Where Is Central America?
Central America is an isthmus that connects North America to South America, separating the Pacific Ocean to the west from the Caribbean Sea to the east. Its area is 202,200 square miles (523 700 square km) and it extends roughly 1,140 miles (1,835 km) long from the northwest to the southeast. Central America is only about 30 miles wide at its narrowest points, and there is no location on the isthmus that is more than 125 miles away from the sea. Central America has a less populous Caribbean side and a congested Pacific side. The isthmus is made up of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.
Countries of Central America
Belize is found on the northeast coast of Central America, south of the Yucatán Peninsula. It is between Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Belize is the only Central American country that does not have a coastline on the North Pacific Ocean. Along the country's 174-mile (280-km) coastline is the Belize Barrier Reef, the second-largest barrier reef in the world and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Belize's capital city is Belmopan. The country has a total size of 8,867 square miles (22,965 square km), with more than 395,000 people. About 25 to 30% live in the former capital city of Belize City and over half of the overall population lives in rural areas.
Belize has one of the most stable and democratic governments in Central America. Its dominant economic activity is services, particularly tourism. Although Belize has the third-highest per capita income in Central America, it suffers from a high-income disparity between the rich and the poor. Some of the significant concerns Belize faces are high unemployment, massive foreign debt burden, and high unemployment.
Costa Rica is surrounded by Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the northeast, Panama to the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. At its narrowest point, the distance between the Caribbean and Pacific is only about 75 miles. Costa Rica has the most stable and democratic government in Central America. The country has abolished its military and provided social and educational guarantees for its citizens.
Costa Rica has a population of over 5 million people across 19,730 square miles (51,100 square km). The capital of San José is the largest city and is home to about one-fifth of the population. Roughly half of the country's population lives in urban areas.
Costa Rica is an upper-middle-income country that has had a strong and stable economic growth since 2010. It has an established ecotourism industry due to its biodiversity. It also exports several agriculture-based products such as bananas, coffee, sugar, and beer. Costa Rica is neither rich nor poor, but its wealth is better distributed amongst its inhabitants. Costa Rica's political stability and steady growth have resulted in one of the lowest poverty rates in the region. However, it has one of the highest per capita national debt among all Central American countries.
El Salvador is surrounded by Honduras to the north and east, Guatemala to the northwest, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. It is the smallest country in Central America and entirely located on the western side, making it the only Central American country without a coastline to the Caribbean Sea.
El Salvador's capital city is San Salvador. Despite being the smallest country on the isthmus, it is the most densely populated, with more than 6.7 million residents across 8,124 square miles (21,040 square km) of land.
El Salvador has the fourth-largest economy in Central America. It was traditionally an agricultural economy but quickly expanded in the 1960s and '70s, and the service sector now dominates the economy. El Salvador along with other Central American and Caribbean countries signed a free-trade agreement with the United States in 2004, further boosting El Salvador's export income, but it has been suffering from consistently low economic growth levels. It also has a high level of poverty, with over 30% of the population living below the poverty line.
Guatemala is surrounded by Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Gulf of Honduras to the northeast, El Salvador to the southeast, Honduras to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Guatemala sits along the Ring of Fire, a string of active volcanoes and earthquake epicenters on the Pacific Ocean.
The capital of Guatemala is Guatemala City. The country is 42,042 square miles (108,889 square km) in size and has a population of 17.7 million people. It has the largest population in Central America.
Guatemala has the largest economy in Central America, with an average growth rate of 3.5% in the last five years. Despite its stable economy, more than half of Guatemala's citizens live below the poverty line, with 23% living in extreme poverty. It has a highly unequal income distribution, with the wealthiest 20% accounting for more than half of Guatemala's consumption.
Honduras (officially the Republic of Honduras) sits between the Caribbean Sea to the north, Nicaragua to the east and south, Guatemala and El Salvador to the west, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. It has a long Caribbean shoreline that includes the nearly uninhabited eastern Mosquito Coast. More than three-fourths of Honduras' land area is mountainous.
Honduras has a total land size of 43,433 square miles (112,492 square km) and more than 9 million people. Its capital city is Tegucigalpa.
Honduras' economy has historically depended on the export of bananas and coffee but has branched out to include other products such as clothing. Honduras is the second-poorest country in Central America, and the majority of its citizens work under challenging conditions. It also has an unequal distribution of income and high underemployment. However, in recent years, Honduras has had the second-highest economic growth in Central America, only second to Panama.
Nicaragua is surrounded by Honduras to the northwest, the Caribbean Sea to the east, Costa Rica to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. It is the only country in Latin America that was colonized by both the Spanish and the British. Present-day Nicaragua is still recovering from civil war and continues to be dependent on foreign aid.
It is the largest country in Central America, with a land size of 50,337 square miles (130,373 square km). Nicaragua is also home to the largest freshwater body in the region, Lago de Nicaragua. The capital city is Managua, and the country has more than 6.5 million inhabitants.
Nicaragua is still one of Latin America's least developed countries and is the poorest country in Central America. It suffers from high unemployment rates, massive external debt, and a lack of access to basic needs. The country sustained a robust economic growth rate of 4.6% in 2017, but social and political unrest caused it to contract in 2018 and 2019.
Panama is on the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow bridge of land connecting North America to South America. The Caribbean Sea borders Panama to the north, and the Pacific Ocean surrounds it to the south. The country is between Colombia and Costa Rica. The 51-mile-long Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, has made Panama one of the world's most strategic transportation centers.
Panama's capital is Panama City. The country has over 4.2 million people spread across 29,081 square miles (75,320 square km) of land. Panama became the first Spanish colony in the Pacific in 1510.
Panama has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Over the past couple of years, it has had an average annual growth rate of 4.6% in the past five years. The Panama Canal has helped the country play an ongoing role in international affairs and world commerce, and the Canal's recent expansion project will strengthen Panama's future growth. Despite its strong economic performance, Panama still has one of the worst income distribution in Central America. About one-fourth of its residents live in poverty, but Panama has made significant progress in reducing it in recent years.
Biodiversity of Central America
Central America is one of the world's most biologically abundant regions on Earth. It only occupies 0.5% of the world's land surface but is home to more than 7% of its biodiversity. It houses a diverse array of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the region. Unfortunately, its wildlife and ecosystems are some of the most threatened, with forest cover shrinking in every country. Costa Rica, Panama, and Guatemala are the region's most biodiverse countries.
Central America's geography greatly contributes to its biodiversity. Humid swamps and lowlands lie along its west and east coasts. It has incredibly diverse natural vegetation, with tropical rainforests occupying the eastern lowlands, evergreen forests abundant along the lower slopes of the Pacific coast, and pine and oak forests growing in higher elevations.
The region's climate is tropical but can vary depending on elevation, latitude, topography, and proximity to the sea. Rainfall occurs during the summer, with May and November experiencing the heaviest downpour. January through March are the driest months. The Caribbean side generally receives about twice as much rain as the Pacific side.
Although Central America is technically part of North America, it has unique geographical characteristics and diverse wildlife. Due to this biodiversity, several Central American countries have made the ecotourism industry one of its top income sources. However, despite some countries experiencing economic growth or stability over the years, poverty among its citizens is still a significant issue for many.