What is the Caribbean?
You likely have heard of the Caribbean before. It often comes up when talking about tropical vacation destinations, hurricanes, or Disney pirates. But the Caribbean is much more. It is a region of remarkable biodiversity, with varied ecosystems on both land and sea. Equally diverse are the people, languages, and cultures of this region.
So what is the Caribbean? Where is it located, and what all does it encompass?
The Caribbean is a region that consists of the Caribbean Sea, many islands, and the surrounding coasts. On a map, you will find it southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and the North American mainland, east of Central America, and north of South America. Much of the Caribbean is located on the Caribbean tectonic plate, and the Caribbean islands are usually regarded as a subregion of North America.
There are more than 7,000 different Caribbean islands, islets, reefs and cays, but only about 2% of them are inhabited. Many of the Caribbean islands can be put into two larger groups – the Greater Antilles of the north, and the Lesser Antilles in the southeast. The Greater and Lesser Antilles, together with the Lucayan Archipelago, make up an island region sometimes called the West Indies.
Within the Caribbean, you will find 13 independent island countries (many of which are made up of more than one island). These include:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- The Bahamas
- Dominican Republic
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Trinidad and Tobago
Many other islands within the Caribbean are are overseas dependencies, territories, or departments of other countries. Some major ones include:
- Anguilla (Britain)
- Aruba (Netherlands)
- Bonaire (Netherlands)
- British Virgin Islands (Britain)
- Cayman Islands (Britain)
- Curaçao (Netherlands)
- Guadeloupe (France)
- Martinique (France)
- Montserrat (Britain)
- Puerto Rico (United States)
- Saba (Netherlands)
- Saint Barthélemy (France)
- Saint Martin (France)
- Sint Eustatius (Netherlands)
- Sint Maarten (Netherlands)
- Turks and Caicos Islands (Britain)
- US Virgin Islands (United States)
In addition, when looking at the Caribbean from a broader perspective, the following mainland countries are sometimes also included for their cultural and political ties:
- French Guiana (overseas department)
Geography and Climate
The landscape and climate of the Caribbean can vary greatly from one place to another. Some islands of non-volcanic origin have flat terrain, while others possess rugged mountains. The Caribbean islands contain many diverse ecosystems, from forrest jungles to bushy grasslands.
The climate of the Caribbean ranges from subtropical to tropical, and is influenced greatly by the trade winds from the Atlantic. Hurricane season impacts the Caribbean greatly, bringing strong rains and heavy winds, sometimes with devastating consequences.
The Caribbean is home to thousands of native plants, and hundreds of native animals. Many islands are home to their own species of flora and fauna. The waters of the Caribbean Sea host large, migratory schools of fish, turtles, and coral reef formations.
People and Language
Prior to European contact, the Indigenous population of the Caribbean has been estimated to have been around 750,000, made up of several different Carib and Arawak groups. Disease and slavery brought by European colonizers wiped out much of this population, however, some descendants of these tribes still exist today.
Given the history of conquest, slavery, and trade in the Caribbean, there remain many people of African, European, and Indigenous descent in the region, as well as many who are of mixed ethnicity. Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Haitian Creole, and Papiamento are the primary languages of the Caribbean, but there are many more that are spoken. Christianity is the predominant religion.
Hopefully this gave you a better picture of what the Caribbean is. Now that you have an answer to the “what is the Caribbean?” question, see if you can find the Countries of the Caribbean on a map.