How many countries are in Central America? How is Central America defined? How many countries in Central America speak Spanish? Here’s everything you need to know!

When I first visited Central America, I remember being distinctly underwhelmed as I crossed the border from southern Mexico into northern Guatemala. Sure, the currency changed from the Mexican Peso to the Guatemalan Quetzal, but the language remained the same, the Maya culture of both regions remained the same, and even the history was largely similar.

Because I was crossing an international border, I’d been expecting things to change. I’d had more of a culture shock travelling from Mexico City down to the Mexican states of Yucatan, Oaxaca and Chiapas; and I hadn’t even left the country. It got me thinking, not only about the cultural history of a region divided by often arbitrary borders (thanks to colonialism) but about how we define the region of Central America.

My second trip to Central America took me to Belize, another Central American country, but one that’s heavily influenced by its Caribbean coastline and British colonial, rather than Spanish colonial, past. Again, it got me thinking, is Belize Central American in character or just in geography?

Officially, there are seven countries in Central America, but where does Central America really begin and end? Is the region defined in cultural terms (in which case, could we include southern Mexico and its Maya communities as Central American) or is it purely defined in terms of geography?

With these questions in mind, I decided to put together this definitive guide to Central America. From Belize to Panama, keep reading, as we explain how many countries there are in Central America.

How many countries are in Central America?

Central America is the narrow isthmus connecting North and South America, and it’s made up of seven distinct countries:

  • Belize
  • Costa Rica
  • El Salvador
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama

Although relatively small in terms of land area and population, each of these nations offers its own unique blend of culture, history, and natural landscapes. Belize, for example, is renowned for its biodiversity and extensive coral reefs. Costa Rica has gained global attention for its commitment to sustainability and conservation.

El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, has a history of indigenous cultures, including the Lenca and Pipil, while Guatemala, on the other hand, is noted for its well-preserved Mayan ruins and colonial architecture. Honduras, although grappling with social challenges, is rich in natural beauty, from its beaches to its mountainous interior.

Nicaragua, famous for its lakes and volcanoes, has a storied past that has greatly influenced its often turbulent contemporary political landscape. Finally, Panama, a logistical hub due to its famous canal, serves as a significant player in global commerce.

Map of Central America, Credit: Cacahuate, amendments by Joelf

Read more: How Many Countries Are in South America? Everything You Need to Know.

Where is Central America, exactly?

Central America is a slender landmass that serves as a conduit between North America and South America. Geographically, it’s flanked by Mexico to the north and Colombia to the south. To the east, the region is bordered by the Caribbean Sea, while the Pacific Ocean lies to the west. Spanning a relatively modest area, Central America nonetheless boasts significant geographical diversity, ranging from lowland plains to mountainous terrains and extensive coastlines.

Often considered a subregion of the Americas, this isthmus is strategically significant due to its position between two major continents and two large bodies of water. The Panama Canal, one of the world’s most crucial shipping routes, is perhaps the most notable geographical feature, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and serving as a key conduit for international trade.

Although Central America is sometimes thought of as merely a passageway between the larger continents, it is, in fact, a region replete with its own unique cultures, histories and ecosystems. Seven independent nations- Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama – make up Central America, and each presents its own particular set of attractions and challenges. As a meeting point of various cultures and a hotspot of biodiversity, the region holds its own importance on both the global stage and in the realm of natural history.

Map of Central America featuring the flags of every country. Credit: Wikipedia.

Read more: Is Guatemala a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

A brief history of Central America

The history of Central America is a complex story of indigenous cultures, colonial legacies and modern-day struggles. Here’s a brief history of Central America:

Pre-Columbian Period

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Central America was home to a variety of indigenous groups, including the Maya in present-day Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. These civilisations had advanced knowledge of astronomy, agriculture, and architecture. The Maya, for instance, constructed impressive pyramids and developed a complex calendar system.

Colonial Era

Christopher Columbus landed in the region in the 16th century, paving the way for Spanish colonisation. The indigenous populations were largely decimated due to warfare, enslavement and diseases introduced by the Europeans. During this period, the region became an important part of the Spanish Empire, primarily for its resources like gold and cacao.

Independence and 19th-Century

In the early 19th century, Central America declared its independence from Spain, initially becoming part of the Mexican Empire and subsequently forming the Federal Republic of Central America. The federation disintegrated by 1840, resulting in the seven individual states we know today.

20th Century to Present

The 20th century saw periods of political instability, civil wars, and interventions by foreign powers, most notably the United States. The region became a focal point during the Cold War, with countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala experiencing civil unrest fuelled in part by external influences.

Today, Central America faces challenges like economic inequality, social issues, and political instability, but it also showcases resilience, cultural richness, and significant advances in sectors like tourism and sustainable development.

Antigua, Guatemala, is defined by both its volcanic geography and colonial architecture.

Read more: Is El Salvador a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

What was the Federal Republic of Central America?

The Federal Republic of Central America, also known as the United Provinces of Central America, was a short-lived political union that existed between 1823 and 1841. It came into existence following the independence of much of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule.

Initially, the territories that made up this federation – Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua – became part of the Mexican Empire in 1821. However, after the collapse of the Mexican Empire, these nations opted to form a federal republic of their own.

Inspired by other federal models like the United States, the Federal Republic of Central America was established with a constitution that provided for a division of powers among federal and state governments. However, regional rivalries, ideological differences and social divisions hampered the functioning of the federation.

The capital was initially established in Guatemala City, and the first president was Manuel José Arce. However, his conservative leanings led to conflict with liberal factions, causing political instability. Later presidents, like Francisco Morazán, tried to hold the federation together through military force and legal reforms, but these efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful.

By the late 1830s, the federation began to disintegrate as individual states asserted their sovereignty and separated from the union. By 1841, the Federal Republic of Central America effectively ceased to exist, giving way to the independent nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Panama, at the time, was part of Colombia, and Belize was a British colony.

Although the federation was short-lived, its legacy remains a part of the historical and cultural fabric of Central America. The dream of regional unity has been revisited at various times since the federation’s dissolution, albeit without long-term success. Nonetheless, the blue and white colours found in the flags of the Central American countries today serve as a visual reminder of this period in history.

Guatemala was the centre of the Federal Republic of Central America, a union doomed to failure.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in North America? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Central America a continent?

Central America is not a continent; it is a region that forms part of North America. Specifically, it is an isthmus – a narrow strip of land – connecting two larger land masses, in this case, North and South America. It is bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the south, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Although these nations are relatively small in both area and population, they hold significant geographical and cultural importance.

The region serves as a crucial bridge between the two larger American continents and is a meeting point for various ecosystems, cultures, and historical narratives.

So, while Central America is not a continent in its own right, it is a geographically and culturally distinct region with its own set of challenges and opportunities.

Central America is home to large swathes of rainforest.

Read more: Is Belize a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

How many countries in Central America speak Spanish?

Six out of the seven countries in Central America have Spanish as their official language. These countries are Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Spanish is the dominant language in these nations, used in government, media, education and daily communication.

The exception is Belize, where English is the official language, a legacy of its history as a British colony. However, it’s worth noting that Belize has a linguistically diverse population, and Spanish is widely spoken, particularly near the border with Guatemala and among the country’s Hispanic community.

Apart from Spanish and English, which are the dominant languages in most Central American countries, the region is also home to a variety of other languages, particularly indigenous ones.

Here’s a breakdown:

  1. Guatemala: Guatemala has a rich tapestry of indigenous languages, with 22 Mayan languages officially recognised. These include K’iche’, Kaqchikel, and Mam among others.
  2. Belize: Apart from English, Creole is widely spoken. Additionally, there are Mayan languages like K’iche’ and Yucatec Maya, as well as Garifuna, an Arawakan language.
  3. Honduras: In addition to Spanish, Garifuna is spoken on the Caribbean coast. Some indigenous languages like Miskito are also spoken, particularly in the eastern part of the country.
  4. Nicaragua: Spanish is dominant, but on the Atlantic Coast, indigenous languages like Miskito, as well as Creole English, are prevalent. The Garifuna language is also spoken in some communities.
  5. Costa Rica: While Spanish is nearly ubiquitous, some indigenous languages like Bribri and Cabécar are still spoken, although they are increasingly rare.
  6. Panama: Besides Spanish, several indigenous languages are spoken, including Ngäbere and Buglere, which are used by the Ngäbe-Buglé people. Additionally, some Afro-Antillean communities speak Creole English.
  7. El Salvador: While largely Spanish-speaking, a small number of people speak Nawat, an indigenous language. Efforts are underway to revive it.
You can hear different languages in the markets across Central America.

Read more: Where is Belize? Everything You Need to Know.

Where does South America begin?

South America begins immediately south of Central America, with the border between Panama and Colombia serving as the geographical dividing line. Specifically, the natural demarcation is often considered to be the Daríen Gap, a swathe of rugged, forested terrain that interrupts the Pan-American Highway. This stretch of land is one of the most notorious in the region, lacking a road network and posing significant challenges for overland travel due to its harsh conditions and complex ecosystem.

The Daríen Gap serves not just as a physical barrier, but also as a biological and cultural transition zone. Ecologically, it marks the point where the fauna and flora of Central America begin to give way to those typical of South America. Culturally and historically, the Daríen Gap has acted as a divide that isolated the indigenous populations and later colonial territories of the two regions.

In political terms, Panama is the southernmost country in Central America, while Colombia is the northernmost country in South America. The border between these two countries marks the official transition from Central to South America. Consequently, South America can be said to begin at the southern border of Panama and extend all the way to the southern tip of the continent, Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and Chile.

Where does North America begin?

The boundary between North America and Central America is commonly considered to be at the border between Mexico and Guatemala, along with the border between Mexico and Belize. Geographically, this division is less dramatic than the Daríen Gap that separates Central and South America, but it still signifies an important transition zone in terms of culture, history, and ecology.

Politically, Mexico is part of North America, which also includes the United States and Canada. The countries south of Mexico – namely Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama -constitute Central America.

In terms of physical geography, the division is not strictly defined by any particular natural feature across the entire width of the isthmus, although rivers such as the Usumacinta River have historically acted as partial natural boundaries. Ecologically, however, the region where Mexico gives way to Guatemala and Belize is a zone of transition, where the flora and fauna typical of North America start to blend with those that are characteristic of Central America.

Culturally, while there are shared elements owing to historical factors like Spanish colonisation, distinct differences also exist in indigenous heritage, cuisine, music, and other cultural expressions between Mexico and its southern neighbours.

Things to do in Chiapas
Chiapas, in southern Mexico, is a transition zone between North America and Central America.

Read more: Is Mexico a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Central America safe to visit?

The question of safety in Central America is nuanced and varies considerably from country to country, and even within regions of a single country. While many travellers visit Central America without incident, enjoying its rich culture and diverse natural landscapes, it’s important to note that the region does face challenges such as crime, political instability, and social inequality.

For instance, countries like Costa Rica and Panama generally have a reputation for being safer and more stable, especially in tourist-friendly areas. However, even there, visitors are advised to take standard precautions, such as safeguarding valuables and being cautious in unfamiliar areas.

In contrast, countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Guatemala have higher crime rates, including violent crime. However, popular tourist destinations within these countries, such as the Mayan ruins in Guatemala or the Bay Islands in Honduras, are often considered safer than other areas.

Consulting travel advisories, including the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), and obtaining comprehensive travel insurance are generally advised. Natural hazards like hurricanes and earthquakes also occur in this region, so awareness and preparedness for such events are recommended.

What are the best places to visit in Central America?

Central America offers an impressive range of destinations, from lush forests and vibrant cities to tranquil beaches. While the ‘best’ places depend on your individual interests, some notable spots include:

  1. Antigua, Guatemala: Known for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture and a backdrop of volcanoes, Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It offers a mix of history, culture, and outdoor activities.
  2. Tikal National Park, Guatemala: One of the most important archaeological sites of the Mayan civilisation, this park is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It offers a peek into ancient history along with a chance to explore a rich ecosystem.
  3. Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica: A prominent volcano surrounded by hot springs, waterfalls, and a range of adventure activities like zip-lining and rafting.
  4. Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica: Known for its diverse wildlife, including monkeys and sloths, as well as beautiful beaches.
  5. Ometepe Island, Nicaragua: Formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, the island offers hiking, kayaking, and a chance to experience local culture.
  6. San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua: A coastal town offering surfing opportunities, with nearby beaches that cater to both beginners and experts.
  7. Copán, Honduras: Another significant Mayan archaeological site, renowned for its intricately carved stelae and hieroglyphics.
  8. Roatán, Honduras: Part of the Bay Islands, Roatán is a paradise for divers and snorkellers, boasting the world’s second-largest coral reef.
  9. Bocas del Toro, Panama: An archipelago offering a mix of vibrant nightlife and natural beauty, including coral reefs and a biodiverse rainforest.
  10. Panama City, Panama: Known for the Panama Canal, the city is a mix of modern skyscrapers, historic areas like Casco Viejo, and natural attractions like the nearby Metropolitan Natural Park.
  11. Placencia, Belize: Known for its beaches and as a gateway for diving and snorkelling excursions, including to the Belize Barrier Reef.
  12. Caye Caulker, Belize: A small limestone coral island, offering a relaxed atmosphere along with water activities like snorkelling and swimming with nurse sharks and rays.
Places to visit in Belize
Placencia, Belize.

FAQ: How many countries are in Central America?

Here’s a quick FAQ on the topic: ‘How many countries are in Central America?’:

Q1: What is Central America?

A1: Central America is a region that serves as a land bridge connecting North and South America. It’s situated between Mexico to the north and Colombia to the south, with the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Q2: How many countries make up Central America?

A2: Central America is composed of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Q3: Which is the largest country in Central America by land area?

A3: Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, covering an area of approximately 130,373 square kilometres.

Q4: Which country in Central America has the smallest land area?

A4: El Salvador is the smallest country in terms of land area, with a total of about 21,041 square kilometres.

Q5: What are the official languages of these countries?

A5: Spanish is the official language in six of the seven Central American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Belize has English as its official language.

Q6: What currency is commonly used in Central America?

A6: Each country has its own currency, except for El Salvador and Panama, where the U.S. Dollar is the official currency. Guatemala uses the Quetzal, Honduras uses the Lempira, Nicaragua uses the Córdoba, Costa Rica has the Colón, and Belize uses the Belize Dollar.

Q7: Are all Central American countries part of the same political or economic union?

A7: Most Central American countries are part of the Central American Integration System (SICA), an economic and political organisation. Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama are members.

Q8: Is Central America a continent?

A8: No, Central America is not a continent. It is a region that is part of the North American continent.

Q9: Does Central America have a shared history?

A9: The countries of Central America share historical similarities, such as Spanish colonisation and indigenous cultures. However, each has its own unique history and cultural influences.

Q10: Are there significant regional differences within Central American countries?

A10: Yes, each country has its own set of regional differences, which can include variations in dialect, cuisine, and cultural practices.