Photo by Britt Fracolli
Every year, on June 24th, Cusco stages Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun. It is a re-enactment of the Inca Empire’s feast on the occasion of the winter solstice, a time of great ritual significance. The modern-day version of Inti Raymi has been celebrated since 1944, and among travelers from abroad and from within Peru, it has become a major reason to visit to Cusco in late June.
The “scientific discovery” of Machu Picchu in 1911 focused the world’s attention on the remote mountaintop sanctuary and on the civilization that engineered this daring architectural feat. Locally, Machu Picchu also bolstered a burgeoning sense of pride in Cusco’s Inca past. Versed in Quechua oral histories and steeped in the chronicles of the conquest, Cusco’s intellectuals found this a precipitous time to recuperate the city’s lost traditions and, when there were gaps in the archival record, to invent new ones based on deep study of Inca history and culture. Inti Raymi is the product of this revival. (For more on the history of this celebration, read our older post on the Inti Raymi Festival.)
Like the ancient feast upon which it is modeled, today’s Inti Raymi festival honors a new cycle of life with several days of exulted dancing, drinking, and eating, with the main event on June 24.
Photo by Ana Castañeda
In a city that does not lack for festivals to fill the cultural calendar, Inti Raymi has become one of the largest and most important celebrations in Cusco, perhaps precisely because of its local significance. More than 500 actors, organized by university, professional, or neighborhood affiliation, prepare and practice for months beforehand, designing elaborate and ornate costumes, refining dance sequences, and coordinating the most minor details or the procession, all in order to give full homage to the Inca past.
On the day of Inti Raymi, the procession is staged at Qorikancha, the Plaza de Armas, and Sacsayhuaman. These were the most important ceremonial sites in Inca times and today they are among the few remaining examples of the Inca’s mastery of monumental stone architecture. (For a firsthand account of the procession as it advances from Santo Domingo Church to Sacsayhuaman, read this guide to Inti Raymi.)
The starting point of the procession is Qoricancha, the former “Temple of the Sun,” and current site of Santo Domingo Church. It was here that the Inca civilization worshipped Inti, the Sun God, and this grandest of palaces was decked out accordingly. Inti Raymi begins at San Domingo Church, the site of Qoricancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun. The darker-hued stone wall is the building’s most visible remnant of Inca architecture.
Women actors, representing the Virgins of the Sun, carry offerings to the Sun.
Photo by Britt Fracolli
The chronicles of the conquest say that, when the Spanish first entered Cusco, Qorikancha was among the most amazing constructions that they had ever encountered in the Americas. The walls of the temple were plated in gold and the gardens were littered with life-size reproductions of Andean flora and fauna including golden-fleeced llamas, tiny insects, ears of corn, and the most delicate flowers, all crafted in gold and silver. Aside from 4,000 attending priests, the most important residents of Qorikancha were the deceased Incas, mummified and wrapped in fine clothes and seated upon thrones of gold to rest until eternity.
Of course, none of these wonders withstood the plundering thirst of conquering Spaniards and all that remains are a series of Inca walls that were spared when construction started for the Spanish church that now towers over the original site. This is where the Inti Raymi procession starts every June 24, and people show up hours in advance to secure the best view.
Photo by Ana Castañeda
The procession continues on foot to the Plaza de Armas and then further up the hill to Sacsayhuaman, an expansive archaeological site where the remainder of the Inti Raymi rituals are performed to the delight of thousands of onlookers. The entire ceremony is conducted in the Quechua language.
Travelers can arrange to go in the company of a guide who can provide background information for a fuller understanding of the rituals as they are being carried out. At every instance, the pride of local residents is palpable. Indeed, as a ceremony in honor of Cusco’s glorious Inca history, Inti Raymi has no equal.
- Book in advance everything you can: June is the high season for Cusco travel and you can expect accommodations, train tickets to Machu Picchu and treks to fill up early and fast. Some Cusco hotels charge higher rates for Inti Raymi; speak to your travel advisor for the latest information.
- Travelers also have the option of buying tickets to sit in the viewing stands at Sacsayhuaman. Ask your travel advisor about ticket availability.
- Get there early: Locals show up hours in advance at Santo Domingo Church, the Plaza de Armas, and Sacsayhuaman to secure an optimal place for viewing the procession.
- Careful for pickpockets! The streets get crowded in Cusco for Inti Raymi. Guard your electronics, leave nothing in your pockets, and if you have a small backpack we recommend you keep a watchful eye on it.
- Weather and what to wear: Although Cusco weather is unpredictable, late June days are usually sunny and it’s important to be equipped with sun protection (sunscreen, hat, light long sleeve shirt) and to keep hydrated in order to avoid the worst effects of a hot day at altitude.
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This blog was originally featured in 2013, but updated regularly to keep content updated.