I’m the kind of person who tries to avoid festivals when I’m travelling. I’m not a fan of masses of people crowding to see something unfolding on a stage or in a procession. I tend to stand at the wrong spot like during the L’Escalade festival in Geneva when we were almost squashed by the leavers or the event would be cancelled due to rain like St. Paddy’s Day in Galway. I also don’t like what a festival does to a city. Stores will be closed and hotels & hostels will be much more expensive.
Ok that’s it, thanks for letting me gripe and allowing me to set the scene. I’m a bit of a grinch when it comes to festivals, so when I like one it’s saying a lot. Right? That’s what I’ve tried to accomplish with the above introduction.
Inti Raymi Festival
I booked this trip for Peru months in advance, unaware of the fact that a festival would take place. A week or so before leaving I found out my visit would coincide with the Inti Raymi festival in Cusco.
The first question that popped up in my mind was: what’s Inti Raymi? I know now, so let me try to answer that for you: It’s the festival of the sun. It’s celebrated every year on the 24th of June (when it’s winter solstice in the southern hemisphere) in Cusco. The Inti Raymi festival used to be a homage to the Sun god Inti. The Incas believed that Inti was their source of life.
The reason the festival takes place at the midwinter solstice, is because that is the time that the sun is furthest away from the earth. By having this festival, the Inca people would plea to Inti to return and to give life to their crops.
As such, the festival marked the start of the new year, so it’s a way to thank Inti for the past year and to ask his blessing for the upcoming year.
With pleas and giving thanks in the ancient times came a lot of bloodshed. The sacrifice of hundreds of lamas was part of the regular programming.
Short Guide to Celebrating the Festival in Cusco
Rest assured, the festival is not as bloody today as it used to be. It’s now a merry reenactement with music and dance. Hopefully, my short guide will be helpful in finding good places to stand & in understanding where all the activities take place.
The festival starts around 8am, but you want to be at the first spot quite early. There is no official seating here (although people will be trying to sell you chairs which is something the police isn’t fond of), so if you’re in front of the temple early you’ll have the best spots. Things kick off at Qoricancha temple.
The Sapa Inca (the king) will emerge from the temple, where he will give a short and very passionate speech in Quechua before he lifts his staff to commence the festivities.
This part of the festival is fun to attend. There’s a lot of dancing by all the different tribes – represented by the different coloured outfits – which is easy to see if you manage to get a “front row” spot.
Plaza de Armas
After this short hour, the king along with his queen and nobility are carried on golden plates to the Plaza de Armas.
This is where it’s a bit more difficult to view things. The whole plaza is cordoned off, so people will be standing four five people deep to see the proceedings. The best place to view everything is from one of the balconies, but it’s impossible to secure a spot there if you attended the festivities at Qoricancha. I walked a different route from the procession and ended up at the western corner of the plaza where it was quieter than at the other corners. It’s the corner near the “Nuevo Mundo Draft Bar” & the “Cajero BCP”.
Once in the Plaza de Armas, the Sapa Inca blesses the crowd. Luckily, the whole procession passed me by on the way to their final destination.
The whole event is wrapped up at Sacsayhuaman. To attend the festivities there you can purchase tickets beforehand for around 100 USD. However, I’ve heard that the views are not that great. There is free seating on another hill, but it’s best to get there early because it get’s quite busy. It’s also a long walk to the ruins (around 30 minutes), so don’t forget to take that into account.
I didn’t attend this part of the festival so I can’t speak from experience.
My experience is that these rituals are all conducted in sincerity and with religious devotion. They might be reenactments, but they are taken incredibly seriously by worshippers who still have a deep connection with Peru’s indigenous civilizations.
Please don’t make light of the events, instead enter into a conversation with the people surrounding you regarding the significance of all the proceedings. In my experience, they are happy to let you know exactly what’s happening and who’s who.
I loved this festival exactly for that reason. People around me were passionate about the festival and didn’t see it as just a show. This taught me something about the country and its people. It’s a great thing to experience.