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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Mexico is a country in North America. To its north is the United States, while to the south-east are Belize and Guatemala. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west and south of the country. To the east are the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The country is quite large. With an area of about 760,000 square miles, it is the world’s eighth largest country. It is nearly three times larger than Texas and is a fifth of the size of the United States. It has a coastline of 5,800 miles.

The country is curve-shaped, from north-west to south-east. Its narrow point is the Tehuantepec isthmus in the south. The Yucatan Peninsula loops around from here to the north-east. At the opposite end of the country is the peninsula of Baja California. Much of the north is desert. Most of Mexico is a high plateau, with tall and rugged mountain ranges along its eastern and western sides. These give way to a coastal strip of lowlands on each side of the country. Mexico also includes several islands situated off its coast.

Let’s start in the north-west. Baja California is the long strip of land that runs from north-west to south-east on Mexico’s western side. This peninsula is nearly 800 miles in length and is the longest peninsula in the world. To its west is the Pacific Ocean and on the eastern side is the Gulf of California, or the Sea of Cortes. Most of the peninsula is mountainous or desert. The Peninsular Ranges run the length of Baja California. The highest mountain is Cerro de la Encantada rising over 10,000 feet above sea level. A series of three volcanoes, Tres Virgenes, lie about half way down the peninsula.

A third of Mexico is desert, dominating the northern part of the country. The Sonoran Desert is in the north-west. It covers large parts of Sonaro state on the eastern side of the Sea of Cortes, and Baja California, as well as parts of the US states of California and Arizona. This desert is the home of the famous saguaro cactus with its “arms” in the “stick ’em up” position. The Chihuahuan Desert covers much of the central north of the country and extends into the US states of New Mexico and Texas. It consists of many small mountain ranges and a few larger ones, with drainage basins lying between them. Altitude varies from about 2,000 to 5,500 feet.

Mexico has several large mountain ranges, apart from Baja California’s Peninsular Ranges. The Sierra Madre Occidental runs from the north-west for 3,000 miles down the western side of the country to the Rio Santiago River. At its northern end, this range is about 200 miles from the western coast. Further south, it comes within thirty miles of the coast. The range averages more than 7,000 feet in altitude, with the highest peaks around 10,000 feet. The Rio Santiago River marks its southern end.

From here, the Cordillera Neovolcanica range extends to the east across central southern Mexico. Volcanoes are a feature of this area. The 550 mile long Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, or Sierra Nevada, includes a number of active and dormant volcanoes as well as Mexico City, the country’s capital. The highest peak, Pico de Orizaba, is some 18,700 feet above sea level and is about 100 miles west of the city. This volcano is dormant but not extinct, with its last eruption in 1687. On a clear day it can be seen from ships near land in the Gulf of Mexico 80 miles away. It has a permanent cover of snow and glaciers, despite its location within the tropics.

On the eastern side of Mexico is the Sierra Madre Oriental range that starts near the Texan border at a place called the Big Bend and runs more than 800 miles to the south. It comes closer to the coast at its southern end, finishing at the Cofre de Perot peak in the Cordillera Neovolcanica range, 45 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to its east. The average height of the Sierra Madre Oriental is 7,000 feet, with peaks up to 10,000 feet, about the same as the Sierra Madre Occidental on the opposite side of the country.

Mountains also dominate Mexico’s south and south-east. The Sierra Madre del Sur runs along the southern coast from the western end of the Cordillera Neovolcanica to the Tehuantepec isthmus 700 miles to the east. Average elevation is around 6,500 feet. Inland from this range, the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca runs 200 miles south-east from Pico de Orizaba, and also finishes at the isthmus. Its average height is about 8,000 feet, with the highest peaks around 10,000 feet. East of the isthmus, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas extends 180 miles south-east along the coast to the Guatemala border. The highest peak in this range is the Volcan de Tacuma, rising more than 13,000 feet above sea level. Another range, to its north, runs 150 miles to the border.

The Mexican Plateau, or Mexican Altiplano, is situated between the two main sierra madres on the western and eastern sides of the country, and takes up most of the inland area in the northern and central parts. The plateau is mainly desert and shrubland. The northern section of the altiplano has an average altitude of about 3,500 feet, while the southern section is higher with an average height of 6,500 feet. A low range separates the two sections. The southern section contains many valleys that were once ancient lakes.

Mexico has about 150 rivers, with two-thirds of them emptying into the Pacific and a third into the Gulf or the Caribbean. Five rivers, all running into the Gulf, account for 52 per cent of water volume. But 60 per cent of Mexico’s population live in the northern and central parts which only have 10 per cent of the water. The country has the world’s longest underground river. Divers discovered a 95 mile waterway linking two cave systems on the Yucatan Peninsula in 2007.

Nearly all of Mexico sits on the North American Plate. Parts of Baja California are on the Pacific Plate and Cocos Plate. This means the country is seismologically very active as their motions relative to one another cause volcano activity and earthquakes. There have been several recent volcanic eruptions. El Chichon erupted in 1983 and Volcan de Colima in 1994, with others threatening to erupt from time to time. Paricutin in the north-west grew from a puff of smoke in 1943 to a 9,000 foot high volcano a decade later. An earthquake in 1985 measured 8.1 on the Richter scale and killed thousands of people, including 4,000 in Mexico City 200 miles away. Tsunamis can occur along the Pacific coast.

The Tropic of Cancer runs through the middle of Mexico. The north has hot summers and cool winters, with temperatures dropping to freezing point in the inland. Snow-capped mountains are a common sight. Coastal areas south of the tropic are hot and humid year round. Here, median temperatures only vary by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. May to October is the hottest period. Temperatures in areas with an altitude of 3,000 to 6,000 feet are milder. Higher altitudes are cooler still. Mexico City, at 7,500 feet, has a median temperature of 60 degrees. Summer temperatures range from the seventies by day to the fifties overnight, whereas the winter range can be from the sixties down to the forties.

Rainfall is low in the north, ranging from less than a foot a year in some of the desert areas to about two feet. Interestingly, the Sonoran Desert is sometimes called the world’s wettest desert. The northern altiplano region and the northern ends of the two major sierra madres can receive substantial snow. In the southern altiplano, rainfall averages around two to three feet a year. Coastal areas along the Gulf receive more than three feet. The wettest area is Tabasco state where average rainfall is six feet a year. Nearly all of Mexico has rainy and dry seasons. The summer months of June to October comprise the wet period. An exception is the extreme north-west of the country which has a wet winter.

The country is susceptible to hurricanes which can hit coastal areas on both sides of the country between June and November. The eastern coast gets the worst hurricanes and can expect several of these events a year. Wind can exceed 120 miles an hour causing widespread damage.

Forests and woodland cover a diminishing proportion of Mexico, making way for cattle and agriculture, especially in the south. Deforestation has caused considerable soil erosion, including 60 per cent of the northern and north-western areas. Fresh water is scarce and polluted in the north, and often inaccessible and of poor quality in central and southern areas. Rivers in city areas are polluted with sewage and industry by-products. Mexican governments have various programs in place to address these issues.

Mexico is a contrasting country with deserts, high mountains and plateaus, and coastal plains. Climate varies from hot and humid to cold and dry. The country lies in an earthquake and volcanic region, and is in the hurricane belt.