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Physical Geography of Mexico

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

It's not too hard to find Mexico on a map, but how much do you know about what's actually there? In this lesson, we'll check out the physical geography of America's southern neighbor.

The Geography of Mexico

To most people in the United States, the geography of Mexico is pretty simple: it's south. That's all that really matters. Of course, once you cross the US's southern border and actually make it into Mexico, you realize that there's a lot more to it.

Mexico is an incredibly diverse place in terms of not only people, but climates and landscapes as well. In fact, it has the 4th highest biodiversity in the world, with about 10% of all the world's species living somewhere in Mexico. Let's take a little tour of Mexico and get to know its geography a little better.

Overall Geographic Trends

First, let's just take a look at Mexico as a whole. Mexico is a nation of the Western Hemisphere, sharing a northern border with the United States of America and a southern border with Guatemala and Belize. To its west lies the Pacific Ocean, and to the east are the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.

This large country is covered in mountains, deserts, and rainforest, but the most significant division may be the Tropic of Cancer, which cuts right through the middle of Mexico. This delineation is important because Mexico's climate is different on either side. To the north, the climate is temperate and relatively dry. Temperatures can reach extreme heats in summer, but can get much colder in winter. South of the Tropic of Cancer, Mexico is much more tropical, with consistent temperatures throughout the year and more rainfall.

A topographic map of Mexico reveals how mountainous the country is
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Another defining feature of Mexico's overall geography is the fact that is sits over not one, not two, but three tectonic plates. As a result, Mexico is among the most seismically active places in the Western Hemisphere, and earthquakes have caused major damage in the past. All of this seismic active is also, in terms of geologic history, one reason that Mexico is a predominantly mountainous country.

Northern Mexico

From here, we can divide Mexico into three loose regions, each of which has its own unique geographic features. We'll start in the north and work our way south. Northern Mexico, the part above the Tropic of Cancer, is defined by a mixture of deserts and mountains. There are two main mountain ranges in northern Mexico. To the west is the Sierra Madre Occidental, and to the east is the Sierra Madre Oriental. These twin ranges run parallel to each other from north to south, extending into central Mexico. The Sierra Madre Oriental mountains are also a continuation of the same mountains that make up the Rockies in the United States.

Between these two ranges is a high-elevation plain called the Mexican Altiplano, or Mexican Plateau. The Altiplano region is mostly arid desert, including the expansive Chihuahuan Desert.

There are a few other things that make northern Mexico notable as well. On its western side, it contains the world's longest peninsula, a 775-mile long stretch of land called the Baja California Peninsula. The northern state of Chihuahua also has Mexico's largest canyon, Copper Canyon, which is seven times the area of the Grand Canyon and over 1,400 feet deeper. Major cities of northern Mexico include Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, and Chihuahua.

Central Mexico

The Sierra Madres eventually run into another mountain range, which runs from east to west, known as the Cordillera Neovolcánica range. Once you've hit this, you're in central Mexico, where the climate is more tropical. In geological terms, this is also the point that separates North and Central America.

Central Mexico is very mountainous, with peaks reaching over 16,000 feet in elevation. Many of these peaks are volcanic (hence the name Neovolcánica) and are active to this day. This is a mixed blessing. Volcanoes are obviously dangerous, but volcanic soil is also very fertile. Thanks to this volcanic soil and fresh water from the mountains, the valleys of central Mexico were home to some of the oldest settled civilizations in the world. Most notable is the Valley of Mexico itself, where Mexico City resides today. From Mexico City, you can also see Popocatépetl in the distance, the still-active volcano once revered by the Aztecs.

Popocatepetl, fuming
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