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Inti Raymi Peru’s Festival Of The Sun

The Inti Raymi Or Sun Festival

The famous Incas of Peru held four major religious celebrations each year, the largest and most important of which was Inti Raymi, attracting pilgrims from all corners of the Inca Empire. This annual Andean celebration continues to this very day, and is South America’s second-largest festival after Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, with travelers from all corners of the globe now in attendance to witness the spectacular reenactment of the original proceedings. Here we take an in-depth look into Inti Raymi, its origins, and evolution into one of the must-see spectacles for visitors to Peru.

Woollen sheep attached to the costumes


What is Inti Raymi?

Inti Raymi was the most important traditional religious ceremony of the Inca Empire and is still celebrated in indigenous cultures throughout the Andes. It honors the return of their most venerated god, Inti, the Quechua word for “sun”, gives thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to ensure good crops for the upcoming Andean new year, and historically also paid tribute to the Inca, the firstborn son of the Sun.

Raymi in Quechua signifies either an equinox or solstice, so although it has no literal English translation is often interpreted as a “religious festival”, hence Inti Raymi is more commonly known as a religious “festival of the sun”.

Those who know your festivals will notice that Inti Raymi coincides with (or is also known as) the Fiesta of San Juan in parts of the Amazon where water is more revered. This is because the Spanish conquistadors considered Inti Raymi to be a heathen celebration and so in an attempt to hide its popularity merged it with the Catholic celebration for Saint John the Baptist.

When is the Inti Raymi festival?

Inti Raymi is held annually on June 24th in Peru (June 22nd in Ecuador) around the dates of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. The first Inti Raymi in history was in 1412, and continued to be celebrated until 1572 – even after the execution of the last Inca in 1533 – when Viceroy Francisco de Toledo officially banned the celebration along with many other Inca traditions. In 1944, the first historical reenactment of Inti Raymi took place, and its popularity has led to its continued celebration every year since.

People in costumes wearing full cover face masks

Costumes vary between regions and villages

Where is Inti Raymi celebrated?

Inti Raymi is celebrated throughout the Andean Highlands, but the largest celebrations are at Otavalo or Ingapirca in Ecuador, and Cusco in Peru.

Ancient Inti Raymi Rituals 

Every year, up to 25,000 people would travel from the four suyus (provinces) of Tawantinsuyu (the Inca Empire) – Chinchaysuyu (north), Qullasuyu (south), Antisuyu (east), and Kuntisuyu (west) – and descend in their droves upon Cusco, the Inca capital, for the festival.

The celebration was held in the main plaza of the city, known then as the Haukaypata, and were carried out by the Sapa Inca, nobility, priests and the army generals. For the ceremonial participants mentioned, the three days preceding the festival were a period of purification, the strict diet of water, uncooked white maize and a regional herb called chucam the only sustenance allowed.

The night before the big day the participants would gather in the plaza to wait respectfully in silence for the appearance of the Sun god Inti between the mountains. At dawn on June 24th they would remove their shoes and face the rising sun, crouching down and blowing kisses as a sign of respect, before raising two golden cups filled to the brim with offerings. The left-hand cup was an offering for the sun, the right-hand cup for the Sapa Inca.

Later a parade of royal ancestral mummies brought from nearby temples and shrines would take place around the main square. To a fanfare of sea shell musical instruments the Sapa Inca would take to the stage in front of the throngs of attending pilgrims – many of whom would paint their face yellow and wear deer antler headdresses – and drink chicha de jora, the Incan beer, in honor of the Sun god, Inti.

A priest would light a flame inside the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and their black llamas in their hundreds were cut open with a tumi, a ceremonial knife, and their organs analyzed for omens and burnt as offerings to Pachamama, so many in fact that the streets would regularly run red with blood. In times of hardship when crop production was particularly low, it is thought children of each province were even sacrificed.

Following days of colorful dances and processions, the Inca would return to his palace to mark the ending of the celebrations, a carpet-like scattering of feathers and flowers unraveling before his feet as he went.

raditional pig-face mask

Full costume

How is Inti Raymi celebrated today?

You could visit different Andean towns and villages and never celebrate Inti Raymi in the exact same way as each tends to have their own traditions, dances, costumes and customs, however, in general, they will all involve music, masks, moonshine and plenty of food, with parties often going on into the small hours.

Inti Raymi begins with at midnight (or with the light of dawn) when locals flock to the nearby springs, rivers and waterfalls together to take part in armay chisi, ritual bathing to replenish their connection to Pachamama and spiritually cleanse and purify the soul.

Later in the day towards noon, at the height of the sun’s passage through the sky, parades and large communal gatherings are held. At the celebrations keep your eyes peeled for the following colorful characters:

  • Aya Huma: Look for the double-faced brightly colored masks with spikes protruding from the crown. He represents the spirit of the mountains whose aim is to rid the festival of bad demons. His two faces symbolize the duality of day and night, bright colors reflect those of the rainbow flag of Cusco (and their Andean patronage), and the spikes represent serpents, a sign of wisdom in Andean heritage.
  • Los Aruchicos: Look out for guitar-playing men draped in brightly colored shawls wearing hats with multi-colored ribbons. They too help to drive away evil spirits.
  • Los Takik: You’ll likely hear these guys before you see them. These talented, woolen poncho-wearing musicians play an array of traditional instruments to bring harmony and order to the festival through song. Listen out for the distinctive sounds of the bandolín (15-stringed guitar-like instrument), churo (conch shell) and more common flautas (Andean panpipes).
  • Los Tushuk: These chaps-clad dancers march to the beat of los takik in circles to mirror the sun’s movement through the sky as their stomping feet get the attention of Pachamama.

It’s important to remember that at it’s roots, Inti Raymi is a celebration of harvest and abundance, so naturally food and drink plays an important role in festivities. Many communities prepare a Pampamesa (“Food for All”), where a communal picnic is laid out with the Andean staples of potatoes, corn, and pork, and everyone sits on the floor and eats with their hands to get a closer connection to Mother Earth. There is also a plentiful supply of Chicha de Jora, the local moonshine made from fermented corn.

Diabolic horns on the face mask

Costumes also draw inspiration from the Spanish catholicism

Inti Raymi in Cusco

Despite being more theatrical than the ancient rituals once observed, the Inti Raymi celebrations in Cusco are still more formal than in the surrounding towns and villages, with a choreographed sequence of dances and scenes performed by some 700 actors, dancers and musicians. The focus of the festival changes throughout the day between the following locations:

  • 8 am – Cusco Cathedral & Plaza de Armas: Mass and raising of the rainbow Inti Raymi flag
  • 9 am – Qorikancha: The celebrations begin in earnest in the gardens of the Temple of the Sun along the Avenida El Sol, one of Cusco’s principle roads, and the procession begins.
  • 11 am – Plaza de Armas: Here the Sapa Inca addresses the Sun and thanks him for all his blessings before being carried on his throne the five kilometers towards the Incan fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Note nearly all of square is cordoned off for the festivities, so viewing space is limited to just the colonial arcades around the outside of the plaza and crowds are often several people deep.
  • 1 pm – Sacsayhuaman: The grand finale. Here the Sapa Inca performs many rituals and sacrifices to thank the Sun for his generosity.

How can I attend Inti Raymi in Cusco?

If you wish to watch the finale of the Inti Raymi festival at Sacsayhuaman you will need to buy tickets in advance, but otherwise, you can see the Inti Raymi procession at spots within Cusco along the processional route between the Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) on Avenida El Sol and the Plaza de Armas in the morning. For those attending, we have created a list of 10 useful tips:

  1. Take a stool if you can so you can rest your weary limbs at during the day and also to gain a little bit of extra height!
  2. Remember your sun screen, shades, hat, and wear light long sleeves to prevent sunburn.
  3. Wear a sturdy pair of walking shoes, especially if you are heading independently to Sacsayhuaman as the walk from Cusco will take approximately 1 hour in the crowds. Even if you aren’t, they’ll help protect your toes from getting trampled on.
  4. Stay hydrated in the heat, especially if you are out in the sun for long periods.
  5. Pack drinks and snacks. There are often ladies selling them should you forget, but these are often at inflated prices.
  6. Stay alert with possessions and leave valuables in your hotel. Perhaps wear your daypack on your front so you can see it at all times. Crowds are notoriously a playground for pickpockets.
  7. Remember that the center of Cusco will be closed to regular traffic – including local buses and taxis – so expect disruption if you are traveling around in the days leading up to, on and around Inti Raymi. Note approved tourist vehicles are allowed to transport tourists from the center to Sacsayhuaman on the 24th to see the celebrations.
  8. Some of the best vantage points for Inti Raymi are found on second-floor balconies of the bars, cafes and restaurants surrounding Cusco’s main square. Contact the owners a few days before to reserve your spot.
  9. The best place to watch the grandstand finale of the festival is from the ticketed, tiered seating at Sacsayhuaman. There are three price bands for Inti Raymi tickets: Orange and Red seating (the best views) which costs around US$ 210 per adult, and the cheaper Green seating which costs US$ 150 per adult. Expect to pay $30 more for a bus ticket from the city center.
  10. If you haven’t got a ticket for Sacsayhuaman but still want to see the festivities (for free) you could take a leaf out of the locals’ book and head early (around 8am as the best viewing spots get taken quickly) to one of two overlooking hills. One is located within the park of Sacsayhuaman, the other is adjacent, just outside the park perimeter. Given you will be there for many hours be sure to go prepared with something to sit on, plenty of food, drinks and sun protection. A pair of binoculars may be useful too.

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This entry was posted December 28, 2015
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