The islands of the Caribbean Sea or West Indies are an extensive archipelago in the far west of the Atlantic Ocean, mostly strung between North and South America. They've long been known as a resort vacation destination for honeymooners and retirees and are a major area for cruise ships, but a small movement toward eco-tourism and backpacking has started to open up the Caribbean to more independent travel. With year-round good weather (with the occasional but sometimes serious exception of hurricane season in the late summer and early fall), promotional air fares from Europe and North America, and hundreds of islands to explore, the Caribbean offers something for almost everyone.
Countries and territories
Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Puerto Rico, often grouped as the Greater Antilles, are by far the largest islands in the area and the most visited by travellers. The Caribbean also includes the Lucayan Archipelago to the north, which is comprised of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the Lesser Antilles, a group of much smaller islands to the east.
Archipelago of islands and cays surrounded by coral reefs off the coasts of Florida. One of them was the first piece of American soil Columbus put his foot on.
|Bermuda (Outside of image map, see dynamic map)|
Small and wealthy British overseas territory in the Atlantic, known for a type of shorts and the supposedly mysterious triangle.
|Cayman Islands |
Known for offshore banking, and a great diving destination.
The largest Caribbean island-nation, marked by decades of socialist government.
An island of tall mountains, birthplace of reggae and a Commonwealth Realm.
Founded by former slaves who won their freedom and then independence against the might of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Today, having struggled against conflicts and natural disasters, Haiti has relative political stability and security, and is again becoming attractive for those seeking a road less traveled.
|Dominican Republic |
A fast-growing economy with some of the oldest colonial cities in the hemisphere.
|Puerto Rico |
A United States territory with bustling nightlife, as well as great inland sceneries.
|Lesser Antilles (Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Saba, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sint Eustatius, U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados, Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago)|
Small islands facing the open Atlantic. Many of them are dependencies of other countries.
|Leeward Antilles (Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire)|
Also known as the ABC islands, these islands off the coast of Venezuela are associated with the Netherlands.
|Turks and Caicos Islands |
Fabulous beaches and offshore banking.
Other islands include:
- Navassa Island - an uninhabited island controlled by the United States but also claimed by Haiti
- San Andrés and Providencia belong to Colombia, but are close to Nicaragua
- 1 Havana the "Paris of the Antilles" with gorgeous colonial architecture and old American cars
- 2 Kingston
- 3 Nassau
- 4 Port-au-Prince
- 5 Port of Spain
- 6 San Juan
- 7 Santiago de Cuba
- 8 Santo Domingo
- 9 Willemstad
- Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park in Saint Kitts
- 1 Citadelle Henri Christophe and Palais Sans Souci in Milot, Northern Haiti
- 2 Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes in Central Cuba
- 3 Jardines del Rey — a chain of islands of the northern coast of Central Cuba
- Maracas National Park in northern Trinidad
- 4 Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario in Pinar del Rio province of Western Cuba
- 5 La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in San Juan, Puerto Rico
- 6 Viñales — a beautiful valley in Pinar del Rio province of Western Cuba
- 7 Morne Trois Pitons National Park on Dominica featuring the Boiling Lake, the world's second largest geyser.
- See also: Voyages of Columbus
The Bermuda Triangle
Since the 1950s, popular mythology created a large triangle in the Atlantic ocean between Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Miami, an area in which ships and aircraft would apparently disappear. Explanations have ranged from alien abductions to methane bubbles from the seabed. It is generally regarded as a complete myth, with shipping and air traffic frequently traversing the area with no issues at all.
The Caribbean islands were first inhabited by the Arawak Indians, then were invaded by a more aggressive tribe, the Caribs. Unfortunately, neither could appreciate their victory forever, although the Arawaks may have had a quiet reign of nearly two millennia. With the arrival of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Danish, and British, the Carib population steeply declined due to various factors, although the inhabitants today have been proven to still possess significant Carib heritage. The islands have known many historic battles and more than a few pirate stories. Unlike the Central American mainland, which was colonized almost exclusively by Spain (with English protectorates on the Caribbean side), the Caribbean has seen various colonizers, who sometimes fought hard over control of relatively minor islands, primarily because the Caribbean was a very profitable place to grow the cash crop sugarcane with slave labor. Ultimately, slavery became untenable due to uprisings like the Haitian revolution, which succeeded in achieving abolition of slavery and independence in one fell swoop, and due to the increasing moral qualms of the European colonizers themselves. Following the abolition of slavery, the British, and later the Dutch, French and Spanish colonisers would bring indentured Indian labourers to the Caribbean to work on the plantations instead. As the rest of the world industrialized, many Caribbean nations fell behind because the plantation owners were unwilling or unable to invest their considerable wealth in industry and today most of those islands live from agriculture, the export of raw materials and tourism. Some minor territories have also found success as "tax havens" or as a destination for casino tourism (e.g. Cuba until the 1950s) due to laxer laws than in the U.S. or other nearby nations.
While Spanish influence is strong in many parts of the Caribbean, indigenous, African and non-Spanish European influences are strong or even dominant on some islands. While most of the Caribbean is nominally Christian, indigenous and African rites have been blended with some tenets of Christianity to create new and unique belief systems, and there are also many adherents of the Yoruba religion — called Santeria and Vodun — that came to the Americas with enslaved Africans. Some islands also have substantial Hindu or Muslim minorities or both, while small Jewish communities on several islands including Curaçao are among the oldest in the Americas. Jamaica is famous as the wellspring of the Rastafarian religion.
The Caribbean is known worldwide for its African-influenced music, including charanga in Cuba; merengue in the Dominican Republic; ska, reggae and dancehall in Jamaica; and calypso in Trinidad and Tobago. And of course there are the steel pan performers on quite a few islands. But this only scratches the surface of what you can hear on a trip to the Caribbean.
In general the climate of the Caribbean is tropical with little change in temperature over the course of the year, however, rainfall does vary by season and there is also a pronounced hurricane-season with a handful of major tropical storms passing through the region each year.
- See also: Avoiding travel through the US
Given the region's colonial past, there are plenty of present connections from many large European cities. The routes do change over time, but generally most islands can be reached via London Heathrow, Frankfurt Airport, Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle.
From the United States
The proximity of the United States means that most islands have a connection. The region is best served by Miami International Airport, but there are also flights from many large airports including those based in New York City.
Major Canadian airports have direct flights to the region, albeit in lower volume than the United States.
Canada did not participate in the embargo on Cuba by the United States, so flights were possible from major Canadian airports long before the U.S. reestablished scheduled flights from U.S. airports to Cuba.
From Central America and South America
There are flights from many Latin American countries to some islands, albeit not as comprehensive as from the United States.
Some Caribbean Islands actually belong to South American countries such as Venezuela and Colombia, and connecting through the capital city is possibly the best way to reach them.
It might be easier to get to Cuba via a connection from a Latin American country, since many have friendly relations with the government there.
From the rest of the world
There are a few direct flights from major cities in Asia (e.g. China to Cuba), but it is probably best to find a connection between your city and either Europe or the United States to make your journey to this region. Australia and New Zealand may find a rare connection through Latin America however it will be comparatively expensive, with the United States providing more options. Travel from Africa is likely best served with a connection in Europe. Major airport hubs for access to the region are Miami International Airport, Florida and Tocumen International Airport, Panama.
Cruise ships are an alternative for getting into the Caribbean. Largely catering to visitors from the US, probably the most popular starting points for Caribbean cruises are Miami and Key West, though there may be cruises starting from the Yucatán Peninsula and Venezuela too. As cruise ships often spend the Northern Hemisphere summer in the Mediterranean and the winter in the Caribbean, they may offer transatlantic cruises to or from the Caribbean depending on the season.
Caribbean destinations are also popular among those who sail their own vessel.
Numerous companies offer cruises, charters, and boat tours in the Caribbean.
- LIAT has connections between most of the eastern Caribbean
- Caribbean Airlines, a Trinidad-based offers flights between islands and Canada, US, Europe and other airport in South America
- American Eagle is another notable air carrier between islands
Sail Caribbean Yachts offers Sailing Boats, Motor Boats, Catamarans and Gulets for exploring the Caribbean sea.
With few exceptions transport on the individual islands is by bus or car only with any remaining railways long past their prime and not serving as practical means of transportation.
English, Spanish, Dutch and French respectively are spoken on various islands, depending largely on its former colonial power. However, the majority of the population might not speak the metropole-version of said language but rather a creole, which often incorporates a lot of words from other languages (usually African and/or Native American) and can sometimes differ so much in grammar and spelling as to be unintelligible to even native speakers of the European language the Creole is based on.
The well-educated upper class and those who work in the tourism industry will usually be able to speak a version of the national language closer to what European visitors are used to, and they will often be able to hold a conversation in one or several other European languages as well. However, the likeliness decreases the further you get away from big cities and major tourism hot spots. As most of the Caribbean has a long history of both slavery and racial discrimination, and Creoles arose with that background and still sometimes have a stigma attached to them, you should be extremely cautious not to say anything negative about the Creole languages, their speakers, or their intellectual background. Believe it or not, political tracts and works of literature have been written in various Caribbean creole languages for centuries now, and to give just one example, the Jamaican Patois of Bob Marley is just as capable of expressing complex topics as are any American or British pop songwriters. Code switching is also pretty common and many people can be heard effortlessly switching from one idiom into another depending on the social situation, speaking "broad" Patois with friends or family and a much more metropole-sounding variant with tourists or in formal situations.
When the French colonizers gave names to places in the Caribbean, they apparently lacked imagination when it came to volcanoes. You can namely find a volcano named Soufrière ("sulfur place" in French) on Guadeloupe, Montserrat and St. Vincent and Grenadines. On Dominica, Haiti and St. Lucia it is the name of a town. Most of the Caribbean being geologically active, you probably won't have to travel far from these towns to see some...soufrière.
The Caribbean islands are famous for the "3 S's" Sun, Sea and Sand, which you can find plenty of in the region. There are all kinds of beaches from touristy ones with plane or shiploads of tourists to exclusive and expensive private islands, and of course places popular with locals. Some famous beaches include the Seven Miles Beach in the Cayman Islands and the Arashi beach and Baby Beach in Aruba. Traditionally (beach) tourism to this part of the world has been about resorts, cruises and package trips, but independent travel is certainly also possible.
While the indigenous heritage has all but disappeared, apart from the small remnant of the Carib people, who live in Dominica, the oldest colonial cities of the Americas can be found in the Caribbean. Perhaps no surprise as this was where Columbus and other Europeans first set foot in the New World, and several islands are still dependencies of France, Netherlands or the UK. Indeed, many of the world heritage sites in the Caribbean are colonial old towns, including ones in Havana, San Juan, Curaçao and the English Harbour.
Back then, the Caribbean islands also became a major destination for Africans that the colonizers forcibly brought in to work as slaves. Needless to say, slaves lived under inhumane conditions with hard work, violence, disease and starvation making up their daily life. Slavery is long gone, some former plantations have now been turned into memorials, for instance the Slave Huts on Bonaire. Black and mixed people make up a majority of the population of the Caribbean today, and the local culture has African influences, including the voodoo religion of Haiti, the carnival and various styles of Caribbean music and dance.
Natural attractions (other than the aforementioned beaches) include rainforests, volcanoes and other geologically interesting features such as the Boiling Lake in Dominica. Other interesting mountains include the pitons in Saint Lucia (pictured on their national flag) as well as Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic, which is the highest point in the Caribbean.
Just traveling around the Caribbean can be exciting too, whether you do it by boat, plane or road. On Saba, you can land and take off on the world's shortest commercially used runway.
Two closely related sports that are popular in the Caribbean are baseball and cricket. Baseball is very popular in much of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, while cricket is the more popular sport in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Local cuisine is usually very well seasoned whether the outcome be savory, sweet or spicy. Don't be afraid to ask about what you're eating but be open minded when patronizing rural eateries where the cuisine is not tailored for international palates. The not-so-secret ingredient in much of the Caribbean (including the Caribbean coast of mainland Central America) is coconut and you may be surprised by the huge variety of foodstuffs that can be improved by the addition of coconut.
Rum is of course the spirit of choice in most of the Caribbean and some of the most well known and internationally acclaimed distilleries are found in this region.
Many islands have luxury hotels available specifically for international tourists. Larger resorts are also available with ready access to the sea and swimming pools, but with not much freedom for anything else.
The crime situation varies considerably between islands and you should refer to the article on each island for specific information. Most places do experience low level theft such as wallets and cameras from unsuspecting tourists. Homicide levels also vary greatly, from high levels such as in Trinidad and Jamaica to low levels such as Cuba and Bermuda. Many islands with high crime rates often have exclusive resorts where tourists can be kept safe in a luxurious setting, with the obvious disadvantage that you will not do any exploring or see much of the local culture.
Fly west to the great deserts of Mexico, or go in the other direction and visit the massive rain forests of Brazil. Or you could go north and visit the impressive USA. Central America isn't far away, either.