Central America & Caribbean

To get to grips with the Caribbean, it’s first useful to clarify the nomenclature. The Caribbean islands were erroneously dubbed ‘West Indies’ because early explorers like Columbus were trying to find a western sea passage to India, China and Japan. Since then, they’ve been grouped as the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico) and the more southerly Lesser Antilles – which are further sub-divided into the Leeward Islands (from the Virgin Islands up north to Guadeloupe), the Windward Islands (Martinique to Trinidad & Tobago down south), and Leeward Antilles (or ‘Dutch Antilles’; Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Isla Margarita). Year-round trade winds at these latitudes provide the Leeward Islands a damp climate with annual rainfall of 200L/m², whereas the Leeward Antilles further south endure a very dry climate. Confusion often occurs between the two ‘Leeward’ groups, but they were simply named from different points of view. The Dutch blew in on a north-easterly trade wind, the English arrived during a south-easterly.

What once confused the early seafarers is still just as crucial in the timing of a Caribbean trip. The fact is every Caribbean island is influenced year-round by the trade winds. Summer is most reliable in the Northern Caribbean when the trades (on the edge of a stable Bermuda high) blow predominantly E-SE. The , and do particularly well out of this, does alright too. But rainy season can ruin the party – especially on the Lesser Antilles where hurricane season begins in late summer. In winter the Bermuda highs are much weaker, up north Nov-Jan is particularly thin on conditions. Naturally there are trade winds in winter too, just much weaker and not as often. is an exception: way up in the Gulf of Mexico, it only receives a little SE trade wind so has to rely on winter’s light breezes.

In contrast, winter and spring are the windiest time in the Southern Caribbean. The trades predominantly blow E-NE and are strengthened over a wider area by a drop in pressure over the hot South American landmass. The windy season often starts in December with the so-called ‘Christmas Winds’ and lasts into June. The Antilles near the mainland – namely , and – do best out of it but the effect is felt all the way to the Columbian Caribbean Coast in the south-west (see ‘South America’). Even in the east has reliable winter winds. But in the midst of both wind systems, can expect regular ENE trades in the dry winter and spring.

The Caribbean scores waves from three different sources: winter (Oct-Apr) Atlantic lows heading for Europe from Nova Scotia despatch swell off their tails towards these southern domains. The prognosis for groundswell makes winter the season for wave-hunters, even though it’s less windy in the north. Another caveat: mainly the north coasts catch NE swells, and then only on islands that aren’t sheltered by others – like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Barbados. Saint Martin and Guadeloupe can also see N-NE groundswell, whereas the Leeward Antilles further south get markedly less. In summertime, the Caribbean mainly has short-period windswell to contend with. Most days hip to head-high waves are the best you can hope for, but occasional trade windswell of 2-2.5m might deliver a pleasant surprise over well-positioned reefs. The third source is hurricane swell and – except the Leeward Antilles and Barbados – all the Caribbean islands lie squarely inside ‘Hurricane Alley’. The season starts in July when the water warms beyond 26°C, and lasts until November. Although hurricanes mean good chances of waves, the incredibly unpredictable winds can soon cross the line to destructive. Only one thing’s certain: it will tip down with rain – on balance, hurricane season’s a no-go.

The Central American land bridge is also within the trade wind belt, occasionally interrupted by hurricane activity or other low pressure disturbances (so-called ‘Easterly Waves’) in late summer. Winter sometimes sees cold ‘Nortadas’ and bad weather fronts sweeping down from North America. Basically the pressure gradient (to the South American heat low) is greater in winter so the wind tends to be stronger – although the high jutting Cordillera ensure the winds are blocked from the Atlantic, creating a wind shadow on the Pacific side. However, wherever valleys cut through the mountains they channel the wind to the Pacific with a strong funnelling effect. This phenomenon delivers wind to – amongst others, the flat-water spots on Bahia Salinas in Costa Rica and nearby Lake Nicaragua. A couple of hardcore breaks on the Pacific side are also fanned by the (near-offshore) NE wind. They’re lit up by Pacific groundswell finding its way down from the northern hemisphere in winter or up from the southern hemisphere in summer.

The Pacific coast has tidal ranges over 2m in places, yet tides are negligible across most of the Caribbean. Air and water temperatures are similar. Thanks to the Equatorial and Gulf Streams, you’ll only need boardshorts, or at most a shorty in winter.

Mexico

Ever since the Wild West was won, Mexico’s had a bandit country reputation – and the badlands of Baja carry particular stigma. Two worlds collide at the border between Earth’s largest economy and Mexico’s northernmost state, and the deeper ...

Nicaragua

During the Spanish conquest, Nicaragua was just the strip of land between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific. It’s now the largest country in Central America, but it’s conquistador Nicaragua – Rivas Department and Guanacaste Province in ...

Costa Rica

During the Spanish conquest, Nicaragua was just the strip of land between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific. It’s now the largest country in Central America, but it’s conquistador Nicaragua – Rivas Department and Guanacaste Province in ...

Cuba

The Republic of Cuba means different things to different people: one man’s paragon of socialism at work is another’s point on the axis of evil. Either way, there’s no getting away from Fidel Castro and the effects of post-revolutionary ...

Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic accounts for two-thirds of the vast Caribbean island of ‘Hispaniola’, while Haiti inhabits the west. Most Dominicans live on the south coast, but the prevailing trades fan the north coast in particular. The kite and ...

Puerto Rico

The smallest of four Greater Antilles, the US commonwealth territory of Puerto Rico – or Borinquen to the locals – doesn’t have quite the tourist cache of many of its Caribbean peers. In surfing circles it’s renowned as Florida’s ...

St Martin & Anguilla

Saint Martin is the smallest island in the world to be shared between two nations. The southern part ‘Sint Maarten’ is under Dutch administration, while the larger northern part ‘Saint Martin’ belongs to France. Although the border between ...

Guadeloupe

Guadeloupe is a little piece of France ... with palm trees! Discovered by Columbus in 1493, colonised in 1635 and integrated into France as an overseas department in 1946. Geographically the archipelago is in the middle of the Lesser Antilles, which ...

Barbados

Barbados is one of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles group that enjoys tropical water and air temperatures as well as reliable trade winds – especially in wintertime. Lying 150km further east in the Atlantic than its Caribbean siblings ...

Venezuela

If you hear people talk about Isla Margarita they generally mean El Yaque, which has earned a reputation amongst European snowbirds as a perfect training venue for its wind consistency, shallow flat water and Caribbean charm. Whereas its peers ...

NL Antilles

The second largest of the Dutch Antilles and ‘B’ of the ABC islands off the Venezuelan coast, Bonaire is a tranquil and chilled-out island, not blighted by the casinos and high-rise hotels that plague its siblings Aruba and Curacao. Consistently ...

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