I had the good fortune to be in Cusco, Peru, for much of June with a group. The itinerary featured being in the city for Inti Raymi, the Return of the Sun. Marking the winter solstice, this is one of the biggest ceremonies in South America, held every June 24 in Cusco and not to be missed, according to the guidebook. This Inca ceremony was suppressed in 1572 by the Spanish viceroy and revived in the 1940s. Inti Raymi is the climax of City Month and involves a giant multi-stage pageant with processions, offerings to the Inca, animal sacrifice (simulated for tourists), and so many costumed dancers it’s a wonder there is anyone left to watch.

A much better show is Cusco itself, almost any day in June. For the whole of “City Month” there is a giant parade/exhibition that goes on for days in Plaza de Armas which climaxes with Inti Raymi. The central square and the streets near it are FULL all the time: street performers, tourists watching, groups dancing, other groups lined up waiting for their turn. Maria Theresa (our guide) explains that all these groups are part of the competition. A dozen men in decorated fedoras and wool jackets might be the cab drivers’ union; the women in flat hats with felt roses might be high school teachers or hotel workers. Many of the dance groups are younger people, high-school age or thereabouts.

Inti Raymi is presented three times — once in the morning at the site of the Inca Temple of the Sun; once at noon in the city’s main square, where people are crammed in so tight you can’t get by; and in late afternoon at Sacsayhuaman (“just say ‘sexy woman’,” the guide says), a huge ruined fortress on the hill above the city.

Inti Raymi has become more and more of a tourist attraction; I notice my ticket for the Sacsayhuaman event is priced at $100 US or 300 solis. (For comparison, a nice lunch at the top of the line restaurant in the main square costs 75 solis, and an excellent hour-long massage in my hotel room costs 100 solis.) This means most locals can’t afford to attend one of their own biggest festivals. And they’re not happy about it. Sacsayhuaman is a big flat walled field inside a bowl at the top of a hill. During the show, we become aware of a disturbance on the hill above the seats to our right. A line of police is trying to hold people back. The people trying to get by are locals, who up until recently have been able to climb the hill and stake out a good spot on the grass. Now the locals who can’t afford that $100 ticket aren’t welcome to just find a place and be part of it. As we watch, they break through the police line and surge forward. The folks in the expensive seats cheer as they take their places on the hillside above us.

The ceremony is big, all right, but long and confusing without translation. As we watch, the giant field (easily several football fields) fills up: the boys in blue tunics jog in and take their place, followed by the boys in orange carrying banners, the women in pink and red carrying baskets of grain, and many more — too many to count. The tourist package for the show includes a small radio that is supposed to be tuned to an English-language simulcast of the ceremony. I spin the dial back and forth and finally give up. I watch the “Inca” (king) carried in on a golden throne to lead the prayers and ritual sacrifice. He prays fervently, declares the sun has returned, and then it’s over. It seems like our guide and the locals are much more moved than I was.

The real reason to be there is the city itself. The area dates back to the Incas (and before). The cathedrals and museums, the narrow cobbled streets and squares, some large and elegant, some tiny and quiet are remarkable. The food was delicios. I had Cuy, roast guinea pig and the best ceviche (marinated raw fish) I have had, before or since. Inti Raymi isn’t the best show. Cusco and its people are.

Written and Photographs by Susanna Schweickhard

Susanna is a California native but has always longed to see the world. She has been to all four corners of the US, trekked across volcanoes, swum with wild dolphins in the Bahamas and Hawaii, and seen the sun rise over Macchu Picchu. For work Susanna does applications support and freelance editing. She is interested in dance, meditation, and cooking.

Featured photo by Cyntia Motta