Worshiping the Incan Sun

Worshiping the Incan Sun

The fabric rises from her feet, sweeping in an arc that bleeds colors through the soft air. She swirls with the grace of a Broadway ballerina. Her braid bounces against her back in contrast with the impeccable canvas of her embroidered top. The tip of her hair sweeps across a beaded belt, stroking the glistening glass like the fine bristles of a painter’s brush. She is art in motion, and she is the geisha of the Andes; if there were such a thing. She is not a princess, or even royalty, but she is a Quechua indigenous lady. Along with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of her kind, on this day she dances through the adoquin streets in tune with the sounds of the Inti Raymi Festival in Cayambe, Ecuador.

History of Inti Raymi

Inti is the Goddess of the Sun, as celebrated by the Quechua tradition as long ago as the 15th century. The Quechua indigenous are direct descendants of the Inca, and today still make up as many as 2.5 Million people in Ecuador. Incredibly, the ancient culture and civilization survived the brutality and slavery that engulfed the nation when the lands were infiltrated by the Spanish conquistadors.

Many of the costumes that adorn these colorful people were influenced by the fabrics, dyes, and jewelry that arrived in the country with the Spaniards. The attire is not reserved for holidays and celebrations, but is still worn every day. If beauty ever meets function, the subculture has figured it out. These multi-generational families spend all their time adorned in the artisanal masterpieces, even as they work the fields in their traditional agricultural lifestyle.

For this festival, the Quechua and the residents of Cayambe are worshiping Inti (the Quechua Sun Goddess) in accordance with Winter Solstice. This is the shortest day of the year, and for countries south of the Equator like Ecuador, is it Winter during June and July. The celebration is also in associated with the Incan New Year. The first celebration of its kind was held in 1412 and went on for 9 days. It was signified by dances, parades, feasts, and animal sacrifices. The peoples believed that the festival would ensure a good crop season in the coming Spring.

The City of Cayambe

The city of Cayambe is located in Central Northern Ecuador and rests at the feet of the Volcano she is named after. The peak stretches 19,000 feet to the sky and claims the title of the closest point to both the sun and the moon on the entire planet. Because of its equatorial location, Cayambe is the tallest peak from the center of the earth. Yet, somehow her relevance has been missed and she shyly waits in the shadows of Everest to one day claim her crown. She is also the only point on the equator cloaked in a sparkling white crown of permanent snow. The Volcano has been inactive since 1786 and is a favorite scale of knowledgeable mountain climbers.

The People

The seemingly quiet and shy people of Cayambe, live a humble and productive life. Most of the population carries on the authentic existence of their ancestors mixed with the modern teachings of the agriculture industry. The area is known for its fresh flower plantations, dairy farming, and lumber industry. Outside of festival time, the women and children are often hesitant and skeptical towards my camera. But, during the Inti Raymi, their pride shone through and I was fascinated to meet another side of their personality.

One after the other, cheeks glowing like Cabernet; women, girls, and children batted their lashes and billowed their skirts. Babies stopped mid-blink and studied my face, then onto my camera, and finally to my own children at my feet. The men and boys mostly ignored me completely, entranced by their elders and entirely caught up in the festivities. The tribe leaders were obvious, commanding the attention of both their followers and the crowds. They chanted, sang, and bellowed through the streets in their native tongue.

The Experience

The artistry of it all was overwhelming, my mind and eyes swirled with the kaleidoscope displayed before me. In the first moments, I couldn’t decide where to focus my lens. The vibrant skirts, the prancing feet, the embroidery on the shirts. The feathers in the fedoras, the bells on the vests, or the stunning leather chaps. Finally, I let myself be pulled in by the faces and succumbed to the rhythm of the chaos. Even if the contact was only through the glass, my experience was highly personal and through my photos I felt like I met each of them.

For hours, the parade carried on beneath the beaming historic buildings. As if the characters in the play were not strong enough, the backdrop offered a fierce competition. Evocative, crackling storefronts framed the quaint town square in the beaming afternoon light. The adoquin stone streets played their own verse in time with the flutes and guitars; tapping toes and clopping horses. The scents of the city clashed together in a blend of moonshine, boiling cinnamon figs, horse manure, fried meats, and corn drinks.

I left Cayambe that day, feeling satisfied that I had truly experienced am important culture. This is not a widely publicized event, it has not been obliterated by tourism, or altered to please onlookers. This day was authentic and raw. We only saw one other family that appeared to be foreigners, and I was the only novice person obviously taking photographs. We felt lucky and honored to have been a part of it; enamored to have experienced an insider’s perspective on life and culture in Ecuador.


5 Replies to “Worshiping the Incan Sun”

  1. This is a beautiful account Stephanie, accompanied by your wonderful photos. I love events like this! We went to several such events in Mexico and South America. We stumbled upon some of these dancers (practicing maybe) in one of the town squares in Cuenca, went to a huge festival in Puno, Peru, and stumbled upon a village festival in Ollantaytambo, Peru. Put it on your calendar that there is a special ceremony on the first Sunday of each month in Chinchero, Peru – there’s something about it here:

    1. Oh, thank you Alison! Peru is next and I have been struggling to find any great tips for the country beyond the obvious tourism stuff. I can’t wait to read your post and find out where these villages are! 😀

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