North America

North America is the third largest continent, with a surface area of 24,221,490 km2 (9,351,969 sq mi). It is located in the northern hemisphere, between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean and to the north of South America. North America's highest point is Alaska's Denali, which rises to 6,194 m (20,320 ft) above sea level.


North America consists of three large nations and one large island territory that covers most of its area. They are Canada, the United States of America (U.S.), Mexico and Greenland. There are also seven smaller nations at its southern extreme (collectively known as Central America), around two dozen island nations and territories of various sizes in the Caribbean, and one isolated French territory off the Canadian Atlantic coast. Although the Central American and the Caribbean regions are technically part of the North American continent, they are commonly listed separately from their larger neighbors to the north and hence the distinctive region names for both cultural and geographical reasons.

South America Mexico Central America Caribbean Canada United States of America GreenlandMap of North America.png
The Great White North certainly has vast expanses of unspoiled wilderness, but it also features some of the world's most modern, cosmopolitan cities.
White sandy beaches, crystal-clear water, and laid-back island culture make the Caribbean one of the world's top vacation spots.
Central America (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama)
The seven nations of this isthmus connecting North and South America blend elements of both American continents; you'll find bustling cities, ancient jungle ruins, and a Spanish-tinged culture.
A self-governing country, but still part of Denmark, Greenland is a vast island of stark landscapes and midnight sun.
Mexico is a big tourist attraction for sun-seekers, naturalists/ecotourists and historians alike; the first flock to Mexico's tropical beaches, while the latter will find everything from Mayan ruins to Spanish colonial history.
United States of America
One of the largest, most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations on Earth includes some of the world's most famous cities, natural parks of unspeakable beauty, and virtually everything in between.

Non-Caribbean territories


Concrete canyons below New York skyscrapers

Other destinations

Grand Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala


Niagara Falls straddles the border between Canada and the United States

Just like the other continents, it is difficult to describe North America with just a few adjectives. Greenland, Alaska and the northern parts of Canada border the Arctic Sea are together with Siberia the coldest areas north of the Equator. Very few people live here, vegetation is generally sparse and some areas are completely covered by ice around the year. Most Canadians live in the southern parts of the country near the northern border of the United States. Here you can find cosmopolitan and interesting world cities and relatively easily accessible national parks for friends of nature and wildlife. The middle of the continent is covered by the United States of America, which is a naturally and culturally diverse superpower. The size and non-uniformity of the country results in increased travel time and many unique destinations and experiences. The southwestern part of the continent consists of Mexico and Central America, where modern Latin American culture meets ancient Maya and Aztec heritage. The southeastern part of the continent consists of the Caribbean islands, popular destinations for cruise and beach holidays.

Get in

By plane

You can get into major cities in the USA and Canada by direct flights from all the other five continents. Latin American carriers fly directly between Central and South America and from Europe you can fly directly to many of the Caribbean islands. The cheapest flights and most destinations will be to the United States. Of the 15 biggest airports in North America, only one is not in the United States, Toronto-Malton. If you do not wish to travel through the US to get to your destination, there is service offered to major airports such as Mexico City, Panama City and Punta Cana from major European and South American hubs. Flying is the fastest and cheapest way to get to North America.

By boat

It is possible to travel across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by freight or cruise ship, but these cruises tend to be quite expensive compared to flying (and infrequent). There are ferries from the northern rim of South America to Central America and to the Caribbean. There is still one old style ocean liner connecting New York City to Southampton, UK, though. So if you have both time and money and want to arrive in style as in the old days, it can certainly be done.


Even if the Americas are physically connected, there are no roads or railroads between Panama and Colombia. Theoretically it is possible (but hopelessly dangerous) to hike through the 100km of jungle; if you want to take your vehicle with you, you need to take the ferry.

Get around

Classic car in Old Havana

By plane

Because population centers are often widely spaced, most long-range travel is by air, with an extensive network of major hubs and smaller regional airports, usually supplemented with car rental services to cover local travel when you arrive at your destination (see "By car"). The cheapest fares are between major cities, so you may have to drive a few hours on each end of the trip to get to and from the airports.

By bus

There is prolific long range bus service across most of the U.S. and Canada, but travel times are excessively long (on the order of three to five times as long as a direct trip in a personal vehicle) and many stations are relatively unsafe. Most bus service is useful only for traveling within a dense metro area or along major commuter routes and is then limited or unavailable outside of business hours. Bus service is extensive in Mexico as well. In Central America buses are the backbone of local transportation, as car ownership remains low and both domestic flights and railways have only a niche role if any. If you want to meet the locals, hop on a chicken bus and enjoy the bumpy ride.

The following companies operate buses extensively in North America:

Between these major bus lines it is POSSIBLE to travel by bus across and between the three biggest countries in North America and seven smaller ones in Central America. In addition to the above, there are numerous other companies and local drivers' unions (more in Mexico & Central America) operating buses locally, regionally or even across longer distances as well. See "By bus" in the article for a particular country, state/province, region and/or locality for more. Most locations from small towns up to large cities have bus service within a town or to neighboring towns. The quality of service varies, but how late and often it runs roughly corresponds with city size.

By car

Most travel in Canada, the United States, and Mexico is by personal vehicle. Almost all highways in Canada and the United States are well maintained, with amenities such as gas, food, and lodging ranging from adequate to very convenient. If you experience an emergency that endangers your life, safety, or property, you will be able to dial 911 from a compatible cell phone on almost any major highway and reach an operator at any time. Vehicle and medical insurance issued in either Canada or the U.S. is usually valid in the other, though the wise traveler will confirm with their insurer. Canada and U.S. insurance coverage in Mexico is sometimes limited or not honored. Again, the wise traveler will confirm with their insurer.

Car rental agencies are available at almost every airport. Normally, a valid driver's license and a major credit card or cash deposit are required. Rentals are sometimes restricted for drivers under age 25. Many agencies offer short term insurance and additional coverage.

By train

Although it once held much of the continent together, and remains useful for local travel in many metro areas, intercity train travel now ranges from relatively convenient in the Northeast Corridor, to manageable in California, around Chicago, and parts of southeastern Canada, to sparse in other parts of the continent. If you prefer to travel by rail, it's still possible (depending on where you go), but is slower and sometimes more expensive than air travel for long distances.

Among the areas with most frequent service is the US Northeast Corridor which links Washington, D.C. to Boston with frequent stops in intermediate cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, New Haven, and Providence. There is at least hourly service in this corridor from 4am to 1am. In Canada, the heavily-populated Windsor-Quebec corridor has several trains daily which compare favorably in speed to freeway travel, although the cost to put one passenger on the train often exceeds that of intercity bus or of the fuel to travel by car.

In communities off the beaten track, often the rails have simply been removed and the former rights-of-way used as bicycle, snowmobile or nature trails. There are no railways still extant on Prince Edward Island or the island of Newfoundland.

Most private intercity rail carriers have abandoned passenger service as unprofitable, leaving de facto federally-owned entities such as Amtrak (in the US) and VIA Rail (in Canada) to operate the services that remain. Short commuter train runs are often regionally or municipally operated in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. See Rail travel in Canada and Rail travel in the United States. Compared to Europe and East Asia, speed is low and frequencies are sparse, but the views and the comfort may make up for it. Indeed on the spectacular routes some trains traverse in North America, the journey does indeed become the destination. High speed rail is if anything in its infancy, with only the Boston to Washington DC Northeast corridor qualifying for even a generous definition, but several projects are either planned or currently under construction throughout the US.

In Mexico and Central America passenger trains are nominal at best (Like the Chihuahua al Pacifico Line through the Copper Canyon) and non-existent at worst (in most places). There are however some tourist trains, and various Central American countries as well as Mexico have in recent years pondered out loud whether to build a new freight or passenger rail line. Recent economic developments and - in the case of Mexico - a sharp drop in oil prices have at the very least postponed these plans for now, so don't hold your breath.

By ship

On the sea

A mammoth cruise ship stopping by Labadee in Haiti

The cruise industry is a large industry in some parts of North America, and cruises to places such as Bermuda and the West Indies are readily available, as well as to parts of Mexico. Cruises are offered as tours, and, if your travel begins or ends at a port in the United States, you generally must embark or disembark either at the same port or in a different country at the other end of the cruise. (This is due to cabotage laws.) The exception is if the line is owned and staffed by Americans, using American-built ships. (Most cruise lines are multinational operations.) Generally, cruises stop at a given port for only a few hours, so this method of travel may be inconvenient for people who want to stay longer at a port. Some locations, such as Washington, Alaska, San Francisco, New York City and Boston, have ferry service, allowing trips to various locations in or near them.

On lakes and rivers

North America contains a number of large bodies of fresh water, be it the Great Lakes between Canada and the USA or the various rivers traversing the continent and most of them are used extensively to ferry goods and people. Cruising on small craft certainly is an option in the US, as it is the country with the longest inland waterways in the world. Canada similarly offers a huge amount of options for owners or renters of small craft. In the less developed corners of Central America, some places are or until recently were reachable by boat only or the waterway remains one of the more comfortable and faster ways to get there. Ometepe in lake Nicaragua for instance only got an airport in 2014, but given flight schedules and the view from the boat, most will still want to arrive on the water. Places that are deeper in the jungle or otherwise off the beaten path may be best accessed by boat and some ferries (e.g. between El Salvador and Nicaragua or between Honduras and Belize) will spare you a roundabout route overland.

By foot

If you find yourself in a large city, like New York, walking might be the best way to get around because of the large amount of traffic that many large cities have. There are many sidewalks and footpaths to take in less populated areas. For the dedicated long-distance hikers the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are United States National Scenic Trails running thousands of miles between Mexico and Canada through some of the most mountainous and rugged areas of North America.

By public transport

While cities such as Managua are a traffic nightmare and the buses are neither all that fast nor all that comfortable (they're cheap, though), other such as Panama City have recently built modern metros that are very popular with tourists and locals alike. Almost all self-respecting cities of a certain size in Canada and the USA have some form of metro or in recent years light rail to get you around at least downtown. Mexico City has the second biggest metro by ridership in the Americas (after New York City). That being said, many cities were built with automobiles in mind and outside of the downtown core you may be lucky if a bus even comes your way once an hour on weekdays, even in places as big as Dallas. Touring the United States without a car is a particular challenge though doable with advance planning and careful choice of destinations.

By bike

While there is hardly any traditional "bicycle culture" in most places (outside of recreational cycling, that is), there are new "bike-share" programs in many cities in the USA as well as Mexico City and Canada. While primarily aimed at locals, travelers can usually sign up as well (provided they have a credit card and/or passport). In more rural regions with a tradition of recreational cycling, you may very well get traditional bike rental by the day or week. Some cities have an emerging cyclist culture and joining up in a "critical mass" ride is a good way to meet the locals and get into contact with the local cycling scene.


The three major languages of North America are English, Spanish and French. The United States and Canada are majority-English-speaking countries. English is also spoken in many Caribbean nations and the Central American country of Belize. A Creole variety of English is spoken by a minority along much of the Caribbean coast of Central America as well as some Caribbean islands, most notably Jamaica, but it will take some getting used to and may be unintelligible to second language speakers of English. Mexico, the majority of Central America (mostly the Pacific side) and portions of the Caribbean are majority-Spanish-speaking. Spanish is also spoken as a mother tongue by a minority of people and second language by others in many parts of the United States. French plays a substantial role in Canada — especially Quebec, but also parts of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick — and a role in other places, especially the Caribbean (though in countries such as Haiti it is heavily Creole). Dutch is spoken on islands in the southern Caribbean that used to be part of the Netherlands Antilles. Numerous indigenous languages are spoken by Native Americans and the Inuit peoples of North America including Greenland. There are some isolated communities where only a few people speak anything but their indigenous language, and in Mexico, Nahuatl and Maya languages are having a revival of sorts. Danish is spoken along with Greenlandic in Greenland.


Gorgeous mountain landscapes in British Columbia

The range of things to see in North America is enormous. There is spectacular natural scenery ranging from mountains and tundra to deserts and tropical rain forests. The Rocky Mountains (Rockies) are the continent's largest mountain range, running from northern Canada to the southwestern United States. The Rockies contain some of the world's most visited national parks including the famous Yellowstone. North American cities like New York City, Chicago, and Washington DC are home to some of the world's finest museums. Stunning architecture can be found from Panama City to Montreal.

Cultural and historical themes



Figures for the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Usually, you can buy large ranges of clothing and lots of electronics. North America is known for manufacturing lots of electronics, such as Apple, Hewlett Packard (HP) and Dell, which are all major electronics manufacturers from North America.

Many North American cities have famous shopping districts such as 5th Avenue in New York City, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and the Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Downtown shopping districts have spawned some of the world's most famous retailers including Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Neiman Marcus.

Many tourists enjoy shopping at the biggest shopping mall in the United States, the Mall of America. It's located in Bloomington, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. As well as having an amazing number of stores, you'll also find a multi-screen movie theater, an amusement park, and many restaurants--including both sit-down and fast-food. Also, the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta is a popular destination having once been the world's largest mall.


Since the United States was heavily populated by pioneering peoples and global immigration, the diversity of cuisine is immense. Many cosmopolitan cities (Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas to name a few) have a broad array of dining options to offer tourists. These cities attract both famous chefs from around the world serving world-class fare in Michelin starred restaurants, as well as enclaves of various ethnic groups offering inexpensive regional cuisines from their homelands.

You will want to experience the foods of the region you are visiting: seafood in San Francisco, lobster in Maine and Boston, steak in Texas, Creole in New Orleans, barbecue (BBQ) throughout the South and Texas with each region having its unique sauces and preparations.

Fresh food availability is particularly obvious in California, which is also enjoying a prominence of organic food and "slow food" movements. In Florida, you will want to tour the orange groves for that freshly squeezed taste. Georgia is renowned for fresh peaches. States on the southern borders, such as New Mexico, serve lots of Mexican foods, and the spiciness and flavors will vary based upon the Mexican state they border.

Potluck suppers are held throughout the Midwest and South (you may find a few on the coasts if you are lucky). If you can get invited to one of sure to go! You'll enjoy everything from jello salad to venison (deer) and elk, to southern fried chicken. It's soul food of the best kind.

Canadian food, like that of the U.S., varies from region to region and is heavily influenced by its immigrant culture. Broadly speaking, you should think seafood on the coasts, meat and potatoes in the center of the country, and pretty much anything you can think of in the cosmopolitan major cities. Poutine, french fries covered in cheese curd and gravy, may be the nation's favorite fast food snack.

The Caribbean is known for its seafood and specialties like Jerk chicken.

While Mexican influence extends into the cuisine of Northern Central America, countries like Nicaragua or Costa Rica have their own distinct flavor, based mostly upon rice and beans that together make up gallo pinto (also known as casamiento in other parts of Central America), a staple food that you will eat at least once during any visit, no matter how short.


Salsa dancers in New York

Europeans used to mock American beers for their lack of diversity and flavor. No longer. While a light beer can still be enjoyed in hot regions on sandy beaches, the U.S. has microbreweries dotting the country. Major concentrations of microbreweries can be found in New England, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, and Northern California. The diversity of beers is now enormous and most beer-lovers will find at least one or two to their liking. Mexico is known for the lighter beers (Corona, Dos Equis, Pacifico) that go well with their cuisine and warm climate, although darker options are also available. The lighter beers are also more common in southern areas and the Caribbean, though many of these areas also have special non-beer options (regional types of rum are quite diverse, for example).

Canada and the U.S. have various wine regions and variants which have become internationally recognized and respected. Try the ice wine from Ontario and you will never forget the clean, clear beauty that is extracted from the frozen grape. The US has become the fourth largest wine making region in the world, with California producing roughly 90% of that volume. A trip to San Francisco should be accompanied by a drive through the famous Napa Valley, although if the crowds deter you, you can easily enjoy lovely wineries a few hours south along the Central Coast of California (add a stop at Hearst Castle) or beautiful Pinot Noirs in Oregon. Upstate New York (Finger Lakes region) is another major wine producing region.

Again, the immigrant influx to North America brought with it culturally diverse methods of alcohol production. Regional drinks and types of liquors abound. Beverages in the southern regions will often be mixed with tropical fruits; and of course, Mexico is famous for fermentation techniques with the agave plant (Tequila, anyone?). Rums abound in Southern areas of Mexico as well as Central America and the Caribbean, and have much diversity in methods of production. Cocktails made with gin and vodkas have undergone a renaissance in the US and Canada, evoking memories of old movie stars from days gone by. And of course, who has not heard of the Mint Julep from Kentucky, or the Hurricane from New Orleans.

As with all cultures, there will be sports bars with large television screens and avid fans. If this is something you enjoy, be certain to check the season and game times to see when the next hockey, (American) football, soccer (association football), or baseball game is on and join the noisemaking.

North America is the birthplace of another drinking trend that is spreading throughout the world: the Fake Irish Pub. These establishments will usually be decorated with nicknacks from Ireland and may even have an authentic looking 19th century interior. Sometimes the interior is actually imported from a real Irish pub that has gone out of business. The bar menu almost always consists of Guinness, Harp, and Jameson. Fake Irish pubs may seem tacky to those who have been to the real thing, but they are a genuine part of the landscape in the U.S. and Canada and are often among the most popular bars in town. If you're in a major American city on St. Patrick's day, a visit to one of these establishments is a must.

Jazz, dancing, marching, and general revelry at New Orleans Mardi Gras

Drinking ages vary by country. In the U.S., a government-issued ID, demonstrating its holder is 21 or above, is required to purchase or consume alcohol. Availability to purchase will vary as well; some states issue liquor licenses more broadly allowing you to find alcohol in many shops and stores (California, Washington); while others may only be purchased in state run shops (Utah), or licensed bars and restaurants. In Mexico, the drinking age is 18, sending many young US border residents into the casinos and nightclubs on weekends. In Canada, the drinking age (18 or 19) will vary by territory and province. The drinking age is 18 throughout Central America, though enforcement certainly varies.


Hostels are available in the cities, though often in less desirable locations. If hostels are your usual lodging choice, consider options such as the YMCA or a cheap hotel. Independent hotels and international and regional hotel chains are widespread across both Canada and the USA. Most hotel chains have free smart phone apps to make it easy to schedule and keep up with travel itinerary while on the road. In these countries, as well as major tourist regions of Mexico and the Caribbean, high-speed internet service is typically available, though sometime at an additional fee. Hotel chains also offer reward programs and bonuses for frequent travelers, as do some of the online options. Bed and breakfasts are available in many cities and other popular tourist destinations. Camping spots are widely available, generally along highways or near lakes and rivers, many require a small fee, so read signs and inquire. It should be noted that in more populated US national parks (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone) camping and accommodations within the parks will often need booking up to 12 months in advance. You may also experience challenges with accommodations at the small hotels just outside the parks during high-seasons.

To really experience life in the United States, a small bed and breakfast is the way to go! Bed and breakfasts, which are usually run by the owners who live on the property, will give you a better feel of what it's like to "be an American". Many of these owners have traveled widely, read widely and have knowledge of their area to guide you to those unique experiences in the United States.

Stay safe

Police and other emergency services are widely available most anywhere throughout the United States and Canada as well as most areas of Mexico and usually have fast response times. In the United States and Canada, police and other first responders can be summoned in an emergency by dialing 9-1-1 on a compatible phone. Safety varies widely from place to place, so see the appropriate article on the region of interest. Like anywhere, remember to practice good common sense safety procedures and you should be fine.

Stay healthy

Tap water is usually safe to drink in Canada and the United States.

While hardly present in dogs in the USA rabies is a concern when bitten in Central America or a bat in the US. As rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms show (there is only one case of symptomatic rabies being survived by a human documented in the medical record) have a rabies vaccination before you head out and get to a doctor as soon as possible if you are bitten.

Tropical diseases such as Dengue and Malaria are endemic to much of Central America, especially rural areas and the Caribbean side. If you want to go to Panama you will need a certificate of yellow fever vaccination.

In recent months, the Zika virus has spread through much of Central America, but it is advisable to check official government advisories as well as individual country guides on Wikivoyage before you go, as the situation can vary drastically between or even within countries. Zika is particularly dangerous to the unborn and thus pregnant women might want to postpone travel to affected areas.


Mobile telephone frequencies in the Americas (ITU region 2) differ from most of the rest of the world, with 850 MHz/1900 MHz being the most common frequencies in North America for GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile, Rogers) and 3G UMTS/WCDMA/HSPA (AT&T, Bell/Telus, Rogers). A few new entrants, regional carriers and higher-speed data services use 1700 MHz or 2100 MHz.

You should check if your phone operates on the North American frequencies - if it's a quad-band cell phone it probably will, at least for GSM (a few also support North American 3G bands). If it doesn't you won't be able to call, receive calls, or send or receive messages while in North America.

As a further wrinkle, North America was one of the few to widely use CDMA (a 2G system used by Sprint and Verizon, and gradually being phased out by Bell Canada; Telus has already shut down its CDMA). CDMA is not GSM compatible; CDMA handsets are not required to provide a removable SIM card. It is therefore common for North Americans to have to replace the entire handset (and not just a SIM) when switching to a new provider, even within the same country.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.