The last week of June brought about the indigenous festival of Inti Raymi. This celebration of the sun is carried out in the Andes of Peru and Ecuador, though it is not exactly the same wherever you go. Here in Cotacachi, Ecuador we have one of the most energy-infused festivals in South America with dancing, chanting, and on some days a bit of violence.
Here’s a quick run-down of what I know about Inti Raymi. The festival is a time for the Kichwa peoples to give thanks to the earth and the sun for their crops. The dancing, which is actually more of a stomping action, is to be done enthusiastically and you must stomp the ground hard so the earth can hear your thankfulness. This part of the festival I appreciate and respect, but the rest of it seems to have been corrupted when the Spaniards colonized South America.
You see there is a large church in Cotacachi with the main town plaza directly in front of it. Hundreds of years ago this site was a sacred burial mound for the indigenous, but knowing this the Spaniards leveled the hill and built their Catholic church directly on top. The indigenous were pushed out of town into the surrounding areas and mountainsides and while the separate villages had lived in peace for thousands of years the Spaniards convinced them that they were now enemies.
And so today during the festival of Inti Raymi the 24 surrounding villages march into town to symbolically take back the square. Villages take turns dancing on each of the four corners of the La Matriz Plaza directly in front of the large cathedral.
The first day is when the children of the villages dance. This is my favorite day because it is completely peaceful with many onlookers and vendors selling food in the park. This year our friends in the village of San Pedro invited Justin and Jesse to dance with them, which they did for a total of five minutes or so. I think they were both a bit self-conscious since there were so many spectators, but David jumped in and danced with the kids for a bit longer.
The dancing of the village men came next and took place the following two days, then a three day rest, and then two more days of dancing. This is when the whole thing can become a little crazy. Police are brought in from the neighboring city of Ibarra and they dress in riot gear and are armed with tear gas to try to keep things under control. What happens is the men march into town from their respective villages with chanting and yelling and working themselves up pretty good before they hit the square. Energy and emotions are running high and if they’ve been drinking (which some of them have) it makes a more volatile situation.
When one village comes in to a corner of the square the group that is currently dancing there will make their way to the next corner where the group occupying that one will move on to the next and so forth. But sometimes one group does not move quickly enough and a fight will break out, especially if the two villages in question have bad blood between them. This is where the riot police come in to play. They throw tear gas which disperses the crowd and many of the dancers. Ironically it doesn’t seem to have a profound effect on those who are inebriated and they’re typically the ones involved in the violence.
Some years people will actually be killed during Inti Raymi in Cotacachi because of the fighting between villages, but this year and the last seem to have been milder even though gas wafted down the streets every day the men danced.
Finally on the last day of the celebration the women dance and the men play musical instruments to accompany them. I have no photos of the women because the crowd of spectators was so thick, but it was a nice change from the high-charged stomping of the men. The women were far more subdued with a different style of dance and the entire aura of the celebration took on a far calmer feel.
Despite the craziness it’s a pretty fun spectacle to watch and the intense energy and emotions coursing through the air are something that I think few people ever have the chance to experience anymore.