Barranquilla was founded in 1629 but didn't gain importance until the middle of the 19th century. Despite its potential as a port on the country's main fluvial artery, navigation problems at the mouth of the Río Magdalena hindered development. Most of the merchandise moving up and down the Magdalena passed through Cartagena, using the Canal del Dique, which joins the river about 100km upstream from its mouth.
Only at the end of the 19th century did the town really begin to grow. The opening of Puerto Colombia – Barranquilla's port, built on the coastline 15km west of the town – boosted the development of the city, and by the early 20th century Barranquilla was one of the major ports from which local goods, primarily coffee, were shipped overseas.
Prosperity attracted both Colombians from other regions and foreigners, mainly from the US, Germany, Italy and the Middle East. This, in turn, gave the city an injection of foreign capital and accelerated its growth. It also brought about the city's cosmopolitan and multiethnic character, which is still clearly visible today.