Canal del Dique - Dike Canal

Date of Submission: 27/09/2012
Criteria: (i)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delagation of Colombia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Departments of Atlantico, Bolivar and Sucre
Ref.: 5756


N10 15 18.96 W74 54 41.14 (begins at the municipality of Calamar, Bolivar),

N10 18 16.37 W75 31 45.75 (empties into the Bay of Cartagena)

The Canal del Dique - Dike Canal crosses the departments of Bolívar, Atlántico and Sucre. It starts on the Magdalena River, at the municipality of Calamar, and empties into the Bay of Cartagena. On its banks are the municipalities of Arjona, Arroyo Hondo, Calamar, Mahates, Maria la Baja, San Cristobal, San Estanislao, Soplaviento and Turbaná in Bolivar, whilst the Atlantic Department side has the municipalities of Santa Lucia, Suan, Manatí, Repelón and Luruaco. In the department of Sucre, the Canal del Dique crosses the municipality of San Onofre.

Communication between the inner area of the New Kingdom of Granada and the Caribbean has never been easy, since albeit there appeared to be an expeditious road to achieve so, the Magdalena River, the most important waterway in the territory, navigation along this course was changing and unpredictable and dependent on rainfall patterns. The mouth of the river itself was a major obstacle because of the strength with which its waters reached the Caribbean Sea. This is a difficulty that remains until the first half of the nineteenth century, when steam navigation on the River makes its appearance.

The Canal del Dique - Dike Canal arises in the mid-seventeenth century as an alternative to achieve quick connection with the Magdalena River and thus the inner area of the country with the Cartagena Bay and the world. The dike is currently is 115 Km long, and has had its course rectified several times, ranging from 127 Km in length upon its inauguration, to its current length. Three arms derive thence currently: Caño Correa, which branches out in Kilometer 81 and empties into the Caribbean Sea, and Caño Matunilla and Caño Lequerica, branching out at kilometers 100 and 107, respectively, and emptying into Bahía de Barbacoas, South of Cartagena Bay.

Environmental Context

The region that crosses the Canal has fragile ecosystems of mangroves, freshwater swamp, gallery, tropical xerophytic and dry environments next to large areas of pasture for livestock and large areas of cultivation. Emergent aquatic plants are found in swamps; these constitute staple food for the local fauna such as manatees and turtles, and provide food and shelter for migratory birds. The region is also habitat for many fish species exploited commercially. In turn, the swamps connected by the Canal are the footprint of the old mouth of the Magdalena River.


The area in which the Canal del Dique was built has a special value, as archaeological evidence of early human groups settled in this area of ​​the continent has been found thereat. An eitchen midden 80 meters in diameter was excavated in the municipality of Arjona in 1961, wherein sea shells, ceramic and stone artifacts, as well as bones estimated to be 5000 years old were found and served to demonstrate the existence of rudimentary and sedentary agricultural practices for that time. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards, the area was occupied by Charangas Indians. Meantime, Carib Indians inhabited the Pasacaballos area, near the island of Baru.

Up until the time of construction of the Canal, transport of goods between the Magdalena River and Cartagena de Indias, the most important seaport of the New Kingdom of Granada, was carried out through a mule trail connecting a series of swamps located between the river and the port, which was all the more expensive.

Attempts to construct an expeditious way for transit between the river and the port of Cartagena date from as far back as 1571, when the governor granted a privilege for the construction of a canal that would connect the streams that feed the river, which was completed in 1582 but quickly fell into disuse due to lack of maintenance.

Midway through the seventeenth century, the governor of the time had the idea of ​​making this road in a waterway, which over time became the only route into the port for over a century. Because of all the advantages offered, including the reduction of travel times and the increase of incomes and economic importance of Cartagena, the project was supported by the Cabildo (Council). The work was initiated in 1650 by Governor Pedro Zapata de Mendoza, and it ordered the participation of all the Indians who were in the neighboring huts. However, there were not enough men and it was necessary to bring men from other parts of the region. Finally, more than 2,000 indigenous people and slaves were used, who would gradually move their huts as the work - completely excavated by hand - progressed. The size of the effort involved the logging of nearly five leagues – worth of trees, and thus the subsequent modification of the ecosystems that the work was crossing, which would have a total duration of six months.

The culmination of this work strengthened the position of Cartagena as the main seaport of the country, thereby achieving ease in commercial traffic and travelers towards towns. In this first historical moment of the Canal, only small-sized vessels could navigate the waterway such as barges and canoes, spending three to four days in their trip and enjoying the comfort of being away from the difficulties inherent to the winds of the Caribbean Sea, to the mouth of Bocas de Ceniza and up to the coast of Cartagena, a city which regarded the Canal as a route for supply in the event of being besieged by pirates.

The construction of the Canal was the earliest enterprise, as well as the largest, in this area of ​​the continent during the colonial period. This allowed Cartagena to consolidate its primacy as a port in the Caribbean; it was the only means of communication with the inner area of the territory for a century and has sustained its validity in a relatively sustained manner. This waterway is currently in use.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Canal del Dique was one of the first and most prominent engineering works undertaken in the Americas, and it allowed the communication of Cartagena with the Magdalena River, the main waterway of New Granada, by means of a set of artificial canals. Its appearance brought forward faster communication with the inner cities, it strengthened the position of Cartagena as the most important port in this territory on the Caribbean Sea and became a large swamp ecosystem. Historically, there have been numerous management and rehabilitation proposals advanced by the community in the area, who see this artificial waterway as the source of their livelihood.

The strategic position and the environmental supply that currently exists in the Canal can make it the driver of regional development. Everything depends on developing sustainable agricultural practices, defining categories of use and monitoring activities. Mangrove areas which are kept in the mouth area of the Canal del Dique are strategic ecosystems, as many species of fish and marine invertebrates inhabit them during their larval stage and go there to spawn before returning to sea, thus facilitating the existence of sufficient population to be commercially exploited and also ensuring the survival of the species.

Criterion (i): Because of its size and constructive development, this infrastructure project represented a huge technical challenge, considered one of the first of its kind to be developed in the New World, and it was a work of advanced engineering which took advantage of the local conditions for the benefit of the construction of the Canal.

Criterion (iv): The appearance of the Canal del Dique transformed the surrounding area in a dramatic manner, connecting a series of lagoons between the Magdalena River and the Caribbean Sea, which favored the development of new settlements and ecosystems which are of great importance in its area today.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Whilst the Canal del Dique has undergone rectification activities along its course in some places, and has been dredged numerous times so as to maintain the navigability and allow transit of larger vessels, it still maintains the activity for which was designed and is the main channel of communication and source of economic sustenance for the inhabitants of the region. Historically, and due to its strategic location, maintaining appropriate conditions for use of the Canal have been important not locally but also nationally.

Nationally, the Autonomous Regional Corporation of the Canal del Dique, CARDIQUE, is the entity in charge of ensuring the conservation and sustainability of the ecosystems related to the Canal and its neighboring areas; for this reason, protection of the natural resources throughout this area is ensured.

Comparison with other similar properties

Rideau Canal (Canada)

Included in the World Heritage List under criteria number i and iv. It was built in the early nineteenth century and has a length of 220 miles. It was built for military and strategic purposes in a historical moment in which both the U.S. and Britain were battling for the control of the region. It was designed specifically for the transit of steam navigation and fortifications can be seen throughout its course, which are still preserved. The Rideau Canal continues to run along its original path.

 Canal du Midi (France)

Included in the World Heritage List under criteria number i, ii, iv and vi. It consists of a 360 – km network of canals, built during the second half of the seventeenth century, which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean thanks to 328 engineering works among which are bridges, locks, tunnels and aqueducts, inter alia. It is a civil engineering project of great magnitude and the precursor to the Industrial Revolution, with special emphasis on aesthetics

Pontcysyllte Canal Bridge and Canal (UK)

Included on the World Heritage List under criteria number i, ii and iv. It crosses the northern part of the Welsh country along 18 Km. Its construction dates back to the early nineteenth century, overcoming important natural barriers; hence, it is a civil engineering feat, built in one piece without locks. The canal bridge was built in cast and wrought iron, which achieved a combination of functionality, durability and elegance, and the complex is thought to have inspired other engineering works in the world.

The Canal del Dique - Dike Canal stands out as one of the first (if not the first) engineering works of great magnitude built in the New World, fully dug by hand using basic tools and so many Indians and slaves throughout the region, in an effort which transformed the existing ecosystem up to the time and created new dynamics in the territory. The Canal del Dique - Dike Canal is a colossal work in its historical moment, second only to the Canal du Midi, which is just as old but has further engineering development, formed by a network of canals, while the Canal del Dique is comprised of a single, continuous body of water. Both the Rideau Canal (longer than the Canal del Dique) and the Pontcysyllte Canal were built in the nineteenth century, when the development of engineering allowed other types of development and formal responses.