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Nov 012016
 

One of the earliest known maps engraved in colonial New Spain (Mexico) was that drawn by Antonio Ysarti in 1682. It shows the Franciscan Province of  San Diego of Mexico, with its 14 friaries, from Oaxaca in the southeast to Aguascalientes in the northwest. It covers the archdiocese of Mexico City, as well as the dioceses of  Puebla and Oaxaca to the east, and Michoacán and Guadalajara to the west.

Ysarti's 1682 map of New Spain

Ysarti’s 1682 map of New Spain; click map for an enlarged version of Mexico City to Acapulco

The beautifully-drawn map was originally published to illustrate Baltasar de Medina’s 1682 Chronica de la Santa Provincia de San Diego de Mexico, printed by Juan de Ribero. In the words of the sellers of this map’s original copper plate to the Library of Congress, “This artifact is tangible evidence of an emerging scientific and artistic community in a growing colonial empire.”

Sadly, very little is known about Antonio Ysarti, the map’s talented cartographer; not even his nationality is known for certain.

The map measures 29 x 19 cm approx (11.25 x 7.25 inches) and names more than 50 places. Each friary is depicted as an architecturally distinct building, not by the use of a common symbol.

Q. How well do you know central Mexico? Click on the map above (to reveal the section between Mexico City and Acapulco) and then see how many places you can identify and match to present-day place names.

Online version of this map, offering the ability to zoom in to specific parts

The changing political frontiers of Mexico are the subject of chapter 12 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, a handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. If you have enjoyed this post, please consider gifting a copy of Geo-Mexico to someone in the coming holiday season.

Basalt columns and prisms can be seen in various places in Mexico

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Oct 252016
 

Basalt is a dark, fine-grained, basic (low silica) igneous rock, often extruded as molten lava from volcanic fissures. Its low silica content means it can flow easily, often building up over the years to form large plateaus. As the basaltic lava cools, it contracts and solidifies. An extensive network of cracks often develop in basalt, which may extend many meters deep. These cracks tend to leave columns between them which are roughly hexagonal (6-sided) in shape. Among the more famous examples of basalt columns or pavements in the world are Giant’s Causeway (Northern Ireland), Fingal’s Cave (Scotland) and Devil’s Postpile (California, USA).

The best known location in Mexico to see basalt columns is about an hour’s drive north of Mexico City, at Santa María Regla, in the state of Hidalgo. These columns, attractively located on the side of a canyon, with a waterfall tumbling over some of them (see sketch), were visited by the famous Prussian scientist/geographer Alexander von Humboldt, during his exploration of Mexico in 1803-04. Some individual columns are 40 meters tall.

Basalt prisms at San Miguel Regla

Basalt prisms at San Miguel Regla, from Humboldt and Bonpland, Vues des Cordilleres et monumens des peuples indigenes de l’Amerique.

The basalt columns of Santa María Regla are one of the locations described in The first geography fieldtrip guide in Mexico. They are also one of Mexico’s top 13 natural wonders.

Basalt prisms at Santa María Regla

Other locations in Mexico where basalt columns or prisms can be seen include a quarry between the towns of Jamay and Ocotlán (Jalisco), the south-facing slope of the hills overlooking the town of Chapala (Jalisco) and the Salto (waterfall) de San Antón (Cuernavaca, Morelos).

Mexico’s geology and landforms are analyzed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.  Buy your copy of this book today!

Oct 202016
 

Mexican market research firm Gabinete de Comunicación Estratégica polled 30,400 people across the country to compile its 10th annual survey of the most livable cities in Mexico. The survey was carried out by telephone between 30 June and 19 July this year. Respondents in Mexico’s 60 most populous municipalities and Mexico City’s 16 delegaciones were asked a series of questions related to quality of life and level of services provided in each city. [Given the sample size, at a confidence level of 95% the maximum expected error for each municipality was ±4.9%]

most-livable-cities

The survey looked at numerous variables to quantify “quality of life”, including housing, schools, mobility, air pollution and employment. The survey also considered satisfaction with services, and satisfaction with the performance of the city’s mayor.

best-living-in-citiesFor quality of life, the top ranking city overall, for the second year running, was Mérida (Yucatán), which scored 77.6 points out of 100, followed by Saltillo (77), Aguascalientes (71.6), Colima (70.9) and Campeche (69.8). Monterrey came in 12th in the survey rankings (see table), while Guadalajara placed in the middle.

The four least livable cities in the study were Villahermosa (52.9), Naucalpan (51.3), Chilpancingo (49.8) and Ecatepec (48.8).

  • Full report: Ciudades más habitables de México 2016 (pdf)

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The deepest water-filled sinkhole in the world is in Tamaulipas, Mexico

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Oct 122016
 

As vertical shafts go, this is a seriously deep one! Long considered to be “bottomless” (because no-one had ever managed to find the floor), we now know it is precisely 335 meters (1099 feet) deep, making it the deepest water-filled sinkhole anywhere on the planet.

The El Zacatón sinkhole is on El Rancho Azufrosa, near the town of Aldama in Tamaulipas in northeast Mexico. The sinkhole or cenote is one of several located in the same area, though recent studies have failed to demonstrate any obvious underground connections between them. The term cenote is a Spanish rendering of the Mayan word d’zonot, “a hole in the ground”. The El Zacatón pit, which is about 110 meters (360 feet) across and roughly circular, contains a deep lake. The water is warm (averaging about 30 degrees C), highly mineralized and has a sulfurous odor. The name El Zacatón comes from the floating islands of grass (zacate) which blow across this lake from one side to the other with the wind.

The Zacatón Sinkhole

The Zacatón Sinkhole

The pit’s depth has attracted serious divers for many years. In 1993, Dr. Ann Kristovich dove to a new women’s world record depth of 169 meters (554 feet). The following year, two American explorers tried to reach the bottom of the sinkhole. Jim Bowden successfully reached a men’s world record depth of 282 meters (925 feet) but still did not touch the bottom. Tragically, his diving partner Sheck Exley died during the attempt.

The mystery of the sinkhole’s depth was finally solved in 2007. A multi-million dollar exploration, mainly funded by NASA, trialled the Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX) robot, designed to explore ice-covered Europa, Jupiter’s smallest moon. Partners on the DEPTHX project include Carnegie Mellon University, Southwest Research Institute, Colorado School of Mines, The University of Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. In the words of a NASA press release, The Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer (DEPTHX) is a 3,300-pound, computerized, underwater vehicle that makes its own decisions. With more than 100 sensors, 36 onboard computers, and 16 thrusters and actuators, it decides where to swim, which samples to collect, and how to get home.

Exploring El Zacatón pit was considered to be an ideal preliminary test of the DEPTHX autonomous robot, which is about the size of a go-kart. The robotic vehicle successfully generated a highly detailed sonar map of the sinkhole, and obtained samples of water and biotic material from the walls, discovering several new phyla of bacteria in the process. Its next challenge is to explore beneath the ice of West Lake Bonney in Antarctica.

At El Zacatón, the sonar study showed that the sinkhole has a total depth of 335 meters: the lake is 319 meters deep at its deepest point, and its surface is 16 meters below the height of the sinkhole’s rim.

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Mexico’s geology and landforms are analyzed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.  Buy your copy of this book today!

Oct 062016
 

El Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltépetl (= “star”), is Mexico’s highest peak, rising to a summit 5,610 meters (18,406 feet) above sea level. The third highest peak in North America, it is also that region’s highest volcano, responsible for major eruptions in 1569, 1613 and 1687. The mountain was first explored by scientists as long ago as 1838.

Located east of Mexico City, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of the city of Orizaba, it is regularly climbed today by well-equipped groups, especially during the dry season, from December to April. Its classical cone shape masks an impressively large crater, which is more than 300 meters (1,000 feet) deep. The volcano and surrounding area were declared a national park by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1936; the decree took effect the following January.

Among the first recorded ascents is that in August 1838 by a group of several European botanists: Henri Galeotti, Nicolas Funck, Auguste Ghiesbreght and Jean-Jules Linden.  The group spent eleven days on the volcano and their subsequent accounts of the expedition show that they definitely reached the summit. Afterwards, they went on to have distinguished careers in their specialist fields.

By the time of the climb, Henri Guillaume Galeotti (1814-1858) had already written a landmark article about Lake Chapala, and made numerous botanical discoveries in Mexico. He went on to become Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Brussels, Belgium.

Less is known about the achievements of Nicolas Funck (1816-1896), who continued traveling in Mexico until 1842. He subsequently became director of Brussels Zoo (1861) and then Cologne Zoo.

After the climb, Auguste Ghiesbreght (1810-1893) set up his own business in Mexico, making a living by supplying plants and natural history specimens to European collectors and his botanist business partners. Who knows? Perhaps the plans for a cacti-exporting business (Galeotti) and large-scale orchid cultivation (Linden) were hatched while the group of young friends were battling their way towards the peak of Orizaba.

Jean Jules Linden (1817-1898), born in Luxembourg, collected for the Belgian government in Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala, before becoming one of the world’s most celebrated importers of plants. He set up nurseries for exotic plants in Brussels and Ghent in Belgium, as well as on the French Mediterranean coast. He also directed Brussels Zoo. He is credited with introducing and popularizing numerous plants, including begonias, palm trees and orchids. His superb publications on orchids and his marketing skills won him world-wide respect.

The nineteenth century craze for orchids in Belgium had numerous parallels with the craze three hundred years earlier for tulips in the Netherlands. The nouveau-riche industrialists satisfied their passion for expensive and unusual orchids by buying them from Linden who was propagating and growing them in massive, industrial-scale glasshouses. Even the Russian czar bought orchids from Linden!

El Pico de Orizaba (from Oswald’s Summerland Sketches, 1880)

The explorations of Galeotti and his friends resulted in the volcano becoming much better known. A decade later, Carl Sartorius, an artist of German extraction who collected plants for the Berlin Botanical Gardens, and who owned the El Mirador hacienda close to the volcano, organized an expedition to reach the summit. When they reached the top, they found a simple plaque there already, left by two US soldiers, F. Maynard and G. Reynolds, who had served as troopers in Winfield Scott’s army during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American war.

Not surprisingly, the upper reaches of El Pico de Orizaba (above about 4,000 meters) are snow-capped all year. Though someone had probably skied down the mountain previously, the first recorded descent on skis was made by W. Furlinger in 1974. Schemes to open a skiing resort on its slopes have been suggested several times. Before any budding entrepreneurs get carried away with the possibilities, it should be pointed out that setting up permanent ski runs on the slopes of El Citlaltépetl may not be too smart an idea, given the likely impact of global warming.

This is an edited and updated version of an article originally published on MexConnect.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Dr. Winston Crausaz. the author of Pico de Orizaba or Citlaltepetl (Geopress International, 1993), whose valuable comment on the original post (see below) has now been incorporated into the updated version above.

Mexico’s volcanoes, mountains and relief features are examined  in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Mexican architect proposes city straddling Mexico-U.S. border

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexican architect proposes city straddling Mexico-U.S. border
Oct 032016
 

This proposal sounds a lot more 21st century than Trump’s plan for a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border. Will either proposal ever actually happen? Most likely not. But that does not prevent us from considering the former project one more than worthy of mention here.

Young Mexican architect Fernando Romero has long believed that “building bridges” is preferable to creating obstacles and that conventional boundaries “are just becoming symbolic limits.”Romero was named a “Global Leader of Tomorrow” at the World Economic Forum in 2002.

Masterplan for trans-border city. (Fernando Romero Enterprise)

Masterplan for trans-border city. (Fernando Romero Enterprise)

To illustrate his viewpoint, Romero recently released a master plan for a walkable, super-connected metropolis straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. More than a decade ago, Romero’s architecture firm proposed a tunnel-like “Bridging Museum” crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in the Rio Grande Valley. His more recent suggestion of a utopian border city, presented at the London Design Biennale, is far more ambitious and would take advantage of the concept of special economic zones (employed earlier this year by Mexico’s federal government to stimulate development in several southern states).

To read more about this exciting proposal, with numerous stunning images of what it might look like, see “Instead of Trump’s Wall, Why Not a Binational Border City?

For more about the U.S.-Mexico border zone, see these related Geo-Mexico posts:

Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to Mexico, 1803-1804

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Sep 292016
 

Alexander von Humboldt‘s visit to Mexico began in Acapulco on March 22, 1803, and lasted for almost a year. (He left Mexico via Veracruz for the USA on March 7, 1804.) In his year in Mexico, Humboldt had been incredibly busy. He had measured, recorded, observed and written about anything and everything, with remarkable industry and accuracy. He had climbed mountains, burned his boots on active volcanoes, descended into mines, recorded geographical coordinates, and collected numerous specimens and antiquities. Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain was the first systematic scientific description of the New World. It appeared in 1811, and marked the birth of modern geography in Mexico. His figures and ideas were used and quoted by writers for many many years.

Humboldt had also drawn a large number of maps, drawings and sketches and it can rightly be claimed that the modern era of Mexican map-making began with Alexander von Humboldt, and was then developed further later in the 19th century by cartographers such as Antonio García Cubas.

Humboldt's route in Mexico

Humboldt’s route in Mexico. Click to enlarge

Alexander von Humboldt (Self-portrait c1814)

Alexander von Humboldt (Self-portrait c1814)

The map above shows the route followed by Humboldt during his time in Mexico. The map comes from the book La obra de Alexander von Humboldt en México by Rayfred Lionel Stevens-Middleton  (Mexico D.F.: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historía, 1956). This hard-to-find work is a comprehensive account of Humboldt’s time in Mexico and of his significance for the development of what the author refers to as “modern geography”.

The map of Humboldt’s route in Mexico includes his various side trips such as those to Jorullo Volcano and Santa María Regla.

Humboldt was keen to see Jorullo Volcano, since it was a rare example of a brand new volcano, one of only a handful of volcanoes that have emerged on land anywhere in the world in historic times. Jorullo first erupted on 29 September 1759 and activity continued for 15 years until 1774. Two centuries later, and about 80 km (50 miles) away, Paricutín Volcano burst into action for the first time, in a farmer’s field in 1943.

Santa María Regla, in the state of Hidalgo, about an hour’s drive north of Mexico City, is the best known location in Mexico for basalt columns. The columns, up to 40 meters tall,  are attractively located on the side of a canyon, with a waterfall tumbling over some of them:

Despite only seeing a relatively small part of the country (New Spain as it then was), Humboldt was able to make some generalizations about geography in general, and Mexican geography in particular, that have stood the test of time remarkably well. For example, he was the first to describe the vertical differentiation of climatic and vegetation zones in Mexico. Writing in 1811, he proposed the terms tierra caliente, tierra templada, and tierra fría, terms still widely used by non-specialists today:

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Note: this post was first published on May 7, 2012.

Sep 262016
 

Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest natural lake. On the geological timescale of millions of years, all lakes are temporary features on the earth’s surface. Once formed, natural processes begin to fill them in and/or to drain them.

Map of Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico. All rights reserved.

Lake Chapala resulted from drastic earth movements, accompanied by earthquakes and faulting which occurred some twelve million years ago. Lake Chapala collected on the floor of a rift valley. Movements along the parallel systems of faults that caused the rift valley still occur today. Evidence for this continued movement can be seen in the cracked or displaced walls of some local buildings.

Given its advanced age, it is not surprising to discover that Lake Chapala was once (thousands of years ago) much larger. In fact, though no-one has so far proven it beyond doubt, it may have been immensely large, covering an area seven times its present area, with a correspondingly long shoreline. At a later stage in its history, it became the deepest lake of an interconnected series of lakes which flooded the valley floors where the towns of Jocotepec, Zapotitan, Zacoalco and Sayula are today. The present Lake Chapala is thus probably only a small remnant of the original version.

The lake is under heavier pressure than at any time in its existence. Local towns and the nearby city of Guadalajara see it as an inexhaustible supply of domestic and industrial water. Tourists see it as a recreation resource, and the thousands of foreign retirees who have settled on its shores see it as a major reason for the area’s beneficial climate.

A case study of ‘residential tourism’ in the villages on the northern shore of Lake Chapala is discussed in chapter19 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

The levels of flow of the River Lerma, the only river of any size entering the lake, are crucial to the health of the lake. In recent years, demands for Lerma water have multiplied many times over, principally for farms in neighboring states, but also for industries. All the other rivers entering the lake are much smaller and, with rare exception, flow into the lake only a few times a year during the rainy season. The hydrology of Lake Chapala is discussed in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

The good news is that Lake Chapala was recently declared an Internationally Important Wetland by the Ramsar Convention, joining a large global network of similarly important wetland sites. The 13th International Living Lakes Conference was held in Chapala, March 22-25, 2010.

This is an edited excerpt from Tony Burton’s Western Mexico, A Traveller’s Treasury (4th edition) .

Which are the best states in Mexico for doing business in 2016?

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Sep 232016
 

A study just released by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, Doing Business en México 2016, compares Mexico’s 32 states for the paperwork, time and costs associated with four major indicators: opening a new business, obtaining construction permits, registering industrial property rights and the resolution of commercial disputes.

The report concludes that the seven best states in which to do business are Aguascalientes, the State of Mexico, Colima, Puebla, Sinaloa, Guanajuato and Durango, all of which offer a better performance than the average for OECD high income countries.

doing-business-2016-fig-1-2

Overall ranking for Doing Business in Mexico 2016 (Source: Fig 1-2 of World Bank Report)

The three states that have advanced the most towards implementing international best practices since 2014 are Puebla, Jalisco and the State of México.

The map shows the rank order of states for doing business, from green (the best) to red (the lowest ranking). Unlike many maps of state-by-state performance, this map does not show any evidence for the north-south divide we have repeatedly commented on in the past.

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Sep 192016
 

In its day, the San José Purua spa-hotel in Michoacán was world-famous. Opened in the early 1940s, it was the epitome of luxury living. European chefs cooked for the guests. Cabaret and touring acts from all over the world performed in its small night club. An on-site bowling alley provided some entertainment for the younger set. The hotel’s popularity led to the access road, complete with its “La Curva de la Gringa“, being paved for the first time in the mid 1940s. One writer mentions that he saw cars with license plates from no fewer than eight different countries in the hotel’s car park—all at the same time!

San José Purua spa hotel (from an early brochure)

Guidebooks of the time all extolled its virtues, and its peculiarities. For example, this is how Sydney Clark, in “Mexico Magnetic Southland” (1944), described the hotel:

“The hotel, designed in a curious arc with a high bridge leading to the comedor (dining room) is located on a narrow shelf of land on the side of the extremely deep gorge of the Tuxpan River. To beautify the setting, and also for utilitarian reasons, the management has planted no less than fifteen thousand orange trees on the gorge-side, and along with these some coffee trees. There are two large swimming pools with warm radioactive water gushing into them all the time directly from the cliff. It oxidizes in the open air within a few minutes and turns to an odd café au lait color so that the pool is always brown. However, it is no whit less clean than any spring fresh from the earth, and the curative properties are said to be extremely potent.”

Sadly, the San José Purua hotel ran into ownership and management problems and is now but a poor shadow of its former self, though the grounds and pools can still be admired. Several attempts have been made to relaunch the hotel as a luxury resort, but so far none has succeeded.

If you want to overnight or vacation in this magnificent part of Mexico, the best place by far is slightly further down the valley, at the Agua Blanca Canyon Resort, a charming, small hotel with just 20 rooms set in stunning scenery, with its lawns overlooking the deeply carved valley of the River Tuxpan.

This is a geographer’s delight! Waterfalls, rock formations, the meanders of the Tuxpan River, steep canyon slopes… what more could one want? This was one of the first locations in Mexico where high school students were actively engaged in geography fieldwork investigations thirty years ago.

In February 2010, a short distance upstream, the Tuxpan River burst its banks flooding the town of Tuxpan and other nearby settlements in Michoacán.

This is also the region where director John Huston filmed parts of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre“, starring Humphrey Bogart, in 1947 (he used the San José Purua hotel as his base), but that’s a whole other story.