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Land and Resources, Natural Regions

bordering Guatemala, Balsas River, Sierra Madre Oriental, inactive volcanoes, Sierra Madre Occidental

Mexico can be divided into a number of main physical regions, based largely upon elevation. These include the immense central plateau, the Pacific lowlands, the Gulf Coast plains, the Yucatan Peninsula, the Southern Highlands, the Chiapas Highlands, and the Baja California Peninsula.

Mexico’s most distinguishing physical feature is the central plateau, which runs from the northern border with the United States as far south as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The plateau is flanked by two major mountain ranges—the Sierra Madre Occidental in the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental in the east—that fall off sharply to narrow coastal plains. These ranges come together about 240 km (150 mi) southeast of Mexico City. Both have historically been major barriers to transportation between the central plateau and the coastal plains. The plateau generally ranges in elevation from about 900 m (about 3,000 ft) in the north to about 2,400 m (about 8,000 ft) in the south. Most of Mexico’s major peaks and inactive volcanoes are located on this plateau. These include Popocatepetl (5,452 m/17,887 ft) and Ixtaccihuatl (5,286 m/17,343 ft), both of which are located near Mexico City, and the highest peak in Mexico, Pico de Orizaba (5,610 m/18,406 ft), located northwest of the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz. Many of Mexico’s major cities, including Mexico City, are located in smaller basins within the central plateau and are surrounded by mountains. The large basin where Mexico City is located has been known historically as the Valley of Mexico. As with California to the north, Mexico has frequent seismic activity, and earthquakes are fairly common in the capital city. In 1985 a major earthquake in Mexico City killed thousands and left nearly 30,000 homeless.

Between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Pacific Ocean (including the Gulf of California) are the Pacific Coast lowlands. This western coastal plain ranges from about 50 km (30 mi) wide in the north to just a few kilometers wide south of Cape Corrientes, directly west of the city of Guadalajara. The plain widens again near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the south. The irrigated northern regions are used heavily for agricultural production.

The Gulf Coast plain, which lies between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Gulf of Mexico, is about 280 km (175 mi) wide at the border with Texas. It narrows to a width of just a few kilometers near Veracruz in the south, and then widens again at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The coast is characterized by swampy lowlands and numerous lagoons. The northern region is generally dry, and agriculture is possible only with the help of irrigation. Rainfall is more plentiful in the south, where there are tropical forests and some fertile farmland. The country’s most important port, Veracruz, is located in this region, which is also the site of many of Mexico’s petroleum discoveries.

The Yucatan Peninsula extends northeast from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a flat, low-lying region without surface rivers. The northwestern peninsula is dry and brushy and supports some agriculture; further south rainfall is plentiful and the peninsula is covered by tropical rain forests. The important international tourist center of Cancun is located along the eastern coast of the Yucatan.

The Southern Highlands, located south of the central plateau, are made up of a number of steep mountain ranges, deep valleys, and dry plateaus. The Sierra Madre del Sur range dominates this region, rising in the west near the mouth of the Balsas River. The range generally runs parallel to the Pacific coast until reaching the Gulf of Tehuantepec in the east; in many areas the mountains meet the sea, creating a rugged coastline. This scenic coastal region has become known as the Mexican Riviera and is the site of a number of coastal resort cities, including Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. Inland valleys are hot and dry and support some irrigated agriculture.

South and east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, bordering Guatemala, are the Chiapas Highlands. Much of this region receives heavy rainfall and is covered by tropical forests. Some mountains in the Chiapas Highlands rise to more than 2,700 m (9,000 ft). Many of the residents of this sparsely populated area are Native Americans who work on subsistence farms or plantations.

In the far northwest of the country is the Baja California Peninsula. Stretching from the U.S. border southeast for 1,300 km (800 mi), the peninsula is extremely arid and mountainous, with a very narrow coastal plain. It is largely unpopulated, but has become increasingly attractive to U.S. tourists who visit coastal resorts along the northern Gulf of California and on the Pacific Ocean.

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