Out of the four ceremonies celebrated in Cusco during the Inca Empire the Inti Raymi was the most important. It took place every year in the main plaza of the city. The Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) was a religious ceremony honouring the god, Inti. It was the also the celebration of the Winter Solstice which also happens to be the Inca New Year. The locals gathered together to honour this Sun God and sacrifice an animal to ensure good crops for the year ahead. The natives fasted for days before the ceremony and presented gifts to the Inca who then put on a lavish feast and sacrificed llamas all to ensure a good harvest and fertile land. The last Inti Raymi with an Incan Emperor took place in 1535 before it was banned by the Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests, as it was considered a pagan tradition.
It wasn’t until 1944 that the first historical reconstruction took place using indigenous actors. It was partly based on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega who was a 16th Century poet with a Spanish conquistador father and Incan princess mother. And now this theatrical representation of the Inti Raymi has been taking place every year at the historical site of Sacsayhuaman, which is a few kilometers above Cusco. It happens every year on June 24th and attracts thousands of locals and tourists.
It’s not just celebrated in Cusco but in indigenous cultures living throughout the Andes. The celebrations include mainly dancing, costumes (especially women wearing woven aya huma mask) and of course plenty of food and drink. It is now the second largest festival in South America, after Carnival of course. Thousands and thousands of people each year descend on Cusco to take part in this week long celebration.
There are different things happening on different days – exhibitions, fairs, dancing in the street and large free music concerts happening in Cusco’s beautiful Plaza de Armas. In preparation for Inti Raymi, many actors are chosen to take part – the highest accolade is being chosen as Sapa Inca and his wife, Mama Occla.
The main event is of course on June 24th. It starts in Qorikancha Square in front of the Santo Domingo Church, which is built over the ancient Temple of the Sun. It is here that the Sapa Inca calls on blessings from the sun and then he is carried on a golden throne (a replica) in a procession all the way to Sacsayhuaman, situated above Cusco. He is followed by the high priests, other officials and nobles, who are all suitably attired in ceremonial pomp. The streets are decorated with flowers while music, dancing and prayers accompany the procession all the way. Women also sweep the streets to clear them of evil spirits.
Once they reach their destination in the square, speeches (in Quechua) are said as the crowd awaits the pretend sacrifice. Once the llamas have been artificially sacrificed the high priest holds a heart up to Pachamama and proceeds to tell the future which he can see in the bloodstains. As the sun begins to set over the site, bonfires are lit and then the procession heads back down to Cusco, marking the end of the ceremony. And once again a new year has begun!
Things to know:
It is an all-day event of which at least 5 hours are spent at Sacsayhuaman. Entry is free and rental chairs are available. There are also plenty of food and drink vendors there. Each year several people are injured in falls as no guard rails are erected, so please take care. You can reserve a seat with a ticket bought in advance.
As you can imagine Cusco is very busy during this festival week. Lodging gets booked up in advance so make sure you organize this before arrival.
And after all the fun and festivities why not head to one of Peru’s beautiful historic haciendas for some well earned rest and relaxation?
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