The Caribbean is the name given to the island chains tucked into the eastern coast of Central America surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and bounded by the Atlantic. This swoosh of islands arcs up from Trinidad and Tobago off the coast of Venezuela to the western tip of Cuba close to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. In the north the Bahamas chain extends up to the Florida coast. In all there are around 700 islands scattered over two and half million kilometers of ocean. Of the thirty island territories, thirteen are independent nation states and seventeen are overseas territories in French, British, Dutch and American control.
The result is an intensely diverse set of cultures with each island group possessing its own unique flavor and history.
This ethnic and cosmopolitan mix is the result of a long, complex and bloody history. The Italian explorer Columbus was the first European visitor in 1492. Employed by the Spanish king he claimed islands for the Spanish. The native peoples of the islands, Caribs, Arawaks and Taino resisted but were brutally subjugated in a policy which amounted to genocide.
By the 1600s the British, French and Dutch started a land grab employing sailor mercenaries, the famed Pirates of the Caribbean, to battle it out for possession.
The lush tropical climate with abundant sunshine and rainfall means that cotton, sugar and coffee grows well. From the 16th century slaves were imported from West Africa to work in the plantations set up by colonial governments. Chinese and Indian laborers were later brought to work the fields, farms and mines adding the Caribbean melting pot. Agriculture is still a large part of Caribbean economies but increasingly tourism is key to their survival as European trade protection for their produce has been removed.
The physical beauty and diversity of the islands has attracted tourists for decades. Refreshing trade winds keep the tropical temperatures pleasant and sunny most of the year. Hurricanes however are a possibility in August and September (though there are safer islands during Hurricane Season). There is a wet season from January through to June which sees a decline in visitor numbers and prices. Traditionally the Caribbean has been holiday ground of wealthy Americans and Europeans wintering over. However, since the 1980s there has been a boom in resorts and in tourist numbers. The big five in order of visitor popularity are the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas and Puerto Rico.
Year round summer mean it is a sought after beach destination. Long offshore reaches of white sand reflect the sunlight through shallow crystal waters creating the famed turquoise water. Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and Bermudan beaches always feature on best beach lists but visitors on any of the islands are spoiled for choice. Luxury to budget, the accommodation choices are all there. Resorts are often segmented to target specific groups – family friendly themed resorts for parents, adult only for young singles, low key for retirees and honeymooners and eco-lodges for nature lovers.
Travelers seeking solitude, away from the tourist throng have it a bit harder but currently some of the less known islands such as Dominica, Guana Island and St Peters Island in the British Virgin Islands and Petit St Vincent in the Grenadines are still remote enough to ensure tranquility.
Many of the islands have extensive high biodiversity reef systems. Splashing around with a snorkel surrounded by multi colored reef fish to serious deep scuba dives, again all the options are covered. Belize, south of Mexico, has the second longest barrier reef in the world with series of atolls, cayes and the famous Blue Hole. There are spectacular vertical wall drop offs of vivid corals in West Caicos. Puerto Rico’s extensive continental shelf makes it a popular dive location with exciting variety.
The richness of the marine environment is matched by that on land. Up to 40% of Caribbean islands are in tropical forests and often with reserve status. These are abundant with stunning plant species and animal life. Bright tropical flowers attract iridescent hummingbirds and butterflies while parrots flock in the canopy above. Trinidad and Tobago have extensive tracts of Virgin forest with eco-lodge options for tourists who want to hike and explore. Dominica is the acknowledged nature reserve champion with numerous rivers and waterfalls and the world heritage Trois Pitons National Park. The Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and St Croix in the US Virgin Islands are also popular destinations for hikers.
In recent years more people have been traveling to the Caribbean to experience the rich culture and history. Its colonial legacy has given the area a unique ethnic mix with no two islands the same. French Martinique has the euro as its main currency and its towns such as Saint Pierre are tropical French provincial towns. The cuisine is a tasty mix of Afro-Gallic influences. The Dutch have old town settlements on St Eustatius, Bonaire and Curacao. While the British influence is still strong in Jamaica.
The lack of development in this region has preserved many of the old towns founded in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish who were the dominant colonial power founded the oldest, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic whose old quarter is untouched. Old San Juan in Puerto Rico is another fascinating glimpse into the colonial past. Cuba with its communist rule has kept much of the old town of Havana in a unique time warp fascinating to visitors.
The memory of slavery and the plantation system is also kept alive in some of the old estates still production such as Betty’s Hope Estate sugar plantation in Antigua. The African and European blend has produced the extraordinary music, dance and cuisine the Caribbean is famous for. The spirit, resilience of the Caribbean people, born out of a history of brutal oppression is most flamboyantly evident in the annual Carnivals.
Carnival was originally the slave cultures take on their master’s Lent observance firmly taking hold after slavery was abolished, Carnival is part of island life. There is Junkanoo in the Bahamas, Vincy Mass on St Vincents and the Grenadines and many more.
The vibrant people, powerful rhythms, beautiful beaches and mountains make the Caribbean a completely special destination.