Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east, Central America is a loosely defined regional grouping of countries in the southern portion of North America. Central America stretches from Mexico (which may or may not be considered part of Central America, depending upon source) to the northwestern corner of the South American country of Colombia.
Central America is widely considered to include either seven or eight countries, with Mexico included by some sources, such as the United Nations Statistical Yearbook; but left out by other sources, such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which acknowledges the variance). A small minority of sources expand the definition to include various Caribbean countries, such as the Antilles islands and the Dominican Republic.
Although they are traditionally classified as Latin American countries, Hispanic countries, and Latino countries, the nations of Central America have their own distinct cultures, separate from those of both North America and even South America and influenced by the region's original inhabitants. Central America is very ethnically diverse, with many ethnic groups living throughout the region including mestizos (the largest group, which mixes European and Indigenous American ancestry); Mayans, Mopans and many more indigenous peoples; whites; Afro-Latins; Asians; and Europeans.
Spanish is the official language of every country in Central America except for Belize, where the official language is English. However, many additional languages are spoken in Central America--the Mexican government alone officially recognizes 68 languages. Popular languages in various Central American countries include Nahuatl, Miskito, Garifuna, Embera, Ngäbere, and various tongues of the Mayan language family. Over 95% of the region practices Christianity. Roman Catholicism has been one of the most popular religions since the 16th century.
Based on 2023 estimates, the combined population of the seven geographically lower Central American nations is 51,937,039, which rises to 180,028,111 with the inclusion of Mexico. Land area follows a similar trend, with the seven lower countries covering an area of 522,180 km² (201,616 mi²) and Mexico bumping the total to 2,486,555 km² (960,065 mi²).
If included, Mexico is easily the largest country in Central America by both population (128,091,072) and area (1,964,375 km² / 758,449 mi²). If Mexico is excluded, however, Guatemala becomes the largest country in Central America by population at 17,994,502 and Nicaragua becomes the largest country in Central America by area at 130,370 km² (50,336 mi²). The most densely populated nation in Central America is El Salvador, with a density of 307 residents per km².
Switching from the largest to smallest, El Salvador is also Central America's most diminutive country in terms of size, with an area of 21,040 km² (8,124 mi²). The Central American nation with the lowest population is Belize, which has approximately 408,387 inhabitants and is the only country in Central America with a population of less than a million. With a density of 307 residents per km², Belize also is the least densely populated nation in the region.
The largest metropolitan area in Central America again depends upon the countries included. Mexico City, Mexico boasts a population of 9,209,944 in the city proper, a population density of 6,200/km² (16,000/mi²), and a greater metropolitan population of approximately 21,804,515 people—more than the entire population of any other Central American country.
Excluding Mexico, the largest metropolitan area in Central America is Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, which had a 2020 population of 994,938 in the city proper, a population density of 4,522/km² (11,710/mi²), and 3,052,521 in the greater metropolitan area. Other major metro areas in Central America include San Salvador in El Salvador, Panama City in Panama, and San Jose in Costa Rica.
Central America is occasionally confused with another unofficial regional grouping, Latin America. While both groups are primarily composed of countries that have chosen a form of Spanish or Portuguese as their main language, Latin America includes not only nearly every country in Central America, but also the overwhelming majority of South America.
Potential confusion can also arise from the use of a related term, "Middle America", which may be used interchangeably with Central America in much of the world, but has an entirely different meaning when used in the United States.
Seven countries comprise Central America: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.
Central America consists of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.