Peru, the third-largest country in South America, offers a mesmerising tapestry of landscapes. While the coastal desert stretches in a sliver of 1,555 miles along the west, the vast Amazon rainforest blankets almost half of the nation. In stark contrast to these, the spine of the Andes mountain system dominates its centre. Second only to the Himalayas in altitude, the Andes house some of the highest mountains in Peru.
The Incas are said to have revered these mountains as deities, referring to them as “apus”. A vivid testament to this reverence is the iconic 15th-century Machu Picchu, perched on a mountain at 7,970 feet. The question is, what are the tallest mountains in Peru? Let’s find out.
Rising from tectonic activities with the South American Plate overriding the Nazca Plate, the Andes are geologically young. These mountains in Peru branch out into three dominant ridges: the cordilleras Occidental, Central, and Oriental. Northern Peru offers milder slopes with altitudes rarely crossing 16,000 feet. The central Andes, however, boast of grander elevations and a rugged profile, with many of its peaks being snowcapped. Venturing southward, the Andes transform into the Puna, an elevated plateau dotted with peaks that sometimes touch 21,000 feet. Impressively, starting northwest of Arequipa, a sequence of these southern summits forms a volcanic trail reaching into Chile.
It’s in the eastern section of the Cordillera Occidental, in a range known as the Cordillera Blanca or “White Mountains,” that we begin our list of the highest mountains in Peru. The range itself is the world’s highest tropical mountain range, and its highest member is Mount Huascarán. Known as Nevado Huascarán in Spanish, after the 16th Century Inca leader Huascar, the snow-capped summit rises to 22,205 feet above sea level, the highest point in Peru.
The mountain has two distinct summits, the higher being the southern Huascarán Sur with an elevation of 22,205 ft. The north summit, Huascarán Norte, has an elevation of 21,831 feet. The two summits are separated by a saddle. The core of Huascarán, like much of the Cordillera Blanca, consists of Cenozoic granite. The Huascarán summit is one of the points on the Earth’s surface farthest from the Earth’s centre, closely behind the farthest point, Chimborazo in Ecuador. The summit of Huascarán has one of the lowest gravitational forces on Earth.
Mount Huascarán is located east of the Peruvian town of Yungay in the Ancash Department, within the UNESCO-listed Huascaran National Park. The whole area surrounding the mountain is of immense ecological importance. More than 100 bird species and 800 plant types coexist in the park along with 600 glaciers, almost 300 lakes and 41 tributaries of vital rivers like the Santa and Pativilca.
Nestled within the Huayhuash mountain range, Yerupajá ascends to 21,768 feet, marking its spot as Peru’s second-highest. Located in Áncash, straddling Bolognesi and Lauricocha Provinces, this summit also boasts the title of the loftiest point in the Amazon River watershed.
Located in southeast-central Peru within the Ampato mountain range, Coropuna stands as the nation’s highest volcanic peak and the third tallest mountain overall. Covering an expansive 90 square miles, Coropuna is not a solitary peak but a complex of numerous summit cones. Its crowning glory, the Coropuna Casulla dome, reaches a staggering height of 20,922 feet, earning it a place as one of the biggest mountains of Peru.
Given its snow-covered summits, Coropuna is aptly termed “Nevado Coropuna” in Spanish. The mountain’s ice cap is notably the most expansive in the Earth’s tropical zone, extending through multiple outlet glaciers. As one descends below 16,000 feet, the icy landscapes give way to varied vegetation belts, ranging from trees and peat bogs to agricultural zones.
Having been active for over five million years, the predominant formation of Coropuna dates back to the Quaternary period. This majestic mountain also serves as a silent witness to centuries of human history. The Incas revered Coropuna as sacred, with significant archaeological finds like Maucallacta and Acchaymarca testifying to its importance. Legends and enduring worship underscore the deep cultural significance of one of the tallest mountains in Peru.
Adjacent to Huascarán and separated by just a glacial valley, Huandoy dominates as the Cordillera Blanca’s second-tallest peak. Standing at over 20,980 feet, this giant is another of Peru’s highest mountains within the Huascarán National Park.
Divided between the Cusco provinces of Canchis and Quispicanchi, Ausangate is the fifth highest mountain in Peru and the tallest of the Vilcanota range. Home to herding communities of llama and alpaca, it is flanked by turquoise lakes and sits among glaciers. As well as being among the tallest mountains in Peru, Ausangate was also one of the holiest in Incan mythology.
A slight change of altitude now. With an elevation of 16,522 feet, Vinicunca is not one of Peru’s highest mountains, but it’s well worth a mention as one of its most iconic. It’s known as Rainbow Mountain for its dazzling multi-coloured bedrock. The result of weathering, environmental conditions and sedimentary deposits over time, it displays spectacular layers of gold, lavender, red and turquoise. It’s only been known as such since around 2013, when the ice that had always covered the mountain melted away. As it receded, the resulting meltwater mingled with ground minerals, painting the mountain in its present shades. Rust compounds, iron sulphide, oxidised goethite or limonite, and chlorite are just some of the minerals that contributed to the stunning kaleidoscope.
The Biggest Mountains of Peru
Peru’s landscape is a magnificent interplay of nature’s wonders. From the lush Amazon rainforest to the towering peaks of the Andes, every terrain tells a tale. As silent sentinels, these peaks stand tall, chronicling tales of geology, history, and cultural reverence. Through their lofty heights and profound depths, the highest mountains in Peru are some awe-inspiring ones.