21 June 2023
The summer solstice, on June 21st, marked the beginning of weeks of dancing and honouring Andean traditions in the town of Otavalo and the surrounding communities. The Festival of the Sun, or Inti Raymi in kichwa, is the most important event of the year for the indigenous people of the Andes. The celebration is also called San Juan, honouring John the Baptist, but in the 1970s the kichwa name was reintroduced to strengthen the native peoples identity and sense of self-worth. Inti Raymi coincides with the annual corn harvest and is also a time to give thanks to the Father Sun and Mother Earth for its fruits.
The time-old tradition of taking a ritual bath in a river or waterfall to wash off old negative energies and start the beginning natural cycle with a clean slate is still practiced. Close to midnight on Friday 22nd of June, herds of people started heading from Otavalo to the nearby waterfall of Peguche. The party spirit was taking hold of everyone as several groups of musicians were making their way up and gathering dancers around them. The rather monotonous, trance-inducing beat of the guitars and flutes was impossible to resist, and most people certainly made use of their leg muscles, dancing in circles while climbing up the path to the waterfall. Everyone was welcomed into the dance circles, it didnt matter whether you were indigenous, mestizo or gringo.
Summer nights in the mountains can be quite chilly and knowing this, most would-be-bathers had come prepared, sipping various liquids from various bottles to warm themselves up. After that and the brisk dancing walk up the hill the waterfall was merely refreshing, not cold, turned into a bubble bath by all the people splashing in it. From the waterfall everyone headed to Peguche village or Otavalo to start the party for real, continuing to dance and drink until the break of dawn.
After a few hours rest it was time to wake up to another day and night of celebrating. On Saturday evening the streets of Otavalo began to fill up with dancing groups coming down from all over town and from the mountain villages and communities. In each group there was at least one man wearing the Diablo Huma (Devil Head) mask, representing the central personality of Inti Raymi. Another very distinctive mens garment was the samarro, or fur and leather trousers only worn on special occasions. All the groups made their way to Poncho Plaza, symbolically claiming the central market square where, in the old days, Indians were not allowed to enter. Previously this taking of the Plaza would often lead to fights between the different groups, even resulting in deaths but nowadays the act is performed peacefully. Before entering the Plaza most groups had danced in from house to house in Otavalo and the communities, receiving food and drink in return. By the early hours of Sunday morning, most dancers had left the Plaza, but groups of people were still sitting around, enjoying bottles of hervido, sugar cane liquor mixed with hot fruit juices.
Dancers and musicians kept circling the streets all week, and formal dance contests, along with other events such as cock fights and childrens theatre, were held every day in the Otavalo district of San Juan. In Otavalo town, the festivities were slowly dying down after a week but in various nearby communities the party will go on until the third week of July. Inti Raymi is followed by the celebrations of San Pedro and San Pablo, and the latter is an important event especially in the village of San Pablo. There those who missed the Inti Raymi fiestas can get another glimpse of the age-old traditions of the Andean people, still very much alive.