Those of you planning on traveling to La Paz next month should think about swinging through Tiwanaku (in Spanish, Tiahuanaco) for the Aymaran New Year on June 21st, when the 5,522nd year of the Ayamara calendar will begin. As an agriculture-based society, the Aymara began their new year at the beginning of a new agricultural cycle. During the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, the longest night of the year when the sun was at its farthest, meant a new sowing season was to begin, and required rituals of celebration, adoration to initiate the sun’s return.
So why is the new year, which means Machaq Mara in Aymara and is also referred to as Wilkakuti (Return of the Sun), often referred to as Inti Raymi, Quechua for Sun Festival? Well, the Inca festival of Inti Raymi also coincides with the Winter solstice and the planting cycles, and also honors the sun. It was likely imposed in the 16th century when the Inca conquered the Aymara. (Which makes 5520 years seem an ambitious claim…)
Throughout the Andes, New Year fell on the Winter Solstice for other civilizations and cultures as well. This is why the date is celebrated not only in Bolivia, but also in Ecuador, Peru (in Cusco), Northern Chile, and Northeastern Argentina (in Salta and Jujuy), in both the Aymara and Quechua tradition. The festival survived after the Spanish conquest thanks to the coincidence of dates with Corpus Christi, which allowed for syncretic interpretations, and in 2009 President Evo Morales declared it a national holiday.
Shamanic Ceremonies & an All-Night Party
The Bolivian festivities take place at the thousand-year-old city of Tiwanaku, whose mysterious ruins were constructed by a prior civilization (the Tiwanacota, base of many Andean cultures) but are thought to have become the center of the extensive Aymara Empire, which stretched along the high Andean plains and the Atacama Desert.
Tens of thousands migrate to the ruins and pass the night partying with traditional and modern songs and dances, lighting bonfires and drinking the purple api corn drink to keep warm, enjoying loads of alcohol and food through the freezing night. (Temperatures can, and probably will, dip below 0° C, so visitors need to bundle up as much as possible….) There’ll be live music and sporadic fireworks. The celebration culminates at dawn, as the sun’s rays enter the Sun Gate at Kalasasaya temple, whose frieze contains a calendar marking the two solstices and equinoxes, and illuminate the Ponce Monolyth. It is then (and at certain points during the preceding night) that the Bolivian shamans, known as amautas, and healers, yatiris, perform ancestral rites in praise of Inti, the sun deity, and Pachamama, the Earth Mother. They’ll burn incense and perform rituals with coca leaves, alcohol, food and other offerings. Traditionally, there is a live llama sacrifice or two, whose blood is sprinkled on the earth for the Pachamamaand upon those seeking good fortune.
How to Get There
Tiwanaku is located an hour from La Paz, in the direction of Lake Titicaca. And since you’re surely planning on joining us and the rest of the friendly crew at Pirwa La Paz, you’ll be able to get all the help you need at the front desk from the knowledgeable staff on how to get to the festivities! If you prefer, you can arrange for a tour which leaves La Paz for the ruins of Tiawanaku between 4-4:30am, so that you will reach the Kalasasaya esplanade before the sun’s rays inaugurate the New Year. Those who’d rather do it themselves, can take the bus from La Paz to Desaguadero on the border with Peru. From there you can take a smaller bus, combi, to the ruins. Pirwa Travel Service can help you with transport, entrances, and all other aspects of your trip if you desire. Tours of Tiwanaku are available throughout the year, as well. If you’re going for the all-nighter, follow the lit fires to the main event and don’t forget the blankets and hot drinks!