The Inti Raymi celebration goes on for more than a week in Cotacachi, northern Ecuador. It begins with a ritual bath at Cuicocha, a volcanic crater lagoon. Children are the first to dance, then men dance for four days, then women dance. This all goes on around Cotacachi’s main square.
Inti Raymi is the Festival of the Sun and occurs every year during the June solstice. The celebration is to honor the Inca sun god (Inti) for the heat and energy that allows plants to grow. It is the most important of the four sacred festivals (Raymi) celebrated by indigenous Andean cultures, which exist in Ecuador and all the way down to Argentina/Chile.
Inti Raymi is also known as the Fiesta of San Juan. The Spanish conquistadores considered it a heathen celebration. To make it more palatable, they merged it with the Christian celebration for Saint John (Juan) the Baptist.
You will see indigenous people wearing chaps (or zamarros in Spanish). In the northern part of the country, this tradition has its origins during the time when the haciendas dominated the land. The majordomos (hacienda stewards) wore chaps and carried whips when they rode on their horses. These were symbols of power over the indigenous who worked like serfs on the haciendas. The indigenous later turned the tables and began wearing chaps and carrying whips to symbolically show they now had the power.
During the celebration of Inti Raymi, they dance around the four corners of the main park in Cotacachi. This is known as the taking of the square (toma de la plaza). It’s a symbolic taking back of the land that was once theirs. According to villagers, the Cotacachi square was once a place of worship where the indigenous buried their dead.
Aya Uma is the central character you will see dancing during the Inti Raymi festival in northern Ecuador. He wears a mask with two faces. When the Spaniards first arrived, they considered it a devil’s mask. But the indigenous regard the Aya Uma (also spelled Aya Huma) as a character worthy of respect.
Aya Uma is the materialization of the energies of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). The two-faced mask represents the duality of the world: past and future, day and night, etc. The mask also has attachments that look like antennas. They represent snakes, an ancient Andean symbol of wisdom. The bright colors symbolize the rainbow flag, representing the struggles of the indigenous peoples.
Pambamesa is a Kichwa word meaning “food for all.” The best part of the meal is always saved for last, to be returned to the earth. It’s to show gratitude to Pacha Mama for food and life. Served on special occasions such as Inti Raymi, the food is placed on a tablecloth made up of colorful ponchos and shawls. The meal often consists of beans, mellocos, corn, boiled potatoes and jars of chicha de jora. People eat with their hands. The pambamesa is a way the community shares what they have. By eating on the ground, they receive energy from Pacha Mama.
Check out our video about a real Inti Raymi experience!