The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu sits high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level. Huayna Picchu, the infamous peak that towers over the ruins and highest point on Machu Picchu, rests at 8,920 feet (2,720 meters) above sea level. So, yes, it’s very high up there. A city in the clouds, if you will. Due to this high altitude, there are several additional aspects that travelers need to consider when venturing up to Machu Picchu. We’ve laid them out for you so you can visit the Incan city comfortably, safely and without any of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Machu Picchu Elevation
To get an understanding of the various elevations of Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the trails between them, here are the maximum heights of some of the spots travelers to Machu Picchu often pass through, from lowest to highest.
Lima, Peru: 505 feet (154 meters) above Sea Level
Machu Picchu: 7,972 feet (2, 430 meters) above Sea Level
Huayna Picchu: 8,920 feet (2,720 meters) above Sea Level
Cusco, Peru: 11,200 feet (3,400 meters) above Sea Level
Inca Trail (Highest Point): 13,776 feet (4,200 meters) above Sea Level
Inca Jungle Trek (Highest Point): 14,206 feet (4,330 meters) above Sea Level
Lares Trek (Highest Point): 15,092 feet (4,600 meters) above Sea Level
Salkantay Trek (Highest Point): 15,200 feet (4,600 meters) above Sea Level
As you can see from above, Machu Picchu is significantly lower in elevation than the highest points of every trek to reach it, and thousands of feet lower than Cusco city. So, travelers will actually spend more time acclimating to the surrounding areas than to the site of Machu Picchu itself.
Due to the generally high altitude of any spot in the Andes, travelers must consider the possibility of altitude sickness and be prepared to respond to symptoms. The difficult thing about altitude sickness is that there’s no way to know if you will get it or not- it has nothing to do with your age, health or how active you are so anyone could suffer from the effects of it.
Altitude Sickness Symptoms
Altitude sickness occurs because you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes, and symptoms include headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, dizziness and trouble sleeping. It’s quite common, generally not too severe, but can be dangerous so is very important to monitor.
Altitude Sickness Treatment
The most straightforward way to address altitude sickness is with medication- We recommend buying it over the counter in Lima or Cusco, and bringing it with you just in case you need it. Sorojchi brand pills are most common, and are widely used throughout the country by foreigners and Peruvians alike. If trekking, your guide will likely offer your fresh coca leaves, traditionally used by locals to curb the effects of the altitude.
Machu Picchu Acclimation
Make sure to acclimate to the altitude by allowing yourself a couple days in Cusco with no alcohol and limited physical activity during which your body can adjust before pushing itself through the trek. Those traveling from Lima to Cusco by bus will have the benefit of acclimating during the drive, and arriving more or less ready to set off. If you plan on visiting the Sacred Valley, then it will also help you acclimate by visiting this before you trek to Machu Picchu.
Altitude sickness can present a risk that turns some travelers off initially, but know that severe symptoms are rare, and most people experience little to nothing (and that little headache can be easily treated). What’s most important is to simply be paying attention in case you do start experiencing severe effects, or someone else in your group does. If nothing else, it’s a reason to emerge yourself in the time-old traditions of the Incas, chew on a coca leaf, and let nature work its magic for you!