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Inti Raymi Festival: a weekend of danger, complexities, excitement, dancing and more

Posted by in Cotocachi, Events | July 11, 2012
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June 22-24….Erika and I headed North to Otavalo and Cotacachi to witness the annual celebration of Inti Raymi. We were lucky to be so close to the Imbabura Province of Ecuador which, along with Cuzco, is one of the two core communities who keep this tradition alive. Celebrations last about a month but two days was enough to catch a quick glimpse.

 First, a little background:

Celebrations of Inti Raymi began in the Ecuadorian Andes with the spread of the Incan empire and merged with existing celebrations which later also merged with Catholic festivities/beliefs during the period of Spanish colonization. That said, the festival today is an exciting mix of traditions that would take much longer than a weekend for me to sort out so bear with my brief synopsis!

According to Incan tradition, Inti Raymi was created by Pachacutic, the first Incan, and was a time to honor the highest of their deities, the sun god, Inti. The solstice in June signified the beginning of a new year and they celebrated in order to bring back the sun and shorten the longest night (in the southern hemisphere, June 22 is the shortest day of the year).

For the Quichua communities in the Ecuadorian Andes, June 22 marked the beginning of a new agricultural cycle and they celebrated Pacha Mama (mother earth) and her fertility as they gathered together to harvest the latest crops. As they absorbed the Incan customs, the celebration of Inti Raymi took root within their existing traditions and began to grow.

When the Spaniards arrived on the scene, they denounced Inti Raymi as pagan and imposed their own traditions of the Feasts of the Saints (San Pedro, San Juan, San Pablo) upon the indigenous. They also worked to demonize some of the more important symbols of Inti Raymi such as the Aya Uma (spiritual, wise leader) whom they began to label Diablo Uma instead. These days, you can find masks of the Diablo Uma in every market-place here as it has now become a lasting symbol of the Spanish influence and a popular souvenir for tourists.

Today, Inti Raymi is a colorful mix of all of these traditions, celebrated by song, dance, theater, feasts, and cultural demonstrations aimed at keeping the past alive through ancient recipes, movement, symbolism and stories. The month-long celebrations culminate in the feast of San Juan when traditional Kichwa dishes are served such as cuy (guinea pig), hen, pork, corn, potatoes, mote and Chicha (a corn based alcoholic beverage).

When we arrived in Otavalo late Friday night, we learned that a sacred cleansing ceremony was being led by a shaman at the nearby Peguche waterfall but we decided to head to our hostel and call it a night instead, mostly because the group who invited us seemed more interested in getting wasted than in the ceremony itself and we wanted to make sure we could get back to town safely. In retrospect, it’s a good thing we got the rest as the remainder of the weekend was action-packed.

Saturday morning, we visited Otavalo’s famous market, with vendors setting up in the Plaza de los Ponchos and overflowing onto the surrounding streets. After a long day of bargaining, walking, eating and meeting with new friends, we headed back to the Plaza de los Ponchos after dinner. In the blink of an eye it seemed, the plaza had been transformed from a market into a center of celebration. There were fire-juggling clowns, fireworks, candies, balloons, and street food vendors crammed into the plaza amongst spectators who were craning their necks trying to take it all in. Every once in a while, one of the fireworks flew into the crowd or screamed up the street, causing groups to scatter and re-merge as live music played and a stage was cleared in one corner of the plaza in preparation for the dancers. As we strained to see over the crowds and struggled to hold our footing without being trampled by other spectators, music began and each of the nearby communities sent in a groups of dancers one after another to honor and celebrate the fertility of the Pacha Mama (mother earth) and the blessings of Inti (sun god). The troupes were mostly women and young girls but a few included men as well and each group showcased their unique dance in full traditional clothing.


After a few hours, we were tired of fighting the crowds to catch brief glimpses of the dancers so we decided to head back to the hostel. Once we left the plaza, the streets were deserted and quiet…until we rounded a corner and ran into small costumed groups stomping down the street in waves. After a few more minutes of watching the parades and listening to the music, we called it a night.

Sunday morning, we headed 30mins north to witness another part of the Inti Raymi celebration, Toma de la Plaza (the taking of the plaza). Along the way, our taxi found itself stuck behind a wall of men marching towards the town square, followed by women and children who would act as support for their men throughout the day and also as a buffer between competing groups to ease tensions and conflict. These men made up only one of several intimidating groups that were headed towards town to participate in a symbolic struggle for control of the main square, La Plaza de la Matriz in Cotacachi. Again, there are many elements and traditions involved in this one event. On one hand, the struggle represents the encounter of the opposite forces of higher male (Hanan) and lower female (Hurin) in the universe. On the other, it is a conflict between the lower and higher communities surrounding Cotacachi and is an opportunity to release a year’s worth of built up tensions as they compete for the plaza, a centralized and symbolic location of power containing the Catholic church, judiciary and other government offices. In keeping with the theme of power, this dance/competition/march ALSO represents the struggle of the indigenous to overpower the white, mestizo population and protest colonial rule. In fact, many of the dancers still wear goat skin chaps, originally donned in mockery of the Spanish hacienda bosses. As this event has become particularly dangerous in recent years and several deaths have occurred, we were told by many to be particularly careful and to make sure to leave before the real fighting began (rumored to be scheduled for 4pm). Men in opposing communities fight with sticks, rocks and firearms as the symbolic struggle becomes an all out brawl and sacrifices of blood are made to ensure another good harvest year. This year, two young men lost their lives during the dance. They were 25 and 27 years old.

Because of this undertone of danger, police in full riot gear had already lined the streets surrounding the plaza when we arrived and we headed straight for the steps of the church where we found a great view of the square and a buffer of distance from the marching communities below. The surrounding towns of San Martin, El Topo, El Cercado, La Calera and Morochos sent their men marching toward Cotacachi where they formed coalitions representing the “High” and the “Low” communities. From what I gathered, one group entered the square at a time, forming smaller groups in each of the four corners (and don’t let my description of these groups as “smaller” fool you; they can be as large as 100 men). Then the men began to stomp and dance in spirals, working themselves into a trance of concentration. Chants, music, stomping, whistles, and whips were the background to these groups who moved in unison, coming out of their spiral only to advance to the next corner of the square, urging the community in front of them on in a display of power and intimidation. Again, the women lined the outskirts, providing food, water and support to their husbands. Most of the dancers, sanjuanes, were dressed in leather chaps and camouflage and wore tall, black, cardboard hats painted with religious symbols. Others wore Diablo Uma masks and costumes of all sorts. I even saw Jack Sparrow and a giant chicken parading around!

As one coalition circled the square and prepared to exit to the surrounding streets for food and rest, the other group prepared to enter. This was the moment with the highest possibility for the conflict to escalate. In one corner of the plaza in particular, the military police stood ready with canisters of tear gas and riot shields, awaiting the impending clash. Just as the switch was happening, the crowd from the other side of the church steps began stampeding towards us in a panic. Erika and I stepped quickly out of the stream of spectators and and thankfully the danger subsided quickly. If the rush had continued, our options would have been to be pushed along with the crowd or be trampled. So what happened? The competing communities had become aggressive, throwing rocks at one another and into the crowd. Then, just as soon as the initial panic subsided and the conflict seemed to have passed, I looked up to see that something new was raining down on the crowd of onlookers just in front of us. I braced myself for a new round of panic and was shocked when I saw that the crowd was not moving away from the square as I expected but towards it instead. It was candy. Handfuls of delicious, sweet, innocent candy thrown out to the crowd only moments after they had been pelted with stones. Never a dull moment.

The marching continued for hours and we were never bored but we knew we needed to leave before the conflict escalated. Another traveler told us her tale from the night before and we knew then that it was time for our departure. Her story: as she walked through one of the smaller towns Saturday night, observing the build up and preparation for the march the next day, she was suddenly pelted with stones and then larger rocks from a balcony above. As she was running away, she had to duck behind trees to avoid the “boulders” heaved down upon her and luckily escaped with only a few scrapes and bruises. Because of the desire to take the square in protest of colonization and as a symbol of overpowering the mestizo population, the square isn’t the safest place around, especially for gringos. Surprisingly, this fact has not discouraged the growing turnout of tourists in recent years and, in fact, seems to be part of the draw. It seems that with the increasing focus on international tourism, there is an element of commercialization occurring alongside the push to keep traditions alive and the promised adrenaline rush of impending danger continues to draw the crowds.

As we left the plaza, the surrounding streets were relatively quiet with a few folks sleeping off the hangover from the night before and women strolling about calmly buying food and supplies for the marching men. It was bright and sunny with a cool breeze and we started to relax. We left Cotacachi before any serious conflict began and so took with us only positive memories of this vibrant, complicated, intense, interesting and overwhelming celebration.

For more information:

Brief overview of the major leaders, activities, and symbolism of Inti Raymi

Inti Raymi is one of four festivals throughout the year to celebrate agricultural cycles and the mother earth. Read this for a brief description of the other three celebrations:

A great synopsis of the history of Taking the Square

Great photographs of this event

Another interesting description of the festivities from a tourist’s viewpoint

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