Inti Raymi – Everything You Need to Know Before Participating in Sun Festival

There’s something uniquely special about participating in an ancient tradition. Even if only for a number of hours, you become a part of something bigger, retracing centuries-old steps, listening to chants that have been sung since before anyone can remember, and witnessing ancient rituals that have remained unchanged over time.

Inti Raymi is one of those rituals. With its origins dating back more than 500 years, this ancient Inca Sun Festival is one of Peru’s finest examples of Inca culture and a unique opportunity for you to travel back in time for a day.

Read below to find out more about the history of this incredible ceremony, what to expect when you’re there and a few of our hand-picked tips so you make the best of your experience.

The History of Inti Raymi

The origins of Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”) date back to the 1400s, when Sapa Inca Pachacuti decided to commemorate the winter solstice (the day when the sun is farthest away from this part of the planet) which also marked the first day of the Inca New Year. Celebrated in honor of the god Inti (Quechua for “sun”), Inti Raymi quickly became the most important festival of the Inca Empire.

Marking the point from where days would start to get longer again, the ceremony was dedicated to appeasing the sun god with mystical rituals and animal sacrifices in order to ensure a good year’s crop and harvest season. For this reason, part of the ceremony also included rituals dedicated to Pachmama, Inti’s wife and the goddess of fertility and harvests.

With the Spanish invasion of Peru, the last Inca Emperor celebrated Inti Raymi in 1535. After that, the ceremony was banned by the Catholic Church though it was still practiced in secret by surviving Inca descendants.

It wasn’t until 1944 that a theatrical representation of Inti Raymi took place in Saqsayhuaman, near Cusco, and the festival was officially added to Peru’s official calendar of national celebrations. Particularly since the 1980s, Inti Raymi has been popularized to attract tourists to the Cusco region. While the ritual remains an intensely sacred moment, there has been a great investment in the infrastructure around it allowing for an increasing number of curious travelers like you to witness this one-of-a-kind ancient tradition.

Inti Raymi Today

Today, Inti Raymi takes place every year on June 24 in Saqsayhuaman. The day begins early in the morning at Qoricancha, the Sun Temple. You’ll have to stand a bit far away, at Avenida del Sol, where you’ll find many other eager spectators bringing shop boxes so their children can stand up on them to see better. This is the opening of the Inti Raymi ceremony.

From there, the procession with the Inca and members of the extravaganza that is this event will walk through the sacred streets all the way up to Saqsayhuaman. Here, the main ceremony will take place with more than 500 actors bringing the past to life in an incredible sacred show. The highlight is the prayer given by the Sapa Inca and the high priest in the original language of the Inca, Quechua. It’s uncanny, but you’ll find that even though it’s always cloudy when the procession reaches Saqsayhuaman, the sun will come out defiantly after this prayer.

All in all, the ceremony here takes about 5 hours with different blessings made to the sun god and the official commencement of the Inca New Year announced. Lively percussion music accompanies the colorful rituals, creating an intense and mysterious atmosphere. In the end, the Inca form a colorful procession to salute Inti, the beginning of the new year and the beautiful day of Inti Raymi.

The Best Way to Experience Inti Raymi

The truth is, while the main procession takes place on June 24, the Inti Raymi festivities actually kick off on the evening of June 20 (the beginning of the winter solstice) in Cusco and keep the streets lit up with music, dancing and colorful parades for a few days running up to the final procession.

If you’re visiting Peru to be a part of this ancient festival, we highly recommend that you arrive a few days before and plan where you’re going to be for the actual date of the winter solstice (which can fall on the 20th or the 21st). This will give you some time to explore the Sacred Valley region and participate in some of the lively celebrations in Cusco.

If you’re a history buff, we can plan your itinerary so that you visit Machu Picchu before the June 24 procession and then head to Saqsayhuaman to watch the procession arrive. Another option is to arrive a day or two before, explore Cusco and be in the city on the 24th to follow the procession to Saqsayhuaman and then progress on your journey through the Sacred Valley.

In the end, what’s essential is for you to know yourself as a traveler. If you’re going to be in Cusco around this time, be prepared for crowds and noise. So if you don’t like crowds or noise, then Cusco is just not the place to visit during Inti Raymi.

However, if you’re a photographer or a cultural traveler, then we know you’ll have a great time! With the amount of infrastructure surrounding the festivities, it won’t be difficult to navigate the colorful streets of Cusco and take it all in: walk around, stop at the different cafés and check out the different events happening. Magic is in the air here at this time of year, things are constantly happening and the streets are filled with all kinds of unique festivities and celebrations. Have your camera or cellphone ready: you won’t be able to put it down during Inti Raymi!

Tips for Photographers

If you are planning to take photos during Inti Raymi, you’re in luck: you’ll have a hard time even putting your camera down with so many colorful details . But a few tips are needed to ensure you have the best chances to get incredible shots you’ll love to revisit:

  • Choose your seating carefully: Anyone can observe the festival while standing in the surrounding hills of Saqsayhuaman, but it’s in the seating area
  • Pick the right type of camera lens: You’ll want something that will allow you to zoom in and get the best shot, no matter where you’re located.
  • Bring a polarizer: Changes in sunlight will be common throughout the day, so bring a good polarizer to ensure your shots always feature the best lighting.
  • Protect your gear: A rain cover (just in case!), a UV filter to protect your lens from scratches and dust and proper cleaning materials to dust your camera off at the end of the day are a must to ensure your gear doesn’t get damaged during your day at Inti Raymi. In addition to that, a small daypack with a strap will be the safest way to ensure your camera is protected and with you at all times.