Welcome to Inti Raymi: the feast of San Juan (2/3)


The team working on this report spent the night before the taking of the square with a group of men from Morochos, an indigenous community just a few kilometers from the center of Cotacachi. Our aim was to witness the mandatory ritual to cleanse oneself of the negative energies from the farming cycle that is closing and boost vigor for the one that is beginning.

On the evening of June 23, we were told that the members of nearby communities had already held their bathing ritual the night before, since the time and day of this practice is somewhat flexible. Luckily, our disappointment was short-lived as we got a cell call from Morochos to let us know that one group of men would be out and about that night doing their ablutions.

We set off in the jeep without delay and, after driving along a dirt track with no electric lighting, bordered by fences, sown fields and the occasional solitary house, we came across the group of men emerging from ghostly underbrush on their way back from bathing in a freezing stream at the foot of a steep hill. There were about fifteen of them, young men, animated and self-assured, some still bare-chested, tee-shirt round their neck, hair disheveled from the water; others with masks and musical instruments. We were introduced and allowed to join this group of nightwalkers with the kind intervention of an acquaintance of María Moreno (anthropologist and old university friend of mine, who is now doing her PhD research with the UNORCAC (1)– the Union of Small Farming and Indigenous Organizations of Cotacachi), who became our guide for the rest of the night. This was followed by hours of visiting neighbors in the community.


The same scene was repeated time and time again: the group of danzantes would choose a house and take over its front yard – normally a piece of dry, dusty earth – to dance, for no longer than twenty minutes, in compact circles. With exuberant yells, whistles, harmonica chords, a melodio organ and a conch shell -called churo (2)-, they would announce their arrival, stamping loudly on the ground. There was something planetary and powerful about the taking of someone’s house, giving the impression that the cosmic cycle acquiesced to such a perfect invasion of privacy. All in all, it was a night of taking liberties, breaking everyday rules, and letting off steam so as to be able to go back to the routine afterwards.

The evening of June 23th: Field recording (click here to listen)

The circle formed by the dancers would suddenly change direction: clockwise and then, on an order from the group leader (“Vuuuelta!”), about turn! In this way they closed into a compact ring, supporting each other, breaking out in shouts and song, on a night with a tiny moon, almost invisible, high up in the sky.

Alerted by the hullabaloo of the danzantes, the owners of the visited house would go out to greet them and offer them the customary chicha de Jora (3) and mote (4) to help them through their long night-time revelry. This is a sleepless night, one of several leading up to or following Jatun Punlla or Inti Raymi – the “Big Day” of San Juan – where few moments of rest are snatched and the strong, acrid sting of chicha keeps up stamina.

The danzantes’ energy was enough to bewitch the simple front yard of a rural cottage and turn it into the stage of a repetitive, commanding work of art performed by the body. As I watched from a corner, it looked to me like a theater lit up by a single bulb hanging from a low lamppost, under which indefatigable actors gave their all, playing out an oral myth.

Inside the circle, dancing with these men, what hit you was the ceaseless, obsessive, primordial rhythm of the stamping. When you are going round and round in there, it’s all about the law of gravity, getting back to the earth. No-one looks at each other as the attention is on stamping hard on the earth, whistling and uttering loud exclamations. The purpose of the rite is to transmit a symbolic message, but to receive it you have to act. Thus the rite becomes a symbol but a symbol in action (Rueda, p. 33,34, 1982).

A couple of the participants were wearing diabluma (5) masks while others sang falsetto, both ways of muffling and blurring individual identity, this being a ritual that highlights the sense of community. The idea is “to play at not being recognized” (Naranjo, p. 224; 2002). When you watch one of these groups in movement, you cannot help notice how much the individual figures complement each other and blend in to stress the collective bond.

The stamping and exclamations express the male nature needed to inseminate the earth. Maybe because of this need, the group we were with suddenly decided to look for another place to bathe, where they could take energy from the water and restore their strength to keep dancing.

We walked for roughly half a kilometer from the center of the village of Morochos, crossed a sown field (chacra in Quichua) and went into a eucalyptus wood. After walking down a long slope of soft, sandy earth, we came to a wide, green ravine, which we descended, jumping across murky swampland to avoid sinking in, before we finally came to a stream.

One of our older companions told us that this was a place where you could get alli yacu (good water), macho, frothy and white, ideal for revitalizing. He also explained that downstream, near the Pichaviche River (6), there was agua hembra (female water), which was yellow.

María had told me that June 21 and 22 are usually dedicated to energizing purification rituals, known as armay chishi (bathing evening). Some communities share a water hole and, when there are celebrations, whoever gets there first takes the energy, a privilege of the capitán or leader of the group of participants.

When the San Juan festival is over, each community makes an evaluation to find out who took the “force”, an element that, according to the local yachacs (7) (or shamans), takes the form of a red calf. There are bathing rituals at solstices (8) and equinoxes (9), not necessarily at night, held on June and December 21 and 22 in the former and on March 20 and 21, and September 22 and 23 in the latter.

The young men duly submerged themselves in their underwear into the freezing, foaming stream water. In these cases, the yachac normally taps and rubs the person bathing with nettles and other plants to cleanse him. The stinging of the nettles is ideal for “getting rid of fright” and releasing any bad energy that the body has accumulated. The bathing is accompanied by the exclamation of certain words: sinchic (strength); manchashpa (courage); and ushaihuan (power) (García Cobos, 76:2007).

The ceremony closed with a bonfire, or chamiza, beside the stream, a common practice in the festival of San Juan, which also persists in Spain and Portugal, so as to help the Sun and “heat it up” so that it can regain its usual might once the winter gloom has passed. In the province of Pichincha these bonfires are made to heat up San Juan (St. John) who is cold when he arrives (Ferraro, p. 120; 2004). We spent the rest of the night in lodgings in the community of La Calera, kindly provided for us by the indigenous leader Magdalena Fueres (continued on next post, click here).

Pictures: Caroline Bennett www.carolinebennett.com

English translation: Clare St. Lawrence (clarestlawrence@yahoo.co.uk)



The Union of Small Farming and Indigenous Organizations of Cotacachi. This is an NGO whose members are indigenous, mestizo and Afro-Ecuadorian grassroots organizations located in the Andean and subtropical areas of the Cotacachi region. UNORCAC´s goal is to promote and motivate members participation in order to create a fairer and equal society. In order to do that UNORCAC implements projects in health, environment and education (García Cobos, 36:2007).

(2) Churo

Sea shell transformed into a wind instrument that produces two or three notes. It is used to call the members of the community to participate in collective, non-paid, compulsory work called “mingas”.  In the past, this instrument was also used to call men to gather for war (García Cobos, p. 61, 2007).

(3) Chicha de Jora:

This is a fermented drink made of corn. In the Andes women are in charge of preparing chicha. Men drink chicha and sugar cane liqueur in large amounts to show their masculinity. During the Fiesta of San Juan, after finishing a glass of chicha or liqueur the last drops that remain inside the glass should be thrown into the floor to give them to the “Mother Earth because she is thirsty”. Also, drinking in the Andes during festivities is a way to obtain both protection and benevolence from the spirits of nature (Ferraro, p. 128; 2004).

(4) Mote:

Boiled corn.

(5) Diabluma (or Ayauma):

Literally, “Devil´s head”. The member of the community who interprets “Diabluma” wears leather chaps and carries a whip. This character wears a colorful mask that has two faces and has 12 horns. Diabluma guides and controls those who are celebrating, makes gestures and teases people, but doesn’t talk with them  (Ferraro, p.131; 2004).

(6) Pichaviche River (or Pichabiche):

The water of Pichaviche river comes from the thaw of Cotacachi mountain snow (4944 meters above sea level).

(7) Yachac:

Shaman, specialist in ethnic medicine and wise man of the community, sometimes also holding political leadership. In the north part of Imbabura, there are well-known the rivalries among yachacs of different communities.

(8) Solstice:

“Either of the two times in the year, the summer solstice and the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky at noon, marked by the longest and shortest days” (Oxford Dictionary)

(9) Equinox:

“The time or date (twice each year) at which the sun crosses the celestial equator, when day and night are of equal lengths (about September 22 and March 20)” (Oxford Dictionary).

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