During the reign of the Inca Empire, the Inti Raymi or Festival of the Sun was the most important of four ceremonies celebrated in Cusco, the historic capital of the Incas and a present day World Heritage Site. Last celebrated by an Inca Emperor in 1535, it was subsequently suppressed by the Spanish Conquest and the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, it is still celebrated by indigenous cultures throughout the Andes.
Since the mid-twentieth century, it has been theatrically recreated with a cast of many hundreds. To be chosen to participate is a great honor. Thousands come from around the world as well as Peruvians and Bolivians who come to celebrate this event which is taken quite seriously by the locals.
It coincides with the Winter Solstice; this is the Southern Hemisphere. The preliminary festivities last all week with parades and celebrations round-the-clock in Cusco. Building each day, the climax comes on June 24. I deliberately planned my visit to Cusco to coincide with the festival. This required booking a hostel well in advance as everything sells out that week.
On the morning of the 24th, the ceremonial events begin with an invocation by the Sapa Inca in the Qorikancha, square in front of the Santo Domingo church, built over the ancient Temple of the Sun. There is much pageantry, music and dancing, highlighted by the “virgins” making their first public appearance. Sapa Inca calls for the blessings and return of the sun which is now in its shortest day. He is then carried on his golden throne a few kilometers in a procession to the ancient fortress of Sacsayhuamán often referred to by its gringo mnemonic “Sexy Woman” (I’ll bet you thought I’d never get to it) in the hills above Cuzco.
Sacsayhuamán is impressive for it’s sheer size. One stone wall alone is over 400 meters and the irregular stones fit so closely together that a single sheet of paper cannot be inserted between them.
Seats on the immense field sell for $100. However, the event is free and the real fun is hanging with the locals on the hillside during the five hour pageant.
We hung out for a couple hours, buying food and drink from the local vendors while the performers got ready and queued up for the few portapotties. You would think after all these years that they would order a few more.
AND NOW, IT’S SHOWTIME!
First the band strikes up and then some of the supporting characters dance, juggle and even tumble their way onto the field.
At last, Sapa Inca and his entourage are upon the central platform (note the sacrificial alter in the front right corner). The high priest pleads with the Sun God to return to the Inca. This is followed by more dancing and pageantry.
A white llama is sacrificed (in a realistic stage act) and the high priest holds aloft the bloody heart in honor of Pachamama. This is done to ensure the fertility of the earth which in combination with light and warmth from the sun provides a bountiful crop. The priests read the blood stains to see the future for the Inca.
Things wound down after that and the performers began to exit. Many say that traditionally a virgin was sacrificed as the final appeasement to the Sun God but this was only loosely alluded to during the day.
We began to exit. Most of the tourists and travellers began the walk back to Cusco. My hostel buddies and I noticed a large encampment of locals picnicing on the rear side of the ruins. There were potatoes cooking in huatias, traditional Peruvian earthen ovens as well as beer to be had. So of course we hung out eating and drinking with the locals and playing frisbee with their children while the sun set on a very long, but very memorable day. Returning to Pariwana Hostel, I immediately fell into a deep sleep occasionally interlaced with dreams of all things Inca.