Because Cusco sits at an elevation just above 11,000 feet, many travelers wonder why they shouldn’t move on directly to the Sacred Valley on their first night. The easy answer is that in Cusco you can explore by foot from your hotel – on flat, even ground. You won’t ever be more than a few minutes from your hotel, and a quick nap, in case the altitude begins to cause you troubles. Better yet, you will never be more than a few blocks from a café where you can sit down, enjoy some coca tea, and let your oxygen levels catch up. This safety valve would be a lot less plausible if one connects directly to the Sacred Valley (still at 9,400 feet) on the first day.
But the better answer is this: context. It is with that walking tour of Cusco that you begin to see the juxtaposition of modern religion placed directly on top of ancient customs, of 21st-century clothing worn side-by-side (and sometimes in conjunction with) the same time-honored styles the Quechuans have been wearing for centuries. It is in the squares and in the markets in Cusco where you realize it’s not all Spanish and English being spoken here. There’s Quechua, too – a language not far removed from Inca itself. It’s in Cusco where you begin to understand that the Incan “history” you came to see… isn’t entirely history after all. Sure, the Catholic cathedral is built literally on top of the giant foundation stones of the original Koriconcha temple, but the giant paintings on those modern walls are depicting Peter, Simon and Judas eating a traditional guinea pig at the last supper.
With a new Cusco International Airport being built closer to the Sacred Valley (projected opening in 2023), there will be increased requests from uninformed travelers to “skip Cusco” altogether. But I will continue to recommend Cusco as a first stop for all of my travelers. Not only is it a highlight in itself, but the context gained there makes all the other highlights that much better.