Highpoints of Central America

On September 7, 2014 · 4 Comments

Today begins an effort to try to increase pushpins on the 12MC Complete Index Map for nations underrepresented by previous articles. This came from a realization that I’d continued to overlook certain parts of the world even after hundreds of posts. I’ll try to make it an occasional, relevant and unobtrusive effort, as with the following topic du jour.

It surprised me to learn how little information existed on the Intertubes about the highest points of elevation in each of the countries of Central America, beyond their simple names and locations. That wasn’t only English-language content either. I found little Spanish coverage as well. In fact, the highpoints of individual U.S. states seemed to receive better treatment from the digital masses than international highpoints of Central America. Mountain climbing sites such as Summitpost.org offered the most detailed accounts, albeit with not much even there.

I began by compiled the highpoint peaks onto a single map.



View Highpoints for Central American Nations in a larger map

I dug a little deeper, examining each of the seven Central American national highpoints from highest altitude to lowest. Oddly enough, the two lowest highpoints might actually be the most difficult to summit.


Guatemala: Volcán Tajumulco 4,220 metres (13,845 feet)



The highest point of Central America sat atop a Guatemalan stratovolcano, Volcán Tajumulco. While it’s possible for climbers to reach the mountaintop using their own resources and efforts, many people sign-on with one of several local guide groups that specialize in this activity. The trip took most people at least two days. One guide explained,

Conquering Tajumulco is no walk in the park. At the uppermost reaches of the volcano, the air is thin, the temperature plummets and the effects of altitude are likely to cause hikers some degree of discomfort.

The climb wasn’t supposed to be super-technical. The altitude seemed to be a primary issue.


Costa Rica: Cerro Chirripó 3,820 m (12,533 ft)


Mount Chirripo, Costa Rica
Mount Chirripo, Costa Rica by Monty VanderBilt, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Many of the tallest Central American mountains traced to a recent volcanic origin. Cerro Chirripó, the centerpiece of Chirripó National Park did not. Rather, Chirripó belonged to the Sierra de Talamanca, the intrusive eroded core of a long dormant volcanic range subsequently uplifted.

Vegetation and climate changed with elevation as one would expect: "The mountains in this area are covered in thick primary cloud and rainforest to about 9,000′ elevation. From there, the Paramo, or wet desert is the primary ground cover." Sources claimed that the lowest temperature ever recorded in Central America happened here, -9°C (16°F), although I couldn’t find a primary source to corroborate it.

Many climbers took the mountain in two stages. They checked-in and receive a permit at a ranger station, stopped at Base Crestones and then made the final push to the summit.


Panamá: Volcán Barú 3,475 m (11,401 ft)


technologically advanced summit
technologically advanced summit by steve hanna, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

What better location to place an array of antennae and broadcast towers than the highest point in Panamá? Obviously the people who constructed these installations didn’t drag all of that material up the slope by hand. They drove. A steep, muddy, rutted road climbed to the summit, and provided a primary route for hikers as well. Once atop, on a clear morning visitors reported that it was possible to see both the Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean Sea) and the Pacific Ocean from the same spot. That would be a very rare and precious sight, indeed.


Honduras: Cerro Celaque – Las Minas 2,870 m (9,416 ft)


Cerro Celaque, Honduras
Cerro Celaque, Honduras by Joe Townsend, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Honduras didn’t focus much attention on its national highpoint although it did establish Celaque National Park in 1987 to create a protective reserve. The mountainous terrain could be best described as a "cloud forest" with increasing amounts of rainfall as one ascended. That water had to flow somewhere, and the slopes of Cerro Celaque provided headwaters to several local rivers. Honduras.com explained that Celaque derived from the local Lenca language, meaning "box of water."

…it provides water to all of the communities that are around the national park, including the cities of Gracias, Erandique, San Juan, San Manuel Colohete and La Campa in Lempira, Belen Gualcho in Ocotepeque, Corquin, Cucuyagua and San Pedro de Copan in Copan, among many others.


El Salvador: Cerro El Pital 2,730 m (8,957 ft)



Cerro El Pital might be the most visited Central American national highpoint. Interestingly, the summit itself was in neighboring Honduras so the highest point of El Salvador wasn’t even the highest point of the mountain. A road, the Ruta El Pital, provided convenient access and made the park very attractive to visitors. The easiest highpoint hiking option involved a 3-minute walk from the camping area. One account described the situation:

The views were nice, but I was not expecting to share the road with so many cars. The road is not just a hiking trail, but an actual road. There was not a steady stream of cars, but enough to be a bit annoying… HUGE!!!! camping area with hundreds of tents every weekends. A lot of people, dogs searching your tents and many STUPID people with fancy cars with super-sounds system to annoying everybody.

It didn’t seem contemplative or relaxing. However, if someone ever wanted a quick dash-and-grab highpoint in Central America, this would be the place to do it.


Nicaragua: Mogotón 2,107 m (6,913 ft)


Ocotal (pico mogoton), Nicaragua
Ocotal (pico mogoton), Nicaragua by cam landrix, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Not much more than two thousand metres high and yet Mogotón might not be an optimal choice even though Reserva Nacional Cordillera Dipilto y Jalapa was created to protect it. The situation traced back to recent history from a generation ago. Sandinista forces placed numerous explosive mines throughout the area during the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1980’s. Many of those mines continue to lay buried and forgotten, just waiting for an unwary hiker to step in the wrong spot. Compounding that, jungle covered Mogotón and made it difficult to discern clear trails to the summit. It wouldn’t be advisable to approach the Nicaragua highpoint without a local guide.


Belize: Doyle’s Delight 1,124 m (3,688 ft)



While barely a bump compared to other Central American highpoints, I enjoyed learning about Doyle’s Delight the most. First, it wasn’t identified and named until 1989. Second, nobody climbed it until 2008. From Summitpost.org,

Doyle’s Delight was named for its resemblance to the prehistoric setting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel "The Lost World." Towering palms and strangler figs, their trunks wrapped in a green shag of ferns and mosses, rise and converge in a leafy canopy that keeps the moist forest floor in perpetual dusk. The ridge is so remote that the British Army’s jungle training unit, scientist and other researcher with multinational expedition drop most of the expedition members in by helicopter.

Go ahead and watch a few frames of the video shot during that initial expedition. Notice the spiked and poisonous trees, the venomous snakes, the hardships of the hike, and the determination of the climbers. It was hard to believe that even today remote corners continued to remain unexplored.

On September 7, 2014 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Highpoints of Central America”

  1. Drake says:

    Is the highpoint for Costa Rica the spot where you can see both oceans on a clear day? I seem to recall reading somewhere that there was a spot either in Costa Rica or Panama that was high enough for that.

  2. Steve says:

    My favorite post yet!

    I’m really starting to rub off on you! haha.

  3. David says:

    The Hawaiian islands seem to have situation similar to Central America concerning their highpoints. You can drive right up to the two tallest island highpoints – Mauna Kea on Hawaii and Haleakala on Maui. The mid-elevation summits all require hikes of varying difficulty, with Kawaikini on Kauai perhaps being the hardest, involving a long, wet slog through a swamp. Meanwhile the lowest summits on Niihau and Kahoolawe may be the hardest to reach, as the former island is privately owned and access is highly restricted, while the latter is completely uninhabited and 100% off limits.

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