Latin America is a collection of countries encompassing everything between the northern end of Mexico and the southern end of South America, as well as numerous Caribbean islands. The history of Latin America is remarkably rich, with colonialism creating regionally unique blends of traditional indigenous cultures and European influences.
Latin America is filled with romance languages (mostly Spanish, but also French and Portuguese) and a great diversity of cultural traditions and ecosystems. Potential travel adventures in the region cover a broad variety of interests and experiences, from ecotourism and outdoor recreation to getting lost in the shops and museums of bustling colonial cities.
To understand Latin America as a whole, one must first understand the cultural evolution of each individual country that makes up this large, diverse region. Here we’ll take a brief look at the history of the Latin American countries Zegrahm visits on their Canal to Cuba expedition.
Colombia is located along the northern coast of South America, where the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea meet. The diversity of its natural landscapes—from rainforests and snowcapped mountains to white sand beaches and rolling deserts—is rivaled only by its cities, which are bursting with a mixture of local flavor and international culture.
The indigenous history of Colombia runs deep. Although the Spanish invasion wiped out certain pockets, many traditional cultures still survive today. The Tairona are one of the better-known tribes, inhabiting the land surrounding what is now Tayrona National Park. Ambitious hikers can visit the ruins of an ancient city built 650 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu. In fact, La Ciudad Perdid (or “The Lost City”) has been dubbed “The New Machu Picchu.” Visitors must cover 28 miles through the picturesque river valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to view the remains of this storied civilization.
The first official Colombian settlement by Spanish colonizers in search of gold was Santa Marta, which was founded in 1525. Located on the northern coast, it was the perfect port city and remains a popular destination. Most of Colombia declared their independence from Spain in 1810, but the Spanish reconquered the country between 1815 and 1816. Independence was declared yet again after Simón Bolívar helped defeat the Spaniards in the Battle of Boyaca, which led to the establishment of the Republic of Colombia.
The exportation of coffee helped usher Colombia into stability in the early 20th century, but civil war broke out several times in the following decades. The 1970s saw the drug trade ravage Colombia’s cities and countryside, causing a great deal of violence and destruction. Pablo Escobar, one of the richest and most deadly criminals of all time, became a symbol of the international drug war. After he was killed in 1993, violence dropped considerably, and Colombia has since cracked down on the cocaine production that ravaged its streets for so long.
Today, Colombia is a welcoming country that invites visitors to explore modern cities and secluded eco-adventures. No matter where you visit in Colombia, dancing salsa and indulging in tasty street food such as arepas and tamales is a must. Town squares form the heart of most tight-knit communities, which gather together to dance and socialize with friends, families, and visitors.
To experience Costa Rica is to engage all of your senses in a feast of colors, sounds, and flavors. Ecotourism in Costa Rica offers an array of natural treasures. The cool mist of the cloud forests, the majestic peaks of active volcanos, the roar of the ocean, and the sweet juices of fresh fruit are all important ingredients for appreciating the country’s precious resources and landscapes.
One of the first Europeans to “discover” the natural treasures of Costa Rica was Christopher Columbus, who landed here in 1522 during his last trip to the New World. After his forces conquered the indigenous populations, the country became a colony of Spain for the next 300 years. The indigenous cultures of Costa Rica were split between relating to the Nahuatls to the north and Chibchas to the south. Since Costa Rica was lacking in gold and silver, Spanish colonists largely left its land untouched.
In 1821, Costa Rica became part of the Mexican Empire after Mexico’s War of Independence. It was later part of the Federal Republic of Central America, before gaining full independence in 1823. In 1948, the 44-day Costa Rican Civil War broke out. Since then, Costa Rica has been able to maintain relative peace, compared to other Central American countries.
For much of its history, Costa Rica had an agricultural economy that largely relied on the exports of bananas and coffee. But over the past two decades the country has seen enormous growth in tourism and technology. Today, despite being one of the most frequently visited destinations in Latin America, Costa Rica’s rainforests, mountains, and beaches maintain a rugged vibe that encourages adventure and an intimacy with nature.
Cuba is an island country located just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys. It may be close in proximity to the United States, but it has a unique culture that is all its own, The culture is an eclectic mix of Spanish, African, French, and Asian influences that have inspired many artists, both natives and visitors alike. Spanish culture has had a profound influence on Cuba ever since the Spaniards arrived in 1492. The invading colonists mostly wiped out the aboriginal populations—including the Guanahatabey, Ciboney, and Taíno peoples—through conquest and disease.
The development of the new Cuban society progressed slowly, but a sugar revolution in the 19th century transformed the country from a quiet, often-overlooked island into a global leader in sugar manufacturing. Cuba eventually secured its independence from Spain in 1889, and from the United States in 1902. Instability followed, with numerous revolts, coups, and US military intervention.
Fulgencio Batista took power for the second time in 1952, and became an increasingly authoritarian ruler. Public distrust in Batista ultimately led to the Cuban Revolution, which was led by Fidel Castro, who overtook the authoritarian government and replaced it with a socialist state. This revolution damaged Cuban relations with the United States for decades. Spurred by fears of communism, the US placed an embargo on exports to Cuba in 1960.
Diplomacy between the two countries remained strained until 2009, when the Obama administration began ushering in a new era by easing the travel ban from the United States to Cuba. By 2011, American students and religious missionaries were allowed to travel to Cuba.
Today, Cuba finds itself in on the verge of huge changes. Decades of socialism led to abject poverty and extremely limited resources. But tourism is increasing rapidly thanks to President Obama’s moves to improve US/Cuban relations. Four million tourists visited Cuba in 2016 and discovered its creative spirit and welcoming atmosphere. Now that the floodgates are open, more and more American travelers are exploring the Caribbean island’s unique history, scenic beaches, colorful architecture, and vibrant artistic community.
There are legends of lost cities in Panama—civilizations that fell and faded into the jungle, never to be seen by the modern world. Sadly, it seems that most evidence of the country’s indigenous cultures has disappeared, despite the fact that several dozen tribes occupied the land prior to Spanish invasion. Some archaeologists believe there’s still a chance that ancient hidden cities will be discovered here. Considering how remote certain parts of Panama remain today, it seems entirely possible.
Panama gained independence from Spain in 1821 and joined Gran Colombia, a confederation consisting of Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru. The Isthmus of Panama is a thin strip of land that connects North and South America. It is also the most narrow land crossing between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Historically, this presented tempting opportunities for trade and travel.
During the gold rush of 1849, the isthmus became a popular route for US colonists traveling from the east coast to the west coast, hoping to bypass conflict with Native Americans along the way. In 1903, Panama declared independence from Colombia. The country received support from the United States, which hoped to build a canal across that tiny stretch of opportunity. The first ship sailed through the Panama Canal in 1914.
The 1980s were marred by political unrest and tension. Panama declared war on the United States in 1989, and the US responded by attacking Panama from the air. Much of Panama City was destroyed in that attack. The conflict eventually led to the surrender of the country’s de facto ruler, Colonel Manuel Noriega, who had seized control of the government in 1983.
After the removal of Noriega and the transfer of power to the rightful winner of the 1989 presidential election, Guillermo Endara, Panama began to shake off the ashes of attacks and scandal. But the country still struggles with poverty and unemployment to this day.
On the bright side, Panama is increasingly emerging as an ecotourism destination. With two oceans, mountains, rainforest, and buzzing modern cities, the country offers a rich mixture of metropolitan culture and outdoor adventures. Bridging North and South America, Panama has its own distinct flavor, with stunning biodiversity, the architecturally astounding Panama Canal, incredible islands, and so much more.
Britany Robinson is a travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her freelance work appears in BBC Travel, The Washington Post, Green Global Travel, Curbed, and various other outlets.