A new kind of mnemonic for the map of Central America.

Matthew Christopher Bartsh
6 min readJan 26, 2021

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Nine countries in and around Central America (that join the US to Brazil plus El Salvador and Belize that are kind of peripheral) will be learned. Start in the centre with Nicaragua.

1. Nicaragua
2. Costa Rica
3. Panama
4. Honduras
5. Guatemala
6. El Salvador
7. Belize
8. Mexico
9. Colombia

This mnemonic can help you learn not only the names but also something about the sizes, shapes, and positions of these nine interesting nations. The reason for the order is as follows. Nicaragua is a triangle pointing south east. Coming off the point (which can be thought of as the thin end of the country) are two thin countries, Costa Rica and Panama. Coming off the fat opposite, fat end of the triangle are Honduras and Guatemala. South and north of those two are two tiny countries that can be thought of as dots, El Salvador and Belize. The former borders only the two fat ones, and the latter only Guatemala and Mexico. Finally, there are the two big ones, Mexico and Colombia.

The two dots are anomalous in that they are not part of the chain of five nations joining Mexico to Colombia, or at least are surplus to requirements. One could say the two dots are a blot on the neat row of seven nations that join the US to Brazil like a properly constructed gold chain.

In a nutshell: Nicaragua, two thin ones, two fat ones, two dots, two big ones.

Some other symmetric stuff worth noting.

Nicaragua is cut by the 15th parallel at its fat end. So are the two fat ones. The big ones stretch north to the 30th parallel and south to the equator (Mexico and Colombia, respectively) spilling over by about the same amount, say two degrees. Mexico almost reaches the 120th parallel, and Colombia almost reaches the 60th parallel, each one falling short by about the same amount — call it five degrees.

Some unfortunate asymmetries and ways of mitigating some of them .

Mexico is cut by the 15th parallel but Colombia is not. That’s a pity. If only Colombia extended a little bit further north. No near and yet so far.

El Salvador touches both Honduras and Guatemala, and it would be nice if Belize did the same, but on the opposite side. But Belize does not touch Honduras, although it does touch Guatemala and it does touch two countries. Belize touches Guatemala and Mexico. It seems to work for me to tell myself a sort of ‘Just So’ story about how El Salvador and Belize were each trying to squeeze in between the seven countries of the golden chain, the neat row, and make it into an even neater chain of nine links. Belize is first to get in position having swum in from the Atlantic. El Salvador in the Pacific was originally going to likewise try to squeeze between Mexico and Guatemala, the first two in the chain, but seeing that Belize had beaten him to it, swam southeast along the coast to the next available place. Neither succeed in prying apart any nations, and they eventually give up, becoming fixed in place.

The intersection of the fifteenth parallel and the ninetieth meridian is unfortunately not in Nicaragua. What a pity. It is in Guatemala. I guess another ‘Just So’ story might help.

Here goes. Originally it was in Nicaragua, but when it was noticed that Mexico naughtily (because Colombia doesn’t do any such thing) had extended its southern tip across the fifteenth parallel, everyone flew into a rage and agreed that there might as well be something wrong with the ninetieth meridian as well, and thus the intersection was moved inside Mexico, extremely near its already offending southern tip. But then it was decided that that it made Mexico look too good to have in effect its southern tip contain that great intersection (great because it involves the ninetieth meridian), and the latter therefore was moved just across the border into a nondescript (one could say it is fairly near the border with Mexico and the southern tip of Mexico) part of Guatemala by moving it a smidgen due east.

Some more thoughts on the shapes of the nations of Central America.

The thin pair, 2 and 3, form a very clear ‘S’ shape, albeit rotated by 90 degrees. The fat pair, 4 and 5, likewise form a ‘C’ rotated by about 90 degrees, although you can barely see it. Adding the pair of dots, 6 and 7, makes little difference to the shape. Adding Nicaragua makes a fat, and not very clear but definite ‘S’. It’s a bit irregular to add Nicaragua like that, but if you do, you have a fat ‘S’ made of three countries (or five if you include the dots) and a thin one made of two.

30th Jan 2021 edit: Some other thoughts.

The two dots have some useful regularities.

Belize is due north of El Salvador, by which I mean entirely due north, that is to say, all parts of Belize are due north of some part of El Salvador.

The center of El Salvodor is due south of Belize, by which I mean, due south of a part of Belize.

The dots are the two smallest countries in Central America. Costa Rica is the third smallest and is about the same area as both dots combined.

Also, Belize is very close in size (about 10 percent larger, say) and shape to El Salvador, except for being rotated by 90 degrees.

The gap between the two is about equal to the tallness of El Salvador.

The fifteenth parallel runs through the gap without touching either of the nations. That is to say, the dots are north and south of P15 and very close to it.

The contiguous US and Brazil have some regularities.

The contiguous US (CUS) and Brazil are not in Central America (neither are Mexico or Colombia — they only border it at each end), but they border Mexico and Colombia respectively, and are similar in area, as a glance at a globe will tell you. You probably should, for this comparison, look not at a map but at a globe, whether real or virtual or projected, as a map could distort the area, unless you know your map is of ‘equal area’ type. The CUS is 3,119,884.69 square miles (8,080,464.3 km2) while Brazil is 8,514,215 sq km (3,287,357 sq mi) making Brazil about 5 percent larger. I was surprised to see that Brazil is bigger. I had thought is was slightly smaller than the CUS. That’s an interesting bit of ‘trivia’. Anyway, there is a nice symmetry there. But there’s more.

The tallness of Brazil is about the same as the width of the CUS. The CUS is about twice as wide as it is tall. The CUS spills over P45 and to a lesser degree P30, making it a bit over 15 degrees tall. Brazil, spilling over by about the same amount P0 and P30 making it a bit over 30 degrees tall.

Here’s the really fun and memorable bit. The CUS spills over M120 in much the same way as Brazil spills over P0. If you use the point at 0 degrees north and120 degrees west as a pivot about which to rotate the CUS 90 degrees clockwise on the globe, the CUS ends up with Oregon and more precisely the rotated former P45 approximately as far west as the western tip of Brazil, and San Diego ends up at or near the Galapagos Islands ( which, by the way, memorably lie all around the grand intersection of P0 and M90). Thus the CUS ends up next to Brazil, with Maine more or less as far south as the southern tip of Brazil.

This mind’s-eye rotation fixes in one’s mind all sorts of information. For example, that the CUS spills over M120 of course, but also that Brazil overspills P0, and P30. Also (because it can be deduced) that the western tip of Brazil is near M75 which works because 120 degrees west minus 45 degrees equals 75 degrees west which works because degrees of longitude at the equator have practically the same number of kilometers in them as degrees of latitude have everywhere. For your information, M75 runs through South America and just misses Brazil. The westernmost tip of Brazil is at 07°32′39″S 073°59′04″W which means it is a very near miss, by a smidgen more than a degree. The nearness of the miss is on its own memorable, so that works well.

Brazil’s outline is a bit like a miniature (half as tall and half as wide) Africa, and so, like Africa, it is about as wide as it is tall. It’s southern tip is due west of South Africa, just a smidgen less far south than the southern tip of Africa. Thus Brazil is, roughly speaking, due west of the southern half of Africa. This is memorable.

Brazil covers half the area of South America, and contains half the population of South America.

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Matthew Christopher Bartsh

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