Nestled high in Peru’s Andes Mountains lies the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu, one of the World’s New Seven Wonders. As an ancient Incan citadel dating back to the 15th century, Machu Picchu possesses an air of mystery and majesty heightened by its impressive elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. Getting to Machu Picchu requires adjusting to high altitudes, but the sweeping vistas and marvels of Incan engineering make the journey well worth it.
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How High Up Is Machu Picchu?
The elevation of Machu Picchu’s ruins is 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level. This places it amid the highest peaks of the Andes Mountains range. While not as extreme as the elevation atop Mt. Everest, Machu Picchu still reaches impressive heights that can trigger altitude sickness for those unaccustomed.
Where Is Machu Picchu Located?
Machu Picchu sits around 70 kilometers (43 miles) northwest of Cusco, Peru. Cusco has an elevation of 11,152 feet (3,399 meters), making it much higher than Machu Picchu. So those traveling from Cusco will already gain some acclimatization to high altitudes beforehand.
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Machu Picchu resides deep in the Andes’ Eastern Cordillera mountain range. Steep peaks shrouded in lush cloud forests surround it. This secluded location kept it hidden from Spanish conquistadors for centuries. Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside World until 1911, when historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention.
Mountainous Peru: Home to Machu Picchu
As home to the Andes Mountains, Peru is called the “Mountain Kingdom.” The Andes are the World’s most extended continental mountain range, stretching 4,500 miles down South America’s Pacific coast. Peru claims some of the Andes’ loftiest elevations, including the range’s highest tropical peaks.
In the Andean region near Machu Picchu stand dozens of towering peaks exceeding 16,000 feet. These create staggering vistas but also thinning air. Key regional mountains include:
- Huayna Picchu: The iconic backdrop peak in classic Machu Picchu photos. It towers nearly 9,000 feet above the ruins, or 1,300 feet (396 meters) higher than the Machu Picchu citadel. A heart-pumping hike takes visitors up hundreds of dizzying stone stairs to its 8,924-foot (2,720-meter) summit.
- Machu Picchu Mountain: A peak adjacent to Machu Picchu rising to 10,111 feet. Its summit offers awe-inspiring views of the ruins sprawled out 1,300 feet below.
- Mount Salkantay: A sacred 20,574-foot giant of the Andes venerating the Apus, mountain spirits honored by the indigenous Quechua people. The multi-day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu passes beneath its glacier-strewn flanks.
- Ausangate Mountain: At 20,905 feet, Ausangate stands as one of Peru’s highest peaks. Its icy summit remains a place of pilgrimage for Andean shamans seeking to make ritual offerings to mountain spirits.
This imposing mountain scenery attracts millions of awestruck tourists and generates unique microclimates. The mountains wring moisture from winds blowing off the Amazon, fueling Machu Picchu’s cloud forests with orchids, ferns, and exotic wildlife like spectacled bears.
Cusco’s Dizzying Elevation
As the base camp for most Machu Picchu journeys, the city of Cusco exposes visitors to the rigors of high-altitude acclimatization. At 11,152 feet, it ranks as one of the loftiest cities on Earth. Oxygen levels here are roughly 30% less than at sea level.
Cusco International Airport mirrors the city’s lofty heights at 11,152 feet (3,399 m), making it one of the highest international airports on Earth. Aircraft require special adjustments to engine power and wing flaps to take off and land safely at this altitude. Nighttime temperatures in Cusco often plunge below freezing despite its tropical latitude, so pack plenty of warm layers when visiting.
To aid adjustment, many lodgings and restaurants offer complimentary coca tea. The coca plant grows abundantly on Andean mountainsides, helping Quechua locals adapt to thinning air. Allow 1-2 days in Cusco to accommodate before tackling active adventures. Altitude sickness can strike fast with symptoms like headaches, vomiting, and shortness of breath. Mild cases may require rest, hydration, and acetazolamide tablets. However, severe cases can rapidly escalate to potentially fatal high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Rapid emergency evacuation to lower altitudes becomes necessary in these scenarios.
The Ascent to Machu Picchu’s Altitude
Visitors will further their vertical ascent when embarking on Machu Picchu after altitude acclimatization in Cusco. While over 1,100 feet lower than Cusco in absolute elevation, Machu Picchu remains exceptionally high and requires caution. Travelers may experience lightheadedness, nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath when visiting the citadel or climbing the switchbacks up Machu Picchu Mountain.
Most visitors reach Machu Picchu via a multi-hour train ride to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the ruins. Minibuses then transport passengers on zigzagging roads with seven hairpin turns up the mountainside to reach the citadel.
More adventurous types can also hike to Machu Picchu on the famous Inca Trail. On the multi-day Inca Trail hike, the highest point reached is the 13,829-foot (4,215 m) Dead Woman’s Pass. Hikers must ascend a lung-busting total of 8,858 feet (2,750 m) throughout the trek. Despite being at tropical latitudes, nightly temperatures along the trail often fall below freezing from May to August.
This scenic four-day trek ascends into the mountains from the Sacred Valley below, topping out after the final pass at Intipunku Sun Gate overlooking the ruins. Expert guides ensure proper pacing and ample time for acclimatization along the route. With over 500 years of sophisticated agriculture terracing the slopes, the Inca displayed an uncanny mastery of not only engineering but also biology in the extreme elevations of their mountain kingdom.
The Heights of History at Machu Picchu
How high is Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu has an elevation of 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level in Peru’s Andes Mountains.
Where exactly is Machu Picchu located?
Machu Picchu lies around 70 kilometers northwest of Cusco, Peru, amid the soaring peaks of the Andes Mountains’ Eastern Cordillera range. Cliffs and thick cloud forests surround it.
What significant mountains are near Machu Picchu?
Iconic rocky peaks that loom near Machu Picchu include Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu Mountain, Mount Salkantay, and Ausangate Mountain, some reaching over 20,000 feet.
How high above sea level is the city of Cusco?
Cusco has an elevation of 11,152 feet (3,399 meters). Its extreme height helps visitors acclimatize before visiting Machu Picchu.
Does reaching Machu Picchu’s elevation pose health risks?
Yes, Machu Picchu’s nearly 8,000-foot elevation can trigger symptoms of altitude sickness. Allow proper time to acclimate, stay hydrated, and descend if severe symptoms manifest.