Isthmus of Tehuantepec

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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."
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").


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]

At its narrowest point, the isthmus is 200 km (120 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.

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. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Spanish Istmo de Tehuantepec, is an isthmus in southern Mexico, between the Gulf of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico to the north, and the Gulf of Tehuantepec on the Pacific Ocean to the south. From gulf to gulf the isthmus is 137 miles (220 km) wide at its narrowest part; and it is 120 miles (193 km) from the Gulf of Campeche to the head of Superior Lagoon, an inlet on the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The isthmus is a broad, plateaulike ridge. Its climate is hot, but Pacific winds often bring relief. The northern side is swampy and densely covered with tropical forest; the Pacific slopes on the south are drier.


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.


The whole region is hot and malarial, except for the open elevations, where the winds from the Pacific Ocean render the climate comparatively cool and healthy. The annual rainfall on the Atlantic or northern slope is 3,960 mm (156 in) and the maximum temperature about 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. The Pacific slope has a light rainfall and dryer climate.[1]

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.

People and culture

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".[1]


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.[4][5]

Tehuantepec route

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.[6] Its proximity to the axis of international trade gives it some advantage over the Panama route. The Isthmus of Panama, however, is significantly narrower, making for a shorter traversal, even if the canal is farther from trade routes. See also: Panama Canal, Nicaragua Canal.

The 1853 Gadsden Purchase treaty[7] included a provision allowing the U.S. to transport mail and trade goods across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec via a plank road and railroad.[8] The 1859 McLane-Ocampo Treaty, which Benito Juárez signed but was never ratified by the United States Congress, 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] But, it was found that the terminal ports were deficient in facilities and the railroad was too light for heavy traffic.[12]

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.[12]

The railway is 308 km (191 mi) long, 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. 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.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Public Domain Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Tehuantepec". Encyclopædia Britannica. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 507.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Hovey, Edmond Otis (1907). "The Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Thehuantepec National Railway". Bulletin of the American Geological Society. 39 (1): 78–91.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Selva Zoque". EEF Mexico. Retrieved 2010-06-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Garnachas Istmeña". Autorneto. Retrieved 2011-06-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "What to Eat in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec". Secretary of Tourism and Economic Development of the State of Oaxaca. Retrieved 2011-06-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Fred Wilbur Powell, The Railroads of Mexico; Stratford Co., Boston, Mass., 1921. p. 149.
  7. "Gadsden Purchase Treaty : December 30, 1853", The Avalon Project
  8. See "Tehuantepec Railroad--Sloo's Grant"; The New York Times, May 5, 1853, p. 4.
  9. 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.
  10. U.K. Foreign Office, Mexico; Report on the Mexican Isthmus (Tehuantepec) Railway No. 658, Miscellaneous Series, Diplomatic and Consular Reports; April, 1907.
  11. "The Tehuantepec Railroad; An Important Mexican Enterprise Completed"; The New York Times, November 22, 1894, p. 12.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Report on the Mexican Isthmus (Tehuantepec) Railway, p. 5.
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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