Western Caribbean History & Travel Guide

Western Caribbean Travel Guide includes Central America from the Yucatan Peninsula to northern Colombia, The Cayman Islands & Jamaica.

CENTRAL AMERICA

From the ebony sand of El Salvador to the Mayan ruins of Mexico and airy beach shack bars, shops and eateries of Belize, the Western Caribbean suits a variety of vacation tastes.

This multicultural, largely English-speaking region features some of the best preserved Colonial towns and offers a variety of adventure sports, including ziplining the Costa Rican rainforest and cave diving waters off Grand Cayman. There are surfworthy waves off El Salvador, sophisticated nightlife in Panama.

Central American countries also include Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Some of the earliest known inhabitants were the Native American societies of Mesoamerica (from central Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south) and pre-Columbian cultures of Panama who traded with them and South Americans.

Central America formed from volcanic eruptions, some of them large and explosive. From Guatemala to northern Panama, hundreds of volcanic formations of varied sizes parallel the Pacific coast and form what’s known as a volcanic arc.

The region sits atop the Caribbean Plate, one of several crusty slabs of earth that constantly move lands above them. Millions of years ago, the movement of plates in this region caused North and South America to collide, closing a wide Central American Seaway that linked the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The isthmus of Panama created a land bridge.

The Western Caribbean by the 16th century was home to pirates, runaway slaves who had been working aboard Spanish treasure ships, Mayans with their own governments and others who believed that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

To outsiders, however, the region was like America’s Wild West.

Spanish Franciscans set out especially to conquer the Mayan kingdoms of Guatemala in an attempt to Christianize the New World through word and example. The Spanish succeeded in conquering Venezuela and a good portion of Colombia, but most of the country’s Central American successes ended on the Pacific coast.

British privateers began raiding Spanish shipping in the Caribbean. They stormed Panama and, with the Dutch, attempted similar feats in Caribbean coastal trading towns, paying pirates and buccaneers to raid Spanish ships traveling the Western Caribbean. The swashbucklers were based in places such as Tortuga, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and they would provision in Darien. European smugglers followed.

Spain ultimately claimed the Caribbean coast of Central America as part of its national territories, and Britain gained protectorate status over a portion of Honduras.

United States based transportation companies found the area appealing because of its low population and strategic location, particularly after the California Gold Rush created demand for a faster transportation route. By the early 20th century, a railroad and the Panama Canal were built. After Standard Fruit (Dole) and United Fruit (Chiquita) brought large-scale fruit production to the area during the same century, American novelist O. Henry dubbed Honduras a “banana republic.”

JAMAICA

Jamaica is a part of the Greater Antilles, an arc located within the West Indies. It’s the home of reggae, and visitors to the island can venture to sites and take part in activities that sway to a beat all their own.

There are opportunities on Jamaica to swim a river, mineral springs and waterfall lagoons, to ride horseback on the beach and explore limestone caves, to bobsled a rainforest and hike misty blue mountains famous for coffee.

Jamaica also boasts beaches, golfing, shopping and nightlife. Island plantations at one point produced more than 77,000 tons of sugar annually and at least one is open for touring. Travelers can also stroll what’s left of a sunken pirate city that Captain Henry Morgan of rum fame once roamed.

Europeans referred to this region of the Caribbean basin the West Indies as a means of differentiating it from the Indies in Asia. With the Cayman Islands in the western Caribbean and Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico in the eastern Caribbean, Jamaica and the Greater Antilles form nearly all of the West Indies land mass and most of its population.

The Greater Antilles are essentially the visible portion of an underwater mountain range that stretches from southeastern Cuba to near Belize. Jamaica, at 4,240 square miles, is the third largest island among them. The name, bestowed upon it after England began ruling it in 1655, means “Land of Wood and Water” or “Land of Springs.”

More than 200 South American Arawak and Taino indigenous villages existed on Jamaica when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1494 and claimed the island for Spain. Jamaica’s first Spanish settlement, Sevilla, was established in 1509 and later abandoned, the island capital moved to Spanish Town.

The British later ruled Jamaica and, in 1962, the island gained its independence. Spanish Town boasts the oldest cathedral among the Caribbean’s British colonies. Several botanical gardens on the island have been established by the British. Port Royal is the Jamaican town of Henry Morgan fame.

THE CAYMAN ISLANDS

Located nearly smack dab between Cuba and Jamaica, the Cayman Islands of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are a British overseas territory recognized also as a tax-free shelter for the well-heeled.

Each of the Caymans is virtually surrounded by living coral reefs, and the deepest Caribbean waters – more than four miles deep – can be found at an area between the Caymans and Jamaica known as the Cayman Trough.

Jacques Cousteau is said to have considered diving in the Cayman Islands among the world’s best. Divers these days flock to any of more than 40 walls, reefs, wrecks and caves, including one that contains the grave of a young girl who was lost in in a 1932 hurricane. On land, visitors enjoy Seven Mile and Point of Sand beaches.

The Cayman Islands also offer opportunities to visit a botanical garden, a bird sanctuary, a national historic site and automotive and Caribbean history museums. Activities include riding horseback on the beach and in the water, swimming with stingrays at “Stingray City” and getting up close and personal with sea turtles at a sea turtle farm.

The Cayman Islands were said to be enveloped by sea turtles when Christopher Columbus in 1503 spotted Cayman Brac and Little Cayman and named them Las Tortugas. Caymanes, however, is a version of the Carib word caimán, meaning crocodile. Sir Francis Drake in 1586 reported that the freshwater species amid this otherwise uninhabited area was edible, but sailors were more often drawn to the Cayman Islands for the meat of sea turtles that are now widely protected.

A permanent inhabitant said to have been a Welshman followed, as did pirates, Spanish Inquisition refugees, shipwrecked sailors, slaves and English privateers. By the 18th century, the islands were a popular pirate base. It was during this century too that the “Wreck of the Ten Sail” occurred: A fleet of 10 ships wrecked on Gun Bay reef. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 reportedly devastated the Caymans, but cruise ships resumed visits three months later nonetheless.

The 76-square-mile Grand Cayman, largest of the three islands, features dining, duty-free shopping, nightlife and most attractions. Cayman Brac, or bluff, the second largest, has become known also for rock climbing and fishing. Little Cayman is smallest and at sea level, and it features threatened, endangered and critically endangered species and the Caribbean’s largest red-footed booby population.

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About Author: Michelle Sheldone

Michelle Sheldone is an award-winning writer and the author of "Historic Walking Guides: Florida Keys." She launched her career at Family Circle magazine, where she worked as an entertainment editor. She has since contributed to newspapers, magazines and travel guides and handled marketing for government, education, travel, hospitality, fashion and conservation interests.