Central America, generally defined as the isthmus between Mexico and South America, usually encompasses Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize. These seven countries form a tropical region that stretches for some 1,140 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Mountains and hills cover roughly 80 percent of Central America, with lowlands generally restricted to the coastline. What’s more, these are overwhelmingly volcanic in nature. Almost 700 miles of the Pacific coastline here is part of the Central American Volcanic Arc, a chain of volcanoes caused by tectonic activity.
The question is, which are the tallest of its fiery giants? In other words, what are the highest mountains in Central America?
The Sierra Madre is Guatemala’s portion of one of the region’s major mountain systems, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. Spread across southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Sierra Madre de Chiapas is home to most of Guatemala and El Salvador’ peaks of the Central American Volcanic Arc. And the tallest of them all is Tajumulco Volcano. Also known as Volcán Tajumulco, this extinct stratovolcano is located in western Guatemala’s department of San Marcos. There it rises to not one but two summits, one with a crater up to 230 feet wide. The highest point reaches 13,845 feet above sea level, making it Guatemala’s tallest mountain as well as the highest mountain in Central America.
There’s not far to travel between the first and second biggest mountains of Central America. The Tacana Volcano, Volcán Tacaná, is roughly 15 miles northwest of Tajumulco. What’s more, it too is within the San Marcos Department in Guatemala. Indeed, the two volcanoes share many similarities. Both are stratovolcanoes in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas as well as the Central American Volcanic Arc. However, unlike Tajumulco which lies entirely within Guatemalan territory, Tacana straddles the border with Mexico, where it’s in Chiapas state and is known as Volcán Tacina. What’s more, it’s considered the first in the volcanic chain of the Central American core.
With its multiple lava domes, long summit reaching 13,333 feet, and three vast calderas or craters, it’s a formidable sight. It also has immense ecological value. So much so that it is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The third of the tallest mountains in Central America is Acatenango. Rising to 13,045 feet, it’s nonetheless overshadowed by its 12,346-foot twin, Volcán Fuego. For, while both are considered part of the same massif overlooking the city of Antigua, Acatenango is not considered active. By contrast, Fuego has been described by the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program as “one of Central America’s most active volcanoes.”
Alto Cuchumatanes is the first non-volcanic Guatemalan peak and the fourth among Central America’s highest mountains. Found in the Huehuetenango department, it’s the highest of the country’s Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountain range. Not only is this the site of some of the region’s oldest sedimentary rocks, but it’s also the ancestral home of the Mam, descendants of the Maya. In fact, it’s thought the name Cuchumatanes is derived from the Mam language, from which it roughly translates as “united by great force.” The mountain’s highest point reaches a height of some 12,589 feet, although estimates vary by 500 feet in each direction. The summit of Alto Cuchumatanes is said to be an ecological anomaly in Central America, its flora and climate more akin to those of Andean South America than other peaks in Central America.
Of the tallest mountains in Central America, Mount Chirripo is the first beyond the borders of Guatemala. At 12,536 feet, it is, in fact, the highest of Costa Rica’s mountains and of the Cordillera de Talamanca range. Its name means “land of eternal waters,” said to be a reference to the many waterways and lakes in its vicinity.
Top 10 Highest Mountains in Central America
In summary, the list of Central America’s 10 highest mountains is as follows:
- Tajumulco Volcano, Guatemala | 13,845 feet
- Tacana Volcano, Guatemala | 13,333 feet
- Acatenango, Guatemala | 13,045 feet
- Alto Cuchumatanes, Guatemala | 12,589 feet
- Mount Chirripo, Costa Rica | 12,536 feet
- Santa Maria Volcano, Guatemala | 12,375 feet
- Agua Volcano, Guatemala | 12,340 feet
- Atitlan Volcano, Guatemala | 11,604 feet
- Pena Blanca, Guatemala | 11,548 feet
- Volcán Barú, Panama | 11,398 feet
The Biggest Mountains of Central America
As we’ve seen, Guatemala seems to be the focal point of Central America’s highest peaks. Nevertheless, Costa Rica’s Mount Chirripo is in the top five. The next country to enter the fold is Panama with the 11,398-foot Volcán Barú, at number 10.