Ending the Debate: Starting in Cusco vs. Sacred Valley

If you’re planning a trip to Machu Picchu you’ve likely come to a crossroads—is it better to start your trip in Cusco or the Sacred Valley?  There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question, since the “best” option differs from person to person. 

Experience has taught me a lot; I’ve been to Cusco five times and the Sacred Valley three times. In this article, I’ll help you determine whether it’s best to stay in the Sacred Valley before or after your Machu Picchu trip.

Llamas at Machu Picchu.
Llamas at Machu Picchu.

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Cusco vs. the Sacred Valley: A Geography Lesson

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of starting your trip in Cusco versus in the Sacred Valley, let’s clarify what these two places encompass.

Cusco is both a city and a region. The Sacred Valley (and Machu Picchu, for that matter) is in the region of Cusco. For the purpose of this article, and pretty much anything referring to Cusco that you find in your research, the word “Cusco” refers to the city of Cusco, not the region.

What’s more, in order to get to the Sacred Valley, you’ll first pass through the city of Cusco (either via plane or bus).

So really, this answers the question since all trips to Machu Picchu start in Cusco. But of course, this isn’t what you came here for.

Cusco vs. Sacred Valley: What to Consider

When deciding if it’s better to visit the Sacred Valley or Cusco first, there are four factors to consider:

  • High altitude acclimation
  • Road conditions
  • Nature vs. city
  • Access to medical facilities

Now, let’s take a closer look at each.

All About Altitude

Wanting to avoid high altitude is the most common reason people waffle between whether to start their trip in Cusco or the Sacred Valley.

The elevation is approximately 11,000 feet in Cusco and 9,000 feet in the Sacred Valley. The exact elevation in both Cusco and the Sacred Valley varies depending on the location. In fact, the Chinchero district in the Sacred Valley sits at over 12,000 feet—far more than most areas in Cusco.

Nonetheless, in almost all cases, by staying in the Sacred Valley you’ll be at a lower elevation than in Cusco. And you might be thinking that a difference of approximately 2,000 feet of elevation is huge.

It is.

And it also isn’t.

Coming from personal experience, traveling from Cusco to the Sacred Valley the day you arrive helps lower altitude sickness symptoms. However, for many people—myself included—it doesn’t eliminate those symptoms.

That’s because altitude sickness typically starts at around 8,000 feet. So, heading down 2,000 feet is bound to help you feel better.  But don’t be fooled by relativity—the Sacred Valley is high enough to cause altitude sickness.

Plaza de Armas in Cusco, which has an elevation of approximately 11,000 feet.
Plaza de Armas in Cusco, which has an elevation of approximately 11,000 feet.

Since you can get altitude sickness in both Cusco and the Sacred Valley, you might be wondering: does it really matter where you start?

There are plenty of Sacred Valley and Cusco purists out there. And if you’ve talked with anyone who’s been to Machu Picchu, they’re surely full of opinions on the “best” way to do it. I’ve been to Machu Picchu three times, so I’m going to claim the right to offer the best way, too.

If you’re wanting to learn more about how to prepare for altitude sickness, make sure to take a look at my guide on the Elevation in Machu Picchu.

My advice is simple: choose the destination that gives you the most peace of mind.

Go with your gut—and know it could end up being wrong.

Altitude sickness is impossible to predict even if you’ve been to high-altitude areas in the past. So, you can do all the research in the world and realize on your trip that the option you didn’t go with was the better one.

It happens all the time.

That person who told you that their trip would have been better if they stayed in Cusco before the Sacred Valley?  You could take their advice and end up wishing that your trip was arranged like the one they took and didn’t like.

Although I believe that peace of mind should ultimately dictate your decision, I implore you to read the rest of this article, and it’s not just because I don’t want to see the work I put into the next 1,000+ words go to waste.

There are other important factors to consider that’ll help you choose the option that’ll give you the most peace of mind. 

Psst…Thinking about heading to the Amazon? Head over to my guide on Iquitos vs. Puerto Maldonado. Don’t make the mistake of choosing the wrong destination!

The Joys of Peruvian Roads

Winding road in the Sacred Valley.

Another important factor to consider when deciding whether to start your trip in Cusco or the Sacred Valley is driving time.

The drive from the Cusco Airport to Cusco’s downtown historic district is 15 – 20 minutes. Nice and easy.

On the other hand, the Sacred Valley is a 1.5 – 2 hour drive, depending on traffic getting out of Cusco and the location of your Sacred Valley hotel. You could take the train, but it would take you longer than driving by the time you factor in transferring to the train station and arriving 30 minutes before departure.

The drive to the Sacred Valley is beautiful.  And behold, altitude avoiders, you’ll get the thrill of feeling that drop in altitude. Don’t worry—you won’t encounter major drop-offs along the way.

But there are winding roads that can make even those who don’t typically suffer from car sickness feel a bit queasy.  

At best, the drive may feel long, especially if you just got off the last leg of your international flight. At worse, altitude sickness will have already kicked in. Along with it may come regrets as you think about how you could already be lying in bed, had you started your trip in Cusco first.

That being said, altitude sickness does not always start the moment a person arrives in a high-altitude area; it can take 6 to 24 hours for symptoms to show. In fact, altitude sickness can even start out of the blue up to a few days after arrival.

Therefore, if you end up getting altitude sickness, chances are fairly good that you’ll be okay upon arrival to Cusco for your trip into the Sacred Valley.

Travel Tip: It’s a common misconception that Machu Picchu is at a higher altitude than Cusco and the Sacred Valley. At about 8,000 feet, Machu Picchu is the lowest destination of these places.

Nature vs. City: Where’s the Party At?

Okay, enough about altitude (for now).  Let’s move on to greener pastures.

Cusco and the Sacred Valley are incomparable when it comes to things like nightlife, nature, restaurants, and ambiance.

Cusco is a city of about 430,000 people.  The historical district is a compact, beautiful, walkable area and the heart of all things tourist-related.  By staying in the historical center, you’ll have access to a plethora of shops, world-renowned restaurants, and nightlife in charming bars well into the wee hours of the morning.

If you enjoy having lots to explore in your free time, Cusco is the ideal place to start your trip.

Vegetables at the San Pedro Market in Cusco.
San Pedro Market in Cusco.

On the other hand, the Sacred Valley is located in the countryside. Picture stunning mountain backdrops, alpaca grazing in pastures, and sleepy towns.

Speaking of towns, if you’re the type that enjoys both nature and access to shops and restaurants, I recommend staying in a town like Ollantaytambo or Pisac in the Sacred Valley.  This way, you’ll have access to small shops, restaurants, and ruins you can explore in your free time. Just keep in mind that places close early in these towns.

If you decide to stay in the Sacred Valley, your budget will be a determining factor in your location. Most hostels and 3-star hotels are located directly in the Sacred Valley’s towns.

One of my personal favorites is the beautiful 3-star Pakaritampu which is located at the Ollantaytambo Train Station, making for an easier early morning wake-up call the day you visit Machu Picchu.

Agricultural terraces in the Sacred Valley.
Agricultural terraces in the Sacred Valley.

Most 4-star and 5-star hotels in the Sacred Valley are nestled deep in the countryside and aren’t within walking distance to civilization. Here, you’ll be able to enjoy acres of beautifully manicured property to wander around and starry skies. 

If you’d like to take a trip to town, your hotel can arrange a taxi for you.

Medical Monologue

When in the Andes, all things circle back to altitude.

My intention with this section isn’t to scare you. But when considering whether to start your trip in the Sacred Valley or Cusco, it’s important to understand the medical angle.

Should you need medical attention during your trip, whether it be for altitude sickness or any other condition, you’ll be able to find doctors in both Cusco and the Sacred Valley.  The difference is that the Sacred Valley has small clinics with limited facilities and Cusco has better-equipped hospitals with medical specialists.

Therefore, if you’re in the Sacred Valley and have a serious medical condition, you’ll find yourself heading back to Cusco. This goes for severe cases of altitude sickness too.

The countryside of the Sacred Valley, which has fewer medical facilities than Cusco.
A view of the Sacred Valley.

I know, I know—it defies logic to go to a higher altitude to get treatment for altitude sickness.

But it happens.

And there’s no magic bullet for traveling from the Sacred Valley to Cusco other than taking the 1.5 – 2 hour drive through winding roads or hopping on a train with a bunch of other passengers. Let’s face it—neither is ideal when you’re needing hospital care.

Again, I’m not trying to scare you here.  The Sacred Valley is absolutely worth at least a one-night stay at some point during your trip and more if time allows. 

Besides, it’s not like Machu Picchu is teeming with world-class medical facilities (read: there’s next to none). Illnesses can pop up in inconvenient places, that’s just the way it is.

So, the bottom line is this: even if you start your trip in the Sacred Valley, you could find yourself in Cusco if your body has a different plan.

Cusco & Sacred Valley FAQ

And now, below are answers to some common questions about visiting Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

Is it better to stay in Cusco or the Sacred Valley?

Staying in Cusco is better for people who enjoy shopping, having a variety of excellent restaurant choices, want to stay where things are open in the evenings, and enjoy admiring old architecture.

The Sacred Valley is better for people who want a quieter environment, love natural scenery, and enjoy being outdoors.

Tours within Cusco and the Sacred Valley can be started in either destination, although budget travelers should consider staying in Cusco since tours starting in the Sacred Valley typically only run in private.

What’s the difference between Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley?

Ollantaytambo is a town in the Sacred Valley. It’s home to the Ollantaytambo Train Station, which will take you to Machu Picchu. Along with Pisac, Ollantaytambo is the most popular town for tourists to stay in the Sacred Valley.

Staying in Ollantaytambo offers the opportunity to arrive at Machu Picchu earlier in the morning compared to people traveling from Cusco.

Is the Sacred Valley worth visiting?

The Sacred Valley is very much worth visiting. Whether you want to relax at your hotel’s spa, explore quaint cobblestone towns, or take day trips to the Maras salt mine, Moray agricultural terraces, visit a market in Chinchero, go zip lining, or white water rafting, there are plenty of activities for people with varying interests.

A woman weaving in the Sacred Valley.
A woman weaving in the Sacred Valley.

Is Cusco worth visiting?

Cusco is absolutely worth the visit. The historic colonial center is ideal for exploring cobblestone streets by foot, trying delicious Andean dishes, shopping for souvenirs, and taking day trips.

Can you get altitude sickness in the Sacred Valley?

Yes, you can get altitude sickness in the Sacred Valley. Most, but not all, places in Sacred Valley are at a lower altitude than Cusco. However, since altitude sickness typically starts at 8,000 feet, the Sacred Valley falls in the range where altitude sickness can occur.

For tips on how to prevent and manage altitude sickness, take a look at my guide on the Elevation in Machu Picchu.

How far is the Sacred Valley from Cusco?

The Sacred Valley is 1.5 – 2 hours from Cusco, depending on traffic in Cusco and the location you’re traveling to within the Sacred Valley. It’s also possible to take a train from Cusco to the Sacred Valley.

It’s Up to You

Te toca—it’s your turn to take over from here. While it’s important to do your research and listen to other people’s opinions, ultimately the best way to decide whether or not to start your trip in Cusco or the Sacred Valley is to go with your gut. 

So, will you be starting your trip in the Sacred Valley or Cusco? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!

P.S.- Heading to Lima? Check out our post on 10 Things You Miss by Skipping Lima. Or perhaps beaching it is more your style? My guide on Mancora vs. Paracas will clear up your Peruvian beach questions.

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