Each year on June 24, a few days after the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, the largest and most important festival of the Inca Empire, the Inti Raymi or Festival of the Sun, is celebrated in Cusco.
Inti Raymi origin
Before the arrival of the Spaniards the Incas celebrated Inti Raymi, the most important religious ceremony of the empire in honor of their sun god Inti and Pachamama (Mother Earth), the two most venerated deities of Inca civilization, each winter, long after the last harvest was brought home and when the sun was farthermost from the lands.
By sacrificing chosen humans and animals, especially lamas, and performing many sacred rituals which were accompanied by specific music and dances, the Incas tried to convince the sun god Inti to return to them and to spread his life-giving energy and warmth over the fields. Only this ensured that their crops would grow again, providing a rich harvest and preventing the starvation of the Inca people.
Inti Raymi during Spanish rule and Republican times
But as so many other native festivities, customs and traditions, the celebration of the Festival of the Sun, which by the way as well marked the Inca New Year, was prohibited during Spanish rule.
Only in 1944 local actors revived the celebration, writing scripts based on historical records and walking in the footsteps of the Incas while reenacting the festivities of their ancestors. Since then the Inti Raymi Festival grew into the largest, most impressive and colorful celebration in Cusco attracting thousands of national and international visitors each year.
Inti Raymi today
The major celebration of the Inti Raymi festival starts on June 24 in the morning in front of the Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun, in the city center of Cusco. Here the representatives of the four administrative regions of the Inca Empire, all properly dressed in traditional costumes, make their grand entrance.
After the Sapa Inca, the ruler of the Inca Empire, opens the festivities, a procession moves to the Plaza de Armas, the main plaza, where the Sapa Inca prays to the sun god Inti. The procession continues through the streets of Cusco with the Sapa Inca carried on a throne accompanied by music and dancing up to Sacsayhuaman, a huge ancient Inca archaeological site on the outskirts of Cusco.
Here the main ceremony of the reenactment takes place. The Inca ruler and high priest pray to the spirits, perform many rituals and offer sacrifices to the sun god Inti and Pachamama to thank for the past harvest and ask for a rich harvest in the new year.
How to watch the Inti Raymi festival and buy tickets
Be aware that Cusco at Inti Raymi is extremely crowded, hotels are booked out weeks in advance, prices skyrocket and getting hold of a ticket for the major celebration at Sacsayhuaman can be a challenge.
On the day of the Festival of the Sun (24 June) the celebrations happen at three different locations in Cusco:
- At the gardens outside the Qorikancha, the sun temple. Only public standing room is available, no seating and no reservation. To get a pleasant spot to watch the opening ceremony arrive early.
- At the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square. Very limited spots available for public viewing. Best try to snatch a seat in one of the cafes and restaurants on the second floor that surround the plaza.
- At Sacsayhuaman ruins. The best way to watch the main ceremony surely is to reserve grandstand seats; but be aware that they come with a hefty price tag and are sold out quickly. Tickets can be bought at travel agencies, Intiraymi and Emufec (which rarely works). Often hotels have proven to be helpful as well.
If you can’t or won’t afford the high prices for seats, the festivities can also be watched from the hills surrounding the ruins, which get crowded from early in the morning. So best arrive early and take enough food, water and sun protection to last you until the afternoon.