During the time of the Inca Empire, Inti Raymi was one of the year’s biggest celebrations, and it continues being so today. Set in place by Pachakutec Inka Yupanki, Inti Raymi marked the winter solstice with a series of rituals and general festivities. Although banned by the Spanish after the conquest, it was revived in 1944, following a script based on the chronicles of Inca Garcilaso, which were written shortly after the conquest.
The festivities are split into three parts. The first takes place at Qorikancha Sun Temple, which is located on Avenida El Sol and was once the religious center of Cusco. It begins at 9:00am. Crowds gather along the street to get their first glimpse of the hundreds of actors who will reenact the year’s Inti Raymi. Among them, the Inka and his female companion, the Qoya, greet the sun deity, Inti, and ask for a successful ceremony and prosperous year. The ceremony lasts 30 minutes and can be watched for free, although we recommend that you be wary of pickpockets in the dense crowds.
Eventually, the entire coterie begins to make its way to the main square of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas, for a modern addition to the festivities known as the Meeting of the Times. Women toss flowers, swing incense, and sweep the streets in front of the Inca, who is carried on a litter. He’s accompanied by pututu conch-horn blowers, soldiers, ñusta chosen women, and other actors representing key figures of the Incan court.
In the main square, the Inca performs a coca leaf ceremony, and addresses the apu mountain deities. Then, he gives a speech directed at Cusco’s current mayor, urging good governance as he speaks from atop a ceremonial platform known as an ushnu. This, and all of the other spoken parts of the Inti Raymi celebrations, is in Quechua. This part of the reenactments begins at 11am and takes about 45 minutes. It’s also free to watch, although it can be uncomfortable due to the limited size of the square and the amount of people who gather there. Go early to grab a good spot in view of the ushnu (which is erected several days prior), or make a reservation in one of the restaurants in the main square, many of which boast colonial balconies which overlook the square.
Our hostel in the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, Pirwa Posada del Corregidor, has its own restaurant, Plus, with a view of the square. (Unfortunately, hostel rooms do not have a view of the square.) Be aware that the city’s main square and the adjoining streets are pedestrian-only on this day. If you’re staying in or around the main square, taxis will need to drop you off nearby and you’ll have to walk to your hostel.
The third and main part of the events takes place on Chukipampa Explanade at Sacsayhuaman, the fortress of massive stones which overlooks Cusco. It lasts for about an hour and half. In order to properly see this part of the festivities, one should buy a ticket from EMUFEC, the municipal organization that organizes festivals in Cusco and the surrounding Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Because tickets are pricey, locals often camp along the surrounding hills from early in the morning, hoping to catch part of the dances and rituals. However, a decent view is hard to come by.
There are roughly 3,500 tickets available, but 80 thousand people in total gather in the surrounding area to catch what they can of the central ceremonies.
Groups from the four corners, or suyos, of the empire perform their traditional dances and give their reports. There are rituals involving fermented corn beer (chicha), bonfires, and a llama sacrifice in order to divine the future from its entrails. (Don’t worry- these days, the llama is fake.) It all ends with an uproar of general exhultation.
The weeks prior to and following Inti Raymi are full of open-air concerts and almost daily dance parades. This is because June is also considered Cusco’s anniversary, its Jubilee Month. If you’re planning on visiting Cusco in June, we recommend that you book your hostels in Cusco ahead of time, because the city explodes with visitors.
You can purchase tickets for the Sacsayhuaman portion of the ceremonies through EMUFEC’s website. These range in price depending on the area, and include an official program and explanation in three languages as well as a commemorative DVD. Local travel agencies offer Inti Raymi packages that include tickets, a guide to explain the meaning of different ceremonies, a box lunch or snack, and a private balcony in the Plaza de Armas to watch that part of the proceedings.
Some informal agencies (namely, those that you’ll find around the main square of Cusco) offer Inti Raymi tours that don’t include tickets- basically, someone from the agency camps out on a blanket from around four in the morning to get a spot with a view of the festivities. It’s a cheap option, but you don’t get much out of it. Between this service and the option of buying tickets and going guide-less, we recommend the latter.
Inca World Travel offers a 6-day Inti Raymi Program that includes the Inti Raymi festival alongside guided tours of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas.