If you think of the Caribbean as a homogeneous region of swaying palm trees, white-sand beaches, frosty tropical drinks and not much else,think again. This collection of more than 7,000 islands is a wildly diverse melting pot, a microcosm of the entire planet where American, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, African, Indian, Brazilian, Mayan and indigenous influences have come together to create a wholly unique cultural hybrid. Here, we go island hopping—from ackee to zouk.
Author Nicholas Derenzo & Chris Wright Illustration Molly Jacques
Ackee and saltfish Step aside, jerk chicken. Jamaica’s official national dish is an unassuming breakfast entree called ackee and saltfish. Saltfish dates back to the days when the island’s plantation owners traded rum and molasses for Canada’s low-quality codfish, which, when heavily salted, served as a non-perishable and cheap food source for slaves. Originating in West Africa, the bright red ackee fruit splits open when ripe to reveal a few shiny black seeds encased in a creamy flesh that, when cooked, looks exactly like scrambled eggs. Be warned: If you open the fruit before it’s ripe, it releases a toxic gas that causes nausea or even death.
Bachata From the 1960s ballads of José Manuel Calderón to the poppy hits of new artists like Prince Royce, there’s no mistaking the sound of bachata. This musical form originated in the barrooms of Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, in the early 20th century, and its twangy, syncopated conga sound is as Spanish as it gets. Like its Portuguese cousin, fado, or the American blues, bachata lyrics often involve people losing their jobs and lovers on the same day, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a smash in clubland. Now, with bachata singers teaming up with rappers like Usher and Drake, the bug is spreading to the U.S. and beyond.
Croes, Betico Think of Gilberto François “Betico” Croes as Aruba’s answer to George Washington. Instead of military strategy, however, this former teacher used little more than passion and charisma to free Aruba from the Netherlands Antilles confederation and establish a new parliament and constitution. Sadly, Croes never got to see his vision realized, as a car accident put him into a coma the day before Aruba was officially declared a new country on January 1, 1986. He died that November, but his legacy lives on: His birthday, January 25, has become a national holiday, and the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved in 2010.
Duncan, Tim Hurricanes can be destructive, but one played an oddly constructive role in the career of NBA legend Tim Duncan. As a kid in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Duncan dreamed of becoming a pro swimmer. But when Hurricane Hugo swept through in 1989, it destroyed the one Olympic-size pool on his home island of St. Croix, leaving the Caribbean Sea as the only place to practice. Afraid of sharks, Duncan turned to basketball. Considering he’s since racked up five NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs and is often named the greatest power forward of all time, we think he made the right decision.
El Yunque National Forest The only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, Puerto Rico’s El Yunque offers a lush landscape of waterfalls, giant ferns and the eponymous peak, which takes its name from the Spanish for “anvil.” The park is such a point of pride for puertorriqueños that it was selected as the territory’s representative destination for the U.S. Mint’s “America the Beautiful” quarter series. Released in 2012, the coin depicts an endangered Puerto Rican amazon parrot and a coquí tree frog, the island’s unofficial mascot, which is named for its loud onomatopoeic call.
Fortaleza Built in 1533 to protect against Carib and pirate raids, San Juan’s earliest fortification, La Fortaleza, ranks as the oldest continuously occupied governor’s mansion in the New World. It was later reconstructed with a stately Neoclassical facade to better serve as an executive residence. One of the most striking objects inside it is a mahogany grandfather clock forever stuck at 4:28, the time when Puerto Rico’s last Spanish governor struck the face with his sword, just before the U.S. invaded in 1898, marking the precise end of Spanish power in the Caribbean.
Garifuna The Garifuna, or Black Carib, may be the only ethnic group that can thank a shipwreck for its existence. When two Spanish slave ships sank off the coast of St. Vincent in 1635, West African survivors were welcomed into the local Carib tribe, creating a new group called the Garifuna, or “cassava-eating peoples.” In 1797, the British forcibly moved them to the Honduran island of Roatán. Here, you’ll still find Garifuna fishing villages where locals dress in colorful tunics and play rhythmic punta music on turtle and conch shells. Amazingly, the Garifuna are the only group in the entire Caribbean that have managed to keep their indigenous language alive.
Hosay Immigrants from India who came to Trinidad and Tobago in the mid-19th century brought many cultural traditions with them, including Hosay, a Muslim event commemorating the Martyrdom of Hussein. The climax of the festival is a colorful, noisy procession, with drum banging, flag waving, the wearing of costumes and the trundling of floats bearing large, elaborate tadjah mausoleums, turning an Islamic holiday into a truly Caribbean affair.
Ixchel Located along the world’s second-largest barrier reef, the Mexican island of Cozumel has been a pilgrimage site for divers since Jacques Cousteau sang its praises in the 1960s. A thousand years earlier, the island attracted pilgrims of a different sort: Archaeologists believe all Mayan women had to travel here by canoe at least once in their lifetimes to honor Ixchel (or “Lady Rainbow”), the goddess of the moon and fertility, at the island’s temples and shrines. Today, the majority of visitors (2.7 million in 2013) come by cruise ship, which is a lot easier on the back.
Junkanoo The Bahamas’ answer to Mardi Gras, the Junkanoo parade bursts to life in the wee hours each Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. To a soundtrack of goat-skin drums, conch shells, whistles, cowbells and trumpets, masked dancers move in energetic, choreographed displays. The festival is said to have been started by John Canoe—a West African tribal prince who had been captured and enslaved—who demanded that he be able to celebrate Christmas with his people. The parade’s scheduling coincides with the few days around the holiday when slaves were given time off to spend with their families.
Kincaid, Jamaica Culture flows into the islands, but it also flows out. Jamaica Kincaid, born into poverty on Antigua, has become one of the world’s most acclaimed novelists, and she did so by leaving home. In 1966, Kincaid was sent to New York City to work as an au pair. There, the bright, outspoken teenager tried her hand at journalism, and was soon writing for The New Yorker. Today, she lives in Vermont and is known mainly as an American writer, even if her inspiration has very often risen from the island she left behind.
Lobster Think Maine loves lobster? In Turks and Caicos, the spiny lobster is so popular that it has earned a place on the flag, alongside the Union Jack, a cactus and a conch shell. Seafood is big business on these islands, which have the world’s only commercial conch farm. However strange, the lobster flag is an improvement over the old one. A 19th-century British illustrator mistook a sketch of salt mounds—a symbol of the then-booming salt industry—for a native house, added doors and made them into igloos. The mistake remained in place from 1889 to 1968.
Mofongo Fatty and filling, Puerto Rico’s national dish may be the ideal comfort food. Tracing its roots to West Africa’s cassava-based fufu, mofongo is made of green plantains fried in olive oil, which arrived here with the Spanish. They’re then mashed with garlic and bits of chicharrón (fried pork skin) using a wooden mortar and pestle that originated with the indigenous Taínos. The dish can be eaten alone, served with a tomato-based creole sauce or stuffed with meat or seafood to become mofongo relleno.
Naipaul, V.S. Indian culture took root on Trinidad and Tobago in the 1840s, when laborers began arriving from the subcontinent, which was then under British rule. Today, their ancestors make up more than 40 percent of the islands’ population, and their influence is everywhere—from music to food to literature. The most notable Indo-Trinidadian, if not the cheeriest, is Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul. The famously grumpy author did at least let his hair down a little in his novels set in his homeland—his 1957 debut, The Mystic Masseur, is a wonderful satire on the islands’ Indian diaspora, and the people’s aspiration for greater things, of which he is a fine example.
Ortiz, David Nicknamed “Big Papi,” Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz is just one of many players from the Dominican Republic who have made their mark on Major League Baseball since Ozzie Virgil first signed with the New York Giants in 1956. And like many players coming out of the island, Ortiz started young, signed by the Seattle Mariners shortly after turning 17. Nowadays, all 30 Major League Baseball teams run academies on the island to find and grow talent. And the plan is clearly playing off: On opening day 2014, 83 of the 853 total MLB players were born in the Dominican Republic, making up almost 10 percent of the entire league.
Pusser’s Rum In 1979, less than a decade after Britain’s Royal Navy scrapped its centuries-old rum-tot-a-day tradition, Caribbean “sailor-raconteur” Charles Tobias obtained the formula for the navy’s rum ration (a blend of five West Indian rums) and shortly afterward formed Pusser’s Rum. The drink (the name is Royal Navy slang for “purser”) has since become a staple in the British Virgin Islands, thanks to its complex, Scotch-like character. Today, when islanders speak of “sandy bottoms,” they don’t mean the side effects of spending time on local beaches; the term refers to those who knock their rum back in one go, the preferred method of the jack tars of old.
Quelbe Also known as scratch bands or fungi, quelbe is a folk music genre from the U.S. Virgin Islands that, like much else in this region, was born of necessity. Back when the islands were part of the Danish West Indies, the government prohibited drumming and dancing among slaves, who responded by secretly making instruments from trash. Hollowed gourds became the percussive “squash,” tin cans and string were made into banjos, and pipes were used as wind instruments. Musical genres were similarly jerry-rigged, incorporating Danish and British military fife-and-drum motifs, rhythms from the African bamboula and the lyrics of Trinidadian cariso field songs, through which slaves told jokes, relayed stories and gossiped about their neighbors.
Reggae Though it is perhaps Jamaica’s most powerful cultural export, reggae’s roots are exotically, chaotically international. The genre originated in the island’s ghettos in the late 1960s, an offshoot of ska and rocksteady, themselves derived from a mishmash of influences ranging from African drumming to European folk to New Orleans R&B. Today, of course, there are few more distinctive musical styles—the relentless bass lines, the staccato guitar chords, the lyrical chanting (or toasting), the Rasta references, the way all these things blend into a mesmerizing swirl of sound that suggests that the musicians are really, um, tired or something.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers Jamaica’s infamous jerk seasoning is mighty spicy, but its big taste comes from a modest little chile, which might trick you with its cheery red, orange or yellow color. Taking its name from the lumpy Scottish tam-o’-shanter cap, this slightly sweet cousin of the habanero is no joke. Compare its tongue-scorching ranking of 100,000 to 350,000 on the Scoville spiciness scale to that of the jalapeño, at a mere 2,500 to 8,000. If you forget to wash your hands after handling one, you’ll see why the Carib tribe used to use them to torture captured enemies.
Tortugas When Christopher Columbus sailed by the Cayman Islands in 1503, his crew found so many sea turtles they called the archipelago Las Tortugas. By 1523, another reptile was winning the name game, with maps calling the islands Los Lagartos (“the large lizards”). In 1530, they were given a name that stuck: Las Caymanas, the Carib word for marine crocodiles. The crocs are now extinct, but the islands are still home to the endangered blue iguana.
Union Road monument An obelisk on Union Road is the main marker of the division between Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin, which coexist on a 37-square-mile spit nicknamed the Friendly Island. The original division of the island was based on a wager: In 1648, Dutch and French colonists chose two walkers to skirt the island and establish a border. The French ended up with a bit more land. The Dutch accused the French walker of running. The French blamed it on the booze: Their walker was drinking wine, his opponent, Dutch gin.
Vervet monkey Imported from Africa to St. Kitts and Nevis as pets by the French, black-faced vervet monkeys were turned loose when they proved too feisty for domestic life. Today, they outnumber humans two to one, and they’ve developed a vice: They invade resorts to steal booze. Oddly, the monkeys can be divided into binge drinkers, social drinkers and functional alcoholics in roughly the same ratio as people.
Walcott, Derek Awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize, St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott is perhaps best known for his 1990 masterwork, Omeros, a retelling of Homer’s epics that combines topics as diverse as Yoruba religious rituals, Arawak tribal culture, British imperial policy and Native American land rights, with bursts of French-Creole patois thrown in. Interestingly, Walcott shares a birthday (January 23) with St. Lucia’s only other Nobel laureate, economist Arthur Lewis. The duo have earned the tiny island nation the honor of boasting the most Nobel winners per capita of any country in the world.
Xavier, Llewellyn The conventional idea of Caribbean art is that it’ll depict a couple of swaying palm trees or a bunch of women with colorful headwear, and will almost always end up on the wall of a motel. St. Lucian artist Llewellyn Xavier provides a rebuttal to that view. His work—which ranges from gentle watercolors to oversized abstract oils—is on display at major galleries around the world. Today, while his art is steeped in his love for St. Lucia, Xavier is very much a global artist, in terms of both the world’s appreciation of him and his appreciation of the world.
Yuca Also called manioc and cassava, yuca is a starchy root that’s the Caribbean’s answer to potatoes or pasta. Islanders reportedly served Columbus yuca-based flat bread upon his arrival in 1492, and the Europeans began calling them Arawaks, from the local word for yuca flour. Though the tuber has long been a dietary staple, it also has a slightly less savory use: When raw, it contains cyanide, which the Arawaks would apply to the tips of their arrows and blow darts.
Zouk It may not be the oldest musical form—it cropped up in the French Antilles about 30 years ago—but zouk has made its mark on the people here, who tend to enjoy a good wriggle. The term was first used to describe all-night dance parties on the islands and is now applied to an energetic style of music that incorporates elements of Brazilian, French, African and American culture. The très sensuelle dancing that generally accompanies zouk is not necessarily something you’d want to see at your kid’s high school prom, but there’s no denying the, um, lust for life that it represents.