Inti Raymi... where to begin? Well, where Inti Raymi begins according to legend is in the Plaza de Armas in the heart of Cusco, followed by the Qoricancha, and culminating at the ruins of Sacsayhuamán. The main draw of the yearly festival is a grand semi-theatrical production that replicates the ancient Inca celebrations which took place near the solstice in honor of the sun and all its munificence, in the hope that such munificence would continue into the new year. After a parade around the Plaza, the ceremonial events kick off with an invocation by the Sapa Inca (emperor) in the Qoricancha, which is today a classically Cusqueñan mishmash of the Spanish Santo Domingo church built atop the ancient Temple of the Sun. Here, the Sapa Inca calls upon all the blessings from the sun, and following his oration, is carried on a golden throne in a grand procession to the fortress ruins of Sacsayhuamán. He is accompanied by his high priests, court officials, nobles, servants and attendants, dancing girls, musicians of all stripes – flutes and drums mostly – costumed dancers, and in the modern day, a gaggle of camera-toting tourists, giddy children and their giddy Peruvian parents, and general merrymakers.
The festivities bleed over into the days following and preceding June 24th, and the streets are enlivened with music, dancing, feasting, processions, chicha, and a general air of electric celebration for a full week. I just recently read that Cusco is expecting 2 million tourists this year – in a town of 510,000 residents, that's 4 times as many visitors! The streets have been thronged for days, and I have to calculate exaggerated detours into my excursions around downtown to avoid the mobbed flower-bedecked streets awash with music and prayers and dancing. I was all too happy to partake in the festivities on Monday, however, as it is truly a sight to behold. At the temple of Sacsayhuamán, a white llama is sacrificed (now in a PETA-friendly stage reenactment) and the high priest holds aloft the bloody heart in honor of Pachamama. This offering will ensure the continuing fertility of the earth in the coming year, and the priest then reads the blood stains for clues into the future of the Inca, which seem unfailingly to presage bounty and fortune for all.
What that might portend for the modern-day citizens of Cusco is a little harder to figure than in Inca times, when indeed all had a share in the bounty of the earth and the prosperity of the empire, in exchange for mandatory public service (mit'a) and compliance with the pithy three commandments of the Tawantinsuyu: don't lie, don't steal, and don't be lazy. Cusco, it would seem, is still a place of bounty and prosperity – one need only wander the stalls of Mercado San Pedro stacked high with plentiful produce or stroll through the bustling streets of downtown in their festival livery to be assured of this.
And ask any Cusqueñan about their adherence to the principles of their ancient belief system, and you will be surprised to find that there is more at work than pure theatre in these festivities. It would be difficult, I think, to put on such an enormous production for the sole purpose of diversion (although not entirely impossible down here), without some sense of its continuing importance to the lives of the people, something beyond tradition. Peruvians still actively honor Pachamama (aside from being rather profligate with their littering habits), evidenced by the practice of pouring a bit of any alcoholic drink on the ground in her honor before imbibing – with gusto. But there's more to it than that. People here believe in the overwhelming energy of these mountains, in their ferocious beauty and power (mountain spirits are called apus here, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't honor them), yet at the same time their mystifying fertility. The temperature consistently falls below freezing at night, and yet avocados, coconuts, and palm trees obliviously churn out their bounty all over the Sacred Valley – a bounty which we Cusqueñans enjoy in every market and fruit vendor's cart in town. It's stupefying enough that a half-million people today and around 2 million in Inca times are able to eek out a living at such an altitude above 11,000 feet (3,400 m) that I myself am sure there are some powerful forces at work in favor of the survival of the Inca and their descendants – unfortunate history involving Spain aside.
My favorite part of the whole ordeal was the musical groups that played all Monday night in the Plaza de Armas and around. They would parade in small groups through the streets banging giant leather drums and playing hauntingly beautiful melodies on sikuri flutes, while a small squadron of bejeweled dancers preceded them. It was so richly traditional and I found myself mesmerized, following them along on their procession until another one caught my ear and swept me away with them. It was like being bewitched by the pied piper of the Andes, these traveling caterpillars of spellbound spectators roving through alleys and wherever they were led. The slow, steady repetition of the music and the movements was hypnotic. You couldn't help but move your hips to the beat once it infiltrated your auditory radar; a smile tickled my face and I found myself practicing the moves with Peruvian women in a rhythmic repetition: one, two, one-two, one, two, one-two, our hands swirling in the air and our movements in perfect harmony with the beat of the drum, punctuated by an occasional full pirouette. I forgot for a long moment the frigid air and lost myself in the dreamy ebb and flow of a dancing mob bewitched by the rhythm around the fountain under southern skies.
A Peruvian friend told me something so wonderfully debaucherous about the Inti Raymi of Inca days: for three full days, the aqueducts that supplied the city with fresh water were blocked off, and into them was poured a magnitude of potent chicha, such that all Cusco's inhabitants might dip their cups into this river and quench their thirst – men, women, and children alike. I'm inclined to think they might actually have played harder than they worked in the Inca world. What lessons might the modern world extract from their example?