Jürg Widmer Probst explores the tallest mountains in Guatemala


3rd Mar 2020 Travel

Jürg Widmer Probst explores the tallest mountains in Guatemala

The tallest mountains in Guatemala are among Central America’s highest peaks, including spectacular volcanoes and isolated peaks which will take your breath away.

As well as tremendous beauty and scale, the mountains which form the central highlands of Guatemala are home to major cities and unique natural habitats. 

Two mountain chains form the highlands

Guatemala’s mountains dominate the central part of the country, and are bordered by hot, humid lowlands in both the north and south.

The Motagua River carves its way through these highlands, dividing them into northern and southern mountain chains.

The southern chain is known as the Sierra Madre, and it boasts a series of towering volcanic peaks which stretch across the country from Mexico in the west to El Salvador in the east. 

On the other side of the Motagua, several connected smaller ranges form the northern chain, which is slightly lower than Sierra Madre.

Tallest peaks in Central America

The mountain ranges of Guatemala are home to the four tallest mountains in Central America, including the mightiest of them all: Volcan Tajumulco.

Tajumulco is 4,220m tall, putting it well ahead of its nearest Central American rival, Volcan Tacana, at 4,067m. These two are both in the San Marcos Department, near the Mexican border, and are part of the Sierra Madre range.

In fact, Tajumulco and Tacana are only 26km apart and you can easily see one from the other on a clear day, which can make for some stunning views.

These giants are two of Guatemala’s many volcanic cones, hinting at the geological forces which have created the country’s mountainous landscape.

Volcanoes dominate the tallest mountains in Guatemala

While Tajumulco and Tacana are known to be dormant volcanoes, the third highest peak, Acatenango, is a more dangerous proposition. Acatenango last erupted in 1972 and is only a few kilometres from Volcan de Fuego, which erupted twice within six months in 2018, killing at least 110 people and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 people.

Guatemala’s other monster volcano is the Santa Maria, the country’s fifth-highest peak. In 1902 its eruption was the third largest eruption of the 20thCentury and caused widespread damage and loss of life; you can trek up to visit the highly active lava dome on one of its slopes.

Guatemala’s tallest non-volcanic peak

The only non-volcanic peak among Guatemala’s five highest mountains is Alto Cuchumatanes, in the Huehuetenango department. At 3,837m it is the fourth highest in both Guatemala and all of Central America.

The mountain poses an interesting challenge for climbers, as it has two peaks just a few miles apart. If you are keen to tackle the four or five hour hike up Cuchumatanes, you can do so by basing yourself in Huehuetenango and then driving to the start of a trail near the village of Todos Santos.

Other tall peaks in Guatemala

Below the top five peaks, Guatemala has the next three highest mountains in Central America and all are volcanoes: Santa Maria, which erupted with such force in 1902, Volcan de Agua and Volcan Atitlan.

Volcan Agua has not erupted for at least 10,000 years but still produces occasional mud flows which pose a risk to local inhabitants.

Volcan Atitlan is another active volcano, and it towers above the famous and beautiful Lake Atitlan, which itself is part of a caldera from an enormous eruption around 84,000 years ago.

Origins of Guatemala’s mountains

The presence in Guatemala of so many volcanic peaks, and the frequency of earthquakes, is down to its location on the famous Ring of Fire. This chain of volcanic activity runs around the eastern, northern and western rim of the Pacific Ocean from South America to New Zealand.

This phenomenon is caused by the movement of several different tectonic plates in relation to the Pacific plate, and causes an estimated 75 percent of the Earth’s volcanoes and 90 percent of the earthquakes.

Guatemala’s mountains are the best place to live

While the tallest mountains in Guatemala are only accessible to determined hikers, the highlands around them provide the country’s best climate for human settlements.

This region is much cooler and less humid than the lowlands in the north and south, even though the northern jungles were once home to the famous Mayan civilisation.

These days nine of the ten largest cities in Guatemala are found above 1,000m altitude, and the oldest evidence of settlements in the country includes settlements near the highlands city Quiche dating back to 6500BC.

Wildlife thrives in the cooler climate

While the northern jungles attract most of the attention of wildlife lovers, some of Guatemala’s most important birds and animals prefer the cooler habitat of the highlands.

Birdwatchers can certainly enjoy some marvellous sights. The resplendent quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird, lives only at higher elevations, as do the endangered azure-rumped tanager and horned guan. You might also catch sight of the bearded screech owl or Goldman’s warbler.

Reptiles and mammals also thrive in the cooler climate, including the endangered spiny-tailed iguana, which lives only in the Motagua Valley. Lake Atitlan offers opportunities to glimpse unusual animals such as the Guatemalan deer mouse, Geoffroy’s spider monkey and northern tamandua.

The tallest mountains in Guatemala are some of the giants of Central America, and they have created landscapes and habitats where humans and animals now thrive. Despite their violent volcanic origins, these mighty peaks are among Guatemala’s most beautiful natural treasures.

About Jürg Widmer Probst

Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink. 

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