Every year, on the 24th of June, Cuzco celebrates the festival of Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, which was celebrated by the Incan Empire to honor the most notable of the Inca Gods, the Sun God, Wiracocha. Inti Raymi was the foremost festival of the Inca culture, which based its religion on the cult of the sun, considered the divinity of highest ranks. The Inca temples were built in the most important places in the empire to honor the sun, and Inti Raymi symbolizes the eternal consecration of marriage between the Sun and his sons, the human beings.
The Inti Raymi festival is one of the most colorful festivals in South America and the second largest after the carnival in Rio. More than 200,000 people converge on Cuzco to witness the most beautiful spectacle of the year where more than 500 actors proudly bring alive their heritage and past.
Cuzco, surrounded by 12 guardian mountains, was by nature a sacred place, or “House of God”. Known in ancient times as Cosqo, its equivalent in the local Quechua language, “Solar Plexus” (Vital Center) indicates the center of corporal energy, where feelings reside. To reinforce its power as the center of the Incan Empire, the city was designed in the shape of a puma. The head of the puma was the multifunctional fortress of Saqsaywaman – a temple, refuge, observatory and gathering center. The spine of the Puma, where the life of the empire flowed, was delineated by the street of Pumakurko, and the pulsating heart of the city was the central plaza. To heighten its sacred energy, astronomers planned a complex system of sanctuaries around the city, carefully aligned with the stars, to correspond to the calendar of social and festive functions. Appropriately, the Inti Raymi festival is celebrated here.
The celebration takes place during Winter Solstice on the day after the longest night in the Southern Hemisphere. Though scientifically the solstice begins on June 21st, according to a sundial used by the Incas the sun stays in the same place some days before rising on June 24th. The Inti Raymi marks the beginning of a new year.
The festival starts out at the Koricancha square in front of the Santo Domingo church, built over the original Inca Sun Temple. A procession of historical figures, actors chosen for the pageant during the year and dressed in elaborate silver and gold costumes, moves through the city along the flower bedecked streets to the ancient fortress of Saqsaywaman. As they proceed, women sweep the streets to cleanse them of evil spirits.
At Saqsaywaman, a ceremony is acted out on stage in honor of Inti the sun god, and includes a simulated animal sacrifice of a llama, a toast to the land and gods with chica, a Peruvian drink, and the lighting of a “starter’ fire. In the ancient Incan Empire, all fireplaces in the city were extinguished and the “starter fire” was taken to relight the fires. A fitting finale to the pageant is the speech in native Quechua, followed by a march back to the Plaza de Armas, the central square, where all festivities commence.
Though the main festival of Inti Raymi is on June 24th, the week- long celebration is packed with events – street fairs, exhibits, dancing in the streets, square activities, and live music concerts by popular Peruvian bands – all these bring together enthusiastic crowds. And once again, a New Year begins in Cuzco.