Monthly Archives: July 2012

Mexico and Central America: A Brief Geology & Geography Lesson

Why is the Yucatan Peninsula farther north than Mexico City?  Why are there no rivers there?  Why is Mexico so mountainous?  Did the Isthmus of Panama always exist as a land bridge between North and South America?  How come there is that spindly pencil of land we call Baja, California?  Take a look at this atlas, then read on!

Recently I found a 2007 National Geographic map called The Dividing Link: Mexico & Central America.  It was included as a supplement to the August 2007 issue of the magazine featuring the rise and fall of the Maya.  As I flew from Houston to Mexico City across the Gulf of Mexico and down Mexico’s east coast along the water, I pulled out the map as a reminder of my bearings.

Some general points:

  1. Baja California broke away from the mainland between 12 million and 6 million years ago by the San Andreas Fault system.
  2. 90 million years ago water flowed freely between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The North American continent ended just south of Oaxaca, more or less.
  3. 50 million years ago volcanic and earthquake forces shifted Mexico and pieces of Central America to the northeast to begin the formation of a land bridge between North and South America.
  4. 20 million years ago most of the Yucatan peninsula was flooded.  Movement from the Cocos Plate narrowed the gap between the Americas and moved islands to attach to land masses.
  5. Panama fused to land about 12 million years ago. The land bridge then completely connected the continents and allowed species to migrate freely between north and south, giving rise to llamas and alpacas.
  6. Barricaded, the Atlantic became saltier and denser; the Gulf Stream sank before reaching the Arctic, and pack ice expanded.  Now, as the Gulf Stream sinks and chills, it draws in warm water from the south, shaping a global system of currents that influences the world’s climate.
Mexican Plateau, Gulf of Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula
  1. The nation’s physical and cultural heartland was uplifted 50 million years ago.  The central plateau where Mexico City is located rises from 4,000 feet in the north to 8,000 feet south of Mexico City.  
  2. The north is “basin and range” terrain, created by crustal stretching and breaking.  
  3. Volcanic outpourings left rich soil in the south where corn was first domesticated 9,000 years ago (think Oaxaca). 
  4. The Sierra Madre Occidental, the western mountain range of Mexico, was created by intense volcanic eruptions 30 to 20 million years ago.  The range’s precipitous canyons are the deepest in the hemisphere and include veins that make Mexico the world’s number one producer of silver
  5. The Sierra Madre Oriental, the older and more weathered eastern mountain range of Mexico, was raised by the same tectonic collisions that built the Rocky Mountains between 40 and 70 years ago.
  6. Mexico’s massive oil deposits from the Gulf of Mexico come from limestone that was formed between 200 million and 160 million years ago. 
  7. The limestone tableland of the Yucatan Peninsula was still submerged 65 million years ago.  No rivers flow across the porous land but rain seeps into underground rivers and sinkholes called cenotes, once used in Maya rituals.
  8. The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt passes south of Guadalajara and is crowned by snow-capped Orizaba, at 18,855 feet North America’s third highest peak.  The eruptions are caused by the oceanic Cocos plate that created the subterranean Middle America Trench along the Pacific Coast and forged the Sierra Madre del Sur and coastal mountains the length of Central America.  (This is why we get earthquakes in Oaxcaca!) 
If you love Mexico and want to know more about her geology and geography, see what you can do to get a copy of the National Geographic map.  It’s a great educational resource.



Oaxaca Best of Week Photos by Norma Hawthorne: Still Life, Portrait, Hands and Feet

You may be relieved to know that this is the last in the Best of Week Photo Series from our Oaxaca Photography Workshop: Market Towns and Artisan Villages!  (Today I’m back in Mexico, first for a few days in D.F. and then on to Irapuato, Guanajuato where I’m working on an economic development project.  You’ll hear more later.)

Learning by doing is much easier for me than reading an instruction manual. That’s one reason why I organize these hands-on photography expeditions and workshops in the place I love, Oaxaca, Mexico.  Oaxaca is SO inspiring and visually stimulating.  I posit that there are others out there like me who want a cultural immersion experience and not being guided passively through it as unengaged observers.  The workshops are perfect for raw beginners as well as any level of amateur. For me, photography is a way to pay special attention to the details, to notice, to get up close to life.   Out of the thousands of photos I took during the week (sometimes as many as 400+ per day), here are some of the best. Click on each one to get a full screen detailed view.

I found myself gravitating more to my 18-105mm lens and putting my telephoto 28-300mm aside. This forced me to move my feet, get closer to my subject and capture more detail.  During the workshop I also experimented with slower shutter speeds and ISO to capture movement and create blur (only partially successful).  Still an amateur but getting better!  Loving my new Nikon D5100 because I can get night shots pushing to 6400 ISO without a tripod — handheld only, which was a limitation in my D40X!  And, I just bought the Lensbaby experimental lens (use on manual setting) to have fun with after I saw what Sam and Tom Robbins, our instructors, could achieve.

For the upcoming Day of the Dead Photo Expedition, we imbed participants with families in order to fully explore and appreciate this extraordinary celebration.  Come with us!


Oaxaca Best of Week Photos by Tom Robbins: Instructor-Photographer

Tom and Sam Robbins team teach the Oaxaca Photography Workshop: Market Towns and Artisan Villages.  They are both published photographers and experienced classroom teachers, so they bring the best of both worlds to us.  Tom is a stickler for detail and a technical geek, so he pays attention to camera settings, ISO, aperture and shutter speed.   Tom’s photos usually explore his interest in structure and form reflecting his architectural training.  His sweeping landscapes and rural buildings are published in Black and White Magazine. His stretch during this workshop was to focus more on people!  Both Tom and Sam use an innovative, experimental art lens, called the Lensbaby Muse (Sam calls it a Woogity), to get just the right amount of distortion to make a photograph interesting and artful.  You can see more of their work at their website.  Click on each photo to get the full screen view and lots of detail.

For our next photography workshop, consider the cultural immersion experience we provide during Day of the Dead.

Oaxaca Best of Week Photos by Instructor-Photographer Frances “Sam” Robbins: Light, Pattern, People

The beauty of learning in a Oaxaca photography workshop from Sam and her husband Tom Robbins is that they also show and tell.  As photographer-teachers, they are well versed in the art and language of the verbal and the visual. They shoot photographs right along with the group and then bring those photos back into the learning session so that we can see the exemplars.  Sam was recently featured in the April 2012 issue of Black and White magazine.  She loves shooting with black and white film, so she presented the challenge of using our digital cameras to make b&w and sepia photos — a different way to see the world.  Both of them use an innovative, experimental art lens called the Lensbaby Muse (Sam calls it a Woogity), to get just the right amount of distortion to make a photograph interesting and artful.  You can see more of their work at their website.  Click on each photo below to get full screen detail!

Oaxaca Best of Week Photos by Omar Chavez Santiago: Viviendo — Living

Omar Chavez Santiago says: This is the second time that I took this [Oaxaca Photography Workshop: Market Towns and Artisan Villages] workshop, and it’s just wonderful to listen to the teachers each morning, watching all the photos from the others that really help you to get inspired, and then going out to do the daily photo shoot assignments.  The workshop has taught me to appreciate more and to see the culture and traditions of Oaxaca in a different way.  The most valuable thing is that I realize that the Oaxaca culture is amazing and I feel proud to be part of it.  For that I’m very thankful to everyone who made this happen.  Now my photos are just from people in a normal day of their life. My objective this summer was to portray all the different expressions and faces.  It is not necessary to hear them talk or know them.  Just by seeing their expressions, you can feel the warmth of Oaxaca and Teotitlan people.

Born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, Omar Chavez Santiago speaks three languages:  Spanish, Zapotec and English, and will begin university in Oaxaca this fall.  It was great to have him take part with us and assist me with logistics and translation.  He loved showing the group all the nooks and crannies of his village and Oaxaca city.  One early morning at 6 a.m., before it got too hot, Omar led some workshop adventurers up the steep, rocky trail to the top of Cerro del Picacho, the sacred mountain protecting and overlooking Teotitlan del Valle.  They came back and told me he sprinted to the peak while they dragged themselves up!  I reminded everyone that Picacho is about 1,000 feet higher than the 6,000 foot elevation of the valley floor!

Here are Omar’s Best of Week pics.  Click on each photo to get a full screen view with all the details.  He is a talented photographer who shows lots of promise while capturing his culture with sensitivity and creativity.

You can participate in the next photography program in Oaxaca and immerse yourself in an amazing cultural experience.  Day of the Dead Photography Expedition, October 28-November 4.