The extent of the “Caribbean” depends on whether you’re speaking geographically, culturally, or geopolitically. The tropical basin of the Caribbean Sea, which sprawls across better than a million square miles, comes bound to the west and south by the Central and South American mainland; to the east by the North Atlantic; and to the north by the Straits of Florida (which separate Cuba and Florida) and the Gulf of Mexico.
The West Indies, a label often used interchangeably with Caribbean when speaking on regional terms, technically has a broader definition, one stemming from the era of European colonialism in and around the Caribbean Basin. The West Indies include the two island groups of the Caribbean proper, the Greater Antilles and Lesser Antilles, but also the Lucayan Archipelago (made up of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos) and comparatively farflung Bermuda, both in the North Atlantic. They may lie outside the Caribbean Basin, but the Lucayan Archipelago and Bermuda share plenty of historical and cultural elements with the Caribbean nations, and while mostly north of the Tropic of Cancer, their climates are balmy courtesy (at least partly) of the Gulf Stream.
It’s important to note, too, that the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Central America, and South America are intrinsically tied to the islands of the West Indies on ecological, historical, cultural, and economic levels. The Association of Caribbean States includes mainland members from Mexico to Venezuela. Guyana and Suriname—which front the Atlantic, not the Caribbean Sea—also belong to the West Indian cultural and geopolitical sphere, and are both members of the Caribbean Community organization.
Island Groups of the Caribbean Basin
The Greater Antilles encompass the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Hispaniola (including Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Puerto Rico. The smaller isles of the Lesser Antilles form a horseshoe open to the Caribbean: This archipelago runs north-south from the Virgin Islands to Trinidad and Tobago, and then west to the “ABC Islands” of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. The Lesser Antilles include three sub-chains: the Leeward Islands in the north, the Windward Islands in the south, and the Leeward Antilles in the southwest (which include the ABC Islands and a sprinkling of isles off the northern coast of Venezuela).
The Caribbean marks a tectonically active basin, and the volatile geology has created a wide range of landscapes: a spectrum spanning rugged mountains and pancake-flat limestone islets and mangrove cays. The mostly submerged mountain front of the Cayman Ridge underlies the subdued Cayman Islands, but also crops up more dramatically in Cuba’s rooftop, the Sierra Maestra (where Fidel Castro and his guerrilla forces plotted during the Cuban Revolution). Jamaica claims some of the roughest terrain in the West Indies, from the 7,000-plus-foot peaks of the Blue Mountains in the east to the karst outback of Cockpit Country in the west.
The highest country in the Caribbean, meanwhile, lies in the Cordillera Central of the Dominican Republic, which reaches 10,128 feet at the summit of Pico Duarte.
The inner islands of the Lesser Antilles include flashy volcanic peaks, while outer islands such as Barbados and Anguilla are low-relief limestone plateaus.
The Caribbean boasts many other esteemed ecotourism attractions. Dominica, largest of the Windward Islands and one of the basin’s most volcanically active corners, is especially renowned for its geological and ecological wonders. These include the Grand Soufriere, aka the Valley of Desolation, which harbors the steaming Boiling Lake; lush highland rainforests streaming with waterfalls; and a year-round population of sperm whales, which offer some of the finest whale-watching in the world.
Then there’s El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Mountains, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest network; Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica, one of the signal tourist attractions of the entire West Indies; the twin Pitons towering above Soufriere on Saint Lucia’s southern coast; Trinidad’s world-famous Pitch Lake, a natural asphalt seep; and the rainforests and coral reefs of Virgin Islands National Park, to name only a few other highlights.
And then there’s the marine realm. One of the unquestionable natural wonders of the Western Hemisphere is the Caribbean’s Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, also called the Great Mayan Reef, which ranks second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. This spectacular coral formation, which sprawls more than 600 miles from off the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula south to the Bay Islands of Honduras, reaches its zenith in the Belize Barrier Reef, hugely popular among scuba divers and snorkelers.
Of course, the outdoor destinations an awful lot of Caribbean visitors are most interested in are of the sand-and-surf variety. The basin claims some of the globe’s most esteemed beaches, among them Trunk Bay on Saint John, Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman, Grand Anse Beach in Grenada, Doctor’s Cave Beach in Jamaica, Flamenco Beach in Puerto Rico, and the boulder-strewn Baths of Virgin Gorda.
Perhaps six million Amerindians inhabited the West Indies in 1492, the year everything began to change for the Caribbean’s native inhabitants. Along with the Ciboney of western Hispaniola and Cuba, the main indigenous cultures in historical times were the Taino (or Antillean Arawaks), thought to have arrived in Trinidad by approximately 300 BCE, and the Caribs (or Kalinago), who reached the islands by 1000 CE. The Caribs mostly drove the Taino out of the Lesser Antilles; the latter continued to prosper in the Greater Antilles.
From military persecution and enslavement to the ravages of exotic diseases, the arrival of European powers in the West Indies was disastrous for the Taino and the Caribs alike. Though the traditional lifeways of indigenous Caribbeans were essentially destroyed early on, some precious archaeological sites scattered throughout the West Indies provide ghostly glimpses. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the Pomier Caves showcase thousands of Arawak and Carib petroglyphs and pictographs: an astonishing collection that’s earned the cavern the nickname of the “Prehistoric Capital of the Antilles.” Taino rock art also distinguishes Fountain Cavern in Anguilla and Virgin Islands National Park on Saint John.
Christopher Columbus’s fateful voyage ushered in the era of Spanish colonization in the Caribbean, the first permanent settlement of which came in the form of Santa Domingo on Hispaniola. The British and French arrived on the regional scene in the 1620s at Saint Kitts—the so-called “Gibraltar of the Caribbean” coveted by European powers for its strategic position—and the Dutch soon after. Except for Jamaica and portions of Hispaniola, the Greater Antilles mainly remained under Spanish control, with the Lesser Antilles seeing the bulk of British, French, and Dutch colonization and geopolitical wrangling—some of it taking the form of piracy.
The agricultural economies of the West Indies during the early colonial period, based on sugarcane and other products, depended on African slave labor. Notable slave uprisings occurred throughout the Caribbean; the Haitian Revolution, which lasted from 1791 to 1804 and saw Afro-Haitians wrest control from the French, resulted in the world’s only state established by former slaves on the heels of a successful rebellion.
Colonial empires began abolishing the slave trade in the first couple of decades of the 19th century, but slavery itself continued well into the 1800s—until 1886, in the case of Cuba. In the post-slavery era—one still marked by significant social stratification by skin color—the colonial powers began drawing upon labor from other parts of the world, including China, India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.
Independence movements in the Caribbean increased dramatically following the Second World War. A number of islands, however, are dependencies of or otherwise politically affiliated with Europe or the United States, from the French overseas regions of Guadeloupe and Martinique to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Relics of the West Indies’ long colonial era remain widespread, and despite the complicated and often painful legacy they represent many are significant tourist attractions. A slew of Caribbean cities—Santo Domingo in D.R., Bridgetown in Barbados, San Juan in Puerto Rico, Havana in Cuba, and others—claim old-town centers with well-preserved colonial architecture, more than a few designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Caribbean has been a vast stage for cultural intermixing for hundreds of years—much of it of the violent sort—and it’s no surprise, therefore, that it wears such a multiethnic face today. Many of its 44 million or so inhabitants claim African descent; many others have a blended background with African, European, Amerindian, and/or other heritage. Smaller but significant populations of Chinese, Indian, and other Asian immigrants help define the demographics of many Caribbean countries, such as Trinidad and Guyana.
A fascinating linguistic spectrum reflects the Caribbean’s ethnic mix and its historical context. The official European languages of many West Indian nations notwithstanding, creole tongues are widespread—from Sranan in Suriname and Papiamentu in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao to Haitian and Antillean Creole.
The ethnic diversity has resulted in an incredible cross-pollination of indigenous, African, European, Latin American, and Asian cultural traditions. The many distinct variations on Carnival, the multifaceted cookery, the vibrant and ever-evolving galaxy of homegrown musical genres (reggae, zouk, soca, merengue, calypso, and more): The bounty of Caribbean culture is known the world over. And that dynamic culture encompasses a rich West Indian literary tradition, one that has produced such internationally renowned writers as Saint Lucia’s Derek Walcott, Trinidad’s V.S. Naipaul, Cuba’s Alejo Carpentier, and Jamaica’s Sylvia Wynter.
While agriculture remains a mainstay of the Caribbean economy, modern industries such as tourism and offshore banking have become important contributors. A region heavily impacted by neocolonialism, the West Indies today display scenes of immense wealth alongside staggering poverty; Haiti, the most populous country in the Caribbean Community, is among the poorest nations in the world.