Which Islands Are in the Greater Antilles and Lesser Antilles?

Discover How the Geography of the Caribbean Islands

Puerto Rico Open - Final Round
Michael Cohen / Getty Images

The Caribbean Sea is filled with tropical islands. They are popular tourist destinations and many people refer to the Antilles when speaking of certain islands in the archipelago. But what are the Antilles and what is the difference between the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles?

The Antilles Are Part of the West Indies

You probably know them as the Caribbean Islands. The small islands that scatter the waters between Central America and the Atlantic Ocean are also known as the West Indies.

Trivia Time: The West Indies received its name because Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the Pacific islands near Asia (known as the East Indies at the time) when he sailed west from Spain. Of course, he was famously mistaken, though the name has remained.

Within this large collection of islands are three main groups: the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles. The Bahamas include over 3000 islands and reefs on the north and east side of the Caribbean Sea, beginning just off the coast of Florida. To the south are the islands of the Antilles.

The name 'Antilles' refers to a semi-mythical land called Antilia which can be found on many medieval maps. This was before Europeans traveled all the way across the Atlantic, but they did have an idea that some land was across the seas to the west, though it was often depicted as a large continent or island.

When Columbus reached the West Indies, the name Antilles was adopted for some of the islands.

The Caribbean Sea is also known as the Sea of the Antilles.

What Are the Greater Antilles?

The Greater Antilles are the four largest islands in the northwestern portion of the Caribbean Sea. This includes Cuba, Hispaniola (the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico.

  • In total, the Greater Antilles make up almost 90% of the land in the West Indies. 
  • Cuba is the largest single island in the Caribbean.
  • During the colonial period, the island of Hispaniola was known as Santo Domingo, named for the capital city of what is now the Dominican Republic.

What Are the Lesser Antilles?

The Lesser Antilles include the smaller islands of the Caribbean to the south and east of the Great Antilles.

It begins just off the coast of Puerto Rico with the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and extends south to Grenada. Trinidad and Tobago, just off the Venezuelan coast, are also included, as is the east-west chain of islands that stretches to Aruba.

  • The Lesser Antilles are further divided into two groups: the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands.
  • Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao are known as the 'ABC" islands and are territories of the Netherlands.
  • A number of the Lesser Antilles islands are dependent on or territories of larger countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands and France.