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Celebrating Cusco's sacred Sun Festival

by Claudia Posada-Fawcett

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“Inti Raymi”, meaning “Sun Festival” in the local Quechua language, is a religious and cultural celebration which takes place annually on 24th June in the Inca capital of Cusco. This vibrant event commemorates the Inca sun god “Apu Inti” and has various names, including “Wiracocha” or “Apu P’unchau” (God Day). It also marks the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, the conclusion of harvest, and the beginning of the Inca new year, whose remarkable historic civilisations are the largest in all of South America. The Inca empire of “Tawantinsuyu” considered Inti Raymi to be their most significant festival, as their religion was founded on the cult of the sun. Their economy relied on successful crop harvests, which in turn depended on sunshine, rendering the sun sacred in the eyes of the Incas. The festival’s original purpose was to bring the sun back and honour its glorious existence, for on this day the sun is at its farthest point from the earth. Flamboyant celebrations take place across South America to mark this event - in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Peru, and even destinations as far flung as San Francisco and Madrid, where Quechua people reside.

Street festival Cusco Inti Raymi

Today, tourists from all corners of the world flock in their thousands to Cusco in anticipation of this colourful, cultural event, known to be one of the most famous festivals on the continent - that is, after Brazil’s exuberant carnival in Rio de Janeiro. During this festive period the streets are filled with dance, music, and tradition, and this historically rich celebration brings locals and tourists together. The colonial town of Cusco, voted a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983, is certainly worth a visit in itself, for it is a wonderful melting pot of culture and history. Filled with quirky cobblestone streets, striking cathedrals, crumbling architecture, and abundant eateries, it is the perfect setting for the festivities of Inti Raymi. This festival, enjoyed through the Andes, is one of sharing, food, music, street parties, parades and traditional dress. One of the most prominent colourful costumes worn is the woven aya huma mask, but other memorable attire includes masks, scarves, feathers, and even spears. Notable festivities that take place during Inti Raymi include live music in the Plaza de Armas, expositions, and spiritual workshops in the magical squares of Cusco.  

History

The fiesta was first held in 1412 by Inca Emperor “Sapa Inca Pachacuti” as a series of ceremonies, to celebrate the origins of the Incas and the Andean new year. After the Spanish invasion in 1535, the event was prohibited by the Spanish Empire and Catholic priests, forcing locals to practice the festivities clandestinely in many of the regions. In the first few years, it was simply some of the smaller ceremonies that were prohibited, as the Spanish argued that it was a pagan ceremony that didn’t comply with Catholicism. The conquistadores (Spanish invaders) changed the date of the event so it would take place alongside the Catholic feast of Saint John the Baptist to merge the celebrations. Native Andeans ignored this date alteration, and continued to celebrate Inti Raymi in the way that they had always done. However, in 1572, the festivities were banned altogether by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who again denounced Inti Raymi it to be a Pagan Festival.  

Guitar Inti Raymi Festival Cusco

Inti Raymi today

Quechua actor, writer and director Faustino Espinoza Navarro proposed a revival of the festival in 1944, as he strongly felt that the Quechua people needed an event to celebrate their identity and assert their place within society. For twelve years Navarro himself played the role of the great Sapa Inca, a position he then passed on to a suitable successor. The festival that we see today is a re-enactment of how the event was practised historically by a group of talented actors, in the Quechua language.

Make sure you you rise early on the morning of the 24th, as celebrations commence around 8am on Cusco’s main plaza, in front of the “Qorikancha”, or Coricancha, the sun temple of the state. The Incas viewed this golden temple to be the crown jewel of their marvellous city, whose walls were lined with gold before the Spanish invasion. The celebrations begin with mass in the main cathedral of Cusco, and the rainbow Inti Raymi flag is lifted to mark the event. Subsequently, the Sapa Inca actor gives thanks to the “Sun” in Quechua for all of his blessings. The main event involves the carrying of the Inca King and Queen (Mama Ocllo) on a regal throne through the marvellous cobblestone streets of Cusco, and continues for five kilometres, ending at the archaeological Fortress of Sacsayhuamán. These ruins provide a wonderful backdrop for the festivities, atop a steep hill that looks over the beautiful architecture of Cusco. Closely followed behind the chariot which holds the King and Queen lies a wonderful procession, where actors adopt roles of priests, town folk and Incan nobles. Specific parts undertaken in the parade include a puma who represents "earthly life", a condor as "the heavens", and a snake as "the underworld". A tremendous bonfire concludes the ceremony, and the procession leads back to Cuzco with the Inca King and Queen atop the regal throne once again. Traditionally dressed locals adorn themselves in billowing skirts and multicoloured garments. Sights can be enjoyed from every corner, and these folkloric parades will give you a real sense of Andean tradition and culture. As part of the procession, local women sweep away malicious spirits away from the streets with brooms, and litter flowers in the streets. Festivities take place well into the night, so be prepared to see the streets of Cusco alive with fervour.

Mask Cusco Inti Raymi Festival

When the King reaches the Fortress, the Sapa Inca participates in a series of sacrifices and rituals to acknowledge the Sun’s generosity. These rituals were believed to give thanks to the sun, and protect the crops from starvation. Previously, animals and humans were sacrificed as part of the rituals, but today, offerings are purely symbolic, involving effigies and figurines. In the past, on the fourth day of the festival, approximately two hundred alpacas and llamas were sacrificed. These practices were highly spiritual; following its sacrifice, the insides of the black alpacas were then be analysed by priests to predict the coming year’s events for any bad omens. Nowadays, such proceedings would be deemed controversial and outdated. Today, the sacrifice involves a faux heart of a llama, and no harm is done to the animal. A ceremonial reading of a sacred coca leaf then predicts the Inca Empire’s fate for the year ahead. These traditions are all highly symbolic and deep rooted in history. Although these rituals and ceremonies take place specifically on June 24, Inti Raymi celebrations occur leading up to the event, and continue on after the day itself is over.

Know before you go

Make sure that you organise your trip well in advance if you are planning on attending the Sun Festival, as hotels book up incredibly quickly. Arriving early on the day is also a must to ensure a good viewing spot. The three top places to observe the festivities are undoubtedly Coricancha, the Plaza de Armas, and Sacsayhuamán. For those willing to stand to admire the events of the day, head to the gardens just outside of the Coricancha temple. Or perhaps pre-book a table at a local café or restaurant located on the Plaza de Armas to enjoy the parade in comfort with a cold beverage in hand. If you plan well ahead, you can even watch the ceremony from the grandstand seating at Sacsayhuamán (do bear in mind that these reservations are first come, first served). Alternatively, join other locals in nearby parks to catch what you can of the festivities. Observe the procession, and experience the festival from its heart.

Dancing parade Cusco Inti Raymi Festival

Make it happen
If you are feeling inspired to visit Cusco and soak in this incredibly vibrant festival, be sure to get in contact with one of our local experts based in Peru to find out more. Alternatively, feel free to give the TravelLocal office a ring on +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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