August 2011

Intiwatana: The Aymara New Year

Every 21st of June, celebrations of the Aymara New Year, or Intiwatana, are held all over the Andes. In the Cochabamba region, celebrations take place on the site of the Inca ruins of Inca Rakay, located near the town of SipeSipe..

By: Gerben de Rooij
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Werkendam - Netherlands

Photo: Gerben de Rooj
People raise their hands to greet the sun

In the southern hemisphere, June 21st is the shortest day of the year because the earth is farthest away from the sun. For the Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous cultures it means the beginning of a new agricultural year. Days are getting longer with more sunshine, and new crops can now be sown. As Mr. Camacho explains, individualism and private property does not exist in these cultures. It is about being part of a community and respecting your environment. Inti, the sun god, plays a central role in Andean religious beliefs. The sun god is asked to fertilize Pachamama or mother earth, in order to guarantee rich harvests.

In the evening, people make their way from the village of SipeSipe to the ancient site of Inca Rakay. Most Bolivian cars drive on natural gas, so some get stuck as they lack the power to get up the steep, unpaved mountain road. The unlit road offers some spectacular views over the valley and the city of Cochabamba. By night you will see the city’s sparkling lights down in the valley, while daylight reveals the spectacular mountain scenery surrounding Cochabamba.

In order to reach a broader audience and to change the attitude towards indigenous celebrations, the Centro de Encuentros AndinoAmazónicos in Cochabamba organizes a seminar in the days preceding Intiwatana.

The sunrise itself is a magical moment. As campfires slowly die down, people come out of their tents and sleeping bags. The horizon gets lighter and people wait anxiously for the sun to appear from behind the mountains. The first sunlight symbolizes the birth of Inti and is greeted with cheers. Devout Aymaras raise their hands to greet the sun. They pray for a prosperous new year and ask for forgiveness for the environmental harm done to mother earth by human beings.

Various religious rituals are performed during the celebration. To ensure serenity and respect, the entrance to the area where these rituals take place is restricted for tourists and other curious spectators. In the morning, after sunrise, the amautas (priests) will arrive to sacrifice a young white llama. They will use the heart of the animal to read the future. Food, alcoholic drinks, coca leaves and cigarettes are also offered to the Sun and Mother Earth, along with prayers in the Quechua and Aymara languages.

This 21st of June marked the beginning of the year 5519 in the Aymara calendar. The indigenous people believe their culture was exactly five thousand years old when the Spanish conquerors first set foot on the South American continent in 1492, 519 years ago. President Evo Morales declared Intiwatana a national holiday in 2009 in an attempt to revalidate indigenous cultural and religious events in Bolivia. Since the Republic of Bolivia became the Plurinational State of Bolivia in 2006, there has been a new approach towards the indigenous cultures.

Photo: Gerben de Rooj
Greetings to the sun


Wilfredo Camacho, who works with the Centro de Encuentros Andino Amazónicos in Cochabamba, describes this new approach as a political process that aims to restore and revitalize the cultures of the 36 indigenous ethnicities that live alongside the mestizo (mixed race)and white population in Bolivia. “We are burying the colonial and republican part of our history”, he says.

Mr. Camacho emphasizes as well that the Intiwatana ritual is not a show. It is a highly spiritual and mystic celebration that should not be commercialized by tourism. However, the celebration is open to anyone interested in indigenous culture and willing to learn about the celebration.

In order to reach a broader audience and to change the attitude towards indigenous celebrations, the Centro de Encuentros Andino Amazónicos in Cochabamba organizes a seminar in the days preceding Intiwatana.


Last year, over fifty people attended, among them anthropologists and sociologists, as well as many students interested in native cultures. Mr. Camacho considers it a sign of growing acceptance of indigenous cultural expression in Bolivia. “The event has been in a state of skepticism and sleeping consciousness for a long time. We are now in a phase where people are starting to feel proud again”. After centuries of repression, marginalization and mockery from the white European population, the Intiwatana celebration is now very much alive. It has fully regained its position within the cultural patchwork that is Bolivia.

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