For many, North America represents the best of the world as we know it. In part, the economic abundance of the US and Canada, the vibrant and appealing culture of the Caribbean, and the romantic holiday-friendly image of Mexico are top of many lists.
There’s a lot more to North America than just holiday brochures and popular culture, though. As a region, it boasts several impressive geographic features and anomalies. Because of its size, it has incredibly diverse bioculture, people, and even natural phenomena worth exploring.
In this article, we take a look at 41 interesting facts about North America — the earth’s third-largest continent
41 Interesting Facts about North America
First, let’s get some very basic facts about North America out of the way.
North America encompasses Canada and Greenland in the North, all the way down to the country of Mexico in the South. In total, the landmass covers 9.5 million square miles. Altogether, the population of the North American region is around 465 million people.
In total, there are 23 countries contained within North America. There are also several territories that are classified as dependencies. When you take these additional territories into account, the total population expands to 590 million people.
The official list of independent or sovereign countries in North America read as follows:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Trinidad and Tobago
- United States of America (USA)
Of the 23 countries in North America, Canada is the largest, and the USA is the second-largest. But together, they represent about 79% of the total landmass of the continent. They also happen to be the two economic powerhouses of the continent, but more about that later.
The origin of the name “America” is disputed. Most scholars agree that the continent was named after Amerigo Vespucci, an explorer who first declared that the new world was not, in fact, India.
But others suggest that the name became official when named after a Welsh trader named Richard Amerike. Amerike allegedly paid for the expedition that discovered Newfoundland in Canada. Others still insist that it was named for a native American word. In the end, most people feel it doesn’t really matter.
As far as the best guess, the earliest known civilization can be traced back to the Mexico region in what is today known as Clovis. The Clovis culture, as it is called, dates back to around 13,000 years ago.
The Maya civilization inhabited what is now Mexico from around 2500 BC. They were actually a collection of city-states, much like what we now consider ancient Greece. Other major early civilizations of the area include the Zapotec (500 BC) and the Mississippian (1000 AD).
Most people might guess that New York or Los Angeles is North America’s biggest city. In reality, it’s Mexico City that holds that honor. This huge metropolis has 22 million people residing in or around it and spans more than 570 square miles.
These are the most populous cities on the North American continent:
- Mexico City (Mexico): 21.3 million
- New York (USA): 20.2 million
- Los Angeles (USA): 13.3 million
- Chicago (USA): 9.5 million
- Dallas-Fort Worth (USA): 7.1 million
- Houston (USA): 6.6 million
- Toronto (Canada): 6.1 million
No country in North America is landlocked. Every single country has some access to a coastline. In addition, every country doesn’t only touch a sea, but a major ocean.
The biggest country in the region is Canada. The 3.8 million square miles of the beautiful country also happen to be the second-largest in the world after Russia. Interestingly, Canada is the least populous country in the region, too, at least in terms of density — it ranks at 11 people per square mile.
By contrast, the smallest country is the Caribbean island of St Kitts and Nevis. The total population is 54,000. As an aside, the territory in North America with the least people in it is the British island of Montserrat, with only 6,000 people who reside there.
Yes, Greenland is technically a part of North America, and it is the largest island in the world. At 836,300 square miles, it is larger than Alaska. Alaska, for its own part, constitutes around 20% of the landmass of the United States. Ironically, Greenland is very icy.
Alaska is home to the highest mountain in North America. Denali (or Mount McKinley) reaches up into the heavens, touching 20,000 feet. Denali also happens to be the third most elevated peak on the planet.
The biggest freshwater lake in North America is Lake Superior. It is one of the Great Lakes and is the most northern of those famous bodies of water between Canada and the US. Superior is estimated to hold 10% of the world’s freshwater supply. Superior is 350 miles long and 160 miles wide and has a depth of 1,300 feet.
For perspective, consider that the lake is as big as the country of Austria and larger than several states in the USA.
North America is divided into five official regions, according to scientists. These are:
- The Canadian Shield – A Plateau that elevates Canada.
- The Great Plains – The central block of the continent, vast and spectacular.
- The Eastern region – The Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachians.
- The Caribbean – The seven thousand islands of the Caribbean.
- The Mountainous West – characterized by mountain ranges, especially the Rockies.
Each of these has unique and fascinating features, characterized by its own animals and plant life, terrain and relief, and cultural anomalies.
The Longest river in North America is the Missouri. At nearly 2,350 miles in length, the river winds from Montana to Missouri. The river runs through seven states in total: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri.
It has a storied nickname: The Big Muddy. This is allegedly because of the extraordinary amounts of silt and sand the river carries down its path.
The lowest land point in all of North America is Death Valley, which sits at 282 feet below sea level. The valley was named by early settlers, who considered the land very foreboding. Not surprisingly, Death Valley frequently records very high temperatures. In 2018, it recorded 127⁰F for four days in a row. That year, the hottest month averaged 108⁰F.
Unlike, say, Antarctica, North America contains all the known biomes on the planet. There are five types of biomes in total: Grassland, aquatic, desert, forest, and tundra.
Corn is one of the major crops of the region, and it’s used for lots of things. In fact, North America is the biggest corn-producing region on the planet. Aside from food, corn is used in the manufacture of lots of things, including biofuel and textiles. In the region, the US is the top corn producer, also making it the top producer in the world.
There are several massive national parks in North America. For example, you can fit the entire country of Switzerland into The Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. In the US alone, there are 423 national park systems, in total covering more than 83 million hectares of land and water.
The United States became the first country to ever have a complete written constitution for its nation. That makes North America home to another first in terms of world political history.
For perspective, it wasn’t the first constitution. It wasn’t even the first in terms of the states. But it was the first that was complete and took into account a national government for the states. That is to say, it was the first (and oldest existing) complete charter of government to recognize a federal system as overarching and part of a state system — checks and balances, so to speak.
Although the native peoples of North America were varied and populous, today, less than 2% of the population regard themselves as Native American. The largest groups that still exist as determined ethnic people are the Mayan in Mexico and the Gulf region, and Navajo, Cherokee, and Iroquois people in the USA.
North America is also estimated to be predominantly Christian today, with around 75% identifying as one denomination or another.
That’s the basic rundown of the geography and population makeup of the region. So let’s take a deeper dive into some more interesting trivia concerning North America and its historical claims.
North America’s tallest mountain is in Alaska, as mentioned. But North America also has the world’s smallest volcano. You can actually climb to the top of it in a few minutes, and thankfully, it’s not exactly active with explosions and lava spills.
Cuexcomate stands at a rather unimposing 43 feet tall, and most people just consider it a geyser. But it is a volcano.
Out of interest, Yellowstone National Park is considered the largest volcano system in North America and also the world. Technically, the system is still considered active, although the last major eruption took place about 650,000 years ago. The area still has several minor incidents of unrest and minor shifts.
The printing press was invented in Europe and opened the world of information and education to millions of people through the mass production of printed works. The first printing press in North America was established in Mexico City in 1539.
Today it is a museum and major tourist attraction. The press was founded by Archbishop Juan Zumarraga, the first Bishop of Mexico. He also wrote the first book to be published in North America, entitled Doctrina Breve, published the same year.
The Isthmus of Panama is a thin piece of land that connects the north and south American continents. It is technically classified as North America — at least, half of it is.
The famous Panama Canal is found here, as well as the country of Panama, of course. As such, the isthmus also connects the Atlantic (via the Caribbean Sea) and Pacific oceans. In that sense, it could be the world’s most effective tollgate. At its narrowest, the isthmus is about 30 miles wide. As an aside, ships take about 10 hours to navigate the Panama canal.
There are a lot of lakes in Canada. But more than simply spouting a number, it’s better to put that number in perspective. Of all the world’s lakes, 62% are in Canada. There are roughly 31,000 lakes with an area larger than one square mile in the country.
Of Canada itself, 9% is a lake. Scientists find this to be both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, they concede that little is known about how much these lakes and bodies of water truly influence global geography (weather patterns, etc.). On the other hand, what we do know suggests that we need to take heed of the effect of climate change on this amount of fresh water.
From the bison in the US to the beaver of Canada, and the eagle of Mexico, lots of different animals represent the countries as a national symbol. As you might expect, there is a broad range of animals — here are the main ones.
- United States: Bald Eagle, American Bison
- St. Vincent and the Grenadines: St. Vincent Parrot
- Mexico: Xoloitzcuintli Dog
- Jamaica: Red-billed Streamertail
- Cuba: Cuban Trogon
- Canada: North American Beaver, Canadian Horse
- Antigua and Barbuda: Fallow Deer, Frigate, Hawksbill Turtle
- Anguilla: Zenaida Dove
Everybody knows that Canada and Alaska are cold in the winter. On the other hand, the summer heat of Mexico is legendary (and popular with sun worshipers). In between, the vast plains and grassland and mountains offer something for every possible taste.
That also means that animal and plant diversity is huge, depending on where you plan to visit. So whether you prefer skiing and snowboarding or surfing and suntanning, North America has your fix.
As an economy, the US is the most advanced in the world, at least in terms of capital generation. It is the world’s largest revenue-generating economy and also the most technologically advanced. It is diverse, having significant mining, manufacturing, retail, and tech sectors.
In 2020, the GDP of the US was $21 trillion. To the North, Canada’s GDP that same year was just $1.6 trillion (and it is still considered a fairly wealthy country). Mexico sits at just above $1 trillion.
Most people might guess New York or Los Angeles as the largest city in North America. But several surveys, like one undertaken by US News, suggest that Canada has a better quality of life overall.
Among the often-cited favorites is Vancouver. Factors like medical care, cultural diversity, and overall city facilities are taken into account. That said, every city has its good things and bad, so take such surveys at face value.
The dominant languages in North America are English, Spanish and French. This is largely due to colonial history and influence over the region. French is commonly found in the Caribbean as well as parts of Canada. English is broadly spoken across the US and Canada, while Spanish is largely found in the southern and western United States and central American regions.
In a region this big and with so many cultures, both native and immigrated, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the range of languages is huge. As previously mentioned, English, Spanish and French are widely spoken. But in total, you can find communities speaking one or more of nearly 150 languages in the region.
The ranking order of most commonly spoken languages in North America may surprise some:
1. English – 334 million speakers
2. Spanish – 125 million
3. French – 18 million
4. Chinese (all varieties) – 4 million
5. Tagalog – 2 million
6. Vietnamese – 1.5 million
7. German – 1.3 million
8. Arabic – 1.3 million
9. Korean – 1.2 million
10. Italian – 709,000
Finally, let’s take a look at a few random facts about this continent that you can slip into the conversation around your next dinner party.
An interesting mathematical concept was founded in North America, and it happened way before the European conquest. The Mayans developed the concept of Zero way before anyone else, as best we can tell.
The Caribbean was popular with pirates and privateers in the days of seafaring exploration. And we often associate them with rum. It turns out that Jamaica still has a huge amount of rum bars. It remains one of the most densely packed countries for such establishments in the world.
It also happens to have one of the highest densities of church buildings in the world. Make of that what you will.
Fast fact: Rum is a drink said to be of West Indian origin. It was initially called rumbullion, made from molasses. Today, many of the islands in the Caribbean produce a rum that has characteristics particular to that island. Rums come in dark, light, overproof, spiced, amber, and other varieties.
There is a street in Canada that rivals some of the longest rivers in the world. Yonge Street stretches for 1,176 miles between Toronto and Lake Simcoe. The street was first incorporated in 1793, named after the administrator’s friend (who ironically never came to Canada).
Yonge is known to history as one of its most notoriously incompetent politicians and was at one point the governor of the Cape Colony in modern-day South Africa.
Mexico has the region’s oldest printing press, but the world’s oldest clock is found in Honduras and was built in 1100. It was actually imported here from Spain as a gift from the King of Spain in 1620. Curious tourists can find the clock in The Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Comayagua.
There is some dispute over whether this is the oldest existing clock in the world. Various estimations put it at least among the oldest five.
The Bahamas has a huge population of West Indian flamingoes. There are three main nesting groups in the region, but the Inagua is the largest. There are an estimated 60,000 flamingoes here.
West Indian flamingoes are also called American or Cuban flamingoes. They are roughly 55 inches long and usually appear pink. The tips of their beaks are black, and they are the only flamingo native to the Americas.
If so, you may want to visit the San Juan Caribe Hilton Hotel in Puerto Rico, where the drink was invented in 1954. The bartender, Ramón “Monchito” Marrero, created what would become the official drink of Puerto Rico. In 2004, the governor presented the hotel with official recognition for 50 years of the iconic drink.
Pina Coladas are typically made with rum, coconut milk, and pineapple juice. Pieces of fruit — especially pineapple — are usually added for garnish. Puerto Rico is considered a territory of the United States but does not have state rights. It has a representative democracy as a political system.
A popular local dish in Belize is gibnut, a rodent that locals playfully call a Royal Rat for a pretty historical reason. Such is the faith in this dish that it was served to the Queen of England when she visited there in 1985. Incidentally, the Queen is considered the head of the state of Belize.
Reports — including one from the Queen herself — suggest that it tastes like a rabbit. Gibnut can be served grilled or stewed. It is typically considered meat eaten by farmers and hunters and not at all a high society dish.
Belize is made up of more than 400 islands, and their national animal is actually a mountain cow. It is not known why a bush rat was chosen over this decidedly more appealing meat when it came to serving the Queen.
There are generally five common time zones observed by the major countries in North America (geographically-speaking). Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific Time are regarded as standard across the US and Canada. Canada observes an additional time zone in Newfoundland.
The US observes two additional time zones in Alaska and Hawaii, respectively. Neither of those two states are physically attached to the continental US.
Despite many years of economic embargo from the US, Cuba was the world’s largest exporter of sugar. It was the main agricultural export of the country, despite declining rapidly since the 90s. Today’s efforts focus on trying to recover its position as a major player in the sugar industry.
Cuba still runs a deficit when it comes to imports and exports, but it has some refining capability, allowing it to benefit from fuel refining, challenging sugar as a major trade component.
Finally, and just to make it official for this article, North America is the third largest continent in the world by land area. Asia and Africa rank first and second, while Australia is the smallest. But it is only number four when it comes to population. Here is the list of continents, ranked from largest population to smallest.
- Asia – approximate population: 4,641,054,775
- Africa – 1,340,598,147
- Europe – 747,636,026
- North America – 592,072,212
- South America – 430,759,766
- Australia/Oceania – 43,111,704
- Antarctica – 0
Hopefully, these facts have piqued an even stronger interest in the fascinating history and present state of North America. It’s clearly a lot more than just the US and Canada. The cultural and biological diversity make it a world in and of itself to explore.
It’s therefore hard to simply state which part of the continent would be your favorite. Seen as a whole, North America is both a cultural marvel and a true gem among planet earth’s many gifts.