The Festival of Inti Raymi: Peru Welcomes the Sun

The Festival of Inti Raymi: Peru Welcomes the Sun

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | January 25, 2013 7:30 AM ET

Each year on June 24th, Cusco, Peru - already an ancient city - transforms itself into the Inca capital that it once was. 

The Inti Raymi festival is an authentic re-enactment of a sacred Inca solstice authentic, in fact, that you just might find yourself standing in the presence of an Inca Emperor.
At the Inti Raymi festival, a cast of hundreds will dress in full regalia to welcome the return of the Father Sun, or "Inti." The day is filled with Andean music, parades, ceremonies in the ancient Quechua tongue, and a stunning display in the fortress-ruins of Sacsayhuaman, in the hills overlooking the city. The lead character is "The Inca" - the Emperor, supreme ruler of the Incan Empire. Carried on a platform by his subjects, and dressed in regal red and gold, the Emperor leads the ceremony with gestures and incantations to the sun.

The sun is deeply-embedded in the Andean tradition...and Inti Raymi's roots run just as deep. At the height of the Incan Empire in the 15th-Century, over 50,000 people would gather in Cusco to celebrate the festival. The rite of Inti Raymi, a tribute to the Sun God Apu Inti Tayta, was the most important date on the Inca calendar. But the end of the Inca Empire was near. When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in the 16th-Century, and Catholicism was declared the official faith.

The Incas, however, weren't about to give up their festival. So they "hid" it, moving the date from the true solstice on June 21 to the new date of June 24, to coincide with the Christian feast of San Juan. But the Spanish caught on. In 1572 they forbade the festival, and it died out - at least for several centuries.
The Inti Raymi tradition was revived in the 1940′s, when Peruvian academic Faustino Espinoza Navarro wrote a script for it in the original Quechua. And it's since become one of the continent's landmark festivals.

Now, however, the festival doesn't attract 50,000 people - it attracts 150,000, many clad in authentic costumes. People assemble in the morning at the fabled Coricancha, or Sun Temple, where the Inca Emperor delivers an invocation of praise to Father Sun. Next, the royal entourage moves to the city's main plaza, formerly the Incas' great civic square. First, there's a ceremonial reading of the sacred coca leaf to divine the future of the empire (in Quechua, the native tongue still spoken in the Andean Highlands). Then the Emperor proceeds to the massive stone walls and ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, one of the most astonishing architectural feats of the ancient world - a single rock battlement weighs more that 300 tons.

On Sacsayhuaman's broad plaza, a fire is lit and a llama ritually "sacrificed" (not really!).  Sounds of panpipes, drums and blaring horns fill the air. And traditional dancers representing the four corners of the empire go into a dazzling routine.

Southwind Adventures, a Denver, Colorado-based tour operator specializing in South America, can take you to the Inti Raymi festival. The company's now offering itineraries pairing the festival with Peruvian destinations such as Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, or the Amazon.

Cusco is a fascinating city in itself; it's a colonial city 11,150 feet above sea level, and gateway to the legendary Inca ruins at Machu Picchu.

And if you're here for Inti Raymi, you'll feel as if you've stepped out of a time-machine...and into the Inca Empire.

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