Basic geography lesson – what area actually constitutes the Caribbean? Most of us have a general idea of where the Caribbean Sea is situated -- north of South America, east of Central America, and south of Florida. But where does the Caribbean Sea end and the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico begin? Well, the first thing to note is that the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t “end” at the Caribbean – the Caribbean Sea is actually an arm of the Atlantic. The south border of the Caribbean Sea is indeed South America (the countries of Colombia and Venezuela), and the west border is indeed Central America (Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize) and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The north and east boundaries are actually defined by archipelagos of islands. To the north it is the chain known as the “Greater Antilles”, which includes the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Hispaniola. To the east it is the chain known as the “Lesser Antilles”, which stretches from the Virgin Islands down to Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela. So guess what – if you’ve been to the Bahamas, you haven’t actually been to the Caribbean Sea! However, when people refer to “the Caribbean” as a region, they generally include islands that aren’t in the Caribbean Sea like the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, and more. It’s all about being in that tropical idyllic setting surrounded by turquoise waters and coral reefs!
Moving on to the Greater Antilles, the largest island in the Caribbean is Cuba, with an area of over 100,000 sq. km. and a population of over 11 million. Cuba is primarily just the one island but also includes four surrounding small archipelagos of cays and islets. South of Cuba you will find the Cayman Islands (all 3 of them). Famous for their pirate history, the Caymans incorporate numerous shipwrecks and are therefore another popular scuba destination. To the east of the Caymans lies Jamaica – again only one main island, but with around 20 cays and literally thousands of rocky islets. Continuing east brings you to the split island of Hispaniola, with the two countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, followed by Puerto Rico, the “51st state” of the United States, made up of one primary island, two much smaller islands plus a number of cays and islets.
And then we come to the Lesser Antilles – the archipelago of much smaller islands forming the eastern border of the Caribbean Sea. At the northernmost end are the Virgin Islands, best known as a yachter’s paradise. Between the U.S. and the British versions, there are about 7 “main” islands, plus numerous keys and islets, with a combined land mass of less than 200 sq. mi. scattered over 4000 sq mi. of the Caribbean Sea.
The next group of islands southwards are known as the Leeward Islands. These include Anguilla, St. Maarten, St. Barthelemy, Barbuda, Antigua, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, Nevis, Redonda and Montserrat. Most of these are lightly populated and therefore also not very well-known as tourist destinations. But they have some beautiful beaches, some fantastic birding opportunities, great diving and more.
Moving southwards you come across the French Antilles. These “overseas regions” of France include Martinique and Guadeloupe, which actually has 6 main islands, plus the usual dotting about of cays and islets. These islands are best known for the mix of the French culture with the African traditions, creating the Creole flavor of living.
Further south still is the group of islands known as the Windward Islands, including Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada and the 16 “main” islands of the Grenadines. Off to the east of these islands, technically not in the Caribbean Sea but rather in the North Atlantic, is the island of Barbados. And finally, at the southernmost end of the Caribbean Sea are the “offshore” islands – just off the coast of South America. These include Aruba, Curacao, Trinidad, Tobago, and the two islands of Bonaire.
Add it up! That’s over 100 “main” islands throughout the Caribbean plus thousands of small islets and cays. And that means that when you think about taking an island vacation in the Caribbean, you have a very wide variety of choices. So do your research and choose just the right spot that will be your personal “ideal” tropical island vacation!
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