Central America

Central America: Connecting Continents, Keeping Oceans Apart

Connecting North and South America is a curving strip of land or isthmus that makes up the region of Central America. A bridge between Mexico and Colombia, Central America separates the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Its countries are Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. More than 40 million people live in the seven countries.

Each year thousands of ships pass through the canal carrying tons of cargo for international shipments but tourists on ships also use the canal too.

Each year thousands of ships pass through the canal carrying tons of cargo for international shipments but tourists on ships also use the canal too.

©Panama Canal Authority

In Panama at Central America’s narrowest point, the land is only 50 km wide. This is why the area was chosen for the Panama Canal. Since 1914, the canal has allowed ships to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific without having to travel thousands of kilometers around South America.

Volcanic Mountains

Central America is tropical with large areas of rainforest. Many different and interesting species live in the habitats of Central America.

Central America is tropical with large areas of rainforest. Many different and interesting species live in the habitats of Central America.

©M.Wilhelm/GLOBIO.org

Central America is a tropical region covered with hills and mountains that slope into coastal lowlands. One reason Central America is so mountainous is because it is dotted with volcanoes. On a map, you can see the chain of mountains that stretch from the Mexican border to Panama. Some of the volcanoes are dead. Others are dormant or inactive. But those remaining form the most active group of volcanoes in the Americas. This chain is part of the Ring of Fire, whichsurrounds the Pacific Ocean.

A Quaking Earth

Tajumulco is part of Sierra Madre de Chiapas, a mountain range that reaches from Guatemala to southern Mexico. Even though much of Central America is tropical, cool temperatures and different plants and animals are common on tall mountains.

Tajumulco is part of Sierra Madre de Chiapas, a mountain range that reaches from Guatemala to southern Mexico. Even though much of Central America is tropical, cool temperatures and different plants and animals are common on tall mountains.

©Joe Slag

The ring marks the edges of several of Earth’s tectonic plates. The plates’ movements against one another create volcanoes and earthquakes. Central America’s volcanoes grew out of the pressure and heat created when the Cocos Plate pushed under its neighboring Caribbean Plate—the plate most of Central America sits on. Nicaragua had serious earthquakes in 1931 and 1972. Two damaging earthquakes hit El Salvador in 2001. In 2005 the Santa Ana volcano erupted.

High Points and Cool Temperatures

Not surprisingly, Central America’s highest peak is the Tajumulco volcano at 4,220 m. Lake Nicaragua is the region’s largest lake, and it lies near Lake Managua, also in Nicaragua. These lakes formed as land that had been beneath the sea rose over time and enclosed the water. Temperatures on the coasts are hot, but in the mountains, where most people live, it is cool.

The Marvelous Maya: Ancient History

The early Mesoamerican ballgame was the first organized game in the history of sports. It has influenced many of the sports we play today.

The early Mesoamerican ballgame was the first organized game in the history of sports. It has influenced many of the sports we play today.

©Justin Kerr

Before Christopher Columbus came to the Americas, much of the region we now call Central America was part of Mesoamerica. Many Native American cultures thrived there, including the advanced Maya civilization. The Maya had their own number system based on 20 (rather than 10, the basis of the metric system.) They also had a complex written language that used symbols much like hieroglyphs. The Maya wrote thousands of books and decorated monuments and pottery with both writing and artwork. Nearly all of the books were burned by Spanish conquerors. Luckily, the few that survived have allowed scientists to decode the ancient language.

The Maya observed the stars and planets. They invented an accurate calendar. They had advanced mathematical knowledge, which they used to build amazing pyramids and temples to their gods. The Maya also played the first team sport: a ball game played on a special court.

Spain Comes and Conquers

The Maya civilization had largely disappeared by the time the Spanish came in the 1520s. Spain ruled all of Central America except for British Honduras (Belize) from 1540 until 1821, when Guatemala rebelled. Upon freedom from Spain, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua formed the Federal Republic of Central America, which was modeled after the United States. The republic lasted only from 1823 to 1840, when Honduras broke away from the union in a civil war. Later attempts to form a republic from Central American states failed. Belize was a British colony for more than 100 years, but became independent in 1981.

Independence Today

The peoples of Central America have a rich heritage that includes influences from Native American, Spanish, and Africa cultures.

The peoples of Central America have a rich heritage that includes influences from Native American, Spanish, and Africa cultures.

©M.Wilhelm/GLOBIO.org

Today 40.5 million people live in Central America. Belize is the least populated country, while Guatemala boasts the largest population and the largest city, Guatemala City. Each country is governed independently. But all except Belize and Costa Rica are members of the Central American Parliament, which serves to promote the good of the entire region.

The People and Their Languages

Many people in Central America farm and hunt their own food. This girl is fishing using a bottle and string.

Many people in Central America farm and hunt their own food. This girl is fishing using a bottle and string.

©M.Wilhelm/GLOBIO.org

Most Central Americans are Native American or mixed Native American and Spanish. There are also smaller ethnic groups of African descent in Belize and unmixed Spanish inhabitants in Costa Rica. With the exception of Belize, the official language of the countries is Spanish. In Belize it is English. Several Native American languages are still spoken, including many that began with the Maya. Central Americans of African ancestry called the Garifuna also speak their own language. These people arrived when the ships carrying them as slaves from West Africa wrecked in the Caribbean in 1635. They mixed with the Native American inhabitants and eventually formed communities in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

What Grows There? Bananas, Coffee, and Tourism

Most people live in the lowlands and highlands on the Pacific side of the isthmus, where they farm for a living. Bananas, coffee, cotton, and sugar are the main crops exported. The region also produces a rare type of cacao bean used in making chocolate. Bananas, beans, cassava, corn, and rice are the main food crops. Natural resources include fish, timber, oil, chicle, and some metals such as copper, gold, and silver.

Different herbs and plants from the rainforest are used to make medicines. Others are used for food and construction.

Different herbs and plants from the rainforest are used to make medicines. Others are used for food and construction.

©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org

Tourism is a growing industry in the region. Central American countries are still developing, and in some countries more than half the population is considered poor. Such poverty and political conflicts have made life difficult. The people of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have all suffered through deadly civil wars over the last 30 years.

Natural Central America

Hawksbill turtles are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. Humans illegally capture them to use their beautiful shells.

Hawksbill turtles are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. Humans illegally capture them to use their beautiful shells.

©K.Campbell/GLOBIO.org

With cloud forests, tropical rainforests, lakes, wetlands, dry lowlands, and miles of coastline, the region supports a wide range of habitats and species. Central America is small, but may be home to as much as 7 percent of the world’s species. The forests support numerous kinds of bats, poison frogs, monkeys, cats such as ocelots and jaguars, and parrots, toucans, and other tropical birds. The freshwater Lake Nicaragua harbors sharks usually found only in saltwater. Crocodiles cruise the swamps and lagoons. The beaches are nesting grounds for five species of endangered sea turtles: green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world with more than 100 species of coral and hundreds of kinds of fish.

Great Biodiversity, in Great Danger

Central America offers great biodiversity, but development, tree cutting, farming, and pollution threaten the region’s natural places. Forests used to blanket Central America, but today they have been reduced to a thin belt along the region’s eastern coast. Water pollution, overfishing, and climate change endanger the coral reefs. And hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes menace the region, leaving destruction behind. Ecotourism and conservation efforts are helping reduce some of the human threats to the environment and species of Central America. Governments are working together and with the people of the region to protect habitat areas and save resources but there is still a lot of work to be done.