Pearls on a Chain:
Learning Mexican Geography and History with a 3-D Map

James Seay Brown, Jr. and Douglass Sullivan-González

Looking for a way to integrate geography and history that will really get your students interested? Try a “Great Roads” approach that uses a three-dimensional (3-D) map:

A. Choose the most important road or simple network of roads in a country’s history.

B. Help students build a 3-D contour map of that part of the country over which the road runs.

C. Locate two key cities at opposite ends of an important route, then ask students to guess where the main roads go on the map by placing a thin chain onto the contour model.

D. Discuss the students’ choices with them (What aspects of the terrain determined this route?) and make any adjustments to the students’ road, revealing where it really does go.

E. Describe the various textures of the land, using visual aids when possible. Mention rivers, mountains, canyons, and flood plains — features of the land that would help or hinder travel and nurture or discourage agriculture and civilization. The reasons why the road is located where it is should become clear.

F. Help students mark important historical events along the roads on the map with pushpins, tiny flags on toothpicks or beads—like pearls on a chain. Students can now visualize these spots as setting for the action, making connections between physical geography and human history.


We have experimented with this technique in teaching the history of Japan, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, and Guatemala. This article focuses on the history of Mexico. The lesson plan we describe would be appropriate for the fifth or sixth grade, although it could be simplified for a lower grade or otherwise modified to work in your particular class. Here are the steps of a Great Roads approach as applied to Mexico.


A. Select the Veracruz-to-Mexico City Corridor

In the nation of Mexico, the most important network of roads in the last five hundred years has been the Veracruz-to-Mexico City corridor. This whole corridor is only about 200 miles east-to-west and 60 miles north-to-south. This little rectangle holds less than 2% of Mexican territory, yet it is the setting for many of the great themes in Mexican history.


B. Build a 3-D Map

The class works together to build a 3-D map of the Veracruz-to-Mexico City corridor (Background A, page 12). The map, if made of foamboard, has quarter-inch-thick layers; each layer can represent 500 or 1000 vertical feet and can be color-coded (with dark green for lowlands, browns and purples for mountaintops). Students trace contour lines onto foam board or cardboard, cut out the tracing, then construct a contour map that represents the region of the corridor by stacking these contour layers one atop the other (Map, page 15).


C. Drape the Chain

Once students have constructed the 3-D map, mark on it the port of Veracruz and the capitol, Mexico City. Then give strings or pull-chains (used for light fixtures) to small groups of students, saying to each: “Guess where the main road runs from Veracruz to Mexico City. Begin at Veracruz, and drape your chain in what seems the best way to you.” The first small group will engage in a short buzz session, because there is only one chain per group and members have to agree on where it should be placed on the map. The teacher may have to nudge them if they take too long to decide. After the first group has draped its chain, give the group a modern road map of the corridor to study while other small groups come up to the map in turn to make their guesses. Small-group buzz sessions should continue as students evaluate how accurate their guesses were. It is a time of limited but constructive disorder.

D. Discuss the Students’ Choices

Walk the whole class of students, in their imaginations, from the port of Veracruz to Mexico City. Comment when possible on the students’ hypothetical roads, where they got it right, and where they got it wrong. The details of the landscape should reveal why the real roads run as they do. This discussion can lead naturally into a lesson about the geography and historyof Mexico.


E. Describe the Land

With a 3-D map now at the front of the classroom, road maps in hand, and problem-solving already underway, your fifth or sixth grade students should be more than usually interested in following a description of the land, especially if you can display pictures of the scenery at different points along the corridor (Background B, pages 13-14).

Students should learn the location of five mountains and two mountain chains (Cofre and Orizaba on the Sierra Madre Oriental; Malinche, which sits by itself; then Popo and Sleeping Woman on the Sierra de Taacute;loc). Students should also be able to identify eight cities (Veracruz, Xalapa and Perote, Córdoba and Orizaba, Puebla, Tlaxcala and then Mexico City) and the choice of traveler’s routes between them. From maps, pictures, and your description, students should gain a visual representation of the lay of the land and its texture from Veracruz to Mexico City.


F. Flag the History

The corridor is the setting for historical events, which the teacher can present in chronological order. Mark crucial historical locations along the road with pushpins as you discuss the history of the corridor, or have students do this at the end of the lesson, transferring the information from a flat map onto the 3-D map.

The Veracruz-to-Mexico City corridor is a strong thread woven into many of the major events in Mexican history (Background C, page 16).The early Native American civilizations flourished there, establishing agriculture, cities, and trade routes. Cortés followed the corridor as he invaded Mexico. Once the Spanish conquerors built their new capital on top of the ruined Aztec one, the road back to the port city of Veracruz (and then by ship to Spain) was their lifeline. The corridor became the Camino Real, or Royal Road, of colonial days, and then the National Road after independence. Santa Anna was born in this corridor, fought along it, and bought his chief haciendas here (including El Lencero, shown on page 16). It was the invasion route of the U. S. Army under General Winfield Scott in 1847. French troops invaded along a southern leg of the corridor in 1862-1863 because the first major railroad line in Mexico was being built there.



To teach a unit of study on Mexico, we begin with a 3-D map, then link it to maps on paper, visuals of all sorts, and a variety of printed resources to familiarize students with features of the landscape between Veracruz and Mexico City — the mountains, valleys, plants, animals, and climate. Then we summarize the history of Mexico as it played out along that corridor, also using maps, visuals, and written descriptions.

Mexico is such an interesting country that hundreds of travelers have written about it, painted its scenery, or photographed its many faces. As a teacher collects maps, pictures, stories, and descriptions, he or she will be gathering resources that can be used in future years. Use this Great Roads technique and a 3-D map as the organizing principle.1



1. Thanks to Ann Whitaker’s fourth grade class in Edgewood Elementary School in Homewood, Alabama, where I took the classroom photographs for this article. — J.S.B.



Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. Translated by J. M. Cohen (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1963).

Jimenez, Luz. Life and Death in Milpa Alta: A Nahuatl Chronicle of Diaz and
(Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), 11.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel, ed. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992).


James Seay Brown, Jr. is a professor in the Department of History at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Douglass Sullivan-González is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi.

Background A

How to Make a 3-D Map

To make a layered topographic map with your own students, follow these steps:

Make a color transparency from an atlas page on Mexico that has contour lines at some appropriate vertical interval (see Remark 1, below). On your transparency, frame the Veracruz-to-Mexico City corridor with a horizontal rectangle. Include the whole Valley of Mexico, including the mountains to the west, and make the rectangle wide enough to include the cities of Xalapa in the north and Orizaba in the south (see map on page 15).

Ask the first student to tape a sheet of foam board or cardboard on a classroom wall. Set up an overhead projector far enough from the wall so that the projected image of the map fills the sheet of foamboard, moving the projector backwards or forwards slightly as necessary. (Warning: Once the projector is correctly positioned, don’t jostle it. That would change the scale of the map midway through the project!)

Ask this first student to trace the rectangle (the edge of the map) and the Gulf coast shoreline, then return to his or her seat with that sheet of foam board, which will serve as the base layer of the 3-D map.

A second student comes up with a new piece of foam board and trances the Gulf coast contour line, then the first contour line in elevation, say, at 500'. (If any contour line being traced intersects with the rectangular edge of the map, then the student should trace that bit of the edge).

The second student returns to his or her seat, and cuts out a shape with scissors following the coastline. Depending on how detailed your atlas is, students may have to simplify contour lines by leaving out indentations that are too small to work with (see Remark 2). The tracing of the 500' contour line will act as a guide for placement of the next level on the 3-D map when it is being assembled later.

A third student comes up and follows the same procedure, repeats a lower tracing (500'), adds a higher tracing (1,000'), then cuts out the larger of the two contour shapes (defined by the 500' contour line). Repeat this sequence with successively higher contour lines until the highest mountain peaks have been traced. At the higher elevations, the mountain peaks separate, so students responsible for these tracings will end up with several separate pieces in hand.

If you wish, students can color-code their layer of foam board to reflect elevation, painting it in accord with a key posted by the teacher.

Finally, when all the individual layers are finished, invite students, one at a time, to come up to a front desk where the 3-D map is to be constructed. Begin with the rectangle and sea-level tracing and move upwards. The whole landform of the region takes shape as the class watches. Glue each layer if you wish to be able to move or store the 3-D map.

To make a 3-D map of the Veracruz-to-Mexico City corridor, the class will need twenty sheets of foamboard or cardboard. Mountain tops can be cut from the scrap.



1. Most public and school libraries will have a good atlas of the world that is color-coded for elevation: Rand McNally’s New International Atlas, the Oxford Atlas of the World, the Encyclopedic World Atlas (also from Oxford) or a similar atlas. Unfortunately, however, elevation is not often scaled to regular intervals. The Rand McNally Atlas, for example, shows sea-level, 200 meters, 500 meters, 1000 meters, and then every 1000 meters. A teacher wanting to use regular intervals of less than 1000 meters, so that each layer of the map model could be of material of the same thickness, has to interpolate (“make an educated guess at”) contour lines at the intermediate intervals (Or see map on p. 15).

2. The teacher can simplify and “smooth out” the contours when tracing the map onto the transparency. This will make the students’ job of cutting out the shapes with scissors a bit easier. Students can first “rough cut” the contour shapes without following all the little indentations. Then they can go back and cut into each indentation separately, minimizing their bending and wrinkling the foam board.

In the example shown in the photos, I simplified the contour lines with the use of ArcView GIS (Geographic Information System) software (produced by ESRI, the Environmental Systems Research Institute, on the Internet at www or at 800-447-9778). A local metal shop then cut the foam board with the use of a laser cutter.

We are working on a 3-D contour map kit that we plan to make available for sale. For an update, please contact J.S. Brown at or at the Department of History, Samford University, Birmingham, AL 35229.

Background B:

The Geography of Mexico

We like to teach about the geography of Mexico with lots of visual images (from books, slides, or a video) about the Mexican landscape, architecture, and people.


The Coast

We start our description of Mexican geography on the coast, at the ancient Spanish island fort of San Juan de Uuacute;a, which defends the Veracruz harbor. Made of blocks of coral, it offers the only shelter on this stretch of coast from the nortes, or “northers,” gale force windstorms that arrive fifteen or twenty times a winter. Sailing ships, tied up to bronze rings on the south wall, would ride out the nortes in the lee of the fort. Today, Veracruz port is piled high with containers of goods and is bristling with cranes. On either side of the port and city stretch the gray sand beaches, reefs, and islands of the coastline. It’s a warm winter vacation spot, but oppressively hot in summer. Before modern medicine, summer was the season for yellow fever, which killed up to half of all new European arrivals.


Eastern Slope and Sierra Madre Oriental

Just inland is a belt of thinly vegetated dune lands, several miles wide. Then the flat coastal plain takes on a gentle roll, and a traveler going west must climb the complicated slope of the Sierra Madre. Clouds off the Gulf cool as they rise up the slope and so drop their rain, keeping the slopes green year round. White-water rivers draining the slope have cut deep, steep-sided gorges, or barrancas, into the natural terraces of the slope. Thus, it’s easier to go up or down the slope (west or east) than to travel across it (north or south). Today, sugarcane fields, pastures, and groves of glossy, evergreen mango trees dominate the lowlands at the bottom of the slope.

At an elevation of about 3,000 feet, travelers begin to see clumps of oaks. A century ago this sight was cause for rejoicing, as it showed that travelers were up out of the yellow fever zone. Coffee plantations start at this elevation. Coffee plants, looking like straggly camellia bushes, don’t like full sun, so they are shaded by banana or other semi-tropical trees.

Mornings are typically crystal clear and chilly, and most afternoons are warm enough for the wearing of short-sleeve shirts, even in winter. Often, by late afternoons, the warm wet air from the Gulf of Mexico has risen to meet the colder drier air of the high plains, causing a precipitation that’s between fog and drizzle. Residents call it chipi-chipi.

Higher up the eastern slope, the oaks give way to pines, and then above the treeline looms a massive fifty-mile-long volcanic ridge, high at each end and sway-backed in the middle. Cofre de Perote, a great rounded mountain almost 15,000-feet tall with what looks like a little pillbox hat on its top, dominates the northern end . The first Spaniards to see it thought that the square volcanic extrusion looked like the chests that churchs in Spain would use for storing holy relics, cofre, kin to the English word “coffer.”

On the southern end of the ridge, at 18,400 feet, the snow-capped Pico de Orizaba stands as the highest point in Mexico and one of the highest in all North America. It is as symmetrical and beautiful as Mt. Fuji in Japan, and half again taller. The old name for Orizaba Peak in Náhuatl (which under the Aztecs came to be the common language of central Mexico) is more poetic—Citlaltépetl, or Star Mountain.

Travelers climbing this eastern slope have to make a choice when leaving Veracruz, whether to go north or south around that huge volcanic ridge. The northern road goes through the city of Xalapa (also spelled Jalapa, hence the name Jalapeño peppers) and arrives on top at the city of Perote (flag all these cities!). Swinging south brings one through the cities of Córdoba and Orizaba, finally topping out at the little town of Esperanza. The northern route through Xalapa is slightly easier, being a few miles shorter on its way to Mexico City and having a more gradual ascent. The southern route up through Córdoba and Orizaba is more rugged but also more scenic. It is easy enough to get from the coast to Córdoba, but between it and Orizaba is the Barranca de Metlac, a sheer-sided ravine 900 feet across and 400 feet deep. The city of Orizaba itself is fairly level, lying in the western end of a huge box canyon in one of the world’s most beautiful sites for a city. The road up to the high plains from there, however, is spectacularly difficult, going through the well-named cumbres, or peaks, cutting through ridges and tunnels, hanging precariously on steep slopes.


The Altiplano and the Valley of Mexico

When travelers round either northern or southern shoulders of that huge volcanic ridge, they emerge from lush pine forest into semi-desert. The volcanic ridge casts a “rain shadow” on the first part of the altiplano, or high plains. Suddenly there are prickly-pear cactus, old yucca trees, and rows of the giant aloe or century plant called maguey (mah-GAY) that give some symmetry to the arid landscape. The maguey gave the Aztecs needles and thread, a kind of paper and cloth, and gallons and gallons of a sugary sap to make a drink called pulque.

The altiplano itself begins at about 8,500 feet at the western base of the Orizaba-Perote ridge, and its valley bottoms slope imperceptibly down the next hundred miles to Mexico City. At 7,500 feet, it is time-and-a-half as high as the “mile-high” city of Denver, Colorado. Picture a flat gray volcanic sand lakebed, add piles of dark gray boulders and volcanic extrusions ranging from a few feet to a thousand feet tall, and finally huge volcanic cones that rise fully ten thousand feet above the plains.

La Malinche, a rust-red volcano about fifty miles west of the Pico de Orizaba, divides the easternmost valley of the altiplano from the next valley west, the Tlaxcala-Puebla valley. Here travelers going to Mexico City must choose between going north or south of La Malinche. Going south brings one through today’s Puebla, a sprawling city of over two million, the only real industrial rival of Mexico City on the altiplano. Going north of Malinche takes one through the sleepy state capital of Tlaxcala that has such historic importance.

On the western side of that valley, only forty miles past Malinche, comes the great volcanic ridge called the Sierra de Taacute;loc. It is anchored on the south by two peaks over 17,000 feet tall: the still active volcano Popocatépetl (“ Smoking Mountain” in Náhuatl), and next to it Ixtaccíhuatl (“ Sleeping Woman,” for the shape of its long snow-covered ridgeline). Students might appreciate the Native American legend from the Valley of Mexico. Popo was a great lord who asked White Woman (or Sleeping Woman), a gentle and beautiful shepherdess, to marry him; she answered him, “Neither you nor anybody else,” and fell asleep, and so she sleeps and he watches over her.

A little further north in the line comes the slightly lower peak of Taacute;loc itself, named after the old Aztec rain god. There are three choices a traveler has for going from the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley over into the Valley of Mexico: (a) the high, hard way up between Popo and Ixtaccíhuatl, called the Paso de Cortés; (b) the lower Río Frío pass between Ixtaccíhuatl and Taacute;loc, where the interstate highway runs today; and (c) the wide northern swing around the end of the ridge, flatter and thus favored by railroad builders.

West of this great ridge lies the central valley of the altiplano, the celebrated “Valley of Mexico,” much of it taken up by today’s Mexico City. Mountains on the east, south, and west, ring the central valley, with smaller volcanic ridges that almost close it off in the north as well. Formerly, the basin held a huge natural lake, but just a few ponds are left today. Most of the old colonial churches of Mexico City, even the Cathedral on the main plaza or Zócalo, have great cracks in their masonry or sit at an angle because they have settled further into the sand of the old lake bed with each vibration of the Earth. Earthquakes are so frequent here as to make California seem a stable place by comparison; at least 10,000 people died in the 1985 Mexico City quake. Recently the lava has risen so high in Popo that orange light has been seen reflected off clouds hanging over it. And only thirty or forty miles away is Mexico City — arguably the world’s largest city, twenty-two million strong at last count.

Background C:

Examples from Mexican History

We like to introduce a country’s history with a specific object or event along the corridor, and then use it to cast light on a larger historical theme.

The Meso-American Indians domesticated corn, beans, squash, and chiles. Indian corn (maize, technically, from the Spanish maíz) and European wheat both need six to eight months to ripen. But wheat has to be irrigated in the Mexican climate. Corn responds to the rainy season on the altiplano that begins about March with a burst of growth, and then can mature on its own without irrigation. Scientists have found the first evidence of domesticated corn not far from today’s city of Puebla, which is on the corridor we have chosen to study. The name Tlaxcala (tlash-KAH-lah), the city north of Puebla in the same altiplano valley, comes from a Native American word for “corn bread.”

Pre-classical Indian civilizations can be introduced with a picture of a huge stone Olmec head, from five to ten feet tall, helmeted and pudgy. Olmec culture was probably the “mother culture” of Meso-American civilization, as evidenced by painted hieroglyphs and stone pyramidal temples, stone courts for a ceremonial ball game, carved jade figurines, rectangular grids of streets and blocks. Unlike civilization in the Old World, here were no wheels, no draft animals, no metallurgy to speak of, and most of what we call “cities” of the Olmecs may have been ceremonial gathering places instead of permanent habitations. But there is no other word for these sophisticated Olmec cultural centers than “urban.” These centers, the first urban life in the New World, were begun by 800 B.C. and flourished for five hundred years. Olmec culture was born in the coastal lowlands a little south of the city of Veracruz and our corridor, but quickly radiated into it and eventually absorbed areas on it as far away as the Valley of Mexico.

The three great classical civilizations of Middle America that flourished from around 200 B. C. to A.D. 800 can be introduced with pictures of the pyramids of Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico, just north of today’s Mexico City. The Mayans may have had more sophisticated math and writing; the Monte Alban civilization centered at modern-day Oaxaca may have lasted longer; but Teotihuacán held the largest empire and built the most impressive urban center in the New World.

Teotihuacán in its turn was sacked and burned about 650 A.D., leaving smaller states such as Cholula, just northwest of today’s Puebla, to try for empire themselves. In the ebb and flow of warfare between these smaller states of the Post-Classic later centuries, warrior-kings seem to have crowded out priest- and philosopher-kings. Human sacrifice became much more common. In these troubled times, new peoples immigrated from the uncivilized north. First came the warlike Toltecs who, from the mid 900s, centered their new empire in Tula just north of the Valley of Mexico. Their collapse around 1200 A.D. opened the way for other invaders from the north, most famously the so-called Aztecs. Like the Toltecs before them, they wedged their way into the crowded Valley of Mexico in turbulent times by their military prowess, and then absorbed much of local civilization as they built up their own empire.

The Spanish conquest unfolded along this corridor. Read selectively from eyewitness Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, from the conquistadors’ landing in 1519 and building the fort of San Juan de Uuacute;a, to their founding of Veracruz (the first city built by Europeans in the New World), to the subsequent alliances, marches, and battles that took them to Mexico City. Balance conquerors’ accounts with the Native American views of the tragedy of the conquest from Broken Spears (see References, page 11).

Among early colonial structures are the famous landed estates called haciendas. El Lencero, a hacienda ten miles from Xalapa (in the direction of Veracruz) has been carefully refurbished by the Mexican government as the Museum of Nineteenth-Century Furniture. It is famous in Mexico these days as the setting of a popular TV soap opera.

Many conflicts in the Wars of Independence after 1810, and in the Revolution after 1910, occurred along the corridor. French and American invasions followed this path. Finally, much of the famous Mexican mural art from the early twentieth century, by Diego Rivera and his friends, appears in public buildings along the corridor.