Caribbean Geography 101

White boats float in the blue waters off the Exumas in the Bahamas

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If you ask the average person to imagine what paradise looks like, chances are they'll conjure up the image of a sandy tropical island fringed with palm trees and surrounded by an endless horizon of cerulean-blue water. If you ask them where their imagined paradise might be, they may likely say "somewhere in the Caribbean."

A lot of people think of the Caribbean as a singular destination, but it is actually a complex geographical region, and not all countries and islands that many people associate with the Caribbean are technically located in the Caribbean Sea. The Caribbean archipelago encompasses more than 700 islands, reefs, and cays in a region of approximately 1 million square miles.

The region's political history is often defined by its colonial claims. However Caribbean culture is an amalgam of colorful traditions from the art, music, literature, and cuisine that reflect the legacy of enslaved African people forcibly brought to the islands and the indigenous people who were inhabiting the islands before the Europeans arrived to colonize them. Today, there are 13 sovereign island nations and 12 dependent territories, with close political ties throughout the region to Europe and the United States. Some Latin American countries also have coastlines on the Caribbean Sea.

The islands are often grouped into different categories and subcategories like the Greater and the Lesser Antilles, which divide the archipelago's largest islands from some of the smaller ones, and the Windward Islands, which describes the long tail of the archipelago that stretches south toward Latin America. However, these geographical groupings do not even begin to describe the political classifications that divide the British, French, and Dutch West Indies or the Central American destinations that also border the Caribbean Sea.

Politics and geography have played a role in naming and sorting the many islands into groups, which is helpful to have an understanding of when you're perusing cruise itineraries or planning an island-hopping adventure. With so many overlapping designations, we've sorted it all out for you as simply as possible.

Whale Bay Park in Bermuda
Sasha Weleber / Getty Images

Where Is the Caribbean?

The Caribbean is generally known as the region of warm waters south of Florida and east of Central America, but technically the Caribbean Sea begins south of the Greater Antilles and extends to the coasts of Central and South America, with the Windward Islands making up its eastern border. The water north of the Caribbean countries Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic is technically known as the Florida Strait, which separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean.

Any country with a coast on the Caribbean Sea can be considered a Caribbean country, but not all of them are islands, including Mexico, Belize, and Colombia. Some island nations that are commonly believed to be a part of the Caribbean, like the Bahamas and Bermuda, are technically in the Atlantic Ocean, and Guyana, which is neither an island nor located on the Caribbean Sea, is considered a part of the Caribbean because it still has a deep cultural connection to the region.

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Eastern Caribbean Islands

Because of the natural sloping shape of the archipelago, there are far more islands in the Eastern Caribbean than the Western Caribbean. When defining east and west you can draw the line between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, which leaves mostly the smaller pieces of land of the Lesser Antilles and the Windward Islands. The Eastern Caribbean is made up of many small island countries and territories that can encompass one or multiple islands.

Although some of these islands are sovereign countries, many are still considered territories of other countries, like Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands, which belong to the United States, and Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and Montserrat, which are territories of the United Kingdom. Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Barthelemy, and French Guiana belong to France, and Saba and St. Eustatius belong to the Netherlands. Uniquely, the island of St. Martin is split between France and the Netherlands, with the French claiming the northern half of the island and the Dutch claiming the southern half.

Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman
Lacovia Grand Cayman

Western Caribbean Islands

The Western Caribbean includes everything west of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which is also known as the island of Hispaniola, plus the coastal nations of the Caribbean. Some coastal nations in the Western Caribbean claim islands off their coast, like Honduras' Roatán or Mexico's Cozumel, which may be included on a Western Caribbean cruise itinerary. However, there are only five main countries and territories associated with the Western Caribbean.

While Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti are independent countries, Jamaica is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and the Cayman Islands are a British territory. Although Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island, the two countries have extremely different histories and cultural influences, with the formerly French-ruled Haiti defined by the uprising of self-liberated Africans that led to the Haitian Revolution.

Kite surfer on Aruba island in the Caribbean at sunset - stock photo

Southern Caribbean Islands

The categorization of "Southern Caribbean" is most commonly used by those planning cruise itineraries and it usually refers to islands just off the coast of South America. It also includes some overlap with many Eastern Caribbean islands.

Within the islands of the Southern Caribbean, you have the ABC islands, a common nickname for Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, which are the three westernmost islands of the Leeward Antilles. Aruba is probably the most well-known of three and particularly famous for its plentiful flamingo population but lesser-known Bonaire and Curacao are also worth visiting. Curacao is well-loved for its brightly-colored Dutch-style buildings and Bonaire is the only Caribbean Island where you'll find fluorescent pink salt pans and striking white salt pyramids.

One major benefit of planning a trip to the Southern Caribbean is that these islands are outside the region's hurricane belt. Hurricanes, which threaten many parts of the Caribbean from June to November every year, usually miss these southern islands, making vacations popular in destinations like Aruba, the farthest west of these islands that has seen minimal storm damage outside of Hurricane Felix in 2007.

dunns river falls
Douglas Pearson / Getty Images

The Greater Antilles

The word "Antilles" derives from an old Spanish word, Antillia, which was used to refer to a mysterious island located in the Atlantic Ocean. The Greater Antilles region refers to the four large islands that define the northern boundary of the Caribbean Sea.

Cuba Puerto Rico
Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) Jamaica

These also happen to be the four largest islands in the entire region, the largest being Cuba with over 40,000 square miles of land. Some smaller islands sit off the coast of these islands, like Vieques in Puerto Rico and Cayo Lago del Sur in Cuba, which count as being in the Greater Antilles. The Cayman Islands are sometimes considered part of the Greater Antilles group, but the term generally refers to the four largest islands. The highest point in the entire Caribbean is located in the Dominican Republic on Pico Duarte, which sits at approximately 10,000 feet above sea level. Jamaica is the smallest of these islands but has many natural gems in its interior including magnificent waterfalls, which can be hiked to.

Boulders on Devil's Bay Beach and the Baths, Virgin Gorda.
British Virgin Islands Tourism

The Lesser Antilles

The arc of islands that roughly define the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea is known as the Lesser Antilles. A large geographic region, the Lesser Antilles stretch from the northern edge of the Caribbean Sea to the coast of South America. The grouping encompasses a wide variety of islands from the celebrity-favorite of St. Barts to more unknown islands like Nueva Esparta and St. Eustatius. The curved archipelago spans over 300 miles with the British and U.S. Virgin Islands in the north all the way to Trinidad and Tobago off the coast of South America.

Antigua and Barbuda Montserrat
Anguilla Nueva Esparta
Aruba Saba
Barbados St. Barthelemy
Bonaire St. Eustatius
British Virgin Islands St. Kitts and Nevis
Curacao St. Martin
Dominica St. Lucia
Grenada St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Guadeloupe Trinidad and Tobago
Martinique U.S. Virgin Islands

The Lesser Antilles also includes some islands off the coast of Venezuela, such as Nueva Esparta and many sparsely populated islands, which are sometimes referred to as the Venezuelan Antilles. Although this area is quite large, the islands tend to be a lot smaller than the Greater Antilles with only four islands (Trinidad, Guadeloupe, Nueva Esparta, and Martinique) having more than 1,000 square miles of land mass.

curacao shoreline
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The Netherlands Antilles

The Netherlands Antilles is a political designation the refers to the former territories of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. When discussing the Netherlands Antilles, you may also hear the term "ABC islands" which is a nickname used to refer to Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao because they are grouped so closely together. Throughout the islands of the Netherlands Antilles, you'll find Dutch influences including the language and colorful architecture.

Aruba Saba
Bonaire St. Eustatius
Curacao St. Maarten
Beautiful view of St. Lucias Twin Pitons from Jade Mountain
Thomas Fluegge / Getty Images

The Windward Islands

The Windward Islands are the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles island group in the Eastern Caribbean. They are so named because the trade winds touch here first, placing these islands upwind from the Leeward Islands. The term dates back to the days when explorers and merchants relied on the trade winds to carry their ships across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

Dominica St. Lucia
Grenada St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Child kayaking in Puerto Rico
Keiji Iwai / Getty Images 

The Leeward Islands

The Leeward Islands are the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles in the Eastern Caribbean. They are so named because they are downwind from the Windward Islands, which the prevailing trade winds reach first. These islands should not be confused with the Leeward Islands, or the Society Islands, of French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean.

Anguilla Saba
Antigua and Barbuda St. Barthelemy
British Virgin Islands St. Eustatius
Guadeloupe St. Kitts and Nevis
Montserrat St. Martin
Puerto Rico U.S. Virgin Islands
The aerial view of Le Marin, Martinique
gydyt0jas / Getty Images

The French West Indies

The French West Indies refers to the overseas departments belonging to France. The prominent language on these islands is either French or a French-Creole, so these islands are particularly popular with French tourists. On these islands, it's easy to see the influence of the French colonial era in the architecture and also in the modern cities where you'll find outlets of French supermarket chains and classic patisseries.

Guadeloupe St. Barthelemy
French Guiana  St. Martin
Anguilla Resort
Zemi Beach House

The British West Indies

Historically, the British West Indies (BWI) included more than 20 Caribbean islands that were part of the British Empire. Many of these islands have gained their independence from Great Britain over the years, however, but are still referred to as the BWI, as you'll still find historical landmarks and influences of British culture on these islands. These countries are connected by their common heritage and may be a popular choice for travelers looking for an English-speaking country.

Anguilla Grenada
Antigua and Barbuda Guyana
The Bahamas Jamaica
Barbados Montserrat
Belize St. Kitts and Nevis
Bermuda St. Lucia
British Virgin Islands St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Cayman Islands Trinidad and Tobago
Dominica Turks and Caicos
Tulum Beach
TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Mexican Caribbean

Also known as the Riviera Maya, a large portion of Mexico's east coast sits against the waters of the Caribbean Sea. The whole coast is a part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, a region that stretches from the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula to the Mexico-Belize border.

The Riviera Maya is defined by its big resorts and luxury hotels, which can be found in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. In this region, you'll also find many remnants of the ancient Mayan civilization, and archeological sites can be easily explored from Tulum and Cancun. There are many islands located off the coast of Mexico in the Caribbean Sea, such as Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres, but the largest is Cozumel. This large flat island is home to many beaches, Mayan ruins, a unique species of raccoon only found on Cozumel.

Aerial view of peter island, British Virgin Islands
Cdwheatley / Getty Images

British Virgin Islands

The four main islands of the British Virgin Islands are Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke. However, the country comprises over 50 smaller islands and cays, about 16 of which are inhabited. Many small islands also function as private residences or resorts like the Cooper Island Beach Club or the billionaire Richard Branson's world-famous Necker Island, and the area is popular with tourists in part because it's one of the safer Caribbean destinations to visit.

Tortola is the largest island, where you'll find the capital of Road Town and the main airport. In Virgin Gorda, you'll find the city of Spanish Town and the Baths, the British Virgin Islands' most famous natural attraction. Jost Van Dyke is the smallest of the four main islands but is best known for the lively strip of restaurants in Great Harbour. All of the major islands in the British Virgin Islands, often referred to simply as "the BVI," are made of volcanic rock, except for Anegada, which is made of coral and limestone, meaning it is incredibly flat

St. Croix’s Buccaneer Resort - The Grotto Beach
St. Croix’s Buccaneer Resort

U.S. Virgin Islands

Just 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, the other American territory in the Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands, consists of three main islands: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. Beyond these, however, there are also dozens of smaller islands filled with white sand beaches and deep harbors. The islands sit along the fault line of the North American and Caribbean plates, which means earthquakes are common, and these islands are often in the path of hurricanes. The islands became a territory of the United States when Denmark sold them to the U.S. in 1916.

A beautiful sunset in the Bahamas
SHansche / Getty Images

The Bahamas Islands

The Bahamas are a chain of approximately 700 islands across 100,000 square miles of the ocean. There are about 20 main islands, or island groups, with Andros being the largest and New Providence being the home of the capital of Nassau.

Acklins  Grand Bahama
Andros Great Abaco
Berry Islands Great Inagua
Bimini Islands Mayaguana
Cat Island New Providence
Crooked Islands Long Island 
Eleuthera Rum Cay
Exuma San Salvador Islands

Although this country is often one of the first places associated with the Caribbean, the Bahamas are technically in the Atlantic Ocean. However, the Bahamas enjoy a climate just as tropical as any Caribbean destination, and the closest island is just 50 miles east of the coast of Florida.

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