West Indies, a chain of tropical islands in the Atlantic Ocean between North and South America. They lie primarily in the Caribbean Sea, an arm of the Atlantic, and extend in an arc stretching 2,400 miles (3,900 km) from Cuba to the island of Aruba, off the coast of Venezuela. Many of the islands have great natural beauty, with palm-lined, white sandy beaches; crystalline blue-green waters; dense tropical forests; and colorful birds, flowers, and plant life.
Originally, the islands were called the Indies—so named by Columbus, their discoverer, who believed he had arrived at his destination in Asia. Later, the islands acquired the name West Indies to differentiate them from the East Indies on the opposite side of the world. The name Antilles is sometimes used instead of West Indies, although it normally excludes the Bahamas. Another name for the islands in this area is the Caribbees.
The West Indies consist of hundreds of islands and many sand or coral reefs, called cays. The islands are divided into three main groups: the Bahamas in the north; the Greater Antilles—Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica—in the central part; and the Lesser Antilles—including the Windward and Leeward groups—in the southeast and south. Together, the West Indies have an area of about 92,000 square miles (238,000 km2), slightly more than that of Florida and South Carolina combined.
Politically, the islands vary considerably. Several are independent countries. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth associated with the United States. Many of the smaller islands, especially those in the Lesser Antilles, are European possessions—British, French, and Dutch. Some of the islands are colonies; some are semi-independent states; some are considered to be integral parts of European mother countries. Most of the islands off the north coast of Venezuela are Venezuelan. Some of the Virgin Islands belong to the United States.