Most people visiting Machu Picchu will also want to visit Cusco and the Sacred Valley. As there is a lot of confusion about what to visit first and in which order we would also like to share what is according our years of experience the best route. In general we consider that in order to visit these three destinations you would need to consider 5 days.
To lay out the land a little please keep in mind the following points; all arrivals to the region whether it is in bus, train or flight will be to the city of Cusco. Machu Picchu is located at about 100km from the city of Cusco and the Sacred Valley is located in between them. Cusco is the highest in altitude (3,400m – 11,100ft), followed by the Sacred Valley with altitudes around 2,800m – 9,100ft and the lowest is Machu Picchu at about 2,400m – 7,800ft. When visiting this region you want to maximize your time and therefore there are two things to keep in mind; decreasing the effect of the altitude and doing as little backtracking as possible. Taking this into consideration, according us the best route for visiting Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and Cusco is;
Day 1; arrive to Cusco and visit Awanacancha and Pisac. As the Sacred Valley is on lower altitude than Cusco and relatively close by it is best to spend the first night(s) in the Valley instead of Cusco. You can arrive to Cusco and from Cusco head to the Sacred Valley, located at, depending which town 1-1.5 hours’ drive. You can travel via the road to Pisac located at about 1 hour drive and along the road also visit the llama and alpaca farm of Awanacancha for a nice introduction to these Andean animals members of the camelid family. In Pisac you can have lunch and visit the market. The market is mostly an artisanal market with interesting souvenirs but during three days in the week (Tue, Thu & Sun) the market also holds a farmers market where the local farmers come to sell their fresh products. Apart from the market Pisac is also known for its impressive ruins surrounded by huge terracing. These ruins are located on top of the hill behind the town, about 7km – 4mi drive.
In the Sacred Valley you can find all types of hotels and accommodations scattered over the different villages of the valley. Most hotels you will find in Urubamba and Ollantaytambo but Pisac also has some nice accommodations.
Day 2; Today you can travel in the early morning to Ollantaytambo at the western end of the Sacred Valley, the last train station before Machu Picchu. Apart from the train station the town is also famous for its Inca Ruins that tower above this authentic village. The town is also one of the few remaining examples of Inca urban planning as the old part of town still has the original Inca layout of town. Here you can spend a couple of hours exploring the town and the ruins (you may want to stay in this town the night before as well) before taking a late morning train to Aguas Calientes (there are a couple of train departing around 10.00-11.00). Arriving to Aguas Calientes you head to your hotel to drop off your excess luggage and walk to the bus station for your bus to Machu Picchu. Buses come and go constantly and there should not be too much of a line this time of the day (approx. 13.00) getting to Machu Picchu around 14.00. For the first visit you need a guide, you can find these at the entrance in case you would not have one arranged for you. Arriving at 14.00 would still you a good 3 hours to see the site before you head back down to Aguas Calientes and your hotel. The nice thing is that this time of the day there are much less visitors.
Day 3; Second day at Machu Picchu and return to the Sacred Valley. Today you can best head up early to Machu Picchu to also be able to enjoy the site in the morning time. The lines can be long in the morning so keep this in mind. Buses start driving from 5.30 onward and as this would be your second day visit you do not need a guide for your visit. This day you can also use to climb either Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain if this would interest you. Therefore you can divide your times this day based on the time you booked for these hikes. If you would not have booked these hikes you may want to do the normal circuit first and then either head to the Inca Bridge or the Sun Gate, the two outer laying parts that can be visited without any special ticket. In the early afternoon you head down to Aguas Calientes and the train station (don’t forget to collect your luggage at the hotel first) for your return train either to Ollantaytambo or Poroy Station. We recommend Ollantaytambo. If you would travel to Ollantaytambo you can best stay in this town or Urubamba for the night.
Day 4; visit Chinchero, Maras & Moray en route to Cusco. Today you can start with another great morning in the Sacred Valley. Today we will head back to Cusco but following another route that allows you to visit three interesting Inca sites. First the salt mines of Maras; these mines are still used till the day of today and make for an interesting visit. Then you can head to Moray; these circular Inca terraces are quite the view; located in a natural depression these circles were used as a kind of agricultural laboratory and provide some amazing sights on the surroundings. Finally you can head to Chinchero at about 20km – 12mi from Cusco. This small town has a beautiful church built on top of a large Inca site and is known for its amazing weavings. Finally this town on Sunday’s also holds the most authentic market in the region. You will be back in Cusco in the late afternoon.
Day 5; half day visit of Cusco and free afternoon. Today you can focus on the city of Cusco. By now you will be somewhat acclimatized to the altitude and ready for the Navel of the World, the significance of Cusco in Quechua. Visit the main square with its uniquer cathedral, the central market, the temple of Qoricancha and the bohemian neighborhood of San Blas. Later you can also visit the outer laying Inca sites such as Sacsayhuaman, Qenqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay.
This would be our recommended route when visiting Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. This way you cover most points of interest, diminish the impact of the altitude and cover the travel times and distances as logical as possible.