On June 21st, you Northern hemisphere dwellers experienced the longest sunlit hours of the year; the summer solstice. Being so near the equator, for me the change is less dramatic. But technically I just experienced the winter solstice, or the shortest day of the year. In the days of the Incan empire, as winter pressed on, they watched the sun fall farther and farther away and wanted to be absolutely sure Inti, or the sun god, would come back for the new year. So on June 24th, the Quechua people celebrate Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun.
The people offer Inti food, dance, and animal sacrifices, and in return, the sun brings the people knowledge and predictions for the coming year. And as the sun begins to turn around and return, the New Year begins. The Inti Raymi festival is considered the second biggest annual celebration in South America (after Carnival in Brazil) and is centered right where it should be, in the old Inca Capitol Cuzco. For years, the festival was banned by the Spanish, considered a pagan ritual- now it has come back stronger than ever, as a real show of Peruvian pride and heritage.
Yeah, I was just there. But I had couple reasons to go back. Aside from Inti Raymi, Ed and LB had just left and I was switching gears and traveling with Nir for my last 3 weeks. He was still in Cuzco, and wanted to spend a few more days there before we headed up to Huaraz. I´d been conflicted over whether to explore another country- Bolivia or Chile (because I`d covered Peru`s main highlights), or whether to revisit my favorite spots. Or to go back to PSF, where I spend far less money?
But my plan with Nir just sounded perfect. Back to Cuzco for Inti Raymi, back to Huaraz for the Huaywash, and then finish on the beach near Ecuador. So in the end I´ll never leave Peru, but I have gotten to know the country pretty dang well. With that motive, it made a whole lot of sense to backtrack and attend Peru`s most important cultural event that weekend.
So I rolled up to the Loki hostel at 6 in the morning on Friday, slept till 10, and wandered down to the bright grassy courtyard to grab some free breakfast. With Nir, you automatically have a group of friends- a couple of the guys we had hung out with a week ago were still there, but he had adopted some new buddies, including two very cool girls from Canada (Leah and Rashana), who were taking a break from WWOOFing around South America.
But at the Loki, everyone is friends. On late mornings, everyone lounges out on the college-esque lawn and on low strung hammocks, sipping coffee and reminiscing about last week´s adventure or last night´s outings.
We decided to join in on the Loki´s free walking tour of Cuzco, which ended up being a really good idea- I learned lot that I wouldn´t have gotten from my own wanderings. The first thing I learned was that Loki used to be a horse stable during colonial times… very strange. We passed by Incan walls and ancient foundations and made a stop at a chocolate factory- chocolate originated in Peru! Not surprising at this point. The delicacy was eventually taken up to Central America by the Mayans, but it´s just one of the millions of crops that originated in the Andes. Peru seems to be the fertile crescent of the New World.
Chocolate didn´t become a consumer product until relatively recently; before then it as considered a luxury product and even a health drink. When the Spanish conquered Peru, of just as much importance as the gold and silver were coffee and cacao beans. Not until that time was chocolate a known substance in Europe.
The museum was a cute, quaint and organized combo museum- coffee shop- chocolate making kitchen- gift shop, overlooking a square with a little balcony. We stood out there to watch the parade below- because of the Inti Raymi celebration on Sunday, there are processions and parades for weeks.
Below us, thousands of Peruvian dancers in a hundred varieties of colorful costumes spun and stepped and enacted scenes of the conquest of the Incas- Actors wearing masks with two foot long noses mimicked the “big nosed” Spaniards, and they danced out a mini battle scene on the road. Like in Leon, there is always some sort of parade or celebration going on in Cuzco, but during Inti Raymi, the city explodes. The already high energy level is raised up 10 notches- Cuzco really is just so much fun.
We wove through the dense crowds through fair like food stands, Cotton candy, Quechua girls cuddling baby alpacas with knit caps on their tiny fuzzy heads, dancers in rainbow skirts, gringos with cameras… through the bustling Plaza de Armas, where you could barely squeeze your way between the dense bodies.
It was a bright, sunny day; the cathedrals at the square shone and Cuzco´s rainbow flags flapped in brilliant shades. Despite the common first reaction, the rainbow flag of Cuzco has nothing to do with gay pride. It´s simply a bright expression of pride, beauty, and Incan heritage- the rainbow was worshipped by the Incas because of its beauty and because it`s a symbol of Cuzco`s contrasting weather- bright sun and then heavy rain. Everything Incan revolves around nature: they worship the sun, the Earth, (Pachamama), the moon, the fire… The Quechua lifestyle revolved and still revolves around what Mother Nature delivers each year. Agriculture and animals are the center of their livelihood.
Yes, the Incas are not dead- they`re just the Quechuas, and have always been the Quechuas. According to our city guide, “Inca” was the word used for the King of the people and the first born “son of the sun”, not the people as a whole- as a whole they were Quechua, and still are. It`s no coincidence that the bright rainbow colors and patterns in the dancer`s Incan costumes are so similar to the shades and textures worn by the mountain folk today.
Right off the Plaza de Armas is an old Incan palace. Today it´s no longer occupied by people, but it´s become a home for domesticated llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. In the old days, the animals wandered free with their human companions. Our guide announced that it was time for some “close encounters with llamas”, and I got pretty excited. It turned out we weren´t allowed to actually touch them. It was way too tempting though, and I couldn´t help but reach out and grab one- in return I got the experience of being spat on my a llama.
They were a bit intimidating and even threatening though- they seemed to follow us and appeared to strike out menacingly. I think they´re just a bit odd. One kicked Rahana, but I´m pretty sure it was really just scratching itself and she happened to be in the way.
Our last stop was the market, where dried llama fetuses hung from the rafters everywhere you turned. There was a soup stand that boasted cures to a myriad of illnesses ranging from headaches to liver failure to bladder infections, and the ingredients specific to each ailment included frog, donkey penis, eel, octopus, squid, and other varieties of animal genetalia and internal organs. Frog soup, seemingly the most harmless option, made me gag.
Signs in the market are written in spanish, quechua, and english.
After a couple nights of goofing off and enjoying Cuzco to its fullest, the official Inti Raymi celebration began. We met at 8:30 on Sunday for a group tour with a translator- the entire demonstration is conducted in Quechua. The procession began in Sun Temple next to the old Incan palace, made its way through the Plaza de Armas, and ended at Sacsayhuaman, a ruin about an hour up the mountain from Cuzco. No one is entirely sure of its age; Sacsayhuaman is either Incan or pre Incan.
To enact the ancient ceremnony, a “Sapa Inca” or Inca King, and “Mama Occla” are chosen. They´re actors, but they have to have Quechua roots, so they look something like an Incan king and queen might have looked like. It´s a great honor to be chosen for this role, and this year the Sapa Inca happened to be a good friend of our guide from the Loki.
High on a balcony at the Sun Temple, we watched a group of lavishly outfitted actors raise a huge metal golden sun. Like rays, they threw ribbons down the face of the building. The seven strands reach out to the seven main mountains, or “apos” around Cuzco. The sun, symbolizing knowledge, reaches out to the mountains, which symbolize protection. Here, the Sapa Inca calls out blessings to the sun.
From the temple, the Sapa Inca is carried out on a golden throne surrounded by elaborately dressed “high priests”, followed by his wife. The throne is a replica of the original, which weighed around 60 kilos. From there we walked to the Plaza de Armas. It was pretty hard to see, but if you pretended like you were in a music festival and pushed through, you got an okay view.
The Sapa Inca and Mama Occla processed around the square, and between them came floods of differently dressed dancers and actors. In ancient times, the Incan empire was split into four sections, of the North, South, East and West. Each section was represented in the procession, and each had a unique costume. For example, the Northerners come from the jungly areas, so they wore almost nothing but a loincloth and tall feathers in their hair. There are women who scatter flowers along the street, and others who sweep the street clean to remove evil spirits. There are speeches by the Inca and the three suyos: the snake, representing the underworld, the puma, representing life on earth, and the condor, representing the heavens.
The queen is carried out on a throne
Check out the mummy on the right!
Finally, everyone shuffles slowly up the hills to Sacsayhuaman. There are millions of visitors to Cuzco every summer for the festival, and the streets that lead uphill are absolutely choked with tourists and locals alike. At the top, there are stands down inside the ancient fortress, but if you want to sit in them you have to pay something like 50 bucks. We did what the locals do- crouch up on the hills for a far off and average view of the happenings.
The crowd on the hill was the most ridiculous crowd I have ever been in. As we pushed up through the masses to be able to see the field below, old Peruvian ladies pushed back, and one even punched Rashana in the face, second Peru-inflicted injury of the weekend. When we finally squeezed in for a seat, everyone was sitting down, and we couldn´t see anything. The festivities hadn´t started yet though, so we were patient. Five minutes later, groups in front of us started to sneak into standing positions, throwing mischevious and sheepish smiles at the crowd behind. “SIENTATE!!! SIENTATE!!!” the old ladies screamed. (Sit! Sit!) They would laugh and sit back down. This happened several times, and if the people didn´t sit down in good time, the angry crowd behind would, literally, throw bags of garbage, orange peels, chicken skin, or whatever grotesque food waste item was laying around at their heads.
Eventually, we got into it. Someone would stand up in front of our group, and we would scream and make a fuss and throw empty plastic coca cola bottles at their heads. It was all in good fun though, and everyone was laughing. It didn´t really get serious until the procession began. At that point, we decided screw it, we need to see. So we stood up, and didn´t sit back down. So in return for my view of Inti Raymi, I came back with all sorts of rotten goo in my hair and down my back, but it was worth it.
Walking up to Sacsayhuaman
Leah, me, Rashana, with the silly hats they give out for free for the rain
The procession was similar to what we saw in the Plaza de Armas, but then there was the sacrifice of the llama. In the corner of Sacsayhuaman was a corral of llamas. As we watched, priests selected the darkest llama (the blood is supposed to be richest), wrestled it down, tied it up, and carried it to the center stage. There, they sacrificed it with an ancient Incan spear, and the Inca drank the llama´s blood. The sacrifice is done to ensure the fertility of the earth, and the Inca reads the blood stains for future predictions.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that the Incas sacrificed humans. It´s said that human sacrifice was practiced in pre Incan times, but was only used in “very extreme situations” in Incan civilization. After the sacrifice of the llama, the dancers set bags of straw on fire to read the directions of the wind. This is to honor Tawantinsuty, or the Empire of the Four Wind Directions.
The celebration ends with traditional dancing from each of the four regions of the Incan Empire. It went on till about five, but Nir and I had a bus to Lima that evening and I needed to head back. On the way, our guide brought us past a mysterious never ending cave in an adjacent ruin- the field is said to have been an ancient aquifer, and the cave provided water to the city of Cuzco.
It was sad to say bye to our new group of friends, but Huaraz was calling us. Back to the Cordillera Blanca! Or really, to the Cordillera Huaywash this time- we planned to doing an 8 day circuit of the mountain range. Nir had been in Cuzco three weeks, and although I could have stayed longer, it was good to move on in the end. My journey´s end was sneaking up on me…