LivingTravelA guide to the islands in the Caribbean

A guide to the islands in the Caribbean

The Caribbean archipelago encompasses more than 7,000 individual islands in a region of approximately 1 million square miles. There are 13 sovereign island nations and 12 dependent territories, with close political ties throughout the region with Europe and the United States. Another 10 Latin American countries include the coasts of the Caribbean. The entire region, often referred to as the Antilles, benefits from a tropical climate with year-round beach holiday temperatures, making it one of the most sought-after destinations in the world.

Geography of the Caribbean Islands

The Caribbean contains three main groups of islands: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Lucaya Archipelago, which encompasses the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, both technically in the Atlantic but with close social and political ties to Caribbean. The large islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico belong to the Greater Antilles in the northern part of the Caribbean. The Lesser Antilles encompass the southeastern islands and can be divided into the northern Leeward islands and the southern Windward islands.

The islands along the coasts of Central and South America, although separate, are generally also included in this group.

At 42,803 square miles, Cuba ranks first in size and population, but with so many uninhabited islets, reefs, and cays dotting the map, the title for the smallest changes depending on context. In perspective, a marathoner would need to cross little Saba on the island’s only paved road two and a half times to reach the required mileage. After engineers deemed the volcanic outpost in the Netherlands Antilles too steep and rocky for a road, residents built it by hand.

Languages of the Caribbean islands

English remains the dominant colonial language in the Caribbean and the official language of at least 18 islands or island groups in the region, including the US Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys. Spanish is spoken in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, in addition to the continental Caribbean countries of Mexico and Central and South America. Francophones dominate the French islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Barts and St. Martin, and in Haiti, a former French colony. The islands of the Netherlands Antilles list Dutch, English, and the Papiamentu Creole dialect as official languages, although you are more likely to hear locals speak English or Papiamento.

Other Creole dialects, combining elements of native, African, and immigrant languages with the colonial language, flourish throughout the region.

Culture of the Caribbean islands

The political history may be colonial, but the culture of the Caribbean is a colorful amalgam of traditions from the many ethnic groups found there. Art, music, literature, and culinary achievements reflect the legacy of African slaves forcibly brought to work on sugar plantations, Amerindians who lived on the islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, and European colonizers.

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