Merriam-Webster defines Latin America as "all of the Americas south of the United States." The term Latin America was coined in the 1830s and initially referred to any part of the Americas where a Romance language, including Spanish, Portuguese or French, was spoken as the primary language. Under the original definition, parts of the U.S. and Canada would be considered Latin American. However, most people using the term today -- especially in the United States -- use it to refer to all of the Americas south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Latin America includes all of North America south of the Rio Grande River, which separates the United States and Mexico. That area includes all of Central America, South America and the Caribbean Islands. The geography of Latin America is varied, ranging from deserts in Mexico to rain forests throughout the Amazon Basin in South America. It features the Andes Mountains in South America and tropical and temperate beaches along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas.
Before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century, all of Latin America was populated by American Indians who spoke their own tribal languages. Many of these languages continue to be used by Native Americans throughout Latin America. The official language of most Latin American countries is Spanish. In Brazil -- the largest country in Latin America -- Portuguese is spoken. French is spoken in the island nation of Haiti and French Guyana. Other languages that have official status in Latin American countries include English in Guyana and Jamaica and Dutch in Suriname. People who define Latin America mainly by the languages spoken do not consider the English or Dutch speaking countries of South America to be part of Latin America.
Latin America has many distinct and colorful cultures. Many of the countries of Latin America blend influences from Europe -- especially Spain and Portugal -- with the distinctive native cultures of the region's indigenous people. Some highlights of Latin American culture include the lively parades and celebrations of Carnivale in Brazil and ancient Mayan and Aztec ruins in Mexico and Guatemala. Latin American music includes traditional samba, bossa nova, calypso, flamenco and mariachi and more contemporary musical styles such as reggae, reggaeton, which mixes reggae and hip hop, and norteño.
Mexico is the only North American country in Latin America. Central American countries in Latin America include Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize Costa Rica and El Salvador. Latin America also includes all of the South American nations: Columbia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Uruguay and Suriname. Finally, there are several nations and territories within the Caribbean Islands which are part of Latin America, including Cuba, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Dominica, Jamaica, Grenada, Martinique, St. Barthelemy, and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
- David Sacks/Lifesize/Getty Images