River.

In 1825, the Congress of Colombia awarded a concession to establish steam navigation in the Magdalena River to Juan Bernardo Elbers,[21] but his company closed shortly after. By 1845, steamboats regularly travelled on the river[22] until 1961, when the last steamers ceased operation.[21]

In mass media

Much of the film Love in the Time of Cholera takes place in the historic, walled city of Cartagena in Colombia. Some screenshots showed the Magdalena River and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range.

The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel García Márquez, is a fictionalized account of the final voyage of Simón Bolívar down the Magdalena River, where he revisits many cities and villages along the river.

In Magdalena: River of Dreams (Knopf, 2020), Canadian writer, anthropologist, and explorer Wade Davis travels the length of the river by boat, on foot, by car, and on horseback combining descriptions of nature with episodes from Colombian history.[23]


  1. ^ "Sistema de informacion Ambiental de Colombia – SIAC" (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2012-03-15. Retrieved 2011-07-13.
  2. ^ a b ESTUDIO NACIONAL DEL AGUA 2022 (PDF). 2023. ISBN 978-958-5489-12-7.
  3. ^ a b "Chapter 14" (PDF). The Pacific and Caribbean Rivers of Colombia: Water Discharge, Sediment Transport and Dissolved Loads. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-25. Retrieved 2011-07-13.
  4. ^ "Sistema Delta Estuarino del Río Magdalena, Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta". Ramsar Sites Information Service. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  5. ^ "Polinizaciones: Las Abejas y las Garzas / The Bees and Storks". 7 February 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-06.
  6. ^ Restrepo, Juan D.; Escobar, Rogger; Tosic, Marko (February 2018). "Fluvial fluxes from the Magdalena River into Cartagena Bay, Caribbean Colombia: Trends, future scenarios, and connections with upstream human impacts". Geomorphology. 302: 92–105. doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2016.11.007. hdl:10784/26918.
  7. ^ Maldonado-Ocampo; Vari; and Usma (2008). Checklist of the Freshwater Fishes of Colombia. Biota Colombiana 9: 143–237.
  8. ^ Román-Valencia; Ruiz; Taphorn; Mancera-Rodriguez; and García-Alzate (2013). Three new species of Hemibrycon (Characiformes: Characidae) from the Magdalena River Basin, Colombia. Rev Biol Trop. 61(3): 1365–1387.
  9. ^ Taphorn; Armbruster; Villa-Navarro; and Ray (2013). Trans-Andean Ancistrus (Siluriformes: Loricariidae). Zootaxa 3641(4): 343–370.
  10. ^ Ballen; and Mojica (2014). A new trans-Andean Stick Catfish of the genus Farlowella Eigenmann & Eigenmann, 1889 (Siluriformes: Loricariidae) with the first record of the genus for the río Magdalena Basin in Colombia. Zootaxa 3765(2): 134–142.
  11. ^ a b Freshwater Ecoregions of the World: Magdalena – Sinu. Archived 2017-01-16 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  12. ^ a b Granado-Lorencio; Serna; Carvajal; Jiménez-Segura; Gulfo; and Alvarez (2012). Regionally nested patterns of fish assemblages in floodplain lakes of the Magdalena river (Colombia). Ecol Evol. 2(6): 1296–1303.
  13. ^ Lasso; Agudelo-Córdoba: Jiménez-Segura; Ramírez-Gil; Morales-Betancourt; Ajiaco-Martínez; Gutiérrez; Usma-Oviedo; Muñoz-Torres; and Sanabria-Ochoa (2011). I. Catálogo de los recursos pesqueros continentales de Colombia. Serie Editorial Recursos Hidrobiológicos y Pesqueros Continentales de Colombia. Bogotá (Colombia): Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt (IAvH).
  14. ^ International Rivers (18 January 2012). Colombia's El Quimbo in Limbo. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  15. ^ International Rivers (18 March 2013). Police Detain Ituango Dam Affected. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  16. ^ Noreña; Arenas; Murillo; Guío; and Méndez (2012). Heavy metals (Cd, Pb and Ni) in fish species commercially important from Magdalena river, Tolima tract, Colombia. Tumbaga 2(7): 61–76.
  17. ^ "Magdalena Valley dry forests". Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  18. ^ "CUIDEMOS NUESTRO RÍO MAGDALENA" (PDF) (in Spanish). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-27. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  19. ^ Kremer, W. (26 June 2014). "Pablo Escobar's hippos: A growing problem". BBC. Retrieved 31 July 2017.
  20. ^ Howard, B.C. (10 May 2016). "Pablo Escobar's Escaped Hippos Are Thriving in Colombia". National Geographic. Archived from the original on May 11, 2016. Retrieved 26 February 2018.
  21. ^ a b "Navegación a Vapor en Colombia |" (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 2012-03-27. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  22. ^ Alfred Hettner. "En el río Magdalena". Viajes por los Andes colombianos: (1882–1884) (in Spanish). Retrieved 2011-07-15.
  23. ^ "Book review: Magdalena: River of Dreams". The Economist. No. 22-28 August 2020. The Economist Newspaper Limited.