The four basic types of rural locality in Mexico

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The four basic types of rural locality in Mexico
Jul 062011

In a previous post, we looked at why Some rural areas are more rural than others.This post describes each of the four distinct categories of rural areas identified by Mexico’s National Population Council (CONAPO).

Rural localities near cities

This group is defined as localities within five kilometers (3 mi) of cities of at least 15,000 inhabitants. It accounts for 16% of Mexico’s rural population, about four million people. About half of the rural populations of Morelos and Tlaxcala fall into this group.

Some communities in this category are actually part of the suburbanization or urban sprawl process. People have ready access to many city services and opportunities. If they lack mechanical transportation, they can walk to the city in less than an hour.

What are the socioeconomic characteristics of these localities? The data needed to answer this question often are not readily available. Fortunately, CONAPO has classified rural localities in terms of their degree of marginalization, which provides insights into socioeconomic characteristics. Degree of marginalization is defined using indicators of adult educational attainment, housing quality, and income levels.

About 47% of rural, near city residents live in very marginalized localities.3 While this is much higher than it is in urban areas, it is significantly less than other rural areas. Rural areas near cities tend to be more similar to urban areas. By way of comparison, in Mexico as a whole about 19% of the population live in municipalities classified as very marginalized.

Representative characteristics of very marginalized communities include adult populations with illiteracy rates of about 25% and completion of primary school rates of only 56%. Roughly 27% of houses lack piped water, 27% lack indoor toilets, 46% have dirt floors and 64% are overcrowded. These housing indicators are closely correlated with significant health risks. About 15% of houses do not have electricity. Roughly 84% of economically active people make less than twice the minimum wage. Communities matching this description are very different from modern urban Mexico.

At the other end of the spectrum, only about 4% of near city residents live in non-marginalized localities, which we will call “modern”.5 For Mexico as a whole, 53% of the population live in modern municipalities. The figure is 100% for the 33 million people who live in Mexico’s nine urban areas of over one million inhabitants. Levels of marginalization will be discussed more fully in chapter 29.

Rural localities near towns

This category includes localities within three kilometers of towns with between 2,500 and 15,000 residents. About 2.4 million people, or 10% of the rural population, live in such communities. These localities account for about a quarter of the rural population of Morelos and the State of Mexico.

Communities in this category are more rural than communities near cities. They have easy access to goods and opportunities in towns, but lack ready access to a real urban area. About 66% of this group lives in very marginalized communities compared to 47% for the near cities group. Less than 1% of the near towns group live in modern communities.

Rural localities near roads

This large group includes localities within three kilometers (2 mi) of paved roads. Almost 13 million Mexicans, about 54% of the rural population, fall into this category. It accounts for almost 90% of the rural population in Quintana Roo and over 70% in Zacatecas, Yucatán, Campeche, San Luis Potosí, Nuevo León and Coahuila.

This is a relatively important category because almost 14% of Mexico’s total population lives in rural communities near roads. These localities account for 39% of the total population of Zacatecas, and about a third of the total for Hidalgo, Oaxaca and San Luis Potosí. The authors agree to differ as to the reasons for this. One of us believes that the location of paved roads is having an impact on rural settlement patterns. The other believes that rural settlement patterns are having an impact on the location of paved roads! Both viewpoints may be correct with their relative importance depending on the region in question.

While people living in these localities do not have walking access to a city or town, they can relatively easily get to a town or city by bus. Some 69% live in very marginalized communities, while less than 1% live in modern communities. In terms of marginalization, the near roads group is quite similar to the near towns group.

Isolated rural localities

This group includes rural localities that do not fit into any of the other three categories. They are the most rural in that they lack ready access to paved roads, towns or cities. These inaccessible areas are very rarely seen by outsiders. Most urban residents have limited understanding of life in these isolated areas. Communities in this group are among Mexico’s poorest. About 88% of the people in isolated rural localities live in communities classified as very marginalized; less than 1% live in modern communities.

Though data are not available, areas that are within 10 km of a city, town or paved road are likely to be less marginalized than those in more remote locations. Almost five million Mexicans, about 20% of the rural population, live in these communities. Over a million people in Chiapas and about half a million in Oaxaca and Puebla live in isolated localities. The figure for Chiapas represents 29% of the state’s total population. About 16% of the people in Nayarit and Oaxaca and 12% of those in Sinaloa and Guerrero live in isolated areas. Providing needed basic services to these rural Mexicans is a major challenge for these state governments as well as the federal government.

Related posts:

Are Mexico’s rural areas more diverse than its cities?

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Jun 302011

Which are more diverse: Mexico’s rural areas, or its cities?

At first glance, Mexico’s rural areas are all quite similar in that they lack the characteristics of Mexico’s large cities such as tall buildings, traffic congestion, modern shopping malls, bustling streets, heavy industry and the like. While rural areas are all similar in that they lack urban characteristics, Mexico’s rural areas are actually quite diverse. But is there really more diversity among Mexico’s rural communities than its cities?

The physical form and architecture of cities are essentially independent from their surrounding natural environments. On the other hand, rural settlements tend to be integrated more closely with the natural environment. For example, villages in the arid central plateau tend to be constructed of locally available adobe, which keeps residents relatively cool during the hot afternoons and warm during the colder nights. In the tropical parts of Mexico, rural settlements tend to be built with locally available tropical materials which keep the rain out, but let air breezes through to mediate the hot tropical climate.

Rural settlements all tend to rely heavily on farming as the basic economic activity. The surrounding natural environment essentially dictates the type of farming that is practiced. Obviously, farmers in the central plateau cannot successfully grow bananas, sugarcane and other tropical products requiring lots of water. However, varieties of corn are grown virtually everywhere in Mexico.

The social characteristics of Mexico’s rural areas are also very diverse compared to the cities. In general Mexican cities are quite similar from a social perspective. Social customs and mores, as well as social classes, are relatively constant from one city to the next. Spanish is the overwhelmingly dominant language in the cities. Rural communities in various parts of the country often have different social mores and customs. Communication in some rural areas is largely, if not almost exclusively, in local indigenous languages:

The diversity of Mexico’s almost 200,000 rural localities should not be confused with the relative homogeneity within any given rural community.

In conclusion, while diversity between rural areas may be greater than that between cities, there is usually far more diversity within a Mexican city than within any given rural community.

Apr 302011

The quality of housing in Mexico has improved significantly in the past two decades. By the 2010 census, 97.8% of Mexican households had access to electricity, compared to 95.0% in 2000 and 87.5% in 1990. That this figure is approaching 100% is a real accomplishment given that many Mexicans live in very isolated mountainous communities. As of mid-2010, 93.5% of rural households had electricity, compared 98.2% for towns between 2,500 and 15,000 and over 99% for larger towns and cities. Anyone who has lived without electricity knows what an incredible improvement it can make to one’s comfort and quality of life.

With smaller family sizes, household crowding has also declined. It went from 5.0 persons per household in 1990 to 4.4 in 2000 and 3.9 in 2010. The percentage of households with dirt floors is now down to 6.2%, compared to 13.2% in 2000 and 19.5% in 1990. In rural areas, 15.1% of houses have dirt floors compared to 7.7% in towns between 2,500 and 15,000.

The vast majority of rural houses now have piped water. In the 125 least developed municipalities in rural Mexico, over 63% of households have piped water, which is one of the most important factors for improved family health. Almost 39% of the households in these poor municipalities have sewers, a convenience that most rural residents now have. However, about half of all rural households still cook with firewood or charcoal.

Rural households are gaining increasing access to modern electrical conveniences. Almost 80% now have a television set, 62% have a refrigerator, 42% have a washing machine, and 36% have a cell phone (only 17 % have a wired telephone line). While these percentages are significantly higher in urban areas (TVs – 97.5%, refrigerators – 91.7%, washing machines – 78.4%, and cell phones – 78.4%.), life in rural Mexico is improving dramatically. However, rural areas are lagging significantly in access to the cyber-age. Only 6.8% have a computer in the house and 2.5% have internet access. Urban access is much higher: 42.7% for home computers and 33.1% for internet access. On the other hand, many rural households gain access to computers and the internet by using cyber-cafes, which have spread rapidly into small Mexican communities.

Local "bus" to the train station, Tehuantepec, 1985

Local "taxi" to the train station, Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 1985. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

Access to public transportation has also improved in rural areas (see photo, taken in 1985). In mid-2010, 73% of rural residents had access to public transportation (usually bus or taxi). Access varies with community size. Of those in communities of 1,000 to 2,500, almost 90% have access, while only 37% of those localities of under 250 population had access to public transportation.

Mexico’s cities and towns are analyzed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Rural Mexico is the subject of chapter 24. Living standards, including housing, are discussed in chapter 28. Buy your copy today!!

Review of “One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico”.

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Jul 302010

In an earlier post, we listed the towns included in One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico, by Guillermo García Oropeza and Cristóbal García Sánchez (Rizzoli International Publications, 2008; 280 pp.). Here we offer a short review of the book.

Cover of 101 Beautiful Small Towns in MexicoThis is a large format book, with many magnificent photographs. A fascinating range of places is included, even though the criteria used for their selection are nowhere explained. The selection offers lots of interest for anyone curious about Mexico’s geography.

For example, a stunning aerial view of Mexcaltitán (Nayarit) shows the cross-and-concentric-circle street pattern of “Mexico’s Venice”, surrounded by muddy brown shrimp-bearing swamps.

Curiously, the list of places included in the book on the contents pages adopts the affected style of using no capital letters whatsoever for any of the town names.

Each place is afforded at least a double page spread, and the back of the book has helpful lists of tourist offices, and selected hotels and restaurants.

Despite the title, some of the locations are more to do with the natural environment than with settlement. For instance, the town of Cuatro Ciénegas is a somewhat unprepossessing place whereas the desert oases of Cuatro Ciénegas,on which the book entry focuses, are an amazing natural zoological laboratory of crystalline water and extraordinary biodiversity. Similarly, Cacahuamilpa Caverns hardly qualify as a town!

The San Ignacio entry focuses on difficult to reach cave paintings. The village itself has few claims to fame beyond its colonial mission church.

The Paricutín double-page spread is named after the volcano which devoured several small settlements including Parícutin (for the name of the original village, the accent is on the second syllable; for the volcano it is on the last syllable). The photos included here actually show (as the captions make clear) the towns of Angahuan, and the upper facade of the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro, overwhelmed by the volcano’s lava.

A couple of places are given names that might not be very familiar to their residents. Casas Nuevas (Chihuahua) is actually Nuevo Casas Grandes (the real Casas Nuevas is an entirely different place which had only 13 inhabitants at the time of the 2000 census) and Mineral del Monte (Hidalgo) is more usually known as Real del Monte.

In southern Mexico, Santa María del Tule gets an entry. Santa María would not be worthy of mention, except for the fact that it is home to what is arguably the world’s largest tree, now thankfully restored to good health after decades of neglect.

In the Yucatán, three entries ignore the main thrust of the book, and focus instead on significant routes, one linking henequen (sisal) haciendas, one combining relatively minor archaeological sites which share distinctive Puuc architecture, and one going from one friary (monastery) to another. These are all interesting trips, but are entirely unexpected in a book specifically about towns. Some judicious editing might have removed some of the inaccuracies such as describing hemp (sisal) as “in the agave… or cactus, family”. The family name for agaves is Agavaceae which includes the genus Agave. In any event, agaves are biologically distinct to all members of the Cactaceae family; confusing agaves with cacti is an unexpected blunder.

The chosen towns quite rightly include some long-abandoned sites such as Teotihuacan, “City of the Gods”, which was once a city of 200,000 or so, the fascinating Mayan sites of Palenque and Chichen Itza, and Mitla and Monte Alban, both in Oaxaca.

The cover photo of the town of Chapala in Jalisco, much favored by American and Canadian retirees in recent years, unfortunately dates from a time when the lake level was relatively low. The green areas in the lake are floating masses of the introduced aquatic weed water hyacinth.

Despite being written by a Mexican historian, there are numerous minor historical inaccuracies in the text, though these should not detract from the enjoyment of the average reader.

For instance, in the Chapala entry, illustrated by the same photo used on the cover, it should be Septimus Crowe (not Crow), and the “navigation company with two small steam ships” had nothing to do with Christian Schjetnam. The steamships predated his arrival in Chapala by many years. Schjetnam did however, introduce two small sail yachts to the area, perhaps explaining the confusion. The description of President Díaz’s interest in Chapala appears to imply that he was first acquainted with the lake when he visited “a political crony” in 1904. Actually, Díaz was certainly personally familiar with Lake Chapala from long before this.

The entry for Santa Rosalia repeats the long-held but unproven idea that the main church was designed by Frenchman Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). The town does have other Eiffel connections, and the church may indeed have been brought lock, stock and barrel from the 1889 Paris World Exhibition. However, research by Angela Gardner strongly suggests that the original designer was probably not Eiffel but was far more likely to have been Brazilian Bibiano Duclos, who graduated from the same Parisian academy as Eiffel. Gardner proved that Duclos took out a patent on prefabricated buildings, whereas she could find no evidence that Eiffel had ever designed a prefabricated building of any kind. Regardless of who designed it, it is certainly a unique design in the context of Mexico, and well worth seeing.

And really, surely this is the main point of this book. It was presumably never intended to be a reliable geographical (or historical) primer, but rather an enticing selection of seductive places, many of which will be unfamiliar to any but the most traveled reader. The variety of places included is breathtaking; few countries on earth can possibly match it. As such, One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico is a resounding success.

This beautifully illustrated book should certainly tempt readers to venture into new parts of Mexico in search of these and other memorable places. Enjoy your travels!

– – – –

Mexico’s cities and towns are analyzed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!!

Jul 242010

According to the book One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico, by Guillermo García Oropeza and Cristóbal García Sánchez (Rizzoli International Publications, 2008; 280 pp), these places all merit inclusion in the list of the 101 Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico.

Cover of 101 Beautiful Small Towns in MexicoWe will review the book more formally in a future post, since it offers some insights into Mexico’s geography, but for now take a look at the list below, and see if you agree.

Our own list of the most beautiful small towns would certainly include most of these, though we can think of some equally excellent choices which are not included.

Are there other towns that would be on your list? If so, let’s hear about them!


  • San Felipe
  • Valle de Guadalupe


  • Loreto
  • Mulegé
  • San Ignacio
  • San Jóse del Cabo
  • Santa Rosalía
  • Todos Santos


  • Campeche
  • Edzná


  • Comitlán de Domínguez
  • Chiapa de Corzo
  • Palenque
  • San Cristóbal de las Casas
  • Yaxchilán
  • Bonampak
  • Zinacantán
  • San Juan Chamula


  • Batopilas
  • Creel
  • Hidalgo del Parral
  • Nuevas Casas [Nuevo Casaas Grandes]
  • Mata Ortíz
  • Cuarenta Casas


  • Cuatro Ciénegas
  • Parras


  • Cómala


  • Coyoacán


  • Atotonilco
  • Dolores Hidalgo
  • Guanajuato
  • San Miguel De Allende
  • Yuriria


  • Cacahuamilpa
  • Taxco


  • El Chico
  • Huasca
  • Mineral del Monte [Real del Monte]
  • Tula


  • Chapala
  • Ajijic
  • Lagos de Moreno
  • Mazamitla
  • Puerto Vallaría
  • San Sebastián del Oeste
  • Tapalpa
  • Tequila
  • Tlaquepaque


  • Malinalco
  • Teotihuacán
  • Acolman
  • Tepotzotlán
  • Valle De Bravo


  • Angangueo
  • Cuitzeo
  • Paricutín
  • Angahuan
  • Santiago Nurío
  • Paracho
  • Pátzcuaro
  • Santa Clara del Cobre
  • Zirahuén
  • Tlalpujahua
  • Tzintzuntzan


  • Cuernavaca
  • Tepoztlán
  • Tétela del Volcán
  • Xochicalco
  • Yecapixtia


  • Mexcaltitán


  • Bustamante
  • Villa de García


  • Cuilapan
  • Arrasóla
  • Ixtlán De Juárez
  • Mitla
  • Monte Albán
  • Ocotlán
  • San Bartólo Coyotepec
  • Santa María del Tule
  • Tlacochahauya
  • Tlacolula
  • Dianzú
  • Yanhuitlán


  • Cuetzalan
  • Cholula
  • Huejotzingo
  • Tonantzintia
  • San Francisco Acatepec


  • Bernal
  • Jalpan


  • Bacalar
  • Cozumel
  • Holbox
  • Isla Mujeres
  • Playa del Carmen
  • Tulum


  • Real de Catorce


  • Cósala


  • Alamos
  • Magdalena de Kino


  • Tlaxcala


  • Chichen Itza
  • Izamal
  • Uxmal
  • Valladolid


  • Coatepec
  • Los Tuxtlas
  • Papantia
  • Tlacotalpan


  • Guadalupe
  • Jerez
  • Sombrerete

Mexico’s cities and towns are analyzed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!!

Jul 232010

Santa Fe, in upscale western Mexico City is one example of the many new developments being built on the urban periphery in Mexico.

Santa Fe, a subsidiary CBD in Mexico City

Santa Fe has become a subsidiary CBD in Mexico City. Photo: Oscar Ruiz

The plan for the Santa Fe complex called for private sector financed office towers, a gigantic retail mall, high income housing, park areas, as well as schools and universities. Construction was halted briefly by the 1994–95 economic crises, but soon resumed at full speed. Today Santa Fe has numerous skyscraping office towers, over one eighth of the Federal District’s total office space, about 70,000 employees, four universities with 13,500 students, over 4300 residents, and one of the largest retail malls in Latin America.

Santa Fe is essentially an island that is only accessible by private car; public transport is relatively limited.

Unfortunately, it has not fully lived up to expectations. The preponderance of cars, mostly with a driver and no passengers, has led to severe traffic jams. Perhaps related to this, the vacancy rate of office space is about 25%. Furthermore, even with eight million visitors a year, the gigantic Santa Fe shopping mall is not as heavily utilized as competing malls in the area.

How many of the shoppers in Santa Fe mall or students attending classes realize that they are on top of what was once one of the biggest garbage dumps in Mexico City? Prior to its development into high-end real estate, much of this area had been quarried for sand, and the resulting holes  used as a landfill site for household and industrial waste. Some of the structural problems reported in buildings in Santa Fe may well be due to the settling of these less than savory foundations.

(Our sincere thanks to Fatimah Araneta for improving this account)

If you have enjoyed this brief excerpt from chapter 23  of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico please consider purchasing your own copy of the book. Chapters 21 and 22 analyze Mexico’s 500-year transition to an urban society and the internal geography of Mexico’s cities. Chapter 23 looks at urban issues, problems and trends. To preview more parts of the book, click here and use amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

A case study of low-income housing on the urban periphery

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Jul 132010

A shortage of affordable housing is a persistent problem in large Mexican cities. In response, new, subsidized lower income housing developments are being built on the periphery of Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and other metropolitan areas.

Sprawling Mexico City - "El Monstruo"

Sprawling Mexico City - "El Monstruo"

Though most working families can afford the down payment and monthly payments for these subsidized housing units, these expenses leave little extra for food, clothing, utility bills, commuting, and health care. Even these subsidized housing units provide a car parking place because virtually all Mexican families aspire to own their own automobile. The case study which follows, of the Hernández family, illustrates the situation.

Carlos Hernández, his spouse, mother-in-law, and two daughters are happy with their house in a new housing development in Zumpango, about 40 km (25 mi) north of the Mexico City Zócalo. The government-backed mortgage on the tiny (30 square meters – 323 square feet, about the size of a two-car garage), 15,700-dollar, one-bedroom house, is 100 dollars a month. Hernández must spend another $110 a month for his daily five hour commute by colectivo (mini bus), bus, and metro (subway) to his $350 a month maintenance job in the capital. This leaves only $140 a month for all other expenses such as food, utilities, installment payments on furniture and appliances, health care, clothing, schooling, etc. To help make ends meet, his spouse, Edith, runs an informal convenience store out of the front of the house.

The house is very crowded; the kitchen table is brought inside only at mealtimes. Carlos and Edith sleep on a foldout couch in the living room. Edith’s mother, Lucía, has the bedroom and the two daughters take turns sleeping with their parents or grandmother. Hernandez is glad he finally owns a house and no longer has to pay rent. His story is repeated tens of thousands of times as hundreds and hundreds of low-income housing developments are being built on the urban periphery.

If you have enjoyed this brief excerpt from chapter 23  of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico please consider purchasing your own copy of the book. Chapters 21 and 22 analyze Mexico’s 500-year transition to an urban society and the internal geography of Mexico’s cities. Chapter 23 looks at urban issues, problems and trends. To preview more parts of the book, click here and use amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

Nezahualcoyotl, an irregular settlement which grew into a monster

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Nezahualcoyotl, an irregular settlement which grew into a monster
Jul 022010

Rapid industrialization north of Mexico City after World War II brought a giant wave of immigrants aggravating a serious shortage of low income housing. With the vecindades (inner city slums) severely overcrowded, the only alternative was “irregular housing” or “colonias populares.” These were developed wherever there was vacant land, mostly in the west and north of the city on the dry former lakebed or on very steep slopes. They all followed a development pattern roughly similar to that of Nezahualcoyotl, the largest and best known colonia popular.

The densely packed housing of Nezahaulcoyotl in all its glory

The densely packed housing of Nezahaulcoyotl in all its glory. Image: Follow link at end of post for more Mexico City photos

In the late 1950s, a group of speculators gained de facto possession of roughly 78 square kilometers  (30 square miles) of former lakebed in Nezahualcoyotl just east of the Mexico City airport. They sold nearly 200,000 plots cheaply and on credit, a few dollars down, and a few dollars a month, for 10-20 yrs.

Families bought plots and immediately started to erect shacks. Aside from electricity, which was provided by the national utility, the plots initially lacked basic services such as potable water, sewerage, flood drainage, pavement, schools, etc. Without services, Nezahualcoyotl was illegal under State of Mexico law; but the government tolerated this situation.

The community became an immediate boom town. By 1970, the population was over 600,000, but still over half the area was without paved streets, water supply and drainage. Summer brought floods while the rest of the year it was an arid dust bowl.

Residents became frustrated with the broken promises of the developers, demanded that they be jailed for fraud, and stopped their monthly payments. The feud lasted for years and some developers were actually jailed. Eventually most of the area was “regularized”, meaning that residents got legal deeds and basic services. They continued to improve their houses and communities.

Nezahualcoyotl, the city of dreams

Nezahualcoyotl, the city of dreams

By 1980, the population reached about 1.3 million, making it one of the largest and most densely populated municipalities in the country.

By 2000, Nezahualcoyotl had essentially joined the mainstream. Nearly all residents had electricity and TVs, over 80% had refrigerators, 60% had telephones, nearly one in three had access to an automobile, and almost one in five had a computer. While Nezahualcoyotl has slums, gangs and crime, it also has tree-lined boulevards, parks, a zoo, banks, shopping centers, offices, libraries, hospitals, universities, cinemas, and apartment buildings. It even has a cathedral (since 2000) and an Olympic sports stadium, which hosted some 1986 FIFA World Cup matches. Currently, it is a vital part of metropolitan Mexico City and provides jobs for almost 250,000.

From irregular settlement to massive urban monster; Cd. Nezahualcoyotl has certainly come a long way!

Mexico’s cities and towns are analyzed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today!!

Los Mochis and Topolobampo are two examples of “new towns” in Mexico

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Apr 262010

In north-western Mexico, two towns in close proximity—Los Mochis and Topolobampo—are both examples of “new towns”. Many Mexican towns and cities are more than 500 years old; relatively few major settlements in the country are less than 150 years old. How did it come about then that these two “new towns” in the state of Sinaloa were founded so close to one another?

Topolobampo dates back only as far as 1872, when a US engineer, Albert Kimsey Owen (1847-1916) arrived. Owen envisaged the city as a U.S. colony centered on sugar-cane production in this previously unsettled area and as the terminus for a railway across the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Owen had been raised in New Harmony, the city founded by Robert Owen (no relation) and decided to try and found a similar “ideal socialist” city somewhere in Mexico. In 1871-1872 he visited Chihuahua and Sinaloa and decided that the site of present day Topolobampo was ideal for his purposes. Owen founded the Texas, Topolobampo and Pacific Railroad and Telegraph Company (later the American and Mexican Pacific Railroad) and in 1881 was granted the concession for the settlement of a town.

Settlement began in October 1886. Two and a half years later, in April 1889, the first large group of colonists—300-strong—set sail from New York, arriving in Sinaloa in July, only to find a deserted beach and no Owen. Owen had returned to the USA but finally arrived the following year with another 30 colonists. During 1891, 70 more settlers arrived. They founded several additional settlements including Vegatown (Estación Vega), La Logia, El Público and El Platt. They also dug an irrigation canal, 12 kilometers long, to divert water from the Fuerte River across their lands. Despite their heroic efforts, the farming project was eventually abandoned, though the town of Topolobampo struggled on.

The Henry Madden Library of the California State University, Fresno, houses an amazing visual record of those early years, based on photos dating back to 1889-90 taken by Ira Kneeland, one of the first settlers.

Meanwhile, in 1893, another American, Benjamin Francis Johnston (1865-1937) founded the Eagle Sugar Co. (Compañia Azucarera Aguila S.A.) and constructed a factory, church, airport, dam, and the Memory Hill lighthouse. Ten years later, in 1903, Johnston officially founded Los Mochis. Johnston came to own more than 200,000 hectares. He built a veritable palace of a residence, including an indoor pool and even an elevator, one of the first in the country. The mansion’s garden, full of exotic plants, is now the city’s botanical gardens, Parque Sinaloa. The mansion itself was later torn down for a shopping plaza.

Historians and geographers have long questioned the precise motives of both Owen and Johnston, whose efforts have been described as more akin to capitalist expansion and neo-imperialism than any form of socialism. If they had come to fruition, Owen’s projects could have resulted in the annexation of a million square kilometers to a USA which had ambitious ideas of expansion at the time. Owen has been labeled variously a visionary, a madman or a conman and fraudster. Similarly, Johnston has also been regarded by some as a stooge for grandiose US expansionist plans.

Whatever the motives of their founders, both Topolobampo and Los Mochis had their start and have rarely looked back. Los Mochis gained importance as a major commercial center, marketing much of the produce grown on the enormous El Fuerte irrigation scheme. A large proportion of this produce is exported to the U.S. via the famous Copper Canyon railway. Los Mochis is the passenger terminus at the western end of the  line. For freight, the line continues to Topolobampo, “the lion’s watering place” or “tiger’s water”. The port, with its shrimp-packing plant, is at the head of one of Mexico’s finest natural harbors, the head of a drowned river valley or ria, which affords an unusually high degree of security in the event of hurricanes.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect. Click here for the original article

Urban settlements in Mexico are discussed in chapters 21 and 22 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, with urban issues being the focus of chapter 23.