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Natural Regions of Central America

Updated on April 5, 2014
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Central America is the narrow land bridge, or isthmus, that connects North and South America. Geographically the region takes in all the countries between Mexico to the north and Colombia to the south. The historical definition, preferred by most Central Americans, limits the region to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. These are the five countries that were part of the "Kingdom of Guatemala" in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) during the Spanish colonial period and that achieved independence as the United Provinces of Central America. Excluded from historical Central America are Panama, whose colonial connection was with Colombia and the Viceroyalty of New Granada, and Belize, formerly British Honduras, whose ties were with Britain rathern than Spain. Local usage applies the term América Central to the broader, geographic definition of the region, and Centroamérica to the narrower, historical concept that excludes Panama and Belize. This article concerns the five-nation historical region.

Despite recent changes, Central America continues to be burdened by the isolation, neglect, and poverty that characterized most of its post-Columbian history. Only after the mid-20th century did the region experience the beginnings of modernization in the form of highways, industry, large cities, and more advanced resource exploitation. Among the reasons for Central America's late development are its political fragmentation into nations that are too small for independent economic growth, a vulnerable export economy that is limited to a few products and is heavily dependent on the United States, a natural environment that has made a unified system of land transportation difficult, and persistent conflicts among the region's ethnic, social, and political groups.

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Physically, Central America consists of a mountainous, volcanic backbone flanked by coastal lowlands. Relief ranges from the flat Caribbean coastlands to the abrupt Pacific slopes, and from the deep depressions of the Nicaraguan lake areas to the high volcanic peaks of Guatemala. The tropical climate differs according to elevation and exposure to prevailing winds. In response to differences in climate and relief, variation also is apparent in flora, fauna, and soils. Except for some of the soil and a sizable hydroelectric potential, natural resources are limited mainly to a few promising metallic mineral deposits such as nickel in Guatemala, iron ore in Honduras, and bauxite in Costa Rica. The once abundant resources of the forests and coastal waters are being depleted at an alarming rate.

Lake Atitlán
Lake Atitlán | Source

The highland backbone of Central America is a complex region of mountains, plateaus, internal basins, and deep river valleys. Vulcanism is widespread, reaching its greatest manifestation in Guatemala and diminishing southward. Volcanic cones and lava flows abound. A few of the volcanic peaks around Lake Atitlán in Guatemala exceed 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level. The highlands are the population and agricultural core of Central America. Favored by fertile volcanic soils, by relatively mild temperatures due to elevation, by better drainage, and by less insect life, this area was important for human settlement even in the pre-Columbian period. Today more than three fourths of the region's population and most of its major cities are found here. The highlands constitute the leading zone of farm production both for subsistence crops, such as maize (corn), and for export crops, especially coffee.

The Caribbean lowlands rise gradually toward the uplands and are widest in Nicaragua. Because of high temperatures and abundant precipitation a blanket of dense rain forest evolved. The tropical forest, an inhospitable coast with few harbors and numerous mangrove swamps, and unpacified Indians all restricted Spanish settlement during the colonial period. Not until the late 19th and the 20th centuries was the agricultural potential of the Caribbean lowlands tapped. Plantations of bananas, cacao, and other tropical crops were carved out of the rain forest, but even now not all parts of the Caribbean plains are utilized.

The Pacific coastal plain is narrow and overshadowed by the nearby mountains, which descend sharply toward the sea. This lowland is composed for the most part of volcanic debris carried down the adjacent slopes. The Pacific plain receives less rain than the Caribbean lowland and is seasonally dry. As a result the forest is semideciduous and less dense, and there are numerous areas of tropical grassland, or savanna. Grazing competes with crop growing in the Pacific margin, and the population, while greater than on the Caribbean flank, is less than that of the highlands.

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