Top 4: Latin American Ports in 2024

Here are four major Latin American ports which are critical to the foreign trade of their respective nations in 2024.

It is no coincidence that the mightiest of empires throughout history have been seafaring nations with useful deepwater ports.

In more modern times, there has been a well-documented link between access to seaports and economic prosperity.

With Latin America doing its best to claim its place in the global economy, South and Central America are now relying on maritime transportation more than ever.

From Mexico all the way south to Chile, Latin American economies are increasingly opening up to doing business with the rest of the world.

And quite often, only maritime routes can connect Latin America to target markets in North America, Asia Pacific, and Western Europe.

It is maritime routes that carry Brazilian and Argentine maize across the Pacific Ocean to China—the world’s largest importer of the product. It is tanker ships that carry Mexican crude oil north to the US.

And it is thanks to maritime transportation that fancy Colombian coffee beans and Ecuadorian exotic fruit can be found across the Atlantic in European markets.

Ports, as such, have become increasingly important for many Latin American economies. Here is a list of four Latin American ports which had a busy year in 2023 handling cargo and dry bulk, and which are expected to handle even more in 2024.

Port of Colón (Panama)
Shutterstock / Don Fink

The largest port in Panama is also possibly one of the three largest and busiest ports in Latin America. This is hardly surprising as the Panama Canal is the most critical maritime chokepoint in the Western Hemisphere.

Sitting at the Caribbean entrance to the canal, the port has expanded since the establishment of the Colón Free Trade Zone in 1948.

The port and its dry dock are fully compliant with the New Panamax standard. Colón also offers a direct ship-to-train link to the famous Panama Canal Railway (PCR).

By the end of 2023, the port will have handled upward of 4.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).

Port of Manzanillo (Mexico)
Ievgenii Bakhvalov

When the port of Manzanillo was established over half a century ago on the west coast of Mexico, little did anyone suspect that Manzanillo would one day become of the country’s largest seaport capable of handling over a million TEUs a year.

The pacific port handles both bulk cargo and industrial containers—largely consumer goods imported from Asia.

A large part of Mexico’s USD77.5 billion in imports from China in 2022 arrived in the country via Manzanillo.

The port is also critical to exports from Mexico to west coast US ports such as the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Oakland in California, thus playing an important role in the New North American trade agreement, better known as the USMCA.

The third phase of the terminal’s expansion plan began last year.

“The expansion of the terminal in the port of Manzanillo will upgrade its capacity to 2m TEU up from the present 1.2m,” according to Seatrade Maritime News.

Port of Cartagena (Colombia)
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The Caribbean port of Cartagena—or Cartagena de Indias to use its official name—is of crucial importance to the Colombian economy. This is partly because Cartagena is effectively a part of the greater Panama Canal economic ecosystem, catching some of the westbound sea traffic.

Cartagena’s container terminal can handle up to half a million TEUs per year as well as 1.5 million metric tons of bulk cargo, including large outbound quantities of Colombia’s world-famous coffee beans.

But more importantly, Cartagena is of such a strategic importance because it serves as hub for the shipment of Colombia’s hydrocarbon exports, hence the multitude of oil jetties at the port of Cartagena.

It is estimated that some 200,000 barrels per day of hydrocarbon products, including crude oil, will be exported from Cartagena in 2024, up from 150,000 in 2022.

With the expansion of the Ecopetrol refinery in Cartagena, the port’s importance is likely to increase further.

Port of Guayaquil (Ecuador)
Shutterstock / Adodi Photography

Situated deep inside the Guayas river delta in Ecuador, the port of Guayaquil enjoys access to the Pacific Ocean via the Guayas river as well as a 45-kilometer-long natural canal which runs parallel to the river.

The port is a gateway for the export of two of Ecuador’s quintessential products: bananas and petroleum. As such the port’s handling of liquid and dry bulk is much more crucial than its container throughput—which is by the way not small (approximately 600,000 TEUs per year).

By the end of 2023, the port will likely have processed an impressive 7.5 million metric tons of dry bulk cargo, with the principal export items including not only bananas, but also other tropical fruits, coffee, and cocoa.

A USD16 million modernization program in 2019 increased the total number of docks by 40%, and a follow-up renovation program is expected to take place in 2024-2025.