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.
©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
Central America is tropical with large areas of rainforest. Many different
and interesting species live in the habitats of Central America.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
The peoples of Central America have a rich heritage that includes influences
from Native American, Spanish, and Africa cultures.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.