For the Incas, the winter solstice marked not only the beginning of winter, but also the beginning of a new year. As is customary in many cultures, they celebrated the New Year with grand ceremony, but for the Incas the meaning of this day was more profound than just a new beginning or a turning of their calendar page. The entire celebration was an offering dedicated to Inti, the Inca god of the sun, in hopes that he would continue to shine his light upon Mother Earth (“Pachamama” in Quechua) and guarantee a prosperous annual harvest.
Despite the difficult terrain and erratic weather in the Andes, the Incas had managed to devise sophisticated systems for planting, irrigating and harvesting the crops necessary to feed their population. However, without the sun to warm the soil and nurture growth, these efforts would be futile and the threat of starvation very real. Thus the celebration of Inti Raymi, or the Festival of the Sun, was borne.
The Andean people have carried on in this tradition for hundreds of years, and it has become the most important annual celebration in the city of Cusco as well. Ignited by colorful processions, elaborate re-enactments of revered Inca ceremonies and continuous singing and dancing, the excitement of the people is palpable. Many visitors to Cusco consider Inti Raymi to be an indispensable addition to their itineraries, traveling from all over the world for a front row seat to witness all of its folkloric majesty.
My favorite event has always been the festivities held at Sacsahuayman, the impressive Inca fortress just outside of Cusco. The site is staged similarly to a theater-in-the-round, giving spectators the opportunity to feel like they are part of the program. To see the “Great Inca” and his retinue performing the traditional offering to Inti, with the imposing fortress behind him, is truly magical!