The islands of the Caribbean Sea or West Indies are an extensive archipelago in the far west of the Atlantic Ocean, mostly strung between North and South America. They’ve long been known as a resort vacation destination for honeymooners and retirees, but a small movement toward eco-tourism and backpacking has started to open up the Caribbean to more independent travel. With year-round good weather (with the occasional but sometimes serious exception of hurricane season in the late summer and early fall), promotional air fares from Europe and North America, and hundreds of islands to explore, the Caribbean offers something for almost everyone.
The Caribbean islands were first inhabited by the Arawak Indians, then were invaded by a more aggressive tribe, the Caribs. Unfortunately, neither could appreciate their victory forever, although the Arawaks may have had a quiet reign of nearly two millenia. Then the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Danish, and British arrived, after which the Carib population steeply declined due to various factors. The islands have known many historic battles and more than a few pirate stories.
Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, often grouped as Greater Antilles, are by far the largest countries in the area and the most visited by travellers. The Caribbean also includes the Lesser Antilles, a group of much smaller islands to the east.
Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies 145 km (90 miles) south of Key West, Florida, between the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, to the west of Haiti, and northwest of Jamaica.
Before the 1959 Revolution, Cuba was a popular tourist destination for United States citizens, mainly due to the large number of casinos catering to gamblers put up by the American mafia. Revolutionaries claim the Batista dictatorship was a government that neglected many of its own citizens health and welfare in order to maintain itself in power. Many Americans had beach homes during the summer and rich American companies owned large factories and land with the cooperation of Fulgenicio Batista, the ruling military dictator. Since the Revolution, Cuba has been subjected to a trade and economic embargo by the United States. While travel between the two neighbors is restricted, it is still possible, though illegal for most US citizens. Since 2009, US citizens with relatives living in Cuba are allowed to visit Cuba.
After 1959, Cuban tourism was mostly for Cubans only, and the facilities were not renewed until the 1990s, when Cuba lost financial backing from the defunct Soviet Union and opened its doors to foreign tourism. Now many European, Canadian, and even American visitors come to the island. In the typical tourist regions like Varadero and Holguin a lot of modern 3-star to 5-star hotels are available, while in less popular tourist regions visitors are still able to rent rooms in many Cuban homes (called casas particulares).
A tourist visa card (visa de tarjeta del turista) is necessary for travellers from most nations. This visa, which is really little more than a piece of paper on which you list your vital statistics, costs between 15-25 CUC (or 15-25 Euro), depending on where purchased. It can be purchased at the Airport in Cuba on arrival, however it should be noted that many airlines will require a valid tourist visa card before boarding flights. It is usually valid for 30 days and can be extended once for another 30 days at any immigration office in Cuba (for 25 CUC) – beyond this you would need a flight out of Cuba within the extended visa period. Canadians are the exception, getting 90 days on arrival and can apply for a 90 day extension. Your passport needs to be valid at least six months past the end of your planned return.
From Canada, the tourist card is normally provided on the flight. It can be purchased at Cancun airport (250 MXN) if departing from there, and similar in most other Latin American gateway airports. Please note that if departing the UK and many parts of Europe at least (this may apply to other countries), you will require to have the visa before boarding the plane. Boarding may be denied (this is because the airline will then get a $1,000 fine from the immigration authorities) and airplane ticket lost. In the UK, applying for the visa is a very simple process and can be done by post or in person at the Cuban embassy in London. If you apply in person, you get the visa straight away. It can also be done through online agencies.
Regular tourists who renew their 30 day visa are eligible to depart the country (to any destination) and return immediately enjoying a further 60 days (30 days plus a 30 day extension). You are only allowed two consecutive stays in this manner.
- Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean country that occupies the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The western one-third of Hispaniola is occupied by the country of Haiti. To the north lies the North Atlantic Ocean, while the Caribbean Sea lies to the south. The climate is tropical maritime with little seasonal temperature variation. There is a seasonal variation in rainfall. The island lies in the middle of the hurricane belt and is subject to severe storms from June to October. It experiences occasional flooding and periodic droughts.
Malaria can be an issue around rainforests if travelers don’t take protective measures such as repellents against mosquito bites. Be sure to consult with a physician before departure.
There is a risk of dengue fever which is contracted through mosquitoes that bite during the day. No vaccine is available, so again using mosquito repellent is advisable.
Many of the local foods are safe to eat including the meats, fruits, and vegetables.
Visitors, however, should not drink any of the local water and should stay with bottled water or other beverages. It is important for visitors to stay hydrated in the hot, humid climate. Sunburn and sun poisoning are a great risk. The sun is very bright here. Use at least SPF30 sunblock. Limit sun exposure.
Haiti occupies the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola. The eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola is occupied by the Dominican Republic. The North Atlantic Ocean lies to the north, while the Caribbean Sea lies to the south. Haiti is a country with a troubled past, and its future still remains uncertain. Decades of poverty, environmental degradation, violence, instability, dictatorship and coups have left it the poorest nation in the western.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Tourists who are unsettled by grinding poverty probably should visit elsewhere. However, for those with patience and an open mind, Haiti reveals a rich culture that is unique among post-colonial nations.
It is extremely helpful when traveling in Haiti to have a local contact, through a church, a hotel, or just through making friends with someone. Experiences like dining locally, riding on a tap-tap, or strolling through one of the insanely crowded outdoor markets are great fun and very worth doing, but much safer and easier if you have a trusted Haitian to go along as a guide and interpreter.
The climate is tropical, semiarid where mountains in the east cut off trade winds. Haiti lies in the middle of the hurricane belt and is subject to severe storms from June to November. Experiences occasional flooding, earthquakes and droughts.
Jamaica is located to the south of Cuba and to the west of the island of Hispaniola. With 2.8 million people, Jamaica is the third most populous anglophone country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada. It remains a Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State. The climate in Jamaica is tropical, with hot and humid weather, although higher inland regions are more temperate. Some regions on the south coast are relatively dry rain-shadow areas. Jamaica lies in the hurricane belt of the Atlantic Ocean; as a result, the island sometimes experiences significant storm damage.
US citizens–including those visiting by cruise ship–require a passport. No visa is required.
- Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is the Caribbean island that is a self-governing commonwealth of the United States of America. Located in the Caribbean Sea to the east of the Dominican Republic and west of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico lies on a key shipping lane to the Panama Canal, the Mona Passage. Puerto Rico has a tropical marine climate, which is mild and has little seasonal temperature variation. Temperatures range from 70˚F to 90˚F (21˚C to 32˚C), and tend to be lower at night and up in the mountains. Year round trade winds take part in ensuring the sub tropical climate. The average annual temperature is 26°C (80°F). Rainfall is abundant along the north coast and in the highlands, but light along the south coast. Hurricane season spans between June and November, where rain showers occur once a day, almost every day. Periodic droughts sometimes affect the island.
Since Puerto Rico is a US territory, US citizens do not need a passport to travel to Puerto Rico, from the US or vice versa. Meaning that US citizens can travel freely to and from Puerto Rico without going through immigrations or customs. US citizens only need some form of government issued identification, including a picture to enter Puerto Rico.
The Lesser Antilles can be divided into three groups.
- Antigua and Barbuda
- British Virgin Islands
- Saint Barthelemy
- Sint Eustatius
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Martin
- U.S. Virgin Islands
Other islands and territories
These countries are not part of the Greater or Lesser Antilles but are variously close to it, and are commonly associated with the Caribbean (e.g. members of CARICOM, the Caribbean Community).
- The Bahamas — a cluster of islands north of the Greater Antilles and southeast of Florida
- Bermuda — some distance to the north of the Caribbean, but commonly associated with the region
- Cayman Islands — a small island close to Cuba that functions as an offshore financial centre
- Navassa Island — uninhabited wildlife refuge, part of the United States, also claimed by Haiti
- Turks and Caicos Islands — a cluster of islands south of the Bahamas
- French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname — culturally and economically a part of the region, but geographically on mainland South America
- Several countries in Central America, South America and Mexico have shorelines — and islands — in the Caribbean
- Havana — world-famous capital of Cuba and largest city of the Caribbean
- Kingston — capital of Jamaica
- Nassau — capital of the Bahamas
- Port-au-Prince — capital of Haiti
- Port of Spain — capital of Trinidad and Tobago
- San Juan — capital of Puerto Rico
- Santiago de Cuba — Cuba’s second largest city
- Santo Domingo — capital of of the Dominican Republic
- Willemstad — capital and largest city of the Netherlands Antilles, Curacao
- Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park
- Citadelle Henri Christophe and Palais Sans Souci
- Gran Parque Natural Topes de Collantes
- Jardines del Rey
- Maracas National Park
- Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario
- La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site
- From Europe to:
- Antigua and Barbuda (ANU) from London (LGW),Manchester (MAN) by British Airways, BMI, Virgin Atlantic and from Frankfurt (FRA) by Condor
- Barbados, Bridgetown (BGI) from London, Manchester by Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Caribbean Airlines and from Frankfurt by Condor
- Cuba from London (LGW) by Virgin Atlantic, Air Jamaica, from Madrid (MAD) by Iberia, from Paris (CDG) by Air France and from all three by Cubana
- Grenada, Maurice Bishop International (GND) from UK by Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Excel from Germany Condor
- Saint Lucia, Hewanorra (UVF) from London (LGW) by Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Caribbean Airlines and from Manchester (MAN) by Virgin Atlantic
- Martinique Fort-de-France (FDF) from Paris by Air France, Air Caribes
- Tobago (TAB), from London (LGW) by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and from Frankfurt (FRA) by Condor
- Trinidad, Port-of-Spain (POS) from London by Caribbean Airlines
- Turks & Caicos Islands (PLS), from London (LHR) through Nassau, Bahamas
- From United States to:
- Curaçao (CUR), Bonaire (BON) from Miami (MIA) – by Insel Air
- Curacao, (CUR) – by American Airlines
- Aruba, (AUA) – by Delta Airlines, AirTran, American Airlines, Jetblue Airways, US Airways, United Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Continental Airlines and SLM
- Air Caraibes: from Paris to Guadeloupe, Martinique
- Air France: from Paris to Guadeloupe, Martinique
- Air Jamaica: London to Jamaica and Cuba
- American Airlines: from Miami to; Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Curaçao Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman, Grenada, Jamaica, Kingston, Montego Bay, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, St. Croix, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Trinidad
- British Airways: from London (LGW) to Antigua, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Tobago and from Manchaster to Saint Lucia.
- Caribbean Airlines: from London to Barbados, Saint Lucia, London – Antigua, Belfast – Tobago (see BWIA Route map )
- Cayman Airways: from the Cayman Islands to multiple gateways in the US
- Condor/Thomas Cook: from Frankfurt (FRA), see Condor Route map
- Cubana: To Cuba from Madrid, Paris, London
- Iberia: from Madrid to Havana, San Juan de Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo.
- Insel Air – Direct flights from Miami and Inter-Island travel. Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Haiti, Las Piedras, Miami, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, St. Maarten, Suriname, and Valencia.
- JetBlue to Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Saint Maarten, Puerto Rico, Aruba, Saint Lucia and Barbados mostly to New York and Boston and some also to Washington DC, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
- Virgin Atlantic: from London to Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, Havana, Jamaica, St Lucia, Tobago and from Manchester to Barbados and St Lucia
Numerous companies offer cruises, charters, and boat tours in the Caribbean.
- LIAT has connections between most caribbean islands
- Caribbean Airlines offers flights between islands and Canada, US, Europe and other airport in South America