Latin America includes those countries in South, Central and North America where Spanish or Portuguese is the official or most common language. Although the term is sometimes used in the United States to refer to the entire region of the Americas to the south, it is more properly a cultural or linguistic term. It is not precisely defined, but does not include the United States of America (except Puerto Rico), Canada, Greenland or Caribbean islands where English or Dutch are dominant. (French-speaking nations are sometimes included, as the language is Latin-based, but this isn't the usual sense of the term.) The term was made popular by emperor Napoleon III's government to justify their intervention in "Latin" Mexico.
The term "Latin America" dates to propaganda efforts by French Emperor Napoleon III (reigned 1848-1870; the first few years as President) to exert French influence in the Americas on the basis of Spanish and Portuguese being languages derived from Latin just as French was. While this effort was an embarrassing failure for France (their would-be puppet Emperor Maximilian of Mexico first refused to be a puppet and was later executed by republican Mexicans), the term did replace the earlier term "Iberoamerica" almost entirely and is now in use in most languages, including Latin American Spanish. There are debates about which lands in the Americas should be encompassed by this term, but this guide uses it only for Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking places. Do not conflate all of Latin America with South America, as it includes Central America, and most of Mexico is actually part of North America proper even if one considers Central America a separate geographic entity (most geologists see it as part of North America).
There were several great civilizations in what's now Latin America prior to the arrival of the Conquistadores. Mexico is well-known for the Aztecs and the earlier Olmec civilization; Central America from the Yucatan Peninsula to Honduras is full of Mayan ruins and is still populated by Mayans to a significant extent; the Incas had a large empire in the Andes; and evidence of a great civilization in the Brazilian Pampas that may be about 2,000 years old has been discovered since 2021 and is being further investigated. All of the civilizations mentioned above except for the yet-to-be-named Brazilian one and indeed many others produced large quantities of pottery, sculptures and other artworks that can be seen in numerous museums, and some impressive ruins have been left behind, including Incan ones in Machu Picchu, Peru. The Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia is a good place to look at artworks made of gold from the pre-Columbian era.
The native peoples of the Americas have also had a large impact on other areas of life, including cultivation and cooking. Potatoes in many varieties are native to the Andes and have been cultivated there for at least 7,000 years; corn is native to Mexico, where it has been developed and grown for about 10,000 years; tomatoes are from Mexico and neighboring areas and were grown and used in cooking by the Aztecs and previous civilizations starting before 500 BC; chilis originated in Bolivia and were first grown in Mexico about 6,000 years ago; the cacao bean from which chocolate is made is native to the Amazon and was grown in South America 5,300 years ago before being introduced to Mexico by the Olmecs; and the Caribbean Tainos used a cooking technique that became the basis of today's styles of barbecue (Spanish: barbacoa) in the Americas. Beans were also a part of pre-Columbian cuisines in the Americas. All or most of these ingredients remain central to the cuisines of most of Latin America today.
- This is intended as a short overview of general historic themes shared by most of Latin America and not as detailed coverage of individual countries' particulars. For that see the country guides or Wikipedia
Much of Latin America was conquered by Spanish or Portuguese adventurers, soldiers and missionaries in the decades following 1492, but the Mapuche in what is now Chile held out until after independence, and colonial governance took centuries to penetrate deeper into all facets of life. Native languages and in some cases social structures endured and even thrived. Some more outlying areas that were hard to reach and seemed of little value were later claimed and settled by European powers outside the Iberian peninsula, which caused their history to diverge. Here the mainland areas of "the Guyanas", French Guiana, Guyana (former British colony), Suriname (former Dutch colony) as well as Central American Belize (British colony until 1980) and most of the Caribbean have markedly different histories from the rest of the region, which engenders debate about whether to consider them part of "Latin America".
During the 19th century, independence movements mostly led by the criollo (people of European descent born in the colonies) elite won independence for most former Spanish colonies. Slavery was either abolished upon independence or put on a course of extinction, unlike in the United States or Brazil which clung to it until 1865 and 1888 respectively, and the black and native populations were at least in theory granted full citizenship rights upon independence. Spain maintained control of a few particularly lucrative island colonies such as Cuba, Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico before losing them to the U.S. in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The U.S. granted nominal independence to Cuba in 1902 while retaining strong de facto control until 1959, but Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory, albeit with Spanish instead of English being the dominant language. While the new constitutions were ostensibly color-blind, the criollo elite mostly took power for itself, only slowly integrating a select few mestizo (of mixed European and Amerindian descent) families into the governing elite. Similarly, native culture was often ignored or even persecuted, and the introduction of stronger bureaucracy, public schools and more direct administration of far-flung areas created a continuing pressure on indigenous languages which only a few languages survived in a truly healthy state.
Social inequality introduced in the colonial era but sometimes predating it, is one of many causes of a tumultuous and fractious political history throughout much of the 19th and into the 20th century. Often a caudillo, a charismatic military leader, would rise from outside the governing elite and challenge it with populist policies and the support of the vast economic underclasses only to turn into a dictator who clung to power. With the passage of the Monroe Doctrine that prohibits other countries in the Americas from forming military alliances with other great powers, the U.S. began to assert its influence over the region and the U.S. continues to be an important trading partner, hated, loved and feared to varying extents across the political spectrum. During the 1850s, private US citizens, so-called "Filibusters" tried to conquer Latin American nations and convert them into puppets of mostly Southern slaver interests and by the end of the 19th century, business interests, especially in bananas, had many countries firmly in their grip, giving rise to the term "banana republic". The U.S. has often intervened to overthrow socialist governments and prop up right-wing authoritarian regimes that collaborated with U.S. business interests, causing resentment on the losing side of those political battles. During the Cold War this tendency dating at least to the Woodrow Wilson era was exacerbated by the accusation that any leftist movement was a puppet of the Soviet Union and the natural inclination of such movements to accept Soviet (or later Cuban) aid. Perhaps the most notorious example was the 1973 Chile coup d'état, in which the socialist president Salvador Allende was toppled in a U.S.-backed military coup led by the far-right general Augusto Pinochet and forced to commit suicide, with Pinochet proceeding to rule Chile with an iron fist until the 1990s. In the 21st century, China is increasingly challenging American dominance in the region, having overtaken the United States to become the largest source of foreign investment in Latin America.
Coca is native to the Andes and as such cocaine production naturally happens in Latin America and all aspects of the production, trade and consumption of this and other substances illegal under U.S. law have had a large and sometimes controversial influence. While there have been plans to entirely eradicate the coca plant on US suggestion and a "law and order" approach with "super mano dura" (super hard hand) still enjoys some popularity, countries such as Uruguay have since experimented with the legalization of cannabis and others propose even further ratcheting down of the "war on drugs". Regardless, criminal enterprises fueled partially or entirely by the drug trade have had a large influence on many parts of Latin America.
After 1990, several Latin American countries elected left-leaning presidents in a trend sometimes called "pink tide" which recalibrated the political compass of many areas. While most of those leftists ruled constitutionally and were willing to let at least some foreign investment untouched, the rules of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (1999 to his death in 2013), Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (1979 to 1990, and 2007 to present), Rafael Correa (2007 to 2017) in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006 to 2019, when he was toppled in a U.S.-backed military coup) and Chavez's successor Maduro have garnered international controversy and accusations of US meddling on one hand and dictatorial tendencies on the other. The Odebrecht corruption scandal has implicated high ranking political figures in virtually all Latin American countries and left no side of the political spectrum untouched. In some cases, Western governments have outright refused to recognise the legitimacy of socialist governments in Latin America, instead alleging electoral fraud, while regarding right-wing opposition figures as their officially-recognised heads of government.
Although a very culturally diverse region, unsurprisingly, as former Spanish and Portuguese colonies, influences from the former colonial masters is evident in the local cultures. Indigenous cultures have in general survived much better in Latin America than in the United States and Canada, and most Latin Americans have at least partial indigenous ancestry, with indigenous cultural elements forming an integral part of the national identities of most Latin American countries. Latin American culture has also been shaped by the African cultures of the slaves who were brought over during the Atlantic slave trade, as will as by that of other immigrant communities such as the Arabs in Mexico, the Germans in Brazil, the Welsh and Italians in Argentina, the Japanese in Brazil and Peru, and the Chinese in Cuba and Peru.
Countries and regions
Mexico is a big tourist attraction for sun-seekers, naturalists, ecotourists and historians; the former flock to Mexico's tropical beaches, while the latter will find everything from Mayan and Aztec ruins to Spanish colonial history.
The largest Caribbean island-nation, marked by decades of socialist government.
|Dominican Republic |
A fast-growing economy with some of the oldest colonial cities in the hemisphere
|Puerto Rico |
United States territory with bustling nightlife, as well as great inland sceneries.
|Costa Rica |
A major ecotourism destination, Costa Ricans like to call their country "the Switzerland of Latin America" and indeed it does have mountainous terrain, political neutrality and relative wealth to back up that statement
|El Salvador |
The only Central American country without an Atlantic coastline marred by decades of civil war now thankfully in the past
One of the centers of Mayan culture and civilization and still blessed with many Mayan sites
A long Caribbean coastline graced with beaches and coral reefs, and a mountainous inland home to Mayan ruins and colonial hill towns
Nicaraguans like to call their country "the country of lakes and volcanoes", and, indeed, those are the two defining geographical features
The wealthiest country in the region mostly due to the eponymous canal, this country only gained independence in the early 20th century from Colombia
Once known for being a 'European nation in South America', Argentina offers a dynamic and rich cultural life in its cities, and sparsely-populated grasslands, mountains and glacial parks in the south.
This landlocked country is arguably the only one in Latin America with an ethnic majority of indigenous people, and a culture that is much affected by the high altitude of the Andes.
South America's only Portuguese-speaking country is also its biggest, offering the Amazon rainforest along with vibrant cities such as Rio de Janeiro.
A long, thin sliver of land on the western side of the Andes which stands out on any map, this country contains big parts of the Atacama, one of the driest deserts in the world.
After decades of violence, Colombia is now a much safer destination, offering coffee, jungles, volcanoes and two coastlines with a strong Caribbean feel.
Straddling the Equator, this small country offers incredible diversity across its four regions: the Amazon Rainforest, the Andes, the Pacific Coast and the unique Galapagos Islands.
Possibly the least visited country on the continent, in flat Paraguay you can see Jesuit missions, some major rivers and the impressive Itaipú Dam and hear the native Guaraní language.
The historic heartland of the Incas, this country still offers a lot of Inca heritage (Machu Picchu being the most visited site) plus the Nazca lines, made by an earlier culture for a still not entirely clear purpose.
As futbol-crazy as its neighbors of Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay also offers beaches, lovely historic towns, and a laid-back lifestyle.
You may think only of oil and socialism, but Venezuela also offers jungles, waterfalls, major cities like Maracaibo and Caracas and Lake Maracaibo, one of the biggest lakes or bays (depending on whom you ask) in the world.
Naturally according to (almost) all definitions at least one Romance language will be spoken by a large portion of the population. In most cases this will be Spanish and in Brazil this will be Portuguese. Both Spanish and Portuguese diverged significantly from their "metropole" varieties spoken in Europe and slang terms in particular as well as some aspects of pronunciation can trip up the uninitiated. Moreover, there is also significant regional variation in both Spanish and Portuguese within Latin America. However, besides some snickering at an innocently used word that has a different (slang) meaning this should not pose too big a challenge. Foreign language proficiency outside of language border regions or relatively small young urban populations tends to be poor but varies widely even between neighboring countries such as Nicaragua and Costa Rica. While the common cliche would have it that native American languages died out the second a Spaniard (or Portuguese) set foot in the respective area, languages such as Nahuatl (Mexico) Maya languages (southern Mexico and northern Central America), Quechua and Aymara (Andes) remain in widespread usage and show even some tentative signs of revitalization. In Paraguay most of the population — even those with no indigenous heritage — are bilingual with Spanish and Guaraní in part due to Jesuit missionaries making extensive use of the language.
Latin Americans take their sports very seriously. Two sports that stand out from the rest are football (soccer) and baseball. Baseball is the dominant sport in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela, while football is the dominant sport everywhere else. Passions for football in particular run very high, and violent incidents between fans of opposing teams are a regular occurrence, sometimes even resulting in fatalities. The football rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is one of the most intense and iconic in the world.
Besides football and baseball, other sports which command strong local followings include volleyball in Brazil, as well as basketball, field hockey and rugby union in Argentina.
Cuisines vary widely between countries, and in many cases between different regions of a single country as well. See the individual country articles for information about their cuisines. The same names are often used to refer to very different dishes in different countries, and to add to the confusion, many Spanish and Portuguese dishes have the same name but are vastly different from their respective Latin American counterparts. For instance, tamal refers to related, but very different dishes in Mexico and Colombia, while Colombian empanadas are very different from their Argentinian counterparts, as are Spanish tortillas from their Mexican counterparts. The drink known as horchata differs significantly between different Latin American countries, all of which are significantly different from the Spanish version of the drink. You might have a cliche in your hand of all Latin American cuisines being spicy and this indeed true for large parts of Mexico and northern central America and the chili pepper is native to the Americas, but several other Latin American countries have virtually no capsaicin influence in their cuisine.
American soft drinks are omnipresent in Latin America and are safe for really off-the-beaten-path destinations. Tap water ranges in quality from better than at some U.S. localities to not fit for human consumption and while there is a certain amount of "getting used to the local bugs in the water" anything serious will affect locals and tourists in equal measure. Bottled water is usually widely available if overpriced — getting a larger container often saves considerable amounts of money.
As for alcoholic beverages, large parts of Latin America never get cold enough to brew certain types of beer without artificial refrigeration. As it was a German who first perfected this technology for large scale use, naturally many breweries have German roots. From the Costa Rican "imperial" whose name and large eagle shaped logo makes it hard for Germans to not think of the war to some excellent craft breweries, there are some countries that have an acceptable brewing offer if not the five-century-old tradition in every second village found in much of Europe.
Much of Latin America is climatically unsuited for viticulture and thus most wine is imported and expensive. The most notable exceptions are Argentina and Chile, which are major wine-producing nations that are well-regarded by many connoisseurs. However, their wines are typically exported to the United States or Europe instead of other Latin American countries.
Corn is a local staple food in many countries and has been turned into booze for centuries. Nowadays some beers contain corn but there are also other maize-based drinks — even alcohol-free ones.
Sugar cane was among the crops Columbus and his crew brought to the Americas personally and as such they were and in some cases continue to be a cash crop of many countries many of which also make some sugar cane derived liquor, be it rum, cachaça or generic aguardiente.
While most of Latin America is nominally Catholic, actual religiosity varies widely. As many common swearwords are considered to be blasphemous, you should tread with caution using even mild swearing around religious or conservative people. Different from the European situation where Catholicism tends to be the most conservative brand of Christianity and most leftists are also secularists, there are many Catholic priests and even bishops that adhere to a much more "left-wing" interpretation of religion called "liberation theology" which while condemned by the pope is still often invoked in politics. On the other hand, 20th- and 21st-century U.S. missionaries have brought their brand of charismatic evangelical fundamentalist Christianity, which tends to be much more strict, much more socially conservative and taken much more earnestly by its believers than many "submarine Catholics" who only "surface" in church during high holidays.
Latin Americans tend to be very affectionate, both in speech and body language, compared to most people from the Anglosphere. Keep in mind that this is usually just a sign of friendship, and not necessarily an indication that the other person wants to have sex with you. Cheek kissing is a common greeting between friends throughout Latin America.
While you won't have a problem just because of your nationality even if you are American and the attitude of Latin America to the five-hundred-pound gorilla up north is highly ambiguous and at times contradictory (Nicaragua, a country that greatly suffered from 1980s American imperialism is also a country that greatly enjoys Walker, Texas Ranger) avoid any comments on politics that come off as condescending. Chances are, the average Latin American can rattle off encyclopedic knowledge of invasions, interventions, underhand dealings and injustices the US or European countries perpetrated against their country that you haven't even heard of. You can talk politics and will find enthusiastic and opinionated conversation partners, but the wiser course of action is to listen and ask rather than to opine and preach.
Another thing, partially caused by language and cultural differences is the usage of the term "America". Portuguese and Spanish speakers tend to see the entire landmass between Tierra del Fuego and Alaska as one big continent "America" rather than the two or even three "Americas" the anglophone world tends to see them as. Hence all who live in said landmass are "Americans". The United States is referred to as Estados Unidos in Spanish, and never as América. Spanish also contains the word estadounidense ("United Statesian") as a neutral and common term for citizens of the US and Latin Americans tend to cringe at the common shorthand americano for things related (only) to the US. Try to avoid it unless you particularly enjoy lectures on how the term "America" belongs to "the entire continent" rather than one - albeit large - country. On the other hand, norteamericano, North American, is sometimes used when refering to the U.S. (as in dólares norteamericanos for the U.S. dollar, widely used as a hard currency around Latin America). The term "Gringo" is used in many places and by many people to refer to all things U.S. and sometimes to all things non-local. It may have derogatory connotations but it doesn't necessarily have to.