A Guide to the Islands in the Caribbean

More than enough to find your perfect place in the sun

Puerto Aura
••• Evan Conway / Getty Images

The Caribbean archipelago encompasses more than 7,000 individual islands in an approximately 1-million-square-mile region. There are 13 sovereign island nations and 12 dependent territories, with close political ties throughout the region to Europe and the United States. Another 10 Latin American countries include Caribbean coastlines. The entire region, often referred to as the West Indies, benefits from a tropical climate with year-round beach-vacation temperatures, making it one of the most coveted destinations in the world.

Caribbean Islands Geography

The Caribbean contains three main island groups: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago, which encompasses the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos, both technically in the Atlantic but with close social and political ties to the Caribbean. The large islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (host to Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico all belong to the Greater Antilles in the northern portion of the Caribbean. The Lesser Antilles encompass the southeastern islands and can be further divided into the northern Leeward Islands and the southern Windward Islands. The islands along the coasts of Central and South America, though set apart, usually get included in this group as well.

At 42,803 square miles, Cuba ranks first in size and population, but with so many uninhabited islets, reefs and cays dotting the map, the title for smallest shifts according to the context.

For perspective, a marathoner would need to cross tiny Saba on the island's only paved road two and a half times to reach the requisite mileage. After engineers deemed the volcanic outpost in the Netherlands Antilles too steep and rocky for a road, residents built it by hand.

Caribbean Islands Languages

English remains the dominant colonial language in the Caribbean and the official language of at least 18 islands or island groups in the region including the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys.

Spanish is spoken in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, in addition to the continental Caribbean countries of Mexico, and Central and South America. French speakers dominate on the French Islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Barts and St. Martin, and in Haiti, a former French colony. Islands in the Netherlands Antilles list Dutch, English and the creole dialect Papiamentu as official languages, though you're more likely to hear locals speaking English or Papiamentu. Other creole dialects, which combine elements of native, African and immigrant tongues with the colonial language, flourish throughout the region.

Caribbean Islands Culture

The political history may be colonial, but the culture of the Caribbean is a colorful amalgam of traditions from the many ethnicities found there. The art, music, literature and culinary achievements reflect the legacy of African slaves forcibly brought there to work on sugar plantations, Amerindians who were living on islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Europeans colonizers.