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“The Caribbean” is a term that gets tossed around with not much thought. Why would you need to read a travel guide to the Caribbean?

One reason is that it’s pretty helpful to know the region you’re about to visit, especially if you’ve decided to island-hop or are planning a cruise.

Geography and politics have shaped how the 28 Caribbean nations and 7,000+ islands in the Caribbean Sea are named and sorted. While you may see some groupings structured as Eastern and Western Caribbean, it is a bit more complex than that.

In many cases, the groupings will overlap, which can cause some confusion. When you are planning your next vacation to the Caribbean, you will have this travel guide to the Caribbean islands to help you sort it all out.

Which Islands Make Up the Caribbean?

Turks and Caicos

Strictly speaking, if the coast of a country is on the Caribbean Sea, it can be considered a Caribbean nation, and not all of them are actual islands.

A few countries commonly grouped under the Caribbean umbrella are actually in the Atlantic Ocean. Some of these nations are Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos.

Central and South American countries like Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, and Colombia have Caribbean coasts and islands, which a host of travelers don’t realize.

Guyana, one of the most interesting geographically, is on South American’s Atlantic coast, but its cultural connections to the Caribbean are deep and it is considered a part of the region.

The Eastern Caribbean 

There are more islands in this group than any other. They include St. Martin/Maarten, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Barts, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Anguilla, Antigua, and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The Southern Caribbean 

Mostly used for planning purposes by cruise lines, obvious destinations included in the Southern Caribbean are Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire. All three of these are located in the Caribbean, right off South American’s coast.

A Southern Caribbean itinerary can feature port calls in nations like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, Dominica, Barbados, Martinique and Trinidad, and Tobago.

So you see, they have no problem overlapping the Southern and Eastern destinations, which is why a guide to the Caribbean islands is almost necessary to make sense of things at times.

turks and caicos map

The Western Caribbean 

Included in the Western Caribbean are islands west of Hispaniola – the Dominican Republic and Haiti – and Central America’s Caribbean coastal nations.

In this category are Cuba, the Cayman Islands, and Jamaica. Although if you check a cruise ship itinerary, they may refer to their Western Caribbean cruise as Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Belize, Cozumel and Roatan (in Honduras).

The Greater Antilles 

This region consists of five bigger islands found in the northern part of the Caribbean Sea. The name the Greater Antilles has a Spanish origin.

Derived from “Antilla”, a word that was used to reference a mysterious island located somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, and Puerto Rico make up this area.

The Lesser Antilles 

The Lesser Antilles refers to the islands that roughly define the Caribbean’s eastern edge. A sizeable region, they stretch from the Caribbean’s northern edge to the coast of South America.

Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Anguilla, Barbados, Bonaire, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Curacao, Guadeloupe, Grenada, Martinique, Saba, St. Barts, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Maarten, the U.S. Virgin Islands and a few Caribbean islands that belong to Venezuela are all a part of the Lesser Antilles.   

The Netherlands Antilles 

The Netherlands Antilles has nothing to do with geographic location, but rather a political grouping.

Saba, Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire and St. Maarten make up this region.

The Windward Islands 

The group of islands that making up the northern part of the Lesser Antilles are the Windward Islands. The trade winds that were depended upon by explorers and merchants to get their ships across the Atlantic touch these islands first, which places them upwind from the Leeward Islands.

In this group are Martinique, St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Martinique, Grenada, and St. Vincent are some of the hidden gems of the Caribbean.

The Leeward Islands 

The Lesser Antilles’ northern islands, the Leeward Islands are in the Eastern Caribbean and are downwind from the Windward Islands.

The British Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, Anguilla, St. Barts, Saba, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Martin/Maarten and Antigua and Barbuda all make up this area.

The British West Indies

At one point, the British West Indies included over 20 Caribbean islands under control by the British Empire. As of today, many of these islands have gained their independence over the years from Great Britain.

Presently the only countries that are still under the rule of Great Britain include the Turks and Caicos, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, Anguilla, and Bermuda.

These happen to be some of the islands where those in the know love to play and are the top destinations for luxury living. South Caicos and Anguilla, will be on every itinerary soon enough, though.

The French West Indies 

Within this group are two states, or overseas departments, belonging to the nation of France. They are Guadeloupe and Martinique. St. Martin, St. Barts, and French Guyana are also a part of the French West Indies.

The Mexican Caribbean

Unbeknownst to a large number of people, a huge swath of Mexico’s coastline is on the Caribbean Sea. This is why you will see some cruise lines that head to Cozumel or google searches that return results for Mexico when you are searching for trips or news related to the Caribbean.

A lot of the most popular Caribbean destinations happen to be in this area and include Tulum, Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, and Puerto Morelos. Every single destination here is a part of Quintana Roo, a Mexican State. Collectively, this region is commonly called Riviera Maya.

Travel with Knowledge 

Cruise lines throwing their own groupings together can be very confusing, making it hard to understand where you are going and if you want to go to a certain region at all.

Now when planning your perfect trip to the best Caribbean beaches or to see some of the untouched forests, you will have a travel guide to the Caribbean islands that actually make sense.