Magdalena River Cruise – A Voyage Through Colombia’s Natural and Cultural Wonders

Travel on a unique Amawaterways river cruise on the Magdalena River through the heart of Colombia. The Magdalena River (Río Magdalena) is the principal river of Colombia, like the Mississippi River is to the United States.

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Spanning almost 1000 miles through Colombia, the Magdalena starts in the southern part of country, in the Andes, and flows northwards to its mouth at the Caribbean Sea. This river basin covers approximately 24% of the country’s area and is home to around 80% of its population, playing a vital role in the country’s economy and ecology. For centuries, Colombia’s Magdalena River has been a key transportation corridor, just like the Mississippi River in the United States, or the Nile in Egypt. It is rich in wildlife, fish, and birds.

Birds and wildlife along the Magdalena River

If you are a bird watcher you might see any of these birds of Colombia along the river’s shore:

  • Herons
  • Egrets
  • Kingfishers
  • Pink flamingoes
  • Parrots
  • Macaws
  • Toucans
  • Cianeguo hummingbird
  • Chauna chavaria (Northern screamer)

If you love to photograph wildlife you might spot these animals and more:

  • Antillean manatee (which is an endangered species)
  • Amazon river dolphin
  • Spectacled caiman and the Magdalena River caiman
  • Capybara
  • Howler monkey
  • Giant anteater

The Magdalena River is a biodiversity hotspot, hosting a myriad of fish species, including the bocachico, a catfish species that is an essential part of the local diet. You might also spot the endangered Magdalena River Turtle.

Pre-cruise – what to see in Cartagena, Colombia

Let’s look at where you will go with AmaWaterways on this Magdalena river cruise. If you start in Cartagena you can spend a day or two extra to explore its history and vibrant coffee and food scene.

  • The historical walled city center (Ciudad Amurallada), is an UNESCO World Heritage site. The beautifully preserved colonial architecture, bustling plazas, and vibrant street life offer a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past and some very interesting shopping and dining.
  • The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Cartagena’s fortress on a hill that gives you amazing views of the city and harbor. Built by the Spanish during the colonial era, the tunnels and underground passages in the fortress are open for exploration.
  • The Palace of Inquisition, a museum housed in an elegant colonial building offers insight into the Spanish Inquisition’s grim history in South America, complete with historic documents and torture instruments.
  • The Rosario Islands are just a short boat ride from Cartagena and easily visited in a day excursion. The Rosarios are part of a national park known for their coral reefs, clear waters, and diverse marine life. They are ideal for snorkeling, diving, and enjoying the sun.
  • Getsemani neighborhood, where we had a lesson in roasting some of Colombia’s fine coffee. Once a poor neighborhood, Getsemani has transformed into a vibrant area full of street art, charming cafes, and live music venues.
  • Bocagrande, Cartagena’s modern neighborhood, known for its high-rise buildings, upscale shops, and restaurants. It’s often compared to Miami for its vibe and architectural style.
  • Mud Volcano (El Totumo) near Cartagena, where you can take a mud bath in a small volcano. The mineral-rich mud is believed to have therapeutic properties.

Here’s the day-by-day river cruise itinerary (from Cartagena to Barranquilla)

Your cruise on the Magdalena will give you access to many sights as you travel along the river from Barranquilla to Cartagena (or reverse) including a visit to the UNESCO world heritage site of Mompox (Santa Cruz de Mompox). Mompox is known for its historic significance and well-preserved colonial architecture. It played a crucial role during the Spanish colonization as it was inaccessible by land, making it a safe place to store treasures and gold. To this day it is known for very fine gold filagree jewelry. (If you’re a shopper, you’ll enjoy browsing here.)

AmaWaterways has two custom-built luxury river cruise ships set up for sightseeing during your week of exploration. Here’s the day-by-day for you.

Day 1. CARTAGENA. After settling into your stateroom, enjoy a tour through the breathtaking Getsemaní neighborhood. With the vibrant colors of the homes and street art as well as the mouthwatering local delicacies that can be found throughout the area, this historic neighborhood will delight all your senses. Upon returning to your ship, embark on your journey along the magical Magdalena River.

Day 2. GAMBOTE ,­ PALENQUE, and­ CALAMAR. In the morning, experience the town of Palenque, the first “free town” in the Americas. Founded by those who fled a life of slavery during colonial times, the spirit and appearance of this town has been preserved through time. In 1713, the Spanish crown issued a Royal Decree that officially freed the people of Palenque from slavery. Immerse yourself in the town’s deeply rooted culture and traditions, which are so distinct that UNESCO declared Palenque to be a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. An important piece of their heritage is the music and rhythmic style that was developed in this city, which you will enjoy during a special performance by local musicians.

Later in the day, visit Calamar. Located at the entrance of the Canal del Dique, this town was first settled in 1840. See historic sites such as the Iglesia de la Inmaculada Conception as you tour this beautiful destination by paola (a bicycle taxi for two).

Day 3. SANTA BARBARA DE PINTO ­and MOMPOX. Spend your morning in Santa Barbara de Pinto, located on the banks of the Mompox arm of the Magdalena River. Enjoy a walking tour through this traditional town, where you may see local landmarks such as the Santa Barbara Church and enjoy intricate hand­made crafts created in the town. In the afternoon, arrive at the island town of Mompox, where you will be welcomed with open arms and lively music during an exclusive jazz performance played by local musicians.

Day 4. MOMPOX. A town frozen in time, Mompox embodies the appearance of what many villages looked like during colonial times. Founded in 1540, this remote village became an important Spanish trading post. Some Spaniards found Mompox to be a haven for keeping gold and other treasure protected from the pirates that pillaged coastal cities like Cartagena, and with this precious metal and the work of skilled artisans from Spain came beautifully crafted artifacts. Since then, the town has become famous for its incredible filigree jewelry, which you can learn more about during your tour of this town in the afternoon.

While visiting the largest inland island in Latin America, journey through the incredible ecological Ciénaga Pijiño region, exploring the massive lake that is home to a variety of flora and fauna native to the region. In the afternoon, take a stroll through this storied town on a guided walking tour. With stunning colonial churches, breathtaking nature surrounding the town, and delicious local delights such as capa cheese and butifarra, Mompox is sure to be a highlight of your journey along the magnificent Magdalena River.

Day 5. MOMPOX and­ EL BANCO. Bid farewell to Mompox before embarking on a scenic cruise down one of the most breathtaking stretches of the Magdalena River – a picturesque part of the La Mojana region – and reaching the town of El Banco, nestled at the intersection of the Magdalena and César rivers.

Founded in a strategic location for both the native people and the Spaniards, the town was repeatedly destroyed back in time, and then rebuilt atop its ashes. In 1749, a freed black slave named José Domingo Ortiz led a group of settlers to this special location, carrying with him a statue of the Virgin Mary, staking this place as their new home. Because of this connection, the Virgin of Candelaria — a special invocation of the Virgin Mary — is specially venerated in this region. You’ll experience a guided walking tour of this incredible destination and learn more about its history as the birthplace of cumbia. Cumbia is an iconic genre of music and dance that has now been popularized around the world. What began as a courtship dance practiced by African slaves later incorporated American steps and European and African instruments has become a worldwide sensation, which is especially popular in the Andean region of Colombia. In the evening, enjoy an exclusive dinner in town and witness a lively cumbia performance by locals.

Day 6. MAGANGUE. Witness the sights, hear the bird calls, and watch the wildlife around you as spend the day docked near Magangue. Immerse yourself in the presence of Colombian nature surrounding this city on a birdwatching tour, giving you a unique opportunity to see birds only found in this specific part of the country. You can also take a hiking tour through the picturesque cienága, teeming with Colombian wildlife.

Day 7. NUEVA VENECIA ­ and BARRANQUILLA. In the morning, visit the Floating Village of Nueva Venecia. A charming town filled with inviting locals, Nueva Venecia, or “New Venice,” can only be navigated by boat. With its beautiful colonial houses, vivid architecture and local sanctuary protecting the native flora and fauna, this town highlights the beauty and warmth of Colombia. While here, explore this village and learn more about the lives of its people during a guided tour. Enjoy the traditional crafts and art that is on display, learn about the techniques the fishermen of Nueva Venecia use, and taste the local delicacies as you embrace this village and its unique culture.

Later in the day, venture to the beautiful seaside city of Barranquilla, a vibrant destination home to notable musicians, writers and artists. Immerse yourself in the warmth and culture of the city’s atmosphere as you venture through this magnificent location, where you may visit famous landmarks such as the bocas de cenizas, the point at which the magical Magdalena River meets the breathtaking Caribbean Sea, and the “Carnaval” Museum, which showcases the unique history of this incredible festival. In the evening, enjoy an exclusive “Carnaval” celebration just for AmaWaterways guests as we bring the full traditional experience to our guests all ­year round. (Barranquilla’s Carnaval is second in size only to Brazil’s festival.)

Day 8. BARRANQUILLA. Bid your ship and crew farewell as you disembark and prepare for your flight home, or transfer to a hotel for an extra day in Barranquilla.

What to see in Barranquilla post-cruise

Barranquilla, the largest city in the Colombian Caribbean region, is known for its rich culture, lively festivals, and historical significance. I was an exchange student in Barranquilla when I was in high school, and believe me there was always something to do or shop for. You can check out the emerald jewelry offered if you love jewelry shopping. Colombia is the source of about 90% of the world’s emeralds.

  1. Carnaval de Barranquilla: This is one of the biggest carnivals in the world, second only to Rio de Janeiro in terms of size and grandeur. The city comes alive with parades, costumes, music, and dancing. It’s a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself in the vibrant culture of Barranquilla.
  2. Museo del Caribe: This interactive museum is a great place to learn about the Caribbean region’s history, culture, and biodiversity. It’s also home to the Gabriel García Márquez room, dedicated to the life and work of the Nobel laureate who spent his early years in Barranquilla.
  3. Romelio Martinez Stadium: This is a historic sports stadium in the city, where you can catch a local soccer match and experience the passionate sporting culture of Colombia.
  4. Zoo of Barranquilla: This is the most important zoo in the Colombian Caribbean, home to a wide variety of native and foreign species. It’s a great place for families and nature lovers.
  5. El Prado neighborhood: This historic neighborhood has beautiful architecture and well-preserved buildings that date back to the early 20th century, reflecting the prosperity of the city during the industrialization era.
  6. Bocas de Cenizas and Magdalena River: The mouth of the Magdalena River, where it meets the Caribbean Sea, is a sight to behold. You can take a tourist train or a boat to reach this point, both offering scenic views.
  7. La Troja: This is a famous salsa bar known for its lively atmosphere and traditional music. A perfect place to experience Barranquilla’s nightlife.
  8. Local Cuisine: Barranquilla’s cuisine reflects its coastal location and diverse cultural influences. Be sure to try local specialties such as “Arroz de lisa” (Mullet rice), “Butifarras Soledeñas” (sausages from Soledad), and “Arepa de huevo” (fried cornmeal dough filled with an egg).

Your home for your AmaWaterways river cruise

My hat is off to AmaWaterways for building two beautiful purpose-build river cruise ships for exploring the Magdalena River.

The AmaMagdalena is 60-passenger river cruise ship offering the luxury of space and sweeping views as you cruise Colombia’s Magdalena River. This ship features a rejuvenating heated pool on the Sun Deck, a spacious fitness room, a Main Restaurant serving exquisite, regionally inspired Latin American cuisine and Western favorites, as well as an intimate al fresco specialty dining experience. Plus, you will rest your eyes each night in your amenity-filled twin-balcony stateroom, comprised of both a French balcony and an outside balcony.

The second ship on the Magdalena River is the AmaMelodia. She is a 64-passenger ship designed to maximize your views along this special waterway. Take in the views from the twin balconies (French balcony and outside balcony) within your spacious stateroom, where accommodations range from 237 sq. ft. to 318 sq. ft. in our luxury suites. Taste exquisite, locally inspired Latin American cuisine and Western favorites within the Main Restaurant, enjoy an intimate al fresco specialty dining experience and tap your foot along to live music and more each evening within the Main Lounge. For the ultimate in relaxation, soothe your muscles in the sun-deck heated pool, treat yourself to a massage or indulge in a manicure or pedicure in the nail salon.

When to go

Based on my own experiences and on consulting sites like, I recommend doing this trip in April. While temperatures remain much the same throughout the year in most of Colombia you’ll want to avoid the rainy season, which typically begins in May. I recommend contacting me to talk about the April 13, 2024 river cruise. If you are looking to cruise the Magdalena in 2025 your sailing date would be April 12, 2025.

To look at the pricing and see more details about this adventure in Colombia please go to this link. You can also contact me at to set up a time to talk about this unique river cruise into the heart of Colombia.

I’d love to share with you my insider tips and trips, which you can receive by leaving your name and email here. You won’t get spammed – I share usually about 3 times in a month.

About Sue Painter

I’m a world traveler who plans and books river cruises, private guided tours, small ship and yacht sailings anywhere in the world. It’s my passion to help you have travel experiences that are hassle-free and unforgettable. I believe that your travel agent should be a traveler, not someone in a cubicle who has never been outside the United States. To that end, I’ve personally been to all 7 continents and over 70 countries. If you’re ready to explore I’m ready to help you get going.

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