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Chiapas, Mexico Geography

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The Free and Sovereign State of Chiapas is the official name for Mexico’s most southern state. Chiapas takes its name from the ancient city of Chiapan, which is a Náhuatl word meaning “the place where the chia sage grows.” Occupying a border with Guatemala, Chiapas is the gateway that stands between Central America in the south and Mexico, the USA, and Canada to the north. Aspects of Chiapas’ political, physical, and social geography have impacted nearly all facets of the state’s history, as well as the events which play themselves out today.

Introduction to the geography and climate of Chiapas

Out of Mexico’s 32 federal entities, Chiapas is the eighth largest with a surface area of 74, 415 square kilometers — a touch smaller than North Carolina — and t is the seventh most populated with around 4.8 million people.

Located in tropical belt of the planet at 16°24′36″N, the climate of Chiapas is based more on elevation than latitude. Elevations in the state extend from sea level to 4,080 meters (13,386 ft), and because of this wide range there is a rich diversity of climatic zones. In the Chiapas highlands, the temperatures are often temperate to cool, averaging around 50°f to 70°f; while in the lowlands, the weather is often warm to hot (80°f+) all year round. As is generally always the case, the higher your elevation the colder the weather.

Many parts of Chiapas have distinct rainy seasons which occur around June/July and sometimes again in August/September. These times of increased precipitation often cause flooding and mudslides. In recent years the rains have increased and the result has been a higher incidence rate of these hazard, which is often blamed on global warming and excessive logging.

Chiapas on a map of Mexico

Political geography

To the north of Chiapas is Tobasco state, to the west is Oaxaca, to the south is the Pacific Ocean, and to the east, as previously stated, is the international border with Guatemala. The state is divided into nine political districts: Center, Altos, Fronteriza, Frailesca, Norte, Selva, Sierra, Soconusco, and Istmo-Costa.

Municipalities

There are 118 municipalities, 18 cities, 12 towns, and 111 villages in Chiapas. Of these, the capital city, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, is the largest with 500,000 people.

“Tuxtla is not a tourist attraction,” the Wikipedia entry for the city boldly states, and, along with most cities in Chiapas, I would have to agree. Though Tuxtla does hold the distinction of being declared Mexico’s first “safe city,” according to the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm as well as the Mexican government. This title is bestowed upon cities around the globe with demonstrate low crime rates as well as successful crime prevention programs. Although Tuxtla is a relatively modern city — most of its buildings not constructed until the 20th century — and, subjectively speaking, does not offer much charm for the visitor it is often cited as a good place to live, with the Financial Times and FDi magazine counting it as a “city of the future.”

To the southeast of Tuxla is San Cristobal de las Casas. Serving as the tourist and, some say, cultural epicenter of the state, San Cristobal is a well preserved colonial city with roughly 150,000 people in its municipal area. Being declared a “pueblo magico” — a magic village — by the Mexican government in 2003 apparently not being enough, President Felipe Calderón up San Cristobal’s status to “the most magical of the Pueblos Mágicos” in 2010.

Other major cities in Chiapas include Tapachula, Palenque, Comitán, and Chiapas de Corzo.

Physical geographic regions

Geographic areas of Chiapas

Chiapas is made up of seven distinct geographical areas: the Pacific Coast Plains, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, the Central Depression, the Central Highlands, the Eastern Mountains, the Northern Mountains, and the Gulf Coast Plains. Because of this different areas, Chiapas is reeling in not only a diversity of landscapes but wildlife, botany, and cultural groups as well.

Pacific Coast Plains

The Pacific Coast Plains run parallel to the ocean. This is primarily a flat area that extends down from the Sierra Madre mountains to the sea. Much of its native rain forests have been cut to make way for agricultural and ranching ventures, but the mangroves and aquatic life is still diverse.

Sierra Madre de Chiapas

Sierra Madra de Chiapas

The Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range runs from northwest to southeast flanking the Pacific Coast Plains and the ocean beyond. These are the highest mountains in Chiapas and include its highest peak, the Tacana Volcano, which rises along the Guatemala border. The Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range creates a large array of climates, and mostly contains mid and high altitude rainforests, as well as temperate deciduous and coniferous forests.

The Central Depression

The Central Depression, as the name would indicate, in located in the center of Chiapas. It is a predominately flat area in between three groups of mountains: the Sierra Madres, the Central Highlands, and the Northern Mountains. This area receives a large amount of rain in the summer, and is generally pretty warm. This is where the state’s capital, Tuxtla, is located.

The Central Highlands

Sometimes called Los Altos, the Central Highlands is a mountain range that rises between 1200m and 1600m. These mountains combine with the Sierra Madre de Chiapas and form the Cuchumatanes as they join together in Guatemala. This region experiences a distinct rainy season but has dry winters, where frost is not uncommon. This region is a population hub of Chiapas, and hosts San Cristobal de las Casas and other mid size and small cities.

The Eastern Mountains

Nomenclature again does not mislead: the Eastern Mountains are in the east of Chiapas. Collecting moisture from the Gulf of Mexico this region receives a high amount of rain and is where the Lacondon rain forest — one of the most important in North America — is located.

The Northern Mountains

The mountain range in the north of Chiapas, likewise, does not win any creativity points for its name. The Northern Mountains form a barrier between the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and that of the Central Depression and the rest of Chiapas. Rain is abundant here, as well as cooler temperatures. These mountains rise up to 1800 meters and are vegetated with high altitude rain forests.

The Gulf Coast Plains

Sometimes called the Tabasqueña Plains, as they extend down into Chiapas from its neighbor, Tabasco, the Gulf Coast Plains extend from the northern fringes of the state to the Northern Mountains. The land is warm and flat, and floods are common.

Nature and environment of Chiapas

Chiapas nature reserves

Chiapas state is one of the most environmentally diverse regions of Mexico, and contains around 67 natural areas that are protected on the federal, state, or municipal level. The biodiversity of Chiapas is estimated at 50,000+ species of plants and animals. Likewise, one of the major conflicts of the state rests between the preservation of a collection of very unique and fragile ecosystem and the rights of humans/ businesses to use the land. These conflicts often pit all sides of the debate — environmentalists, multiple levels of government, business, and various indigenous groups against each other. Meanwhile, natural lands continue to give way to farms, ejidals, logging operations, housing, and other developmental initiatives. It is my impression that the rain forests of Chiapas rank with most threatened natural areas of the Western Hemisphere, and are shrinking rapidly.

The Lacandon Rainforest

The Lacandon rain forest is the largest in North America. Located in the southeast of Chiapas and running over into the Peten region of Guatemala, the ecosystem contains more than 3.7 million acres of land. Within the Lacandon are two major rivers, including the Usumacinta, which is not only the largest in Mexico but is one of the largest in the world in terms of water volume. This forest is home to the Monte Azules biosphere, the Bonampak, Yaxchilan, Chan Kin, Lacantum, and La Cojolita reserves.

Mexico's forests

The Lacandon is the most biodiverse area of Mexico, but it is estimated that only ten percent of the original rainforest remains, as logging, strip mining, farming, and settlements have destroyed the bulk of it. According to researcher Stewart Diemont, the Lacondon contracts by roughly 5% each year. Even still, 30% of Mexico’s mammals continue living in the Lancandon, along with 50 percent of the country’s birds and daytime butterflies. A dwindling number of red macaw, jaguar, crocodile, tapir, spider monkey, as well as many other endangered species are at home in this forest.

The Lacandon rain forest is also home to diverse groups of people — indigenous and non-indigenous — and over the past few decades has been absorbing mass migrations. It is the ancestral home to the Lacandone Maya, who, recently, have been seeing increased competition for land from other indigenous groups, farmers, and business initiatives. In the 1950s there was only around a thousand people in the Lacandon forest, now there is well over 200 thousand.

As with most tropical rainforests, the Lacandon is hot and humid, receiving around 2,300 to 2,600mm of rain per year.

El Triunfo Biosphere

Positioned in the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, the 734,000 acre El Triunfo Biosphere reserve is one of the most bio-diverse areas of Mexico. It was declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere site in 1993. This area is what is known as a Pleistocene Refuge, which means that it contains species that survived the Pleistocene extinction. The cloud and rain forests of El Triunfo contain one of the most expansive collections of trees on the continent, which include evergreens which rise over 240 feet high. Many endangered species also make this area their home, such as pumas, jaguars, tapirs, and quetzals.

Natural resources

Water

Water bodies of Chiapas

30% of Mexico’s surface water is contained within the boundaries of Chiapas, and, likewise, the state is a major hub for harnessing hydroelectric energy. The Usumacinta and the Grijalva rivers — two of Mexico’s largest — cross the state. The later generates over 50% of Mexico’s total hydroelectric power. There are over 10 hydroelectric basins in Chiapas, the largest being in the Montes Azules reserve in the Lacandon rainforest.

Petroleum

There is also petroleum in Chiapas, and the state often contributes up to a quarter of Mexico’s total national production. Dotting the northern part of the state are over a hundred oil wells and the PEMEX oil company has made substantial investments into extracting petroleum in Chiapas.

Natural gas

Nearly half of Mexico’s production of natural gas comes from Chiapas.

Chiapas geography conclusion

Usumacinta River

Chiapas is a region of dense rain forests, rarely matched biodiversity, and a cultural landscape that is one of the richest in the world. But Chiapas is also a region packed with natural resources luring exploitation, is rife with inter-group conflict, political marginalization, inequitable standards of living, and is the staging ground for collisions between vying interests from political, social, economic, and environmental groups. In this way, Chiapas can be used as a microcosm through which to view many of the major issues afflicting much of the world today.

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Filed under: Geography, Mexico

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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