Jul 172011

Update: New Durango-Mazatlán highway officially open (Oct 2013)

Update: October 2012: Despite earlier claims that the Durango-Mazatlán highway would be completed before the end of this year, government officials have now confirmed that the highway will not be finished, and will not open, until sometime in 2013.

Original post:

In Durango recently, Dionisio Pérez Jácome, Mexico’s Communications and Transportation Secretary, stated that the new Durango-Mazatlán highway is “80% completed” and “on schedule to be opened in the second half of next year” (2012) (Milenio online, 15 July 2011)

The new highway, first proposed more than a decade ago, will have cost about 1.2 billion dollars to complete. The new highway has more than 60 tunnels and 115 bridges, including the amazing Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge which will be Latin America’s longest cable-stayed bridge when opened. Some sections of the new highway have had their first annual maintenance to repair potholes and ensure that the road surface is in perfect condition for next year’s formal inauguration.

The highway will speed up overland transport from the Pacific Ocean port of Mazatlán to the northern border towns of Reynosa and Matamoros, bringing numerous economic benefits to many parts of northern Mexico.

Access to services is worst in the smallest rural localities of Mexico

 Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Access to services is worst in the smallest rural localities of Mexico
May 102011

Access to services such as schools, public transport or the internet are better in cities than in rural areas (localities in Mexico with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants). However some rural areas have far better access than others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of inhabitants of a rural locality is directly related to its access to services.

The 2010 census indicates that 26.0 million Mexicans (about 23.2% of the population) live in rural areas. A total of 9.0 million live in Mexico’s 5,921 large rural communities (those with 1000–2499 inhabitants) compared to 11.3 million living in the 22,852 mid-sized rural localities (250–999 people) and 5.7 million in the 159,820 small rural settlements (fewer than 250 residents). The average population in the last group is only 36 inhabitants indicating that many Mexicans live in very tiny communities.

The percentage of communities with access to a health center or clinic is 74.9% for the large rural areas, 50.7% for the mid-sized, and only 37.9% for the small rural areas. The percentages for access to either a secondary school or telesecundaria (Mexico’s satellite-fed secondary schools, see Geo-Mexico, page 126) also differ with the size of the community: 79.6%, 51.5% and 27.0%, respectively. Though these percentages are far lower than those for larger, urban communities, they have improved very significantly. The census indicates that rural areas are catching up with the rest of Mexico, especially with respect to education, life expectancy and fertility, three very important, inter-related variables.

In turn, this suggests that government programs such as Oportunidades are achieving something positive in some areas beyond poverty reduction.

The network of roads providing access to rural villages has improved significantly. 81.2% of the smallest localities now are connected by road, compared to 96.7% for the mid-sized and 98.3% for the large rural areas. However, these data indicate that almost 31,000 rural Mexican communities are still not accessible by road. Only 63.5% of the small rural villages are served by public transport, compared to 74.6% of the mid-sixed and 89.3% of the large rural localities. A total of almost 107,000 rural communities do not have any public transport and are consequently quite isolated. This isolation is a very serious constraint to their economic opportunities and quality of life. The people who live in communities without access to a paved road are among Mexico’s poorest; fully 88% are classified as “very marginalized” (see Geo-Mexico, page 184).

Internet access is only beginning to penetrate into rural areas. Only 3% of the smallest rural villages have public access to the internet (via school, cybercafé, etc.). About four times as many (11%) of mid-sized rural localities have public internet access. Almost half (45.6%) of the large rural communities have public internet access compared to 74.3% of larger communities between 2500 and 4999 inhabitants. Current trends suggest that by 2020, virtually all Mexicans will have some type of internet access, perhaps by cell phone.

Jan 272011

How can the producer of a major TV documentary get it SO wrong? A multi-part documentary, Racing Green, is currently running on BBC World. It describes the extraordinary achievement of students in the Racing Green Endurance (RGE) team and Radical Sportscars in manufacturing a battery-powered SRZero electric sportscar and then driving it the full 26,000 km length of the Pan-American Highway, from Alaska to Argentina. The momentous trip required 70 days of driving and the vehicle became the first battery-powered vehicle ever to complete this challenging route. This is a truly laudable achievement (kudos to the students and organizers) and marks another vital step in the development of electric vehicles, and their acceptance by the general public as a viable alternative to driving contaminating gas-guzzlers.


Photo: racinggreenendurance.com

The documentary series and the Racing Green Endurance website share “the aim of communicating our core values to the widest possible audience.” The documentary is well worth watching for the adventure-packed story and the incredible engineering accomplishment. However, the geography in the documentary’s commentary is not quite so inspirational.

Here is the narrator of Racing Green, preparing viewers for the next installment: “The easiest part of the trip – North America – is nearly over. Ahead lies Mexico and South America…”

Excuse me??

Q. Has some major continental movement taken place that we haven’t been told about? Has Mexico left North America?

A. No! Mexico is most definitely (still) very much in North America.

Dear BBC,

PLEASE get your geography right next time, or at least consult an atlas. If you can’t find an atlas, Geo-Mexico is always ready and willing to undertake consultancy work relating to the geography of Mexico, ranging from the simple (eg “Is Mexico really in North America?” and “How long is Mexico’s coastline?“) to the complex (eg “What are the likely impacts of the new Durango-Mazatlán highway?”)

Please, call us first next time, before you put your foot in your geographical mouth…



Rant over! Our normal service of insights into Mexico’s geography will be resumed tomorrow.

Updates on the geography of Mexico City

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Updates on the geography of Mexico City
Dec 132010

We start this periodic round-ups of news items related to the geography of Mexico City with an update on Mexico City’s population. The preliminary results of the 2010 census show that the Mexico City Metropolitan Area (MCMA) has a population of 20,137,152. This includes the Federal District with its 8,873,017 inhabitants. The Federal District has grown only slowly since 2000, but the State of Mexico, much of which is included in the MCMA, grew five times as quickly (its growth was 1.59%/yr between 2000 and 2010).

New electric Nissan taxis

Several hundred all-electric taxis will soon be circulating in Mexico City. In the second half of 2011, 500 Nissan “Leaf”s (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family cars) will be added to the city’s massive taxi fleet. When fully charged, the Leaf has a range of up to 160km, with zero emissions of CO2. Nissan is reported to be installing recharging stations in locations such as supermarket and restaurant parking lots. The Leaf is expected to go on sale to the public in 2012.

Fines for using non-biodegradable plastic bags

Mexico City authorities have dropped the possibility of  jail time, but kept stiff fines for anyone using plastic bags that are not bio-degradable. Store owners and employees are no longer allowed to give away non-biodegradable plastic bags. Repeat offenders will face fines of up to 9,250 dollars.

Levies on excess garbage

Watch out big business! Mexico City authorities have announced a crack-down on the solid wastes generated by large commercial enterprises, including shopping centers. About 2,000 places will be inspected; they currently pay about 1.2 million dollars (15 million pesos) a year in excess waste fees, but the city believes many are abusing the system, which is based on self-reporting. Mexico City’s solid waste regulations classify anyone disposing of more than 50 kg a day as a “high volume waste generator.” Anyone in this category must pay for every kilogram of waste beyond the basic 50 kilos. The current rates (per kilogram) are 0.50 pesos for construction materials, 1.00 pesos for urban waste, 1.83 pesos for plant-related waste and 2.20 pesos for wastes requiring special handling. Businesses will be audited by city inspectors to ensure that the amount of waste they produce matches what they officially report, and fines will be levied for non-compliance.

The geography of Mexico City is analyzed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 of  Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Sep 072010

When complete, this dramatic new highway will have significant economic impact. Drivers using the old road report that it can take from five to nine hours to make the 325 kilometer trip, depending on traffic and one’s willingness to risk passing slow trucks on virtually blind curves. Buses allow 6.5 hours.

When completed, the driving time on the new four lane expressway will be reduced to less than three hours. Durango residents will easily be able to go off to the beach in Mazatlán for the week-end. The driving time from Monterrey or South Texas to Mazatlán will be reduced to less than a day. This could revive Mazatlán as a major tourist destination after a couple of decades of relative stagnation.

The port of Mazatlán

The port of Mazatlán. Photo: Stan Shebs (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the biggest effect of the new highway will be the improved connection between the Pacific Ocean port of Mazatlán and north-central Mexico (population about 12 million) and most of Texas (about 20 million). The impact from increased trade in finished products (especially those which are relatively light and suitable for truck transport) will be significant.

Shrimp from Mazatlán and many, many products destined for northern Mexico/Texas from the Pacific Rim Region (China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, etc.) will be shipped through Mazatlán and trucked from there on the new highway. We expect there will be considerable trucking/shipping in the opposite direction as well. The resulting increased shipping through the port of Mazatlán will stimulate economic growth.  However, to facilitate these shipments, new urban expressways should be built through or around the cities of Durango, Torreón and Saltillo.

We expect the impact on the state of Durango will be less. Most of Durango’s mineral and timber products are rather bulky, not ideally suited to truck transport, and not globally competitive; therefore they will not find their way through Mazatlán to world markets.

Some (including Chris Hawley in USA Today) have argued that the new highway will have an appreciable impact on drug production and trade by improving police access and providing new economic opportunities. We think the impact will be rather slight. The Western Sierra Madre (Sierra Madre Occidental) covers about 200,000 square kilometers and the road affects less than 4% of this area (assuming an area of influence 25 kilometers wide either side of the highway). In our opinion, whatever illegal drugs are currently being cultivated in the Western Sierra Madre will continue to be grown. Yes, some people along the highway will find new employment in roadside commerce, but these jobs will be rather few.

Chapter 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico discusses how the Sierra Madre Occidental influenced Mexico’s historical development. Chapter 17 analyzes the difficulties of transportation between Mazatlán and Durango. Buy your copy today to have a handy reference guide to all major aspects of Mexico’s geography!

Sep 062010

Bike riding is quite a common recreational activity in Mexico, as well as being many people’s chosen means of transport to work.

In recent years, an increasing number of cities have started regular bike festivals or other events. The Festival de Bicicleta in Xalapa, the state capital of Vercaruz, is just one example.

Back in 1972, in Mexico City, famous Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, considered by many to be the greatest cyclist in the history of the sport, smashed the world one-hour distance record by pedaling 49.431 km (30.715 miles). He simultaneously established new 10 km (6.2 miles) and 20 km records by covering 10 km in 11 minutes 53.2 secs and 20 km in 24 minutes 6.8 secs. One curiosity of this achievement is that contemporary ads for Windsor bikes purport to claim that he was riding a Windsor bike when he smashed the record, whereas he was actually riding an Italian bike! Merckx’s distance record stood for more than a decade before being broken, also in Mexico City, by Francesco Moser.

Mexico City is catching up with the craze for bike riding, too. It sees bikes as one way to reduce air pollution. About 30 km ( miles) of downtown streets, including the 8-lane Avenida Reforma, are closed to powered vehicles on Sunday mornings, to provide unhindered access for pedal bikes, walkers, and wheelchairs.

Earlier this year, the city began a bike rental system, Ecobici. More than 1,000 bikes were distributed between 85 specially-designed bike stations, spaced around the city center. Users purchase swipe cards which allow them to access a bike. After the trip, the bikes can be returned to any of the stations. City officials anticipate 24,000 riders using the system by the end of the year.

Stamp of Bike exports

As the postage stamp suggests, Mexico exports bikes, mainly to the USA. The export market has declined, however, in the past decade as several manufacturers who used to assemble bikes in Mexico have moved their operations to China. Firms which have relocated their operations away from Mexico include Huffy (formerly in Nuevo Laredo), Windzy (Monterrey), Brunswick (Ojinaga) and SRAM.

The website of the National Association of Bicycle Manufacturers claims that its 14 member companies produce about 3 million bikes a year and employ, between them, 4,000 workers.

The 14 bike manufacturers listed are:

  • Bicicletas Cinelli – Santa Catarina, Nuevo León
  • Nahel – Durango, Durango
  • Goray – Torreón, Coahuila
  • Grupo Veloci – Zapopan, Jalisco
  • Rebimo de Guadalajara – Zapopan, Jalisco
  • Biciclo – San Luis Potosí
  • Bicicletas Mercurio, Mérida, Yucatá and San Luis Potosí (they acquired the famous Acer-Mex Windsor brand in 2001)
  • Bimex – Mexico City
  • BR – Mexico City
  • Magistroni – Mexico City
  • Benotto (primarily a distributor) – Mexico City
  • Grupo Oriental – Mexico City
  • Bicicletas Ozeki – Atizapan de Zaragoza, State of México
  • Bicileyca – Yauhquemehcan, Tlaxcala

Q. Is there any pattern to the distribution of bike manufacturers in Mexico? Try plotting the locations mentioned on a map of Mexico to see if any pattern emerges.

Q. What factors do you think bicycle manufacturers must take into account when deciding where to locate?

Mexico’s manufacturing industry is discussed in chapter 16 of  Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Mexico’s transportation system is discussed in chapter 17, and its exports in chapter 20.

Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Mexico’s Copper Canyon train is one of the world’s great railway trips

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico, Other  Comments Off on Mexico’s Copper Canyon train is one of the world’s great railway trips
Sep 022010

The Copper Canyon region is one of the most remote parts of Mexico. This remoteness helps to explain why the area is the home of about 50,000 Tarahumara Indians, and how they have managed to preserve much of their highly distinctive culture to this day.

The Copper Canyon railroad line, “the most dramatic train ride in the Western Hemisphere” (Reader’s Digest), begins in Ojinaga and continues, via Chihuahua, to Los Mochis and Topolobampo. The railroad was started in the 1870s to enable produce grown in southern Texas to be exported via a Pacific port. Simultaneously, the twin settlements of Los Mochis and its port Topolobampo were developed on the other side of the Western Sierra Madre. The railroad project floundered and successive attempts to complete it all failed. Some innovative engineering finally led to the line being completed in 1961. Total cost? Over $100 million.

The highlights include a 360-degree loop at El Lazo (km 585 from Ojinaga), one of only three comparable examples anywhere in North America), and a 180-degree turn inside a tunnel near Temoris at km 708. The line crosses the Continental Divide three times, reaches a maximum height of 2400 m (at km 583) and skirts the rim of the Copper Canyon. Between Chihuahua and Los Mochis, there are 37 bridges (totaling 3.6 km) and 86 tunnels (totaling 17.2 km). Almost all passenger rail services in Mexico ended in the 1990s but daily services continue along this line, mainly for tourists.

Tarahumara Indians wait for a sale at Divisadero, the station on the rim

Tarahumara Indians wait for a sale at Divisadero, the station on the canyon rim. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Almost all trains stop for a few minutes at Divisadero, a station set right on the rim of the canyon, with a lookout offering a magnificent panoramic view. Shy Tarahumara women and children sit quietly, weaving pine-needle baskets (see photo) and hoping for a sale. Many of them speak very little Spanish apart from the numbers; on the other hand, how many tourists speak even one word of the Tarahumara language? Thirty years ago, most articles sold by the women were items similar to ones they would use everyday themselves in their daily tasks. Sadly, many of the articles sold today are made specifically for the tourist trade.

Unlike the railway, Los Mochis and Topolobampo both soon flourished. Topolobampo was started by US engineer Albert Kimsey Owen who chose this previously unsettled area for a socialist colony based on sugar-cane production, and as the terminus for the railway. Topolobampo has one of Mexico’s finest natural harbors, a drowned river valley or ria, which affords a safe haven in the event of storms. Los Mochis was officially founded in 1893 by a second American, Benjamin Johnston, who built a sugar factory there.

Los Mochis became especially important in the second half of the twentieth century as a major commercial center, marketing much of the produce grown on the vast El Fuerte irrigation scheme. Much of this produce is still exported to the USA via the famous Copper Canyon railway. Los Mochis and Topolobampo are unusual—there are few other examples of such “new towns”, with no colonial or pre-Hispanic antecedents, anywhere else in Mexico.

Previous Geo-Mexico posts related to the Copper Canyon:

External links of interest:

Chapter 10 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico is devoted to Mexico’s indigenous peoples, including the Tarahumara Indians. If you have enjoyed this post, please suggest to your local library that they purchase a copy to enhance their collection.

Sep 012010

Several famous writers wrote about Mexico despite having no direct geographic experience of the country. In an earlier post, we looked at the case of Jules Verne. This time, we look at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

There is some sound historical geography in the famous poem The Bells of San Blas, yet author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had never ever visited the town.

The San Blas referred to in the poem is on the Pacific coast, in the state of Nayarit. It is a small town with several good hotels and restaurants, and a birding “hot spot”. The variety of habitats around the town, ranging from sandy beaches and luxuriant mangroves to palm plantations and tropical swamps, have attracted more than 500 different bird species, or about half of all the bird species known in Mexico.

The town’s economy was not always geared to tourism. For more than a century, San Blas, founded in 1768, functioned as an important port and boat-building center. The vessels built in San Blas included those used by Junípero Serra to establish missions in California. To ensure that taxes were paid on imports, an imposing customs house was built on the shore. To guarantee safe passage, a church dedicated to “Our Lady of the Sailor’s Rosary” stands atop the steep-sided Cerro de San Basilio which overlooks the town. In the church hung the famous bronze bells.

San Blas Customs House

The former Customs House of San Blas in the evening light, 1989. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Time conspired against the port of San Blas. The harbor silted up, the coastline gradually inched its way further west. Over the years, other ports such as Acapulco and Mazatlan became more important. San Blas declined. The customs house and church were abandoned, transformed from bustling buildings into evocative ruins. By the end of the 19th century, the port was very much a “has been”.

In March, 1882, far away from Mexico, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (best known for Paul Revere’s Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline) lay on his deathbed. Longfellow, born in 1807, was a prolific poet and accomplished linguist. After a long and illustrious career, which included teaching at Harvard College, his life was now drawing to a close, even as the distant port of San Blas was falling into disuse.

By a happy coincidence, the March 1882 issue of Harper’s new monthly magazine (Volume 64, Issue 382) contained an article by William Henry Bishop, entitled “Typical Journeys and Country Life in Mexico”. Bishop’s article described several Pacific coast ports, including San Blas:

“Acapulco has the most complete and charming harbor, and an old fort dismantled by the French, of the order of Morro Castle. Manzanillo is a small strip of a place on the beach, built of wood, with quite an American look. The volcano of Colima appears inland, with a light cloud of smoke above it. San Blas, larger, but still hardly more than an extensive thatched village, has, on a bluff beside it, the ruins of a once more substantial San Blas. Old bronze bells brought down from it have been mounted in rude frames a few feet high to serve the purpose of the present poor church, which is without a belfry, and this is called in irony ‘the Tower of San Blas.'”

The article was accompanied by an illustration showing four bells swinging from a rickety wooden frame.

The Bells of San Blas, the illustration that sparked Longfellow's poetic imagination.

The article and its accompanying illustration prompted Longfellow to write what would prove to be his last poem, entitled The Bells of San Blas.

Like the port at that time, Longfellow saw the bells as relics from a byegone age:

They are a voice of the Past,
Of an age that is fading fast,
Of a power austere and grand;
When the flag of Spain unfurled
Its folds o’er this western world,
And the Priest was lord of the land.

The chapel that once looked down
On the little seaport town
Has crumbled into the dust;
And on oaken beams below
The bells swing to and fro,
And are green with mould and rust.

Several days later, Longfellow penned the last stanza, with a suggestion of optimism for the future:

O Bells of San Blas, in vain
Ye call back the Past again!
The Past is deaf to your prayer;
Out of the shadows of night
The world rolls into light;
It is daybreak everywhere.

On March 24, Longfellow, who had never had the good fortune to visit San Blas in person, passed away.

Should you visit San Blas today, spare a thought for this genius of a poet who was able to capture so eloquently the declining fortunes of this once-great port.

What further stanzas remain to be written in the story of San Blas, now revived by its important naval base and ornithological tourism?

Original article on MexConnect.

The development of Mexico’s transportation system is discussed in chapter 17 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Mexico’s Copper Canyon is one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Mexico’s Copper Canyon is one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders
Aug 282010

The Copper Canyon, one of Mexico’s most amazing natural wonders The rugged ranges of the Western Sierra Madre in the state of Chihuahua conceal several massive canyons, giving rise to incomparable scenery. The Copper Canyon (Cañon del Cobre) region is the collective name given to this branching network of canyons, larger in many respects (see table) than the USA’s Grand Canyon.

How does Mexico’s Copper Canyon compare to the US Grand Canyon?

 Urique CanyonsUS Grand Canyon
Total length of rivers (km)540446
Depth (m)1250–18701480
Altitude of rim (m above sea level)2250–25402000–2760
Maximum width (km)415

Strictly speaking, the name Copper Canyon refers only to one small part of the extensive network of canyons which is more properly called by geographers the Urique Canyon system. As the table shows, the Urique Canyons are longer, deeper and narrower than their US rival.

Mexico's Copper Canyon

How was the Copper Canyon formed?

According to a local Tarahumara Indian legend, the canyons were formed when “a giant walked around and the ground cracked.” Geologists believe that a sequence of volcanic rocks varying in age from 30 to 135 million years were slowly uplifted to an average elevation of 2275 m (7500 ft) and then dissected by pre-existing rivers.

These antecedent rivers retained their courses, cutting down over 1400 m into the plateau surface, forming deep canyons and dividing the former continuous plateau into separate giant blocks. Centuries of erosion by the Urique river and its tributaries have resulted in the present-day landscape of structurally-guided plateau remnants, termed mesas, buttes and pinnacles, depending on their size.

Highway improvement revolutionized the economy of Chilapa, Guerrero

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Highway improvement revolutionized the economy of Chilapa, Guerrero
Aug 112010

Transportation improvements can have profound impacts on the areas they serve.  A major highway improvement in the 1970s revolutionized the rural economy of Chilapa, a small town about 40 km east of Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero.  Prior to 1970, the area was essentially self-sufficient, as it had been for hundreds of years.  All the corn and most of food consumed in Chilapa came via pack animals from farms within 12 km of the town.  It did produce some cotton shawls (rebozos) and later woven palm goods which were sold to obtain money for salt, iron, cotton, matches and other essentials not produced locally.

In the 1970s, the old narrow windy road to Chilpancingo was upgraded to a national highway (No. 92), straightened and paved, dramatically reducing transport time and costs.  This had a dramatic impact on Chilapa.  Corn and other goods from the rest of Mexico and abroad poured into the area, leading to significantly lower prices. The local farmers could not compete; many stopped farming altogether.  Some started commuting by bus to low paying jobs in Chilpancingo.  When subsidies became available for chemical fertilizers and hybrid corn, farmers began producing high quality corn that was sold outside the area. Chilapa continued importing cheap, low quality corn for local consumption. The new road completely changed the economy of the area around Chilapa, brought it farther into the national economy and improved its standard of living. There are thousands of communities in Mexico that are not yet served by paved roads and are essentially as self-sufficient and poor as Chilapa was before the 1970s.  In addition, there are hundreds of other communities not reached even by dirt roads; they are even poorer and more self-sufficient.

Note: the main source for material about Chilapa is Kyle, C. 1997 “Transport and Communication” 1910-96, in Werner, M.S. (ed) Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn.

The development of transportation systems in Mexico is the focus of chapter 17 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.