The Central Plateau. The Central Plateau (also known as the Mexican Plateau) is Mexico's most extensive geographical feature. It contains most of its population and many of its important cities, and accounts for the largest share of its agricultural production, industry, and mineral wealth. The plateau is shaped roughly like an inverted triangle, with its base along the U.S. border and its tip extending south to the area around Mexico City.

The northern part is dry, requiring irrigation for farming, and much of it is sparsely populated. The plateau rises as one moves southward, toward central Mexico. This is the heartland of the country--well watered, with fertile soil, and densely populated.

Mountain Ranges. High, rugged mountain ranges border the Central Plateau. On the west is the Sierra Madre Occidental, which has a number of spectacular volcanoes. A second range, the Sierra Madre Oriental, lies along the eastern edge of the plateau and joins with the Sierra Madre Occidental near Mexico City. At their juncture stands the country's highest peak--the snowcapped volcano of Citlaltepetl (or Pico de Orizaba), which rises 18,700 feet (5,700 meters).

South of Mexico City is the Sierra Madre del Sur, whose mountains lie along the Pacific Ocean. Other Pacific highland regions are the Southern Uplands and the Chiapas Highlands, the latter extending to Guatemala.

Coastal Plains and Lowlands. The Pacific Coastal Plain extends from the United States border to Cape Corrientes, about halfway down the western coast of Mexico, and includes the long, narrow peninsula of Baja California (Lower California). The Gulf Coastal Plain, bordering the Gulf of Mexico, and the Yucatán Peninsula in the southeast are the most extensive lowland areas. Several of Mexico's major rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico, including the Rio Grande, which forms most of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. The Yucatán Peninsula is especially notable for its ancient Maya temples.

Climate. The climate generally varies from tropical and wet to temperate and dry, depending on region and elevation. The coastal plains are hot and humid, with heavy rainfall. The north is dry, with extremes of temperature, while the region around Mexico City has a pleasant, temperate climate. Temperatures usually fall as elevation increases. Most of Mexico receives inadequate rainfall, except for the coastal areas and parts of the central region.

Natural Resources. Because of its generally dry climate, Mexico has only limited land suitable for farming. It has a wealth of mineral resources, however. It ranks fifth in the world in oil production and is the world's leading exporter of silver. It is also a major producer of copper, manganese, zinc, lead, iron ore, sulfur, and gold and has deposits of numerous other minerals.

Forests cover nearly one-quarter of the land. The government has established 14 forest reserves and 47 national park forests. But threats to the forests remain, from overlogging and the clearing of the land for farming.

There is a wide variety of animal life. Wolves, bears, coyotes, foxes, and deer are found in the cooler north and mountainous areas, while tropical Mexico is home to jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, monkeys, and colorful parrots, macaws, and other birds. The burro (a small donkey) is commonly used as a pack animal in rural areas. The waters of the Pacific coast and the Gulf of Mexico abound in fish and shellfish.