Some of Mexico’s distinguished mountain ranges extend north into the US as well as south into Central America. Others are completely enclosed within its geopolitical borders, and all are spectacular in their own right.
In the north of the country, there are three main mountain systems shared with the US. Known as the Peninsular Ranges of Baja California, these stretch 930 miles and include the Sierra de Juarez, Sierra de la Giganta, and the Sierra San Pedro Martir.
Each of these ranges begin along the Southern Californian coast and extend into the Mexican northwest along the Baja Peninsula. They’re actually part of the North American Coast mountain range, which begins all the way in Alaska.
The most distinguished mountain range in Mexico is the Sierra Madre, which is made up of a number of other notable, smaller ranges including the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Sierra Madre Oriental, and the Sierra Norte Mountains. The Sierra Madre Occidental runs along the west of the country. It begins in Sonora and ends in the Sierra Madre del Sur in Oaxaca, making it one of Mexico’s largest mountain ranges. East of this range is the Sierra Madre Oriental, with a length of 840 miles.
Together, these ranges include peaks varying from 6,000 feet to 12,000 feet. While some are snow-covered with frigid temperatures, others are covered in thick vegetation and humidity. In Mazatlán, for example, the Sierra Madre is forested, making the perfect home for wildlife and birds such as the Tufted Jay.
Mexico is part of the circum-Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the most dynamic tectonic areas in the world and one full of seismic activity. Part of this geography of Mexico is the Cordillera Neovolcánica, or the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, located between the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Oriental.
A range of dormant and active volcanoes that cross the country from east to west, this is where you’ll find the highest peak in Mexico: Pico de Orizaba rises 18,491 feet above sea level. Just outside of Mexico City, you’ll find smaller, trekkable peaks that are part of this range, including El Ajusco at 12,894 feet, Nevado de Toluca at 15,354 feet, and Iztaccíhuatl at 17,126 feet.
The Sierra de Los Tuxtlas are another chain of volcanic mountains, falling outside the range of the Belt and notable for other reasons. Running along the coast of Veracruz, many of these mountains are found in the borders of the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere, a tropical rainforest ecoregion known for a diversity of plants and animals. Many of the communities in this region are working to protect it, and it’s worth a visit to the Los Tuxtlas jungle if you crave connection with the natural world.
According to the National Statistics Institute (INEGI), Mexico has nearly 7,000 miles of coastline. This figure includes all of the coastline along the Pacific, the Gulf of California, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, as well as the coastlines of the various islands within its geopolitical borders.
The geography of Mexico’s Pacific coast is so large that it goes from a sub-tropical climate to a tropical one. It stretches from Baja California on the border with the US to the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala. Perhaps some of the most famous beaches in Mexico are located in Baja, Mexico’s most north western state. Visitors will find an abundance of beaches along the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California but, of the lesser known gems, is the Sea of Cortez and its five offshore islands. With crystal clear, turquoise waters, you can do everything from snorkel with sea lions to research whale sharks for a day.
South of Baja is the “Mexican Riviera”: the 2,200-mile stretch of coastline just south of Baja. If you’re looking at a map of Mexico cities and big resort towns, you’ll find some of the largest here, including Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco.
But this is also the best stretch of the Mexico map to find undeveloped, quiet fishing villages perfect for beachcombing, surfing, or immersing yourself in rural life. Off-the-beaten path highlights include cultural and colorful Bucerias about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, the 11-mile Malecon in Mazatlán, or the serene and untouched beaches in the Bays of Huatulco, Oaxaca.
The Riviera Maya is a 75-mile piece of the Yucatan Peninsula that goes from Punta Allen to Punta Tanchacté. This is where the biggest tourist destination in Mexico is located: Cancun is packed with discos, restaurants, water sports, and picturesque, warm beaches.
But of course, busy tourist destinations aren’t for everyone and those looking for reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Cancun won’t have to look far. The Isla Mujeres is just a boat ride across from Cancun. With more of a bohemian, rustic atmosphere, it’s a quieter place from which to enjoy the crystal waters and white sands of the Caribbean or to dive right in with your snorkel or scuba gear.
Another option for those who prioritize unspoiled while still having access to the beautiful beaches of the Mayan Riviera is Tulum. Far less developed than Cancun and with the added benefit of the Mayan Ruins of Tulum for the history buff, this is an up and coming destination that’s unrivaled in diversity and ecology. Spend the day experiencing it along the canals of the Sian Ka’an biosphere where you’ll also have the opportunity to learn more about Mayan food and culture.
The geography of Mexico includes some of the highest peaks in the Americas as well as some of the longest stretches of coastline along both the Pacific and Atlantic. You’ll find beaches and bays tucked away from the rest of civilization as easily as you’ll find busy tourist beaches lined with restaurants and cafes. If the mountains are what call you, you can choose from snow-capped peaks to forested volcanic ranges. From sea to sky, jungles to deserts, and everything in between, there is no better country to experience nature, get adventurous, or simply recharge on a pristine beach. To find out more about everything you can do here with Lokal, check out our full list of Mexico trips.