The country of Peru is known for the richness of its culture, traditions, and the veneration of its Inca ancestors. One of the most celebrated events is the Inti Raymi festival which takes place on June 24 and marks the New Year, according to the Inca calendar. This date is significant since Peru is below the equator, making June and July winter months with the winter solstice officially marked on June 24th.
The name Inti Raymi comes from the Quechuan language meaning ‘Sun Festival.’ The festival began as a religious ceremony held by the Inca Empire in honor of Inti, the Sun God. The commemoration takes place on June 24th specifically because the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year with the fewest hours of sunlight. Inti is honored and beseeched to return the sun, thereby ensuring the flourishing of crops, and granting the gift of life to people and animals.
In the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors suppressed the rites and other Inca practices and enforced the spread of Catholicism. The festival was renewed in 1944 by Faustino Espinoza Navarro and is again celebrated throughout the Andes. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco is the principal location of Inti Raymi celebrations, which are held among original Inca architecture.
The revised festival stays close to the ancient traditions with some small but significant changes. The original festival lasted from the early hours of the day to nightfall with people gathering for the religious ceremony. Then, as now, the event is filled with dances, food and the burning of cocoa leaves.
Today, the festivities occur in three different stages. In Cuzco, events begin in the early morning in front of Korikancha, the Inca Temple of Sun, to which the Inti Churin, or Son of the Sun, has been carried on a litter. At the temple, the representatives of the four suyos (or regions) of the Inca Empire start off the ceremony by calling praise unto Inti. The next event takes place with a parade led by these representatives to the Plaza de Armas where the cocoa leaves are burned. It is believed that the flames reveal the fate of the coming year. Originally, mummies of ancestors were carried during the parade. Lastly, at the Sacsayhuaman, another Inca ruin, the ceremony is closed with the sacrifice of a llama. In ancient times, the sacrifices included 2 children from each of the four regions, if the preceding year had been particularly difficult. Nowadays, the sacrifices are merely symbolic, though some more distant regions may still sacrifice a llama.
Peru’s Inti Raymi festival is now one of the largest annual celebrations in South America, second only to Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. It draws thousands of tourists every year and has spread to other areas of the world, even as far as Madrid, thanks to the travels of Quechua peoples.