Have you ever been so high up in the mountains, you take a deep breath and…well, it doesn’t feel like you got any oxygen at all? An astonishing part about travel is seeing where and how the human race has adapted to a huge variety of different conditions—including sky high elevations over 2 miles above sea level.
In these towns and cities with the highest elevations around the world, oxygen may be a sparse commodity, but people have managed to not only survive, but prosper so far from sea level. From the Himalayas to the Andes, the people of these towns and cities live life at astonishing heights.
La Rinoconada, Peru 5100 meters, 16,728 feet
Considering many people complain about altitude sickness when visiting places like Denver, Colorado located at just over 5000 feet above sea level, you’d think it would be nearly impossible for anyone to actually survive at an elevation of almost 17,000 feet up. In fact, this Peruvian city (which National Geographic named as the highest permanent human habitation in 2003), sits fairly close to the 6000 meter maximum altitude of human survivability.
In La Rinoconada, a settlement of about 30,000 people located high in the Peruvian Andes, people survive the lack of oxygen and high altitudes to work in the gold mine here. The town is situated at the base of a still operating gold mine, where almost all of the inhabitants work. While most residents here come and work for short periods of time before descending to lower, more hospitable elevations, it is a wonder to me that people can survive here at all.
Lhasa, Tibet 3650 meters, 12,002 feet
The capital of Tibet, Lhasa is city of about 250,000 people located high in the Himalayas in the center of the Tibetan plateau and is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Traditionally the home of the Dalai Lama, this city has long drawn hoards of pilgrims and travelers who brave the thin air to see its beautiful Buddhist temples set among a backdrop of stunning mountain landscapes. If you can brave the sky high elevations, the Potala Palace here (where the Dalai Lama lived until he was forced to flee in 1959, boasts incredible murals and is the home to Buddhist study and prayer.
>> Find tours in Tibet
El Alto, Bolivia 4150 meters, 13,615 feet
Although La Paz is classified as the highest capital city in the world, this suburb of La Paz is actually located even higher than La Paz itself. Aptly named “The Height” in Spanish, this town was founded with the establishment of the railroad between La Paz and Lake Titicaca and is home to about 650,000 hearty individuals. Along with being the city with the highest elevation in Bolivia, most people know El Alto as the location of La Paz’s airport.
Leadville, Colorado 3094 meters, 10,152
This former booming mining town located in the Rocky Mountains at the headwaters of the Arkansas River is actually the highest incorporated city in the United States, along with being among the cities and towns with the highest elevations in the world. A city that formerly prospered from the silver mining nearby, Leadville was actually once the second largest city in Colorado after Denver.
Although the silver mining days are long gone, Leadville is still around, boasting about 3,000 permanent residents. Leadville maintains its historic downtown district—which once boasted packed saloons full of rough’n’tumble miners and which now makes visitors feel like they’ve stepped back into time about 100 years to the Wild West.
Potosi, Bolivia 4090 meters, 13,420 feet
Although the La Paz suburb of El Alto on this list is actually about 200 feet higher than Potosoi, this Bolivian city is frequently cited as the highest city in the world. Much like Leadville, Potosi was a major silver mining town and was once one of the largest cities in all of the Americas.
The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its rich silver mining history has and continues to play an important role in the identity of this city. In fact, Potosi appears in Cercantes’ Don Quioxte as an idiom for extreme richness and Cerro Potosi, the mountain which looms over the city center, is sometimes called Cerro Ricco (rich hill) for the silver that it once bore.
>> Read about things to do and see in Bolivia
Namache Bazaar, Nepal 3500 meters, 11,482 feet
Originally a town built as a trading post where high mountain yak herders could barter their yak cheese and butter for agricultural products grown at lower elevations, today Namache Bazaar serves mainly as a popular stopping point for climbers headed to the Everest base camp. The last real point of civilization before heading to the world’s tallest mountain, this high altitude town sits at the confluence of many trekking trails and is still the main trading center for the Khumbu region where there are Nepalese officials, a police check, post office and a bank.
For those hearty souls who want to visit this astonishingly high town, travelers can stay at the Everest View Hotel, which is located at 3,800 meters (12,467) and even has oxygenated rooms to help lowland folks with the oxygen-light air.
Cuzco, Peru 3310 meters, 10,800 feet
A beautiful city located in the Peruvian Andes near the Urubamba Valley (Sacred Valley), Cusco once served as the capital for the Inca civilization and today has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Those travelers visiting the famed Lost City of the Incas at Machu Picchu will likely also pass through Cuzco, as it is located very close to the Incan ruins. Today this high altitude city of about 350,000 people boasts a beautiful blend of Incan ruins and Spanish colonial architecture, all set in the shadow of the towering Andes Mountain range.
Villa Mills, Costa Rica 3100 meters, 10,170 feet
Although when most people think of Costa Rica they first imagine beautiful beaches and tropical rain forests at low elevations, the country is also home to highlands and volcanic mountains that reach to surprisingly high elevations. Villa Mills, a small village located near Cerro de le Muerte (Mountain of Death), is located near the Panamanian border and can actually experience temperatures that dip below freezing despite the proximity to the equator.
Villa Mills is located in the Talamanca mountain range, which was once a volcanic island that was raised to higher elevations due to a tectonic uplift. An area known for its unique wildlife and eco-tourism opportunities, travelers to this area may be surprised they need to pack warm clothes to this part of Central America (and may even experience altitude sickness).
Quito, Ecuador 2850 meters, 9,350 feet
The second highest capital city in the world (after La Paz), Quito is located almost 10,000 feet above sea level on the eastern slopes of the active Pichincha volcano in the Andes mountains. Although slightly lower in elevation to some other small towns and villages of the Andes and Himalayas, Quito is unique in that not only is it a city at a high elevation with a remarkably large population (close to 2 million people), but it also lies just 25 km (15 miles) from the equator.
Hushe Village, Pakistan 3050 meters, 10,006 feet
The highest village in the Hushe Valley in Pakistan and lying in the shadow of some of the world’s tallest and most dramatic mountains (including K2, the second highest mountain in the world), Hushe serves as a starting point for many trekkers in this part of the Himalayas. Hushe’s friendly population has a long history of involvement with hikers and climbers, and many of the full-time residents here work as guides and porters for climbers hoping to summit one of the nearby peaks.
Apartaderos, Venezuela 3505 meters, 11,502 feet
Located at an elevation at more than 11,000 feet, Apartaderos is the highest city in Venezuela and is situated at the intersection of three major river valleys in the Andes. Tourism is actually a main industry in this town and Apartaderos has a town center with restaurants, hotels and gift shops—all of which came after the construction of the Trans-Andean highway made getting to this once remote mountain much easier. Farming and cattle remain the main occupation of main of the local inhabitants, who have been living in these mountains for centuries.
Learn more facts about the world:
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- The Coldest Places on Every Continent
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