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Central America


Lake Managua, jaguarundi, Cerro Colorado, margay, Lake Nicaragua

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In strictly geological terms, Central America begins at the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico. That narrow section divides the volcanic rocks to the northwest from the folded and faulted structures of Central America. The southernmost geological limit of Central America is the Atrato River valley, in Colombia, South America, just east of the Panama border.

Rivers and Lakes

The longest rivers of Central America flow to the Caribbean, and many small streams drain into the Pacific. Longer rivers include the Motagua of Guatemala; the Ulúa, Aguán, and Patuca of Honduras; the Coco, which forms part of the Honduras-Nicaragua boundary; the Río Grande and Escondido of Nicaragua; and the San Juan, which forms a section of the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. Some of the rivers flowing to the Caribbean are navigable by small craft, but the streams flowing to the Pacific are too steep or too shallow for navigation.

Central America has three large lakes—Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua in Nicaragua and Gatún Lake in Panama. Part of the Panama Canal, a great commercial waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, is in Gatún Lake.


Central America is essentially a land bridge uniting two previously isolated ecosystems. As a result, a mixture of both North and South American plant and animal species is found here. The lowland rain forest of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts resembles the selva, or tropical rain forest, of South America. This is especially true below an elevation of about 1,000 m (about 3,280 ft), with large numbers of palms, tree ferns, lianas, and epiphytes (air plants) reflecting the high rainfall and humidity of the region. Vegetation at altitudes of about 1,000 to 1,600 m (about 3,280 to 5,250 ft) shows ties with North America. The pine and oak forests of these highlands are like those of the Mexican highlands. High-altitude regions of Guatemala contain grasses like those of Mexico and the United States, and at about 3,100 m (about 10,170 ft) in Costa Rica are tall grasses similar to those growing above the tree line in the Andes Mountains of South America.


Most of the animal life of Central America is similar to that of South America, but some animals have ties with North America. The marley and opossum have links with South America, as do the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, and margay, which are members of the cat family. In contrast, the puma, gray fox, and coyote are of North American origin. The armadillo, anteater, and sloth have ties to the south, deer to the north. The large manatee, an aquatic plant eater, survives in the isolated lagoons of eastern Central America. Other food sources are the large green turtle and the iguana. Central America provides a habitat for numerous snakes such as the boa constrictor and the bushmaster. Parrots, the quetzal, toucans, and fish are common; notable are the landlocked sharks of Lake Nicaragua.


The minerals of Central America were an early lure for European settlers, especially the gold and silver found in Honduras and the highlands of Nicaragua. In addition, Honduras has significant deposits of lead, zinc, copper, and low-grade iron ore, and Nicaragua has large deposits of natural gas offshore in the Pacific. Large nickel deposits are in the vicinity of Izabal in Guatemala, and the country also has substantial reserves of petroleum, including those near Chinajá. Panama has considerable deposits of copper at Cerro Colorado.

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