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The Caribbean region is rich in history and culture, with a diversity of people, languages, and traditions. However, during the media coverage of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, it became apparent that many people are not familiar with basic facts about the Caribbean region. Some consumers and even journalists were mispronouncing the country names, and others couldn’t distinguish one island from another. This lack of awareness is shocking, as the Caribbean is a well-traveled region, with over 30 million stay-over tourists visiting each year, plus an additional 27+ million visiting via popular cruise ports in the Cayman Islands, Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, etc. 

To address this lack of awareness, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) launched a marketing campaign to educate people about the Caribbean. This was announced at the Caribbean State of the Tourism Industry Conference held in Grenada. To piggyback off that campaign, I decided to put together this blog post detailing ten facts about the Caribbean region that some may not know, from the origin of the word Caribbean to the smallest shared landmass in the world.

Grenada: View of Carenage, a scenic inlet. Grenada: View of Carenage, a scenic inlet.

1. Origin of the word Caribbean 

The name Caribbean is believed to have originated from the word Caribe, which was used by the Spanish to refer to the indigenous people of the Caribbean. The word Caribe is thought to come from the Carib word Kalipuna, which means “strong” or “brave.” It is believed to be derived from the Arawak word “kalingo,” “karina,” or “kalino,” which has the same meaning.  The name Caribe eventually came to be used to refer to the entire region, even though the Carib people were only one of many indigenous groups who lived there.

When Christopher Columbus and his men arrived in the Caribbean during his second voyage, they encountered an indigenous tribe who resisted them. Columbus deemed them aggressive and falsely accused them of being cannibals. He called this native tribe Carib, and over the years, the name for the region evolved to be the Caribbean.

It is interesting to note that when Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean, he thought he had reached India and so named the first inhabitants he met Indians. It wasn’t until his third voyage to the region that he realized he was nowhere near Asia.

Note that the first land in the Caribbean region Columbus saw and visited on 12 October 1492, he named San Salvador Island, now part of The Bahamas. This island of San Salvador was originally named Guanahani by the native Lucayan inhabitants.  To commemorate this first landing by Christopher Columbus, there is a simple white cross on Long Bay Beach in San Salvador, The Bahamas.

Bahamas: A simple white cross in Long Bay to commemorate the first Caribbean land sighted by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1942. Photo Credit: © Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. Bahamas: A simple white cross in Long Bay to commemorate the first Caribbean land sighted by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1942. Photo Credit: © Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.

2. Geography of the Caribbean

The Caribbean is a sub-region of the Americas between North America and South America.  Situated largely on the Caribbean Plate, it is located southeast of the Gulf of Mexico and the North American mainland and measures around 1,000 miles from north to south and over 2,500 miles from east to west, roughly 2,754,000 square kilometers (1,063,000 square miles).

Much of it is an ocean, and the Caribbean region includes about 7,000 islands, islets, reefs, and cays in and surrounding the Caribbean Sea. Across the Caribbean region, there is diverse topography, including coral reefs, mountains, tropical forests, low-lying plantations, valleys, waterfalls, and volcanoes.

Only about 2% of the Caribbean region is inhabited, and when most speak of the Caribbean region, they are referring to about 34 islands/countries. The size of the main inhabited islands in the Caribbean ranges from 40,852 square miles for Cuba (the largest island) all the way down to 5 square miles for the island of Saba.

Interestingly, the Caribbean island of Saba has the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, which is the shortest commercial runway in the world at only 1,312 feet long. The runway is flanked by high hills and cliffs that drop into the sea at both ends. So not for the faint of heart!

There are four main island groups in the Caribbean region, including the Greater Antilles, Leeward Islands, Leeward Antilles, and the Windward Islands.

  • The Greater Antilles located east of Central America includes the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.
  • The Leeward Islands, located where the northeastern Caribbean Sea meets the western Atlantic Ocean, include Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Saint Martin, Saba, Saint Eustatius, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Kitts & Nevis, and U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • The Leeward Antilles, located along the southeastern fringe of the Caribbean Sea, includes Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire.
  • The Windward Islands, located south of Leeward Islands, includes Barbados, Dominica, and Grenada, with sister island Carriacou and Petite Martinique, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & The Grenadines, and Trinidad & Tobago.

Note that the Leeward Islands, Leeward Antilles, and the Windward Islands combine to create the Lesser Antilles. Also, beyond the groupings, there is also the Lucayan Archipelago, known as the Bahama Archipelago, comprising The Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands.

Shared islands in the Caribbean

The Caribbean is home to a few islands that are shared by two or more countries. This includes the island of Hispaniola, which is divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island, while Haiti occupies the western one-third. Saint Martin and Sint Maarten also share an island. The French side is called Saint Martin, while the Dutch side is called Sint Maarten. At 34 square miles (87 square kilometers) in size, the island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten is the smallest shared landmass in the world.

Map of the Caribbean Map of the Caribbean Region

3. Beyond Caribbean Geography

Another of the main facts about the Caribbean is that beyond the islands in and surrounding the Caribbean Sea, there are other countries that are also associated with the Caribbean region mainly due to their cultural, economic, and political history. This includes the island of Bermuda, located in the North Atlantic Ocean, a mere 665 miles from the state of North Carolina in the United States, and Belize, located in Central America.  Finally, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela are three independent countries on South America’s North Atlantic coast aligned with the Caribbean region.  

All five are members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which was established in 1972 to promote economic integration and cooperation between member states. Belize, Guyana, and Venezuela are also current members of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the official body promoting tourism in the Caribbean region.

Guyana: Kaieteur Falls is the world's largest single drop waterfall. Photo Credit: © Fotonatura via Guyana Tourism Authority. Guyana: Kaieteur Falls, the world’s largest single-drop waterfall. Photo Credit: © Fotonatura via Guyana Tourism Authority.

4. Caribbean Nations: Independent vs. Dependent Rule

Except for Cuba, which has a one-party political system, all other Caribbean countries now have two or more political parties, and their ways of governing can be traced back to their colonial roots. Some are independent democracies like Haiti which became the first Black republic in the world and the first country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery after breaking free from France on January 1st, 1804. Others are still dependent territories of France, the Netherlands, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

The breakdown of independent Caribbean countries  and the year obtained:

  • Independence from France: Haiti (1804)
  • Independence from Haiti: Dominican Republic (1844)
  • Independence from Spain: Cuba (1902)
  • Independence from the United Kingdom: Antigua & Barbuda (1981), The Bahamas 1973), Barbados (1966), Belize (1981), Dominica (1978), Grenada (1974), Guyana (1966), Haiti (1804), Jamaica (1962), Saint Kitts & Nevis (1983), Saint Lucia (1979), Saint Vincent & the Grenadines (1979), Suriname (1975), and Trinidad & Tobago (1962).

Four of the independent countries in the Caribbean are members of the Commonwealth Realm, with the King of the United Kingdom as Head of State.   This includes Antigua & Barbuda, Belize, Dominica, and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

The breakdown for dependent Caribbean countries includes:

  • Overseas Collectivities of France: Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthelemy (St Barts), Saint Martin
  • Special Municipalities of The Netherlands: Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saint Maarten, Saba, and Saint Eustatius (Statia).
  • Unincorporated Territory / Unincorporated Organized Territory of the United States: Puerto Rico, United States Virgin Islands
  • Overseas Territories of United Kingdom: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and Turks & Caicos Islands.

Citadelle Laferrière aka Citadelle Henry Christophe aka The Citadelle in Haiti. Photo Credit: © Haiti Tourism. Haiti: The Citadelle Laferrière, aka Citadelle Henry Christophe, aka The Citadelle, is a large mountain fortress at the top of Bonnet a L’Eveque. Photo Credit: © Haiti Tourism.

5. Population of the Caribbean

Another major fact about the Caribbean region is that the Caribbean population is approximately 44.1 million people who live on the 34 main islands. Most Caribbean nationals live on larger islands, such as Haiti with 11.4 million people, Cuba with 11.3 million people, the Dominican Republic with 10.8 million people, Jamaica with 2.9 million people, and Trinidad and Tobago with 1.4 million people.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Saint Martin with 38,600 people, the British Virgin Islands with 30,200 people, Anguilla with nearly 15,000 people, Saint Barthelemy with 9,800 people, and Montserrat with just 5,200 people. Montserrat is one of the volcanic islands in the Caribbean, and its small population is largely due to the volcanic eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano in 1995. It was the first eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano in over 400 years.

Cuba: A couple in small sail boat in Cayo Coco, a tropical island in the Jardines del Rey chain, off central Cuba. Photo Credit: © Cuba Tourism Board. Cuba: A couple in a small sailboat in Cayo Coco, a tropical island in the Jardines del Rey chain, off central Cuba. Photo Credit: © Cuba Tourism Board.

6. Caribbean Culture & Ethnicities 

Early inhabitants of the Caribbean region were from the South American continent more than 7,000 years ago and were members of the Maya, Taino, and Kalinago tribes who settled on the various islands throughout the Caribbean region. When the Europeans started colonizing the Caribbean region beginning in 1492 with Christopher Columbus for Spain, the indigenous population was decimated by disease and war.

As the Europeans built up profitable cotton, tobacco, and later sugar plantations, over 5 million enslaved West Africans were brought to the Caribbean region to work. And today, the majority of the 44.1 million people who live in the Caribbean region are descendants of these 5 million enslaved West Africans. Now, you will also find other ethnicities in the Caribbean, including Asian Indians, Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese, Jews, Portuguese, Europeans, Amerindians, and various mixes and combinations, which makes Caribbean cuisine, traditions, and culture quite diverse. For example, in Trinidad & Tobago, based on the last census, descendants of enslaved West Africans are 34.2% of the population, and Indo-Trinidadians are 35.4% of the population – so pretty much neck and neck. Indo-Trinidadians are descendants of indentured workers from India who were brought over after slavery was abolished.

That said, while the majority of the region’s inhabitants are descendants of enslaved West Africans, its long history of colonization by European powers, including the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch, has resulted in a diverse culture across the region. Sure, there are similarities, but each country has its own traditions and rich history worthy of exploration.

Martinique: The Grand Ballet dancers in traditional dress. Photo Credit: © Antoine Omere via Martinique Tourism Board. Martinique: The Grand Ballet dancers in traditional dress. Photo Credit: © Antoine Omere via Martinique Tourism Board.

7. Caribbean or West Indies

The Caribbean region is sometimes referred to as the West Indies. This term was used initially by Christopher Columbus and referred to the islands which he claimed for the Spanish crown. Remember, he thought he had arrived in India, and so he named the island grouping the West Indies to distinguish it from the East Indies.

The West Indies term was later adopted by other European colonizers, and so some Caribbean countries are referred to as being former members of the British, French, Dutch, or Danish West Indies. The term is mostly now used in sports with the West Indies Cricket Team, which is a multi-national cricket team representing the Caribbean region. Beyond cricket which is a legacy of British colonization and known as the Englishman’s game, the other major sport in the Caribbean is football. Sadly, no Caribbean football team has won the World Cup trophy.

Painting of cricket players in Antigua & Barbuda. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Painting of cricket players in Antigua & Barbuda. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

8. Languages Spoken in the Caribbean

The majority of the 44.1 million people who live in the Caribbean speak English, as much of the region was colonized by the British. In total, there are six main languages used in the Caribbean region, and some islands, like Puerto Rico and Haiti, have more than one official language.

  • English is the official language of Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, Saint Maarten, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos Islands, and the United States Virgin Islands.
  • Spanish is the official language of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.
  • French is the official language of Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, Saint Barthelemy, French Guyana, and Saint Martin.
  • Haitian Creole is also the official language of Haiti.   
  • Dutch is the official language of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius, Saint Maarten, and Suriname.
  • Papiamento, a Portuguese and Spanish-based Creole language, is also an official language of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.

Beyond these six main West Indian languages, you’ll also find on many of the Caribbean islands also speak a version of Creoles and Patois, a derivative of French or English, but it is actually a complex and nuanced language with its own grammar and vocabulary.

In addition to these six main West Indian languages, many Caribbean islands also speak a version of Creoles and Patois, which are derivatives of French or English. However, these languages are actually complex and nuanced, with their own grammar and vocabulary.

Cayman Island: Diver with a massive green sea turtle. Photo Credit: © Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. Cayman Island: Diver with a massive green sea turtle. Photo Credit: © Cayman Islands Department of Tourism.

9. Biodiversity of the Caribbean Region

The plant, animal, and marine life in the Caribbean region is quite diverse. There are tons of beautiful flowers and wildlife, including rare birds, throughout the Caribbean region. In fact, there are over 500 species of bird, including 172 species that are found nowhere else in the world.

There are also about 189 different species of amphibians, 497 species of reptiles, and 164 mammals that live in the Caribbean region. Plus, there are lots of coral reefs, including the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which is the largest marine habitat in the Caribbean. It has hundreds of fish species, marine turtles, and sharks, including more than 65 species of stony coral, 350 species of mollusk, and more than 500 species of fish.

Montserrat: Oriole Bird once endangered. Photo Credit: © Montserrat Tourism Board. Montserrat: Oriole Bird once endangered. Photo Credit: © Montserrat Tourism Board.

10. Caribbean Tourism

Finally, one of the major facts about the Caribbean region is that tourism is one of the leading, if not the leading, sectors on most Caribbean islands. The most visited holiday destinations include Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. The least visited include some of the small islands like Saint Eustatius (Statia), Saba, and Montserrat.

Tourism contributes over US$ 56.4 billion to the Caribbean’s GDP, which represents 14.9%. Thus, it is important to have visitors return to the region time and time again. Not just for sun, sand, and sea, but to experience attractions that showcase the region’s rich history, biodiversity, cultural attractions, and events. These attractions afford visitors who explore a rich and rewarding experience. This includes:

These are just a few of the reasons to visit the 34 main Caribbean destinations.   Whether you’re looking for a relaxing beach vacation, an exciting cultural experience, or an adventurous getaway, you’re sure to find something to love in the Caribbean.

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to the Caribbean today!

Revelers at Trinidad & Tobago Carnival Trinidad & Tobago: Carnival Revelers. Photo Credit: © Trinidad & Tobago Tourism

NOTE: If you’d like to learn more facts about the Caribbean region, I’d recommend the books below, all of which I have in my library:

These and other Caribbean-related books contain a wealth of interesting facts about the Caribbean and can be purchased via my Caribbean & Co. Amazon affiliate store.

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10 Facts About The Caribbean Region You May Not Know

Note: Originally published on January 24, 2018, this post was updated on July 11, 2023.

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UPB at Antigua Carnival 2019.
I'm Ursula!

Welcome to Caribbean & Co. founded by Ursula Petula Barzey who enjoys traveling the Caribbean in search of the best cultural and food adventures, places to stay and live/work opportunities. Launched in 2014, Caribbean & Co. has won five travel media awards.

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