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Central America


Central America is the southernmost isthmian portion of the North American continent, which connects with South America on the southeast.  It is bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the northeast, 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.

The Central American land mass has an area of 202,230 square miles.  It is part of the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot, which extends from Guatemala through central Panama.  Due to the presence of serval active geologic faults and the Central American Volcanic Arc, there is considerable seismic activity in the region.

In the Pre-Colombian era, the northern areas of Central America were inhabited by the indigenous people of Mesoamerica, most notable the Mayans and the Aztecs.  The Pre-Colombian cultures of eastern El Salvador, eastern Honduras, Caribbean Nicaragua, most of Costa Rica and Panama were predominately speakers of Chibchan languages and are considered by some to be culturally different and grouped in the Isthmo-Colombian area.

Soon after Christopher Columbus' arrival, the Spanish began to colonize the Americas.  In 1583, Spain established theAudiencia Real de Panama, which had jurisdiction over the land all land from the Strait of Magellan to the Gulf of Fonseca.  This entity was dissolved in 1543, and most of the territory within Central America then fell under the jurisdiction of the Audiencia Real de Guatemala.  In 1609 the area became a captaincy general and the governor was granted the total captain general.  The Captaincy General of Guatemala encompassed most of Central America, with the exception of present day Belize and Panama.

After achieving independence from Spain in 1821, the former Captaincy General was annexed to the First Mexican Empire.  When the Emperor of Mexico was overthrown in March 1823, Central America again became independent.  On 1 July 1823, the Congress of Central America peacefully seceded from Mexico and declared absolute independence from all foreign nations, and the region formed the Federal Republic of Central America.  The seven states finally became independent autonomous nations, beginning with Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala (1838), followed by El Salvador (1841), then Panama (1903) and finally Belize (1981).

Today the region is very rich in terms of ethnic groups.  The majority of the population is mestizo, with a sizable Mayan population.  The immigration of Arabs, Jewish, Chinese, Europeans and others have brought additional groups to the area.

The official language in all Central American countries is Spanish, except in Belize, where the official language is English.  Mayan languages constitute a language family consisting of 26 related languages.  Guatemala formally recognized 21 of these languages in 1996.  Xinca and Garifuna are also present in Central America.


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