Isthmus of Tehuantepec

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Map showing the relief of the isthmus Isthmus of Tehuantepec-aeac.jpg
Map showing the relief of the isthmus
1736 map. Caption at lower left: "These rivers almost meet. both of them are Navigable, and all the Cannon and Stores for Acapulco are Carryed from the North to the South Sea by them." Moll - A Map of the West-Indies.png
1736 map. Caption at lower left: "These rivers almost meet. both of them are Navigable, and all the Cannon and Stores for Acapulco are Carryed from the North to the South Sea by them."
Map of the Straits of Florida and Gulf of Mexico. To accompany a report from the Treasury Department to the Senate by Israel D. Andrews, per the resolution of the Senate of March 8, 1851. 1852 Andrews Map of Florida, Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico - Geographicus - StraitsofFlorida-andrews-1852.jpg
Map of the Straits of Florida and Gulf of Mexico. To accompany a report from the Treasury Department to the Senate by Israel D. Andrews, per the resolution of the Senate of March 8, 1851.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Spanish pronunciation:  [tewanteˈpek] ) is an isthmus in Mexico. It represents the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal, it was a major shipping route known simply as the Tehuantepec Route. The name is taken from the town of Santo Domingo Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca; this was derived from the Nahuatl term tecuani-tepec ("jaguar hill").

Isthmus Narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas

An isthmus is a narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas across an expanse of water by which they are otherwise separated. A tombolo is an isthmus that consists of a spit or bar, and a strait is the sea counterpart of an isthmus.

Mexico Country in the southern portion of North America

Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country in the southern portion of North America. It is bordered to the north by the United States; to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Covering almost 2,000,000 square kilometers (770,000 sq mi), the nation is the fourth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent state in the world. With an estimated population of over 129 million people, Mexico is the tenth most populous country and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world, while being the second most populous nation in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico is a federation comprising 31 states plus Mexico City (CDMX), which is the capital city and its most populous city. Other metropolises in the country include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Toluca, Tijuana, and León.

Gulf of Mexico An Atlantic Ocean basin extending into southern North America

The Gulf of Mexico is an ocean basin and a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean, largely surrounded by the North American continent. It is bounded on the northeast, north and northwest by the Gulf Coast of the United States, on the southwest and south by Mexico, and on the southeast by Cuba. The U.S. states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida border the Gulf on the north, which are often referred to as the "Third Coast", in comparison with the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts.



The isthmus includes the part of Mexico lying between the 94th and 96th meridians west longitude, or the southeastern parts of Veracruz and Oaxaca, including small areas of Chiapas and Tabasco. The states of Tabasco and Chiapas are east of the isthmus, with Veracruz and Oaxaca on the west. [1]

94th meridian west

The meridian 94° west of Greenwich is a line of longitude that extends from the North Pole across the Arctic Ocean, North America, the Gulf of Mexico, Central America, the Pacific Ocean, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica to the South Pole.

96th meridian west

The meridian 96° west of Greenwich is a line of longitude that extends from the North Pole across the Arctic Ocean, North America, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica to the South Pole.

Longitude A geographic coordinate that specifies the east-west position of a point on the Earths surface

Longitude, is a geographic coordinate that specifies the east–west position of a point on the Earth's surface, or the surface of a celestial body. It is an angular measurement, usually expressed in degrees and denoted by the Greek letter lambda (λ). Meridians connect points with the same longitude. By convention, one of these, the Prime Meridian, which passes through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England, was allocated the position of 0° longitude. The longitude of other places is measured as the angle east or west from the Prime Meridian, ranging from 0° at the Prime Meridian to +180° eastward and −180° westward. Specifically, it is the angle between a plane through the Prime Meridian and a plane through both poles and the location in question.

At its narrowest point, the isthmus is 200 km (124 mi) across from gulf to gulf, [2] or 192 km (119 mi) to the head of Laguna Superior on the Pacific coast. The Sierra Madre breaks down at this point into a broad, plateau-like ridge, whose elevation, at the highest point reached by the Ferrocarril Transistmico railway at Chivela Pass, is 224 m (735 ft). The northern side of the isthmus is swampy and densely covered with jungle, which has been a greater obstacle to railway construction than the grades in crossing the sierra. [1]

Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range

The Sierra Madre del Sur is a mountain range in southern Mexico, extending 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) from southern Michoacán east through Guerrero, to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in eastern Oaxaca.

Plateau An area of a highland, usually of relatively flat terrain

In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland, usually consisting of relatively flat terrain, that is raised significantly above the surrounding area, often with one or more sides with steep slopes. Plateaus can be formed by a number of processes, including upwelling of volcanic magma, extrusion of lava, and erosion by water and glaciers. Plateaus are classified according to their surrounding environment as intermontane, piedmont, or continental.

Ferrocarril Transístmico

The Ferrocarril Transístmico, also known as Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec, S.A. de C.V. or simply Ferroistmo, is today a railroad with no rolling stock, owned by the Mexican government, that crosses the Isthmus of Tehuantepec between Puerto Mexico, Veracruz, and Salina Cruz, Oaxaca. It is leased to Ferrocarril del Sureste FERROSUR. It was formerly leased to Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab until Genesee & Wyoming gave up its concession in 2007. Originally it was known as the Tehuantepec Railway.

The Selva Zoque in the eastern-central region of the isthmus is an area of great ecological importance, the largest remaining area of tropical rainforest in Mexico and holding the majority of the terrestrial biodiversity in Mexico. [3]

Selva Zoque

The Selva Zoque, which includes the Chimalapas rain forest, is an area of great ecological importance in Mexico. Most of the forest lies in the state of Oaxaca but parts are in Chiapas and Veracruz. It is the largest tract of tropical rainforest in Mexico, and contains the majority of terrestrial biodiversity in the country. The forest includes the Selva El Ocote, a federally protected biosphere reserve, but is otherwise not yet protected. Despite the rich ecology of the region, a 2003 study that focused on bird populations stated that "the fauna of the heart of the Chimalapas, including its vast rainforests, have seen little or no study". As it is an impoverished region, efforts to preserve the ecology are often at odds with demands to improve the economy.

The Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains flatten to form Chivela Pass before the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountains resume to the south, so geographically the isthmus divides North America from Central America.[ citation needed ] The southern edge of the North American tectonic plate lies across the Motagua Fault in Guatemala, so geologically, the division between North America and Central America (on the Caribbean Plate) is much farther south than the isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Sierra Madre de Oaxaca

The Sierra Madre de Oaxaca is a mountain range in southern Mexico. It is primarily in the state of Oaxaca, and extends north into the states of Puebla and Veracruz.

The Chivela Pass is a narrow mountain pass in the Sierra Madre Mountains that funnels cooler, drier air from the North American continent, through southern Mexico, into the Pacific. These northeasterly winds, specifically the Tehuano wind, which periodically blows across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, and offshore over hundreds of miles of the Pacific Ocean, forcing the upwelling of colder subsurface waters. This strong upwelling brings nutrients from the subsurface layers of the ocean, thereby enhancing the fertility of the offshore waters. This results in strong plankton growth which in turn supports a more bountiful fishery in the region.

Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain in Central America

The Sierra Madre de Chiapas is a major mountain range in Central America. The Sierra Madre de Chiapas is part of the American Cordillera, a chain of mountain ranges that consists of an almost continuous sequence of mountain ranges that form the western "backbone" of North America, Central America, and South America.


The predominant climates in the region are tropical savanna (primarily in the south) and tropical monsoon (primarily in the north). There are also small central areas with a temperate climate due to elevation. The annual rainfall on the Atlantic or northern slope is 3,960 mm (156 in) and the maximum temperature about 35°Celsius (95° Fahrenheit) in the shade. The Pacific slope has a light rainfall and dryer climate. [1]

Tropical savanna climate

Tropical savanna climate or tropical wet and dry climate is a type of climate that corresponds to the Köppen climate classification categories "Aw" and "As". Tropical savanna climates have monthly mean temperatures above 18 °C in every month of the year and typically a pronounced dry season, with the driest month having less than 60 mm of precipitation and also less than of precipitation

Tropical monsoon climate

An area of tropical monsoon climate is a type of climate that corresponds to the Köppen climate classification category "Am". Tropical monsoon climates have monthly mean temperatures above 18 °C (64 °F) in every month of the year and a dry season. Tropical monsoon climates is the intermediate climate between the wet Af and Aw.

Atlantic Ocean Ocean between Europe, Africa and the Americas

The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest of the world's oceans, with an area of about 106,460,000 square kilometers. It covers approximately 20 percent of Earth's surface and about 29 percent of its water surface area. It separates the "Old World" from the "New World".

External image
Searchtool.svg Oaxaca Wind Resource Map

The narrowness of the isthmus, and the gap in the Sierra Madre, allow the trade winds from the Gulf of Mexico to blow through to the Pacific. Normally, these winds are not particularly strong, but periodically, a surge of denser air originating from the North American continent will send strong winds through the Chivela Pass and out over the Gulf of Tehuantepec on the Pacific coast. This wind is known as the Tehuano. The region has one of the best wind resources in Mexico, with several wind farms. [4] [5]

People and culture

Garnachas Garnachas del Istmo de Tehuantepec.jpg

The population is composed almost wholly of indigenous Zapotec peoples. The women are the traders in Tehuantepec and do little menial work. Known as "Tehuanas", these women are known throughout Mexico for their colorful dresses, assertive personalities, and relatively equal relations with men, leading some to characterize them as "matriarchal".


The cuisine of the region is based upon traditional foods and ingredients. Dishes may range from simple to elaborate; most dishes incorporate maize and moles. Common items include tamales made with iguana, chicken, beef or armadillo; guetabingui (fried balls of rice and shrimp); Garnachas topped with dried queso Oaxaca; and pozol, a maize-based soup. [6] [7]

Tehuantepec route

Contemporary illustration of the proposed "Interoceanic Ship Railway" Mining and Scientific Press - March 28 1885 - Interoceanic Ship Railway (206).png
Contemporary illustration of the proposed "Interoceanic Ship Railway"

Since the days of Hernán Cortés, the Tehuantepec isthmus has been considered a favorable route, first for an interoceanic canal, and since the 19th century for an interoceanic railway. [8] Its proximity to the axis of international trade gives it some advantage over the Panama route. [1] The Isthmus of Panama, however, is significantly narrower, making for a shorter traversal, even if the canal is farther from trade routes.

The 1854 Gadsden Purchase treaty [9] included a provision allowing the U.S. to transport mail and trade goods across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec via a plank road and railroad. [10] The 1859 McLane-Ocampo Treaty, which Benito Juárez signed but was never ratified by the United States Congress, [11] would have given the U.S. extensive transit rights along the same route.

When the great cost of a canal across the isthmus compelled engineers and capitalists to give it up as impracticable, James B. Eads proposed to construct a quadruple track ship-railway, and the scheme received serious attention for some time. [12] Then came projects for an ordinary railway, and several concessions were granted by the Mexican government for this purpose from 1857 to 1882. In the latter year the Mexican government resolved to undertake the railroad construction on its own account, and entered into contracts with a prominent Mexican contractor for the work. In 1888 this contract was rescinded, after 108 km (67 mi) of road had been completed. [1] [13]

The next contract was fruitless because of the death of the contractor, and the third failed to complete the work within the sum specified (GB£2,700,000). [1] This was in 1893, and 60 km (37 mi) remained to be built. A fourth contract resulted in the completion of the 130-mile line from coast to coast in 1894. [14] But, it was found that the terminal ports were deficient in facilities [15] and the railroad was too light for heavy traffic. [1] [15] [16]

The government then entered into a contract with the London firm of contractors of S. Pearson & Son, Ltd., who had constructed the drainage works of the valley of Mexico and the new port works of Veracruz, to rebuild the line and construct terminal ports at Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf coast, and at Salina Cruz on the Pacific side. The work was done for account of the Mexican government. Work began on 10 December 1899, and was finished to a point where its formal opening for traffic was possible in January 1907. [1] [16]

Tehuantepec Railway Line

The Tehuantepec railway (now the Ferrocarril Transístmico ("Trans-Isthmic Railroad")), is 308 km (191 mi) long, running from the port of Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf of Mexico to Salina Cruz in Oaxaca on the Pacific coast, with a branch of 29 km (18 mi) between Juile and San Juan Evangelista. The minimum depth at low water in both ports is 10 m (33 ft). An extensive system of quays and railway tracks at both terminals affords ample facilities for the expeditious handling of heavy cargoes. The general offices and repair shops of the original Tehuantepec Railway were located at Rincón Antonio, at the entrance to the Chivela Pass. [1] At Santa Lucrecia, 175 km (109 mi) from Salina Cruz, connection was made with the Veracruz & Pacific Railway, 343 km (213 mi) to Córdoba, Veracruz, and 500 km (310 mi) to Mexico City. Those connecting lines are now owned and operated by Ferrosur, a company that also operates along the Ferroistmo-owned Tuehantepec line.

Several proposals have been made for modernizing the inter-ocean rail connection. [11]

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Tehuantepec". Encyclopædia Britannica . 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 507.
  2. Hovey, Edmond Otis (1907). "The Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Thehuantepec National Railway". Bulletin of the American Geological Society. 39 (1): 78–91.
  3. "Selva Zoque". EEF Mexico. Archived from the original on 2010-05-27. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  4. Toledo, César; Chávez-Arroyo, Roberto; Loera, Leonel; Probst, Oliver (18 May 2015). "A surface wind speed map for Mexico based on NARR and observational data". Meteorological Applications . 22 (3): 3.4. doi:10.1002/met.1500. the highest wind speeds are observed in the Southern region of Oaxaca at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec bridging the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This region has long been known to be Mexico's windiest region and has been the object of a strong wind power development
  5. Duncan Wood, Samantha Lozano, Omar Romero & Sergio Romero. "Wind energy on the border — a model for maximum benefit" Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars , May 2012. Quote: "wind energy projects that have been developed in the southern state of Oaxaca. There, the wind currents that cross the Isthmus of Tehuantepec"
  6. "Garnachas Istmeña". Autorneto. Retrieved 2011-06-26.
  7. "What to Eat in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec". Secretary of Tourism and Economic Development of the State of Oaxaca. Retrieved 2011-06-26.[ permanent dead link ]
  8. Powell, Fred Wilbur (1921). The Railroads of Mexico. Boston, Mass.: The Stratford Co. p. 149.
  9. "Gadsden Purchase Treaty : December 30, 1853" Archived August 19, 2006, at the Wayback Machine , The Avalon Project
  10. See "Tehuantepec Railroad--Sloo's Grant"; The New York Times, May 5, 1853, p. 4.
  11. 1 2 Howard LaFranchi, "Mexico Wants Its Own 'Panama Canal' - Without US", The Christian Science Monitor. Sept. 4, 1996. Retrieved 2018-01-25.
  12. John H. Lienhard, "An Un-Panama Canal", Engines of Our Ingenuity No. 1777, citing J. E. Vollmar, Jr., "The Most Gigantic Railroad". Invention and Technology, Vol. 18, No. 4, Spring 2003, pg. 64.
  13. U.K. Foreign Office, Mexico; Report on the Mexican Isthmus (Tehuantepec) Railway No. 658, Miscellaneous Series, Diplomatic and Consular Reports; April, 1907.
  14. "The Tehuantepec Railroad; An Important Mexican Enterprise Completed"; The New York Times, November 22, 1894, p. 12.
  15. 1 2 Edward B. Glick, "The Tehuantepec Railroad: Mexico's White Elephant", Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1953), pp. 373-382; published by: University of California Press. Retrieved 2018-01-25.
  16. 1 2 Report on the Mexican Isthmus (Tehuantepec) Railway, p. 5.

Coordinates: 17°12′47″N94°44′24″W / 17.213°N 94.740°W / 17.213; -94.740