From the high, snowy mountains and hot, arid deserts of northern Mexico, south to the lush tropical forests of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast, this is a region of great contrasts. Central America consists of seven small countries on the thin land bridge between Mexico and South America. To its east lie the beautiful tropical islands of the Caribbean Sea.
The Mayan and Aztec empires no longer exist, but both civilizations have left behind the ruins of many amazing buildings. Mayan temples and cities can be found in the forests of Belize and Guatemala, and ancient Aztec remains are still being uncovered beneath the buildings of Mexico City.
Every year, on November 1, Mexicans honor their dead family and friends in a celebration called the Day of the Dead. They believe death is a part of life and should be celebrated. They decorate the streets with flowers and hang up ghoulish papier-mâché skeletons. Families gather together to pray to the dead and visit family graves.
Native peoples lived in Central America for centuries until Europeans conquered the region during the 16th century. As a result, many people today are mestizos (of mixed European and Native American descent). Native peoples themselves make up less than 10 percent of the total population.
The Caribbean islands export sugar, bananas, tobacco, coffee, rum, and, more recently, illegal drugs. But the biggest exports are people and culture. Poverty led many islanders to migrate to the US or Europe, taking with them an extraordinarily vibrant culture.
The eastern Caribbean islands sit on the edge of a small plate (section) of the Earth’s crust surrounded by bigger plates. As these plates were forced into each other over millions of years, they created a chain of volcanic islands. Most of the volcanoes are now extinct, but some, such as Soufrière Hills volcano in Montserrat, have erupted recently.
In recent years, Central American nations have lost income as the prices for exports of coffee, bananas, and other cash crops have fallen. At the same time, they borrowed money from abroad to pay for new roads, hospitals, and other projects, leaving them heavily in debt. Political instability and civil war have helped keep countries in this region very poor.
Life is tough in Mexico City, as housing is often poor and earthquakes are a constant threat. The city is home to more than 20 million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world. It is very polluted because a ring of mountains surrounds it, trapping polluted air from cars and factories.