The words ‘Latin America’ are used to describe the group of 21 countries (listed below) in the American continent where Latin languages are spoken. These countries are all located south of the US-Mexico border, starting with Mexico in North America, extending through Central America and parts of the Caribbean and down into the southernmost tip of South America – the region known as Tierra del Fuego.
Latin America shares elements of historical experience, language and culture. This group of countries have more in common with each other, in many respects, than they do with Canada and the US.
Having said that, Latin America is also a wonderfully diverse group of countries, as well as a growing political and economic force. This region deserves to be defined on its own terms, beyond dismissive stereotypes, rather than being known simply as the less-well known neighbour of the USA. I hope this brief guide will offer a positive introduction to the varied landscapes, peoples and cultures of Latin America.
There are 21 main countries in Latin America, if you go by the definition that it is the region of the Americas where Latin languages are spoken. These languages are Spanish, Portuguese and French – part of the legacy of the colonization of the continent by European powers starting in the 16th century.
I have not included the smaller Caribbean island nations as they speak a variety of European languages including English and Dutch. I have also left out Belize and Guyana because although they are located in the same region, they were colonised by Britain in the past and they are English-speaking counties.
Latin America encompasses a vast and very diverse area of the world. The main natural features of the region include the pampa grasslands of the southern cone, the Andean mountain range, the Amazonian rainforest, the forests and volcanoes of Central America and some of the tropical islands of the Caribbean.
South America has three main habitats – the high mountain range of the Andes, the lush Amazon rainforests and the dry grasslands of the ‘cono sur’.
The Andes mountains stretch from Chile north into Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and southern Colombia. The Andes have many snow-capped peaks reaching over 6,000 metres above sea-level, and are also home to glaciers and active volcanoes. It is a dry, cold climate, difficult to survive though many indigenous people manage to live there in very humble circumstances, supported by the farming of llamas and guinea pigs, and by the cultivation of hardy crops such as quinoa, potatoes and peanuts.
The Amazon river basin covers much of the centre of South America, and is the world’s largest and most significant rainforest, covering an area of about 2.5 million square miles. The climate here is hot and humid, supporting lush forest and a vast array of exotic wildlife. Scientists have catalogued:
- 2500 species of fish
- 1500 species of birds
- 1800 species of butterflys
- 4 types of big cats
- 200 species of mosquitoes
- 50,000 species of higher plants
Many medical scientists hope that a cure for cancer will be found among the Amazon’s as yet undiscovered plants, but this is endangered as a growing number of settlers are cutting their way into the rainforest and establishing farms where forest once grew. This practice is particularly prevalent in Bolivia and Brazil.
The grasslands of the Cono Sur are known as the ‘pampa’ and have a cooler climate. This region dominates much of southern Argentina and Chile and is ideal for the raising of cattle. Thus Argentinian beef is exported around the world. The cattle-herds who work in this area, mainly travelling on horseback, are known as ‘gauchos’ and live a semi-nomadic existence.
Central America and Mexico tends to have a hot climate except in mountain areas which are typically cooler. There are significant bodies of rainforest, especially in the east of the region. There are also the rarer but ecologically very important cloud forests – a cooler mountain forest – in Panama and Costa Rica. Again many rare and exotic plants and animals live in this region. There are also many active volcanoes in the area – Nicaragua having the greatest number.
The Caribbean is a group of tropical islands. Many have beautiful sandy beaches and attract large numbers of tourists every year. Unfortunately this has had some negative effects especailly on fish stocks and on coral reefs which have been damaged in places from excessive sunscreen in the water. The climate is hot and sunny, year round again contributing to the popularity of the region as a tourist destination.
Some of the many wild animals unique to Latin America include Capybaras, Tapir, Caimans, Jaguars, Macaw parrots, several species of monkeys including Capuccin and Howler monkeys, and Toucans. Many endangered species live in the Amazon region, including River Dolphins, Manatee and Armadillos.
The peoples and cultures of Latin America are many and various, too-detailed to name individually here. However, there are certain elements of population and culture which are broadly common across Latin America and which distinguish the region from English-speaking America.
When European settlers (mainly Spanish and Portuguese) arrived in the 16th century they found a number of thriving indigenous cultures. As well as the hunter-gatherer tribes of the deep forests they encountered highly developed civilisations such as the Incas in South America and the Aztecs in what is now Mexico. Unlike in the US for example, significant numbers of indigenous people survived the process of colonisation – their descendants are an important part of the population culture of Latin America today.
People of 100% indigenous descent are the majority in a couple of Latin American countries – Bolivia being a prime example. However, most countries in Latin America have a majority population of people known as ‘mestizos‘, that is, people of mixed indigenous and European descent. While the pure indigenous have a tendency to hold on to traditional culture such as language and dress, mestizos tend to speak a Latin language and their dress is generally the Western uniform of blue jeans and baseball caps.
Around 10% of the population in most Latin American countries consider themselves to be of fully European descent. At the same time many of the countries in Latin America have significant Afro-Latin American populations – notably Ecuador, Haiti and Cuba. These black Latin Americans are mainly the descendants of Africans who were enslaved and transported to the region to work on sugar-cane plantations.
The arrival of Southern European colonizers brought one unifying common element to the region – the Catholic church. The vast majority of the population of Latin America are Roman Catholic, a fact which distinguishes them from English-speaking America. Thanks in part to the brutality of the Spanish Inquistion, the arrival of Christianity in the region has been almost total – native superstitions have been subsumed and incorporated but the vast majority of the population are church-going Catholics. Evangelical missionaries from other Christian denominations have made some inroads (notably in Central America ) in recent times, including the Mormon Church.
The fusion of indigenous, African and European tradition had lent a great richness to Latin American culture. There are two fields of cultural endeavour where this fusion has caused Latin Americans to gain a worldwide reputation for excellence – literature and music.
Latin American literature is noted for its ‘magical realsim’, where authors have incorporated the supernatural beliefs common in the local culture into stories told with lyrical and literary language. Famous authors from the region include Nobel prize-winners such as Gabriel Garcia Mazquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, and the ever-popular Isabel Allende.
The music of Latin America is as diverse as its people. The Andes are home to the pan-pipes, while Cuban music is a wonderful fusion of African and Hispanic elements. Nicaragua has an amazing tradition of politically-committed ballads, while Argentina gave us the world famous Tango dance.
To try to describe the character of Latin American people runs the risk of falling into broad generalisations. But in my 14 months travelling this marvellous region I did notice some common characteristics that were very different to the Western culture I grew up in.
People in Latin America have a lot more of what the French call ‘ joie de vivre’. Even some of the poorest indigenous people always seemed to have time for a joke and a smile with their friends. While people will work very hard there to survive, they are not so motivated to work to get rich – time spent with family is more important to them. And they all seem to be musical – everyone in Latin America can dance like a professional. It was pretty embarrassing for this Irish girl to try a few moves alongside them, I can tell you!