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We live in a time of great change and an increasing need for a celebration of diversity.
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create a greater understanding of the wonderful diversity in our world in a fun and family-centered manner with our Earthy Family
"Connecting the World" Series
Geography of Mexico
Mexico’s Unique Geography and Landscapes
Mexico is technically part of North America. It borders the United States to the north and Belize and Guatemala to the South. Mexico's land mass consists of roughly 1,972,550 square kilometers (over 761,605 square miles), including 6,000 square kilometers (over 2,316 square miles) of islands. The islands include Isla Mujeres, Isla Guadalupe, and the Islas Revillagigedo. Mexico has coasts formed by where the land touches the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean.
Mexico has a unique geographical landscape that makes it one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Throughout Mexico, you can find jungles, rivers, lakes, deserts, towering mountains, snow-capped volcanoes, and miles of coastline. VivaNatura, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting the environments of Mexico, is a great place to look for maps and photos showing the wide range of plants and animals found in Mexico. Link: http://www.vivanatura.org/Biodiversity.html
Mexico has an impressive collection of endemic species, including plants, insects, birds, and mammals. Endemic species are species of animals or plants that only live in that particular place, and are found no where else in the world. Additionally, the diversity of landscapes translates to a wonderful variety of fruits and vegetables that Mexicans enjoy in their diet. Have you ever sampled the mamey fruit? Or what about a black sapote? The mamey fruit is a wonderful sweet fruit which tastes a little like a baked sweet potato. The black sapote has a green skin and a yet black flesh.
There are dozens of tropical fruits that are found in Mexican markets that are near to impossible to find in other parts of the world. Vanilla and chocolate are also native to Mexico and have played a valuable role in ancient Mesoamerican cuisine and culture. We enjoy hot chocolate during the cold winter months thanks largely to Mexico!
The northern parts of Mexico are largely desert and extremely arid. The northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua are made up mostly of extensive and barren deserts. In addition to its dramatic deserts, the northern state of Chihuahua is famous for a spectacularly deep canyon, La Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), which is often described as the Mexican equivalent of the Grand Canyon. From top to bottom, Copper Canyon is over 2000 meters (6,561 feet) deep, and has a huge diversity of ecosystems.
The Baja Peninsula
Mexico also contains an unusual and very arid peninsula on its western limits, the Baja California peninsula, which makes up the states of Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. The California mountain range, an extension the mountain ranges of California in the United States, passes through the Baja peninsula, creating some unusual habitats. The Baja peninsula is a famous spot for watching the migration of the grey whale.
The Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Madre Occidental are two long mountain ranges that run from the northern boundaries of the country to Mexico City. Here, you will find white-tailed deer and the occasional wild mountain sheep. Coyote, fox, and the rare Mexican Wolf can also be seen in this region.
Between the two Sierra Madre mountain ranges is the area defined as the Bahío, which is considered the “breadbasket” of the country. This is a huge agricultural area north of Mexico City where you can find dozens of kinds of fruits and vegetables growing all year round. The Bahío produces many crops for export, including tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus.
In the Bahío, travelers can witness one of the most spectacular migrations in the world. From November to April, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from Canada and the United States to enjoy the mild climate of the mountains of the state of Michoacán. This is also the mating season of the monarch butterfly. These butterflies gather in clusters of thousands throughout the trees and forest floor. A butterfly sanctuary near the town of El Rosario is one of the best places to see this event.
The Cordillera Neovolcánica is a mountain range that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It begins at the Rio Grande de Santiago and passes through several states, including the states of Colima and Veracruz. This area has several impressive volcanic peaks, including the Pico de Orizaba, which is the third highest mountain in North America. Two major volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl near Mexico City, are also included in this region. This area continues to see seismic and volcanic activity, with major earthquakes recorded in Mexico City and Colima in recent years.
While Mexico’s northern landmass is quite wide, the country narrows significantly towards its southern border. The Yucatan Peninsula to the south is only about 490 kilometers (305 miles) wide at its narrowest point. Southern Mexico is defined by lush forests, jungles, and Karst Topography. Karst Topography is classified as flat, largely limestone areas with an abundance of sink holes and caves. The Yucatan peninsula is a great place to see Karst Topgraphy. Many of these sink holes provided fresh water to the Maya Indians of this area, and are still considered sacred.
The Sierra Madre del Sur runs along the southern coast and ends roughly near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This mountain range is widest in the state of Oaxaca. The Sierra Madre de Oaxaca is another important range that runs from the Pico de Orizaba to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Other important mountain ranges in the south are the Sierra Madre de Chiapas and the Meseta Central de Chiapas.
The southern part of Mexico is home to a number of tropical animal species including spider and howler monkeys, kinkajous, coati, tapirs, jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarondi, anteaters, and armadillos. This region also has an abundance of bird species including toucans, scarlet macaws, oscillated turkeys, parakeets and parrots. The rare and shy quetzal bird inhabits the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.
Mexico as a whole is one of the richest areas in the world in terms of bird species. Mexico receives thousands of migratory birds that travel from Canada and the United States to warm up during the winter. The extensive wetlands throughout the Bahío receive visits from ducks, herons and many other waterfowl. The Mexican eagle can also be seen flying overhead in this region.
The states of Chiapas and much of the Yucatan peninsula includes impressive tracts of rainforest and jungle. The state of Tampico also contains large amounts of tropical forests. These areas are seriously threatened by human activity due to the fact that they contain large quantities of important hardwoods such as mahogany, cedar, ebony, logwood, and rosewood. These areas of Mexico are also home to large stretches of coastal mangrove forests, which are considered the nurseries of many salt water fish. Many of these important mangrove habitats have unfortunately been removed to make areas of white sand beaches that are popular with tourists.
Mexico’s climate is just as varied as its landscapes. The part of the country north of the Tropic of Cancer has a more temperate climate and large variations in winter and summer temperatures. South of the Tropic of Cancer, temperatures remain basically the same year round. However, the dramatic changes in elevation means that this area still sees a wide range of climates and temperatures, from humid tropical jungles to snowcapped volcanic peaks.
Amounts of rainfall vary throughout the country, with the northern states and the Baja Peninsula receiving very limited rain throughout the year. The Bahío and the cities of Guadalajara and Mexico City experience a substantial rainy season that lasts approximately from June to late October. Southern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula receive the highest levels of rainfall in Mexico.
February is usually the driest month in the country, and July is often considered the wettest month. September can be the wettest month on the Gulf Coast. Tabasco is one of the wettest states of this area. Parts of the Baja Peninsula have a rather agreeable Mediterranean climate with limited rains in the winter months.
Mexico has the potential for a high level of hurricanes that can affect both coasts. Hurricane season lasts from early June to mid November, and destructive hurricanes are a fact of life for many Mexicans.
The Pacific coast tends to be a bit calmer than the eastern coasts of Mexico. However, both coasts almost always see a dose of rough weather each year. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused major damage to resort areas on the Caribbean coast, such as Cancún. 2005 was also a record year for Hurricanes in Mexico. See below for more details.
Mexico’s Natural Disasters
Mexico is prone to natural disasters throughout its territory. From floods and hurricanes, to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, many Mexicans live in constant threat of losing their homes or worse.
Mexico is considered one of the most seismic regions in the world, as the country is located where three large tectonic plates meet. In central and southern Mexico, active volcanoes dot the landscape. In September of 1985, Mexico saw one of the greatest natural disasters of its history when an earthquake of 8.1 on the Richter scale killed over 4,000 people in Mexico City. Since that time, the Mexican government has taken great pains to make the city earthquake proof in the hopes of preventing further tragedy.
Unfortunately, Mexico has seen hard times in the early years of the new millennium. 2005 was a tragic year for the inhabitants of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and the Yucatan peninsula. A series of hurricanes including Hurricane Wilma caused massive flooding and widespread destruction in this region. Wilma hit some of the poorest areas in Mexico and was especially destructive to the resort city of Cancun. It is estimated that Wilma is one of the most costly hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic.
To the north, natural disasters are not quite as common, but resisdents of states such as Chihuahua and Sonora suffer from the threat of water shortages and drought. The northern boundary of Mexico is defined partly by the Río Bravo del Norte, which is called the Rio Grande in the United States. This river holds great importance to the northernmost border cities, as it is a critical source of water. Because the water is shared between the United States and Mexico, recent conflicts have arisen due to the fact that this is an extremely arid region of the country, and one of its fastest growing. Ciudad Juarez, along with its neighbor El Paso, Texas face serious water shortages if current rates of growth continue.
Sadly, Mexico also suffers from massive rates of deforestation, which increases problems with drought and flooding. Deforestation also creates an increased possibility of landslides during heavy rains. This is especially true in the mountainous areas of central and southern Mexico, which have long rainy seasons.
Deforestation takes place because of traditional slash and burn agriculture, cleaning of the land for cattle ranching, and the harvesting of trees for building materials and firewood. Unfortunately, many foreign companies have taken advantage of Mexico’s forests, purchasing the rights to log large tracks of land and then shipping the wood overseas. Mexicans themselves see very little profits.
Despite these problems, Mexicans enjoy one of the richest countries in terms of natural resources, diversity of landscapes, and natural beauty. There is an increasing consciousness of the environmental problems that Mexico faces, and steps are being taken both by Mexicans and the international community to protect Mexico’s natural treasures and the local communities that depend on these natural resources for their survival.
Below is a list of just a few of the protected areas and national parks with outstanding wildlife and vegetation you can visit in Mexico.
- The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatan Peninsula has coral reefs, freshwater wetlands, mangroves, and is an excellent place to watch exotic tropical birds or swim with colorful fishes.
- El Triunfo Reserve in the state of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border is an excellent example of a tropical rainforest ecosystem.
- Lagos de Montebello National Park, also in Chiapas, is home to howler monkeys, tapirs, and dozens of exotic birds.
- The Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, found mostly in the state of Queretaro, is a vast and varied region with deserts and forests. Here you can find jaguars, jaguarundi, and the trogon, an elusive and colorful bird related to the quetzal.
- The island of San Benito off the Baja peninsula is a great place to see migrating osprey and a variety of seabirds.
- The Isla Guadalupe Biological Reserve, also off of the Baja peninsula, is home to hundreds of elephant seals.
- The Sierra San Pedro Mártir National Park is a protected area found within the Baja peninsula that has pine forests and outstanding, clear views.
Browse through our Mexican Information Pages for:
Resources to learn more about Mexico:
Recipes from an Aztec Garden
A Collection of Classic and Traditional Recipes from Mexico!
Festival of Mexico Folk Arts
Mexican folk art information, Mexican toys and games including loteria cards, Mexican culture and folk art buying tips, Folk art from
Chiapas, Oaxaca, Huichol folk art, and more!
Mexican Culture for Kids
A resource for teachers, students, and anyone interested in Mexico.
Flor y Canto
This website is an exploration of Mexican culture written by a Mexican woman and her American husband.
Ecotourism and responsible travel in Mexico and around the world.
Madam Mayo's Blog
M. Mayo is a writer, poet, and translator. Her blog has lots of great information about Mexican culture and travel.