Rough guide to Guatemala’s mountains
Guatemala’s mountains are natural wonders, carving the country into three distinct regions and providing stunning landscapes, active volcanoes and the tallest peaks in Central America.
As well as tremendous beauty, the mountainous central highlands are also home to all of Guatemala’s major cities and some unique ecologies.
A tale of two mountain chains
Guatemala’s mountains run across the country, forming the country’s central highlands, flanked by hot, humid lowlands in the north and south.
The highlands are a complex mass of mountains with the Motagua River running through the centre, dividing them into northern and southern mountain chains.
The southern chain is known as the Sierra Madre, which is notable for its major volcanic peaks and stretches right across the country from Mexico to El Salvador. The northern chain is slightly lower and is made up of several connected smaller ranges.
Tallest mountains in Central America
This cluster of mountains in Guatemala is home to eight of the nine tallest mountains in Central America, including the biggest of them all: mighty Volcan Tajumulco.
Tajumulco is 4,220m tall, putting it well ahead of its nearest Central American rival, Volcana Tacana, at 4,067m. These two peaks are just 26km apart, close to the western Mexican border, which makes for astonishing vistas because you can easily see one from the other on a clear day.
Both Tajumulco and Tacana are volcanic cones, but Guatemala also boasts the tallest non-volcanic peak in Central America, the 3,837m Alto Cuchumatanes.
Volcanoes dominate Guatemala’s mountains
The looming presence of so many volcanic peaks is testament to the immense geological forces at work beneath Guatemala’s landscape.
Guatemala sits on the famous Ring of Fire, a chain of volcanic activity running around the eastern, northern and western edges of the Pacific Ocean from South America to New Zealand.
As a result, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are regular occurrences for Guatemalans, including the third largest eruption of the 20th Century when the Santa Maria erupted in 1902.
As recently as 2018 Volcan de Fuego erupted twice within six months, killing at least 110 people and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 people.
Explore the Guatemala’s volcanoes… but take care
If you are particularly adventurous you can trek up to see one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes, by visiting Santiaguiti. This is an active lava dome on one slope of Santa Maria, which detonated with such force in 1902.
You can reach Santiaguiti by travelling to Xela City, also known as Quetzaltenango, but you should ensure you take great care and travel with a qualified guide, because the volcano erupts frequently.
Apart from Volcan de Fuego and Sanitiaguiti, the other active volcano in Guatemala is Pacaya, which is just 30km from the capital Guatemala City and last erupted in 2010.
Guatemala’s mountains are the best place to live
Even though many of Guatemala’s mountains are the result of volcanic activity, and some are still active, their high altitudes provide the best opportunities for human settlement.
The low-lying northern and southern regions are extremely hot and humid, compared with the cooler climate in the highlands
This is why nine of the ten largest cities in Guatemala are found above 1,000m altitude. The mountains have provided a safe haven for millennia, with evidence of settlements near the highlands city Quiche dating back to 6500BC.
Wildlife thrives in the cooler climate
Humans are not the only creatures to have taken to the mountain climate, which is home to some of Guatemala’s most important animals and birds.
The highlands are definitely worth the trip if you are a birdwatcher. Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal, lives only at these higher elevations, and you can also see the endangered horned guan, bearded screech owl, Goldman’s warbler and azure-rumped tanager.
The Motagua Valley, which separates Guatemala’s two mountain ranges, is home to the endangered spiny-tailed iguana.
Visits to the mountains
Most people start their trip to Guatemala by flying into Guatemala City’s La Aurora airport, so you will be right in the middle of the highlands already.
Your flight in might even provide the sight of the volcanic peaks just south of the city, so you will see first-hand that you don’t have to go far to enjoy some mountain air.
Travel agencies in Guatemala City can organise treks to the main peaks, but make sure you’re in good shape and have tackled some serious climbs if you want to take on Tajumulco. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Guatemala’s mountains are a stunning part of its landscape, offering beautiful views and a unique climate. Some of the most spectacular are relatively easy to visit from the major cities, but you can experience something really special on the more remote peaks, including the still-active Santiaguiti lava dome and mighty Tajamulco itself.