6 Amazing Things to See in Cusco that are Not Incan Ruins Series: #4

6 Amazing Things to See in Cusco that are Not Incan Ruins Series: #4

Miguel Angel Gongora Meza

Have you been to Cusco’s most popular religious and cultural event of the year?! Check out the story behind the Inti Raymi Celebration of the Sun.

To catch up on article #3 in this series, click here!

4. The Inti Raymi or Party of the Sun.

June is the month of celebrations for Cusco’s anniversary. During this month the local people from Cusco engage in all sorts of cultural activities to honor their beloved city. As descendants of the Inca, the Cuzquenian people are consistent with the traditional and cultural legacy of their ancestors, who for millennia have been celebrating the Winter Solstice as the most important day of the year.

Such a celebration is a continuation of what the ancient Andean astronomers understood of astronomical phenomena such as solstices and equinoxes. June 20th marks the arrival of the Winter Solstice for the people who live in the southern hemisphere. In fact, it is the shortest day of the year, which in the Incan mythical and religious astronomical understanding, represented the time to worship their father, Inti, the sun, of whom they claimed to be his children.

Despite all the horrific events that accompanied the arrival of the Spaniards -the sudden collapse of the Incan empire, and the prohibition of all Incan rituals that were associated with Satan according to the European mindset of the time – the Incan civilization remained in place for long enough to enable the Spanish chroniclers to record a vast amount of information regarding the cultural and religious practices of the Incan people.

The truth is, that it was a local mestizo writer called Inca Garcilazo de la Vega who wrote in detail about the important aspects of the Inca’s most significant religious celebration called Inti Raymi or celebration of the sun. Garcilazo, the son of an arranged marriage between an Incan princess and a Spanish captain, born merely two years after the arrival of the Spaniards to Cusco, in 1534, was able to witness these events firsthand while growing up in Cusco.

(Photo: Wikimedia)

It is because of this historical account that on June the 24th, thousands of people gather in the central plaza of Saqsaywaman to witness an array of hundreds of actors and volunteers performing a play of the highest Incan religious ritual, the Inti Raymi.

During Incan times, this Incan religious ceremony took place at the center of the current main square of Cusco or Aucaypata, but currently, it takes place at Saqsaywaman, the Incan temple with megalithic rocks located on one of the mountains overlooking the city of Cusco.

What we know from Garcilazo’s description and what is re-enacted during the play of the Inti Raymi is fascinating. The actors performing in this re-enactment are deeply immersed in the roles they represent, perfectly bringing back to life an ancient ritual that immaculately portrays the magical connection of the Andean people with the Sun.

On a different dimension of how faithful to Garcilaso’s writing this play is, the entire performance is carried out in the native Quechua language of the Incan people which is spoken by every participant of this event. The individuals in charge of the scenography managed to recreate with such a craftsmanship, key elements of the Incan life such as the dances, the clothing and the ritual items used during this performance.

The play itself runs off a script written by the Cuzquenian artists Faustino Espinoza Medrano in the year 1944. In it, the Sapan Incan or Emperor, a self-proclaimed son of the sun god, together with the highest Incan religious priest, called Willak Umu, would initiate the rituals after a period of purification, sexual abstinence, and fasting. The first ritual, they perform by paying reverence to the Maquis or mummified bodies of the previous kings stored at the Inticancha or temple of the sun, and afterward, by proceeding to observe a complex astronomical, almost forgotten, system of projections of sunlight over a carved rock that they called Succancas or sundials.

Over this stone, and upon receiving confirmation from the highest priest and other astronomers, the Incan king and the highest Incan priest would sacrifice a young black llama by cutting open its thorax, with the purpose of foreseeing an omen in the still beating heart and lungs of this creature. An omen that would reveal to them the year they were about to start; a revelation about the health of the King, the Empire, the relationship with other gods and all of the other things necessary to maintain a powerful empire.

It is then when the Incan emperor breaks his fasting by soaking a piece of cornbread in the blood of the sacrificial llama and drinks a cup of corn beer, served in two Keros or wooden cups, making a symbolic toast with his father the sun. What follows after, is the dramatic speech of the Incan king to his people and the beginning of the official celebrations for the Winter Solstice through the whole territory of the Incan empire.

Something important to remember here is the silence of both tourists and locals throughout the entire performance, which adds an impressive dose of mysticism to the whole performance.


  • The Spaniards banned this celebration in 1535.
  • The original date of this celebration was June 21st or June 20th according to the arrival of the Winter Solstice.
  • Thousands of people from all across the Incan empire would come to Cusco to witness these celebrations and to render loyalty to the Incan kings.
  • The Inca kept performing this ritual at their last stronghold in Vilcabamba and perhaps Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo.
  • Most participants in this celebration are volunteer soldiers of the Peruvian army.
  • The sacrifice of the black llama is only feigned during the play.


  • Dates: June 24th, 2017
  • Location: Saqsaywaman archaeological site, Cusco.
  • Trip Details: 1-hour walking
  • Weather: Warm during the day 23C/76F
  • Tickets and reservations are necessary to access the stands placed by the organizers.

Miguel is a professional Peruvian tour guide from Cusco, he has been leading tours throughout Peru for almost 20 years. Graduated from the Antonio Lorena Institute School of Tourism in Cusco, Peru, he has a vast knowledge of the rich cultural and ecological diversity of his beautiful country. Miguel specializes in leading tours to the Inca Trail and other alternative routes to Machu Picchu, such as the Choquequirao and Salkantay treks. Since 2003, he has traveled to the US and other countries to lecture about cultural appropriation and sustainable tourism. Miguel is a strong advocate of ecotourism and science. He values the role that tourists play in the development and protection of sensitive cultures and ecosystems and dedicates his work to raise the awareness of such players with the aim of furthering such a powerful tool. Also, he is the co-founder of Evolution Treks Peru a worker-owned travel company based in Cusco.

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