Highest Cities in the World

These Cities Are Located at Extreme Elevations

La Rinconada, Puno, Peru, South America
The shantytown mining camp of La Rinconada, Peru - the world's highest city has a population of more than 30,000. Johnny Haglund/Getty Images

It has been estimated that about 400 million people live at elevations above 4900 feet (1500 meters) and that 140 million people live at elevations above 8200 feet (2500 meters).

Physical Adaptations to Live That High

At these high altitudes, the human body must adapt to the decreased levels of oxygen. Native populations living at the highest altitudes in the Himalaya and Andes mountain ranges tend to have larger lung capacity than lowlanders. There are physiological adaptations from birth that higher elevation cultures experience that tends to lead to longer, healthier lives.

Some of the world's oldest people live at high altitudes and scientists have determined that high-altitude life results in better cardiovascular health and a lower incidence of stroke and cancers.

Interestingly, a 12,400 year-old settlement in the Andes was discovered at an elevation of 14,700 feet (4500 meters), demonstrating that humans settled at high elevations within about 2000 years of arriving on the South American continent.

Scientists will certainly continue to study the impacts of high elevations on the human body and how humans have adapted to elevation extremes on our planet.

The World's Highest City

The highest, most notable true "city" is the mining town of La Rinconada, Peru. The community sits high in the Andes at an elevation of 16,700 feet (5100 meters) above sea level and is home to a gold rush population of somewhere around 30,000 to 50,000 people.

The elevation of La Rinconada is higher than the highest peak in the lower 48 states of the United States (Mt. Whitney). National Geographic published an article in 2009 about La Rinconada and the challenges of life at such a high elevation and in such squalor. 

The World's Highest Capital and Large Urban Area

La Paz is the capital of Bolivia and sits at a very high elevation - about 11,975 feet (3650 meters) above sea level. La Paz is the highest capital city on the planet, beating Quito, Ecuador for the honor by 2000 feet (800 meters).

The greater La Paz metropolitan area is home to more than 2.3 million people who live at a very high altitude. To the west of La Paz is the city of El Alto ("the heights" in Spanish), which is truly the world's highest large city. El Alto is home to about 1.2 million people and is the home of the El Alto International Airport, which serves the greater La Paz metropolitan area. 

Five Highest Settlements on Earth

Wikipedia provides a listing of what are believed to be the five highest settlements on the planet...

1. La Rinconada, Peru - 16,700 feet (5100 meters) - gold rush town in the Andes

2. Wenquan, Tibet, China - 15,980 feet (4870 meters) - a very small settlement on a mountain pass in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. 

3. Lungring, Tibet, China - 15,535 feet (4735 meters) - a hamlet among pastoral plains and rugged terrain

4. Yanshiping, Tibet, China - 15,490 feet (4720 meters) - a very small town

5. Amdo, Tibet, China - 15,450 feet (4710 meters) - another small town

Highest Cities in the United States

By contrast, the highest incorporated city in the United States is Leadville, Colorado at a mere altitude of 3,094 meters (10,152 feet). Colorado's capital city of Denver is known as the "Mile High City" because it officially sits at an elevation of 5280 feet (1610 meters); however, compared to La Paz or La Rinconada, Denver is in the lowlands. 

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Rosenberg, Matt. "Highest Cities in the World." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/highest-cities-in-the-world-1434524. Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, October 29). Highest Cities in the World. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/highest-cities-in-the-world-1434524 Rosenberg, Matt. "Highest Cities in the World." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/highest-cities-in-the-world-1434524 (accessed May 29, 2023).