Physical & Human Geography of Latin America

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Latin America is a big place, but what really defines it? In this lesson, we'll talk about human and physical geography of Latin America and see what defines this unique region.

Latin America

Does Latin America exist? Well, it must, right? Otherwise, what would be the point of this lesson? Latin America broadly refers to a large section of the American continents stretching from Mexico in the north through Chile and Argentina in the south. It is a massive chunk of territory, and home to millions of people, but still we have to ask: does Latin America exist? It's a harder question to answer than you might think. In order to understand this reality, we're going to have to get to know this region a little better.

Latin America
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Physical Geography of Latin America

Let's start by looking at Latin America in terms of its physical geography, or the actual landforms and physical features that define it. Latin America includes parts of two continents, two hemispheres, and numerous climate zones. We can best understand it by dividing it into two sub-regions.

Central America and the Caribbean

The Northern part of Latin America belongs firmly within the continent of North America, starting in Mexico and working down through the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land connecting the Americas. Since this entire area shares many geographical traits not found elsewhere in North America, we often refer to it as Central America. The islands of the Caribbean Sea are also included in this sub-region.

Central America is defined by its tropical climate, position near the equator, and abundant natural resources. Most of Central America is heavily forested, although there are deserts in northern Mexico. Additionally, there are a string of mountain ranges running up the western backbone of the region, which form the southernmost parts of the Rocky Mountains, a major feature of North American geography.

South America

Below the Isthmus of Panama is the continent of South America. South America is amongst the most climatic, ecological, and biologically diverse places on Earth, thanks largely to a few unique geographical features. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world, occupying the flat plains of eastern South America, mainly within the nation of Brazil.

The Amazon Rainforest is one of the most notable features of Latin American geography
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On the western edge of South America is an entirely different region: the Andes Mountains. The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, containing harsh peaks and fertile mountain valleys at elevations over 20,000 feet in elevation. In the southern part of South America, a massive grassland called the Pampas create a unique mid-elevation biome between mountains and rainforests. At the southernmost tip of the continent is Patagonia, defined by its cold winds and location only 1,000 kilometers from Antarctica.

Human Geography

Latin America stretches from the tropics of the equator nearly to Antarctica. It encompasses rainforests, deserts, and mountains, and is part of two different continents. So, how in any sense can we call Latin America a unified region? In reality, Latin America only exists in terms of human geography, or the landscape as it applies to human lives. Shared cultural traditions, political experiences, and social expectations provide a rough network that unifies the peoples of Latin America into a broad cultural region. Today, roughly 26 nations consider themselves to be part of Latin America, drawing from Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

Linguistic and Ethnic Traits

Latin America is a broad region encompassing a diverse number of people. Still, there are some traits that unify it. Some of the most important ones are linguistic and ethnic. Most Latin American nations speak Spanish as their primary language, thanks to a long history of Spanish colonialism that forms a shared heritage across the region. The most notable exception is Brazil, which speaks Portuguese. These are both Latin-based languages, which is actually why we call this region Latin America.

Most of Latin America speaks Spanish (green) or Portuguese (orange), with very few French speaking nations (blue).
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At the same time, English and French can also be found throughout many parts of Latin America. Notably, many Amerindian languages are also widely spoken. In fact, most Latin American nations have formally granted one or more Amerindian languages official status as a national language. This linguistic diversity reflects an ethnic diversity in Latin America as well. While European heritage is an important part of Latin American cultures, most Latin American nations take pride in their Amerindian ancestry. African populations, originally imported as slaves, also make up a significant ethnic population throughout the region.

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