England, France, Spain and other European powers waged bloody battles over many of the islands starting in the 1500s. The commanding forts, noble burial grounds and other monuments resulting from these struggles are evident throughout the region.

Cuba

, first settled by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, has by far the most impressive collection of historical structures. But since that island is inaccessible to most American tourists, your next best bet is

Puerto Rico

.

One of the most storied and accessible remnants of Spanish settlement in the region is in

Old San Juan

. Its centerpiece,

El Morro

, is the largest and most impressive fortification in the region. Its neighbors are museums and other structures dating to the Spanish settlement, earning the distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Also poignant are the monuments left by Spanish explorers in

Santo Domingo

,

Dominican Republic

, including the New World's first university, hospital and cathedral.

In

Antigua

,

Nelson's Dockyard National Park

in

English Harbor

offers a well-preserved illustration of the early presence of British explorers. The Georgian-style base, used by the British Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, has been fully restored.

For monuments to French settlement,

Martinique

is best.

Remnants of the slave trade from the 16th to the 19th century are also scattered among the islands, and

Curacao

is the best place to get an overview. The comprehensive

Museum Kura Hulanda

, in the capital city of

Willemstad

, features a chronology of the slave market on this small Dutch enclave and in the region.

The massive plantation houses on

Barbados

and

Jamaica

, and the white stone slave houses in

Bonaire

also are stark reminders of that era.