Location: Sacsayhuamán, Cuzco, Peru
Date: 24 June
Level of participation: 2 – venture beyond the llama-sparing spectacle
Oft parodied by popular culture, for example the Tintin book Prisoners of the Sun, this Peruvian paean to the sun god, Inti, used to involve mass sacrifice. Llamas got the chop in the gory ritual, which was also dedicated to Pachmama, Inti’s wife and the goddess of fertility and harvests.
No blood is shed in today’s re-enactment of the ceremony, and there are comfy chairs for tourists. Criticised by some for its theatricality, the event nonetheless enacts traditions dating back 500 years to the Incan empire’s heyday, when it was the most important ceremony carried out in the capital, Cuzco. It celebrated the Incan New Year and winter solstice, when the sun was furthest from this side of the earth and Inti needed to be buttered up.
Today’s action takes place at Sacsayhuamán, a hefty stone ruin that, typically, is shrouded in mystery, but was possibly a fortress. The lucky actor who is selected to portray Sapa Inca, the emperor, is borne to the hilltop edifice in a golden chariot. Fortunately for his pallbearers, it’s a replica of the original, 60kg beauty.
Starting from the remains of Qorikancha, the sun temple, the procession winds through streets filled with music, dancing, prayers, scattered flowers, and ladies with brooms sweeping away evil spirits. Joining the head honcho are his female counterpart, Mama Occlo, various priests and participants dressed as snakes, pumas and condors.
Upon their arrival at the hilltop square, speeches are delivered in Queachua, the Incan language, as the crowd awaits the faux sacrifice. After the high priest has been through the motions with the llamas, he holds a heart up to Pachmama and reads the future in the bloodstains. As Inti’s orb slides beneath the horizon, bonfires spark up and the procession winds back to Cuzco.
The Spanish conquistadors suppressed Inti Raymi in the 16th century, seeing it as a pagan ceremony opposed to their Catholic faith. It started up again in 1944, the reconstruction based partly on the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, aka ‘El Inca’, a 16th-century poet born of a conquistador and an Incan princess.
Although Peru aficionados complain that the official activities are too staged, they enjoy the street-level entertainment on the fringes. Student groups perform folk dances; firemen, teachers and other local groups march with bands; and there are prime opportunities to hear Peruvian music.
Essentials: book well in advance to bag a seat for the ceremony, though standing with the locals could be a better bet, and to reserve accommodation in Cuzco.
Local attractions: many visitors to Cuzco are keen to hit the Inca trail to the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu, but it’s worth loitering in the ancient Incan capital. With stone walls and cobbled streets, it’s South America’s archaeological centre.
Photography credits: Fred Lam