Mexico: Natural Landscape

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Mexico: Natural Landscape

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Mexico is located in the southern portion of North America and is the third largest country in Latin America. A biodiverse country, it encompasses arid deserts and scrublands, tropical rainforests, temperate forests and grasslands, mangrove swamps, alpine ecosystems, and coral reefs.

The Natural Landscape of Mexico

Officially known as the United Mexican States, Mexico is in southern North America, sharing borders with the United States to the north and Guatemala and Belize to the southeast. The Pacific Ocean defines its expansive coastal boundaries to the west, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. The country's geographical diversity extends to various islands and archipelagoes scattered along its coastlines.

Covering an extensive area of approximately 1,972,550 square kilometers (761,610 square miles), Mexico ranks as the world's 13th largest country by land area. It is the third largest country in Latin America, surpassed only by Brazil and Argentina.

Various volcanic features, including several active volcanoes, mark Mexico's topography. This volcanic activity is linked to the country's unique position atop three of the Earth's largest tectonic plates: the North American Plate, the Cocos Plate, and the Pacific Plate. The dynamic interactions between these tectonic plates contribute not only to Mexico's geological vibrancy but also to its susceptibility to seismic activity.

In addition to its geophysical characteristics, Mexico's natural landscape encompasses diverse ecosystems, ranging from arid deserts to lush rainforests. The country's ecological richness is further enhanced by its varied climates, influenced by factors such as latitude, elevation, and proximity to bodies of water. This amalgamation of geographical, geological, and climatic factors renders Mexico a captivating mosaic of natural wonders, inviting exploration and appreciation of its vast and varied landscapes.


Mexico is a global exemplar of extraordinary biodiversity, earning its status as one of the planet's megadiverse countries. The country's diverse topography, encompassing deserts, mountains, tropical rainforests, and coastal areas, provides a mosaic of ecosystems that nurtures an extensive flora and fauna.

Ranked among the top five countries worldwide for biodiversity, Mexico is home to a remarkable 1,105 bird species, 411 amphibian species, 2,629 fish species, 533 mammal species, 988 reptile species, and an impressive 23,385 plant species. This extraordinary diversity places Mexico among the 17 megadiverse nations, highlighting its pivotal role in global biodiversity conservation.


Conservation efforts in Mexico are robust and multifaceted, aiming to safeguard its rich natural heritage. Establishing protected areas, national parks, and biosphere reserves exemplifies the country's commitment to biodiversity conservation. Prominent examples include the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, and Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve. These areas serve as sanctuaries for many species and contribute to the global effort to preserve biodiversity.

However, Mexico grapples with challenges such as deforestation, habitat degradation, and pollution, necessitating a delicate balance between economic development and conservation. Despite these challenges, the country's dedication to preserving its unique ecosystems is evident through ongoing conservation programs and the continuous expansion of protected areas. Mexico's proactive stance positions it as a crucial participant in international conservation endeavors, emphasizing the global importance of safeguarding its diverse and irreplaceable natural assets.


Mexico boasts a diverse climate, marked by distinct temperature and rainfall variations across different regions. Broadly categorized into three main climate zones—tropical, temperate, and arid—the country's weather patterns are further nuanced by numerous microclimates shaped by elevation, topography, and vegetation.

Microclimates manifest in unique ways; for instance, the Sierra Madre mountains in the west exhibit a cooler climate compared to the surrounding lowlands, while the Yucatán Peninsula in the southeast experiences heightened humidity.

Mexico is no stranger to the challenges posed by extreme weather events, including hurricanes, tropical storms, and droughts. These occurrences can inflict substantial damage on infrastructure, agriculture, and communities, necessitating a robust approach to disaster preparedness and resilience.

Tropical Zone

The tropical zone epitomizes hot and humid conditions, encompassing coastal regions and southern and southeastern areas, with average temperatures ranging from 25 to 30 °C (77 to 86 °F)—the rainy season, prevalent from May to October, peaks in June and July.

Temperate Zone

The temperate zone offers mild weather, spanning central and eastern regions and northern highlands, with average temperatures ranging from 15 to 25 °C (59 to 77 °F). The rainy season unfolds from June to September, reaching its zenith in July and August.

Arid Zone

Enveloping the northwestern expanse and the Baja California Peninsula, the arid zone characterizes itself with hot and dry weather, where average temperatures span from 20 to 35 °C (68 to 95 °F). The scant rainy season spans July to August, with average annual rainfall below 250 mm (10 in). This aridity uniquely challenges the region's ecosystems and agricultural practices, requiring adaptive strategies to sustain life in this challenging climate.


Situated within the dynamic Pacific Ring of Fire, renowned for its intense tectonic activity, Mexico experiences volcanic eruptions and seismic events. The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, also known as the Mexican Volcanic Belt, spans the central and southern regions, ranking among the world's most active volcanic zones.

Active Volcanoes:

  1. Popocatépetl: Adjacent to Mexico City, Popocatépetl is one of Mexico's iconic and actively monitored volcanoes, frequently exhibiting eruptions throughout history.
  2. Colima: The Colima Volcano, also called Volcán de Colima or Volcán de Fuego, consistently erupts and ranks among Mexico's most active volcanoes.
  3. Pacaya de San Juan: Nestled in Chiapas, this volcano is notable for its recurrent eruptions, contributing to its geological dynamism.

Dormant Volcanoes (Potentially Eruptive):

  1. Iztaccíhuatl: In proximity to Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, the third-highest peak in Mexico, is deemed dormant but not extinct.
  2. Nevado de Toluca (Xinantécatl): A dormant volcano in central Mexico, Nevado de Toluca hosts two high-altitude crater lakes, signifying past volcanic activity.

Extinct Volcanoes:

  1. La Malinche (Matlalcueye): A dormant andesitic stratovolcano, La Malinche is considered extinct.
  2. Cofre de Perote: This dormant volcano is also classified as extinct in eastern Mexico.

Due to its active and dormant volcanic landscape, Mexico faces potential hazards like ashfall, lava, pyroclastic, and lahars (mudflows). Robust monitoring systems and early warning mechanisms have been implemented to mitigate these hazards and ensure the safety of nearby populations.

The volcanic activity in Mexico has shaped its geological profile and spurred the development of geothermal power plants. Positioned in areas with hot springs and volcanic geothermal reservoirs, these plants harness the Earth's natural heat for electricity generation, exemplifying Mexico's innovative use of its volcanic resources.

Map of Mexico

Location map of Mexico

Natural Geography of Mexico

Geographic Regions

Mexico can be divided into nine major physiographic regions.

  1. Baja California:
    • Located in northwestern Mexico
    • Arid peninsula with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Gulf of California to the east
    • Peninsular Ranges dominate, featuring deserts and xeric shrublands
  2. Pacific Coastal Lowlands (Coastal Plain):
    • Extends from the Colorado River delta in the north to approximately 1,450 km (900 mi) southward
    • The Gulf of California borders it to the west and the Sierra Madre Occidental to the east
    • Coastal terraces, mesas, and basins with parts utilized for farmland
  3. Mexican Plateau:
    • Largely arid and semiarid plateau covering northern and central Mexico
    • Flanked by the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental
    • It encompasses the Mesa del Norte (Northern Plateau) and the densely populated Mesa Central
  4. Sierra Madre Oriental:
    • Range of folded mountains on the eastern side of the Mexican Plateau
    • Spans 1,000 km (620 mi) from the Rio Grande in the north to Puebla in the south
    • Significant deposits of copper, lead, and zinc
  5. Sierra Madre Occidental:
    • Parallel range to the Sierra Madre Oriental on the western side of the Mexican Plateau
    • Extends from the U.S.-Mexico border to the southern part of the country
    • Rich in minerals, including gold and silver
  6. Gulf Coastal Plain:
    • It lies to the east of the Sierra Madre Oriental
    • Low-lying plain along the Gulf of Mexico coast
    • Features lagoons, swamps, and estuaries
  7. Isthmus of Tehuantepec:
    • Narrow land bridge in southern Mexico connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean
    • Necessary for regional transportation and commerce
  8. Southern Highlands:
    • Located in southern Mexico, including the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca
    • Mountainous region with diverse ecosystems and indigenous cultures
  9. Yucatán Peninsula:
    • The southeastern region extends into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea
    • Low-lying limestone plain with a distinctive karst landscape
    • Rich in archaeological sites, including ancient Mayan cities

Baja California

Baja California, a distinctive geographical feature in northwestern Mexico, is a long, narrow, arid peninsula stretching parallel to the western coast. Its western border is defined by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, while the Gulf of California, lying to the east, serves as its geographical separator from the mainland. The imposing Peninsular Ranges, a mountainous system extending along the peninsula's spine, contribute to its striking topography.

This arid region is predominantly characterized by deserts and xeric shrublands, creating a rugged and captivating landscape. The aridity of Baja California is a result of its location and the rain shadow effect produced by the Peninsular Ranges. Despite the predominantly arid conditions, the peninsula harbors an intriguing diversity of ecosystems.

Pacific Coastal Lowlands (Coastal Plain)

The Pacific Coastal Lowlands also referred to as the Coastal Plain, unfurls along Mexico's western border, extending approximately 1,450 km (900 mi) from the Colorado River delta in the north to the southern regions, where it faces the Gulf of California to the west and is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental to the east.

This expansive region is a mosaic of coastal terraces, mesas, and small basins, interspersed with the intricate networks of river deltas that shape its landscape. At the northern end, the Sonoran Desert dominates, showcasing an arid environment shaped by unique climatic conditions. However, human intervention, including irrigation practices, has transformed parts of the region into productive farmland.

Mexican Plateau

The Mexican Plateau, also known as the Mexican Altiplano, sprawls expansively across northern and central Mexico, defining a significant portion of the country's topography. Flanked by the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the east, this immense plateau is primarily characterized by arid and semiarid landscapes that shape the livelihoods of its inhabitants.

Encompassing the extensive Mesa del Norte (Northern Plateau) and the smaller yet densely populated Mesa Central, the Mexican Plateau is the largest and most populous region in Mexico. The aridity of the plateau is a consequence of its geographical location and the rain shadow effect induced by the surrounding mountain ranges.

Sierra Madre Oriental

The Sierra Madre Oriental, an imposing range of folded mountains, graces the eastern side of the Mexican Plateau, spanning an impressive distance of approximately 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). This majestic mountain range begins its journey at the Rio Grande, marking the border between Coahuila and Texas, and extends southward through Nuevo León, southwest Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and Hidalgo. Ultimately, it merges with the east-west Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt in northern Puebla.

Characterized by rugged peaks, deep valleys, and lush vegetation, the Sierra Madre Oriental is a prominent geographical feature and a reservoir of valuable natural resources. The mountains are endowed with significant deposits of minerals such as copper, lead, and zinc, contributing to the region's economic significance.

Topographic map of Mexico

Topographic map of Mexico

Sierra Madre Occidental

The Sierra Madre Occidental is a prominent mountain range system within the North American Cordillera, spanning approximately 1,250 km (780 mi) on a northwest-southeast trajectory. It runs parallel to Mexico's Pacific coast, traversing the northwestern and western regions of the country along the Gulf of California. This expansive mountain range shapes the topography with deep river valleys that cut through the high plateau formed by the Sierra Madre Occidental. Among the remarkable features of this rugged terrain are the barrancas, with one of the most spectacular being the intricate complex known as Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) in the southwestern state of Chihuahua. These deep canyons and valleys contribute to the geological diversity of the region.

Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt

The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, locally known as the Sierra Nevada and scientifically referred to as the Cordillera Neo-Volcánica, is positioned in the south-central region of Mexico. Stretching approximately 1,000 km (620 mi) from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, this active volcanic belt creates an impactful east-west geological presence across the country, covering an extensive area of about 160,000 sq km (62,000 sq mi). Immediately south of the volcanic belt lies the Balsas Depression, characterized by its hot and dry climate. Named after the significant river that drains the region, the depression features small, irregular basins interspersed with hilly outcrops, contributing to a distinctive and unique physical landscape.

Gulf Coastal Plain

The Gulf Coastal Plain, spanning about 1,450 km (900 mi) along the Gulf of Mexico, extends from the Texas border to the Yucatán Peninsula, encompassing the Tabasco Plain in the southeast. Distinct features, including lagoons and swamps, mark this coastal plain. The northern section is triangular, stretching approximately 160 km (100 mi) in width. However, it gradually tapers toward the south, experiencing interruptions from the Sierra Madre Oriental. Beyond this point, the plain becomes narrower and more irregular until it widens again as it approaches the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Southern Highlands

The Southern Highlands comprise the Sierra Madre del Sur, Mesa del Sur, and the Sierra Madre de Chiapas along the Pacific coast in southern Mexico. The Sierra Madre del Sur, characterized by relatively low ranges that often extend to the coast, contributes to creating a rugged coastal margin known in part as the Mexican Riviera. In the northeastern region, the Mesa del Sur features numerous stream-eroded ridges and small isolated valleys, including the picturesque Oaxaca Valley. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec bisects the Southern Highlands. Extending from Central America, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas is the southernmost extension of the mountain ranges, forming the primary drainage divide between the Pacific and Atlantic river systems.

Yucatán Peninsula

The Yucatán Peninsula represents the exposed segment of the extensive Yucatán Platform, situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Sandy and semi-barren landscapes characterize the northern coast of the peninsula. Moving eastward, the coast features bluffs punctuated by bays and is surrounded by several islands, with Cozumel and Isla Mujeres being the largest and most developed. Predominantly composed of coralline and porous limestone rocks, the peninsula forms a gently rising tableland toward the south. A layer of thin, dry soil resulting from the gradual weathering of the coral rocks covers the region. Natural sinkholes and caverns are present where the rocky surface is perforated.

Mexico physiographic map

Mexico physiographic map

Mountain Ranges

Mexico is one of the largest countries in the Americas and one of the most diverse in terms of geography, with a wide range of landscapes, including mountains, deserts, jungles, and coastal regions. Mexico's varied and complex topography features numerous mountain ranges and highlands that span its landscape.

See more: Mountain Ranges of Mexico

Islands and Archipelagos

Mexico boasts diverse islands and archipelagos scattered across its coastal waters in the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. These picturesque landmasses vary in size, culture, and ecological significance. From the Caribbean's white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters to the unique ecosystems of the Pacific, Mexico's islands and archipelagos present a captivating mosaic of natural beauty and cultural heritage.

See more: Islands and Archipelagos of Mexico

Bodies of Water

Mexico is a country rich in bodies of water, encompassing various aquatic environments, from vast oceans and seas to lakes, rivers, and lagoons. In addition to its coastal regions, Mexico is home to numerous inland bodies of water.

See more: Bodies of Water of Mexico

Administrative Divisions

Mexico is a federal republic composed of 31 states. Each state has its congress and constitution. Mexico City is an autonomous entity. States are further divided into municipalities.

See: Cultural Landscape of Mexico

Natural Regions

Mexico is a biodiverse country. It encompasses arid deserts and scrublands, tropical rainforests, temperate forests and grasslands, mangrove swamps, alpine ecosystems, and coral reefs. This multitude of ecosystems supports wide-ranging biodiversity. For example, Mexico has over 200,000 species and is home to 10 - 12% of the world's biodiversity.

Principal Ecosystems

  • Tropical evergreen forest (rainforest)
  • Tropical deciduous and semideciduous forest
  • Xeric shrubland
  • Desert
  • Grassland
  • Coniferous forest
  • Cloud forest
  • Mangrove forests
  • Wetlands


Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate. Mexico spans both the Nearctic and Neotropical realms.

  • Deserts and xeric shrublands
  • Mangroves
  • Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub
  • Temperate coniferous forests
  • Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests
  • Tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests
  • Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests
  • Tropical and subtropical coniferous forests
  • Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
  • Flooded grasslands and savannas
  • Montane grasslands and shrublands
Map of the Terrestrial Ecoregions of Mexico

Map of the terrestrial ecoregions of Mexico

Ecological Regions

The following is a list of terrestrial ecoregions in Mexico, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Terrestrial Ecoregions (map location key)

  1. Central American Pine-Oak forests
  2. Chiapas Montane Forests
  3. Chimalapas Montane Forests
  4. Oaxacan Montane Forests
  5. Pantanos de Centla
  6. Petén-Veracruz Moist Forests
  7. Sierra de los Tuxtlas
  8. Sierra Madre de Chiapas Moist Forests
  9. Veracruz Moist Forests
  10. Veracruz Montane Forests
  11. Yucatán Moist Forests
  12. Sonoran-Sinaloan Transition Subtropical Dry Forest
  13. Bajío Dry Forests
  14. Balsas Dry Forests
  15. Central American Dry Forests
  16. Chiapas Depression Dry Forests
  17. Jalisco Dry Forests
  18. Islas Revillagigedo Dry Forests (not shown)
  19. Sierra de la Laguna Dry Forests
  20. Sinaloan Dry Forests
  21. Southern Pacific Dry Forests
  22. Veracruz Dry Forests
  23. Yucatán Dry Forests
  24. Sierra Madre Occidental Pine-Oak Forests
  25. Sierra Madre Oriental Pine-Oak Forests
  26. Central American Montane Forests
  27. Sierra de la Laguna Pine-Oak Forests
  28. Sierra Madre de Oaxaca Pine-Oak Forests
  29. Sierra Madre del Sur Pine-Oak Forests
  30. Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt Pine-Oak Forests
  31. Sierra Juárez and San Pedro Mártir Pine-Oak Forests
  32. Tamaulipan Pastizal (Western Gulf Coastal Grasslands)
  33. Central Mexican Wetlands (not shown, too small)
  34. Zacatonal (not shown, too small)
  35. California Coastal Sage and Chaparral
  36. Baja California Desert
  37. Central Mexican Matorral
  38. Chihuahuan Desert
  39. Gulf of California Xeric Scrub
  40. Meseta Central Matorral
  41. Sonoran Desert
  42. Tamaulipan Matorral
  43. Tamaulipan Mezquital
  44. San Lucan Xeric Scrub
  45. Tehuacán Valley Matorral
  46. Petenes Mangroves