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.