The European discovery, exploration and colonization of the New World was both a collective and competitive effort among the political powers of the era. Each country was motivated by hope of economic gain through an easy and inexpensive trade route with Asia, but their approaches were quite different. Portugal hoped for, and found, an eastward sea passage that rounded the continent of Africa. Spain hoped to find a faster passage to Asia by sailing westward, and instead discovered an entirely unknown land in what we now know as the Caribbean Sea. England, just coming into play as a major political power, commissioned expeditions westward in search of a more northerly passage across the sea to Asia, landing instead in present day Canada.
Portugal and Spain initially led the exploration efforts in the New World. Driven by the astronomical costs of trading over land with Asia, Portugal led the way for the search for a sea passage to the East in the late 1400's. In 1488, Bartholomeu Diaz attempted to reach Asia by sailing around Africa. Although he ultimately failed, his voyage provided the foundation for his fellow countryman, Vasco de Gama, who succeeded in reaching India in 1497 by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. Portugal's success in finding a route around Africa made the country less than eager to explore the option of an easier passage to the west. In fact, Portugal's only land claim in the New World, Brazil, came about only through accident, when Pedro Cabral was blown off the African course and landed in South America.
Spain became the first country to commission an expedition to search for a westward sea passage to Asia. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella granted Italian sailor Christopher Columbus permission and funds to sail west, hoping to one-up the Portuguese by finding an easier and faster trade route with the East Indies. Of course, Columbus instead landed in the Americas.