Caribbean Islands: the Greater Antilles

Caitlin Dempsey


A Look at the geography of the Greater Antilles

By looking at a map of the Caribbean we can easily see why the Caribbean islands can be divided into three groups: the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the Lesser Antilles.

The Greater Antilles consists of the Island of Hispaniola, which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

The Lesser Antilles is made up of three groups of smaller islands: the Virgin Islands, Bahamas archipelago, and the Windward and Leeward Islands.

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Major island groups of the Caribbean: the Bahamas (red), Greater Antilles (yellow), and Lesser Antilles (green).
Major island groups of the Caribbean: the Bahamas (red), Greater Antilles (yellow), and Lesser Antilles (green).


Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest island, is marked by a landscape of gentle hills composed mainly of limestone. The bays, lagoons and marshes are typical elements of its coastal landscape. The northern part of the island is crossed by a band of Mesozoic age intrusive rocks. It is dominated in three sections by a mountain landscape: in the northwest is the valley of Viñales, a karst plain bordered by the Sierra de los Órganos. The slate found in the de los Órganos consists of heights up to 400 meters high and covered with pine forests all along its length.

The Sierra del Rosario, has an average altitude ranging between 300 and 700 meters, the maximum altitude is reached in Guajaibón with 702 meters. Its vegetations is mainly pine and broadleaf trees, including hardwoods, and pasture areas.

Guamuahaya Mountains are located in the central part of the country, comprising the provinces of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus and Villa Clara and is composed of the Sierra del Escambray and Sierra de Trinidad, with a total area of about 4500 km ². This mountain range is best known as the Sierra del Escambray.

Sierra Maestra, located on the southeastern tip of the island is the largest and highest mountain range of Cuba. It is a stronghold parallel to the south coast from Cabo Cruz to Punta de Maisi about 250 km in length and between 15 and 60 km wide. The average altitude in this region ranges between 300 and 2000 meters reaching the highest altitude of the country in Peak Turquino.

According to Tony Oldham (2003) about 70% of Cuba contains limestone. The high amount of solution results in karstified limestone mountains throughout the island. There are other geologic characteristics of the island. For instance, some of Cuba’s massive formations in the Cordillera de los Órganos, contain a layer rich in Iridium. It is believed that an iridium rich meteorite or comet impacted near Cuba, caused a tsunami that transported said Iridium to the region of Cuba. It is also believed that the Iridium contributed to the dinosaurs demise (originally written for Cuba Debate, 2011 by Ivette Romero).

With the aid of a Geographic Information System (GIS) data Liuska Fernández Diéguez and her team obtained information about the Northwest section of Cuba. The map shows ophiolitic rocks and also the forming of laterite crust on peridotites and gabbros. The presence of volcanic rocks and sedimentary regions in the northeast are from Cretacic era.

Island of Hispaniola

(Haiti and the Dominican Republic)

Hispaniola Island is located between Cuba and Puerto Rico. A Channel separates it from Cuba. The shortest distance is about 77 kilometers, between Cape San Nicolas in Haiti and the Punta Maisi, Cuba. Another channel, La Mona separates the island of Puerto Rico. The shortest distance is about 102 km between Cape Deception, in the Dominican Republic and Punta Jiguero in Puerto Rico.

The country has three major mountain ranges. The Cordillera Central, begins in Haiti, cuts across the central part of the island and ends in the south (San Cristobal), the highest peak in the Antilles, Pico Duarte, is found in this mountain range. The Septentrional Mountains, run parallel to the Central Mountains, and separate the Cibao Valley and the Atlantic coastal plains. The highest point in this range is Pico Diego de Ocampo. The lowest and shortest of the three ranges is the Eastern Mountains, in the eastern part of the country. Other mountains include the Sierra Bahoruco and the Sierra Neyba in the southwest. As indicated by the worldwild life organization, the lowest point of the country is Lake Enriquillo, about 46 m below sea level.

The country has numerous rivers, many of them navigable, such as Soco, the Higuamo, the Romana, Yaque del Norte, Yaque del Sur, Yuna, Yuma, the Bajabonico and Ozama (partially navigable).

The island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, has dozens of small faults “overshadowed” by some 11 older: Camu, north of Hispaniola, and Hispaniola, Northern, Guaza, Bonao, Hatillo, San José de Ocoa-restoration, Los Pozos, San Juan, Enriquillo-Plantain Garden, the Fencing San Juan de Los Muertos Trench and the North of Bahoruc.   The Haiti earthquake on 2010 originated in the Enriquillo fault devastating Port-au-Prince, Carrefour, Leogane, Jacmel and other Haitian cities.


Jamaica is one of the Greater Antilles islands in the Caribbean Sea. It is 630 km from Central America, 150 miles from Cuba, to the north, and 180 km from the island of Hispaniola, to the east. It has an area of 10,991 km ², and its coasts are about 1022 km. The island is 240 km long and up to 80 km wide.

Jamaica is a mountainous island surrounded by a small coastal plateau. To the east of the country are the Blue Mountains, a granite outcrop that rises over 2,200 feet and descending to the spectacular sea cliffs. Here lies the highest peak, Blue Mountain Peak of 2267 meters. To the west lies a large limestone plateau with an elevation of 1,000 meters, the Cockpit Country. It appears here with karst relief drains, gullies, ravines and gorges. In the north, this plateau drops almost directly into the sea, whereas in the south, it decreases into a series of floodplains.

The rivers are few, short and have very fast currents. Many of them flow into the sea from the top of waterfalls. There are two major rivers of Jamaica, the Minho and Copper.

The climate is the typical humidity of tropical islands with an average 26º C. The temperature changes with altitude, and can drop to 10º C.

The predominant geological formation consists of a series of Oligocene formations of oceanic origin, which are located in the center and west as well as on the eastern edge of the island, so it is inferred that much of it was covered by sea up to this period.

The Blue Mountains and central highlands are composed of a core of conglomerates, tuffs and limestones of the Cretaceous period, surrounded by other rocks from the upper Cretaceous and Eocene periods. The Pleistocene is represented in the southeast, and Holocene in the southwest by coral reefs and alluvial material. Extensive white limestone plateaus corresponding to the marine Oligocene characterize its morphology. In the region of Cockpit karst morphology predominates, in the Dry Harbour Mountains, to the north, karst is degraded and numerous karst caves, cavities or hollows can be found.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is located on a smaller Caribbean plate, which contains the areas of Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles. Along the arc of the Lesser Antilles, there are about 20 active volcanoes.

Millions of years ago, the collision of the Caribbean plate with the North American plate led to the formation of submarine volcanoes. These deposited lava for several million years until the hardened lava rose above sea level. Over time, rain, wind and tides eroded volcanic rock, forming plains at the foot of rocky mountains. Rivers deposited volcanic sediments on the coast, mixing with marine debris and forming the first beaches.

The mountain chains continued to wear by the rain and wind. This resulted in the formation of new broad valleys and plains, fertile sediments composed of volcanic rocks and limestone (the World’s Coasts on-line – Puerto Rico). Possibly some 5,000,000 years ago, new plate movements on the island rose hundreds of feet above sea level, increasing the height of the mountains. These movements of the ocean floor created new limestone soils around the coasts.

Puerto Rico’s interior is a mountainous with elevations extending from the mountains of Cayey, and Luquillo, and the Central Cordillera forming a mountainous landscape that stretches from Maricao, in the west to Naguabo, on the east coast. It is the oldest region in the island, and it includes other chains of mountains that are separated from the central mountain range. (from the Welcome to Puerto Rico Website)

The Cordillera Central is the “spinal column” of Puerto Rico. Although it is of volcanic origin, the Central Cordillera is also the result of erosion caused by rivers that drain to the north and south coasts of Puerto Rico. (Discover Puerto Rico) According to the United States Geological Survey, of the 15 tallest peaks in Puerto Rico, five are in the town of Jayuya, in the heart of its mountainous interior.

The northern karst region is characterized by uniform limestone hills, depressions or sinkholes and cave systems in a spatial pattern of indentations and peaks (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). These hills are made up of a type of sedimentary rock that formed part of the seabed more than 30 million years. This extends from Aguadilla, in the northwest to Loiza, in the northeast of the island.

Extensive plains that were carved by river currents characterize the coasts of Puerto Rico. These rivers deposited sediments in the coasts washed down from elevations. Hence, it can be inferred that the coasts are younger than the mountainous interior and the northern Karst. In addition, the river currents and waves deposited small rock fragments and organic debris in the Puerto Rican coasts forming extensive sand deposits.

The mountainous interior of Puerto Rico is made up of forested areas characterized by the quantity and stratification of the vegetation, which is grouped according to the light it receives, the temperature, and humidity. El Yunque peak is the highest in Puerto Rico and is lies within El Yunque national Park. (United States Forest Service – wikipedia website)

Adjacent islands are extensions of the mountain ranges of the main island, which dip into the sea and emerge again as smaller islands. The volcanic islands of Vieques and Culebra are extensions of the geological system of the Central Cordillera. They began forming 100,000,000 years ago with a series of underground movements that included the tectonic plate pressure beneath the Caribbean plate and the shifting toward the east (from Vieques, PR website). Today, Isla Vieques, with its rolling hills and breathtaking coastlines, is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.