Looking out across Lake Titicaca at 12,500 feet above sea level (photo by Tony Dunnell)
Most travelers in Peru will find themselves at high altitude at some point during their trip. You’ll experience the breathlessness of high altitude Peru in popular tourist destinations such as Cusco and Puno, as well as in cities like Ayacucho, Huaraz and Huancayo.
High altitude, as defined by the International Society for Mountain Medicine, is the zone between 5,000 and 11,500 feet (1,500 to 3,500 meters) above sea level. Very high altitude, meanwhile, is defined as between 11,500 and 18,000 feet (3,500 to 5,500 m). Extreme altitude, which you won’t reach unless you climb the highest mountains in Peru — is anywhere above 18,045 feet (5,500 m).
High Altitude Peru and Altitude Sickness
Being in a high altitude location in Peru — Arequipa, for example, which sits at 7,661 feet (2,335 m) above sea level — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re at risk from altitude sickness. You only really have to worry about altitude sickness when you rise up to 8,000 feet and beyond: elevations at which altitude sickness (known as soroche in Peru) can occur.
“In its mildest form, altitude sickness can occur at heights over about 2,500m (8,000 feet) above sea level, which is a common height for many ski resorts. However, the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness tend to occur at altitudes of 3,600m (about 12,000 feet) and above.”
To get a better idea of where in Peru you’ll likely be at risk of altitude sickness — both in its mild and more severe forms — have a look at the Peru elevation map and altitude chart below.
Peru Elevation Map
In the elevation map of Peru below, you can clearly see the spine of the Andes mountain range running roughly north to south down the length of the country. To the west of the Andes is the dry desert coast and the Pacific Ocean. To the east begins the vast expanse of the Amazon Rainforest.
Marked on the map are Cusco and Puno, two of the highest of all the major cities in Peru. Mount Huascaran is the highest mountain — and therefore the highest point — in Peru. Cerro de Pasco and La Rinconada are the two highest cities in Peru. Both are mining towns and are rarely visited by tourists.
At 16,700 feet (5,100 m) above sea level, the bleak and remote La Rinconada is considered the highest city in the world.
Chart of High Altitude Cities and Tourist Attractions in Peru
The chart below highlights notable high-altitude cities and tourist attractions in Peru. The horizontal 8,000 feet / 2,500 meter line represents the height at which altitude sickness can occur. The 12,000 feet / 3,600 meter line represents the elevation at which the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness can occur.
Note that the Inca Trail entry on the chart represents the highest point on the trek — Dead Woman’s Pass — and not the average height for the entire trek. You can read more about altitude sickness at Machu Picchu and along the Inca Trail here.
High altitude Peru chart and Lake Titicaca photo by Tony Dunnell.