Saturday, September 19, 2015

Angel Falls in National Geographic Traveller

South America: Off the Tourist Map

From a Witches’ Market in Suriname to storm chasing in Venezuela, a world of unexpected adventure awaits those who dare to delve into the less-explored corners of the continent.

Come with me as I fly deep into Venezuela's southern jungles and take a traditional dugout canoe up the tea-coloured Carrao and Churun rivers to the base of the highest waterfall in the world, the awe-inspiring Angel Falls in Canaima National Park.

Like many tourists and travellers, I followed the same trail used by the US journalist Ruth Robertson on the 1949 expedition that first measured the falls, and more recently by cockney hard man Ray Winstone, who came to Canaima to film a remake of Point Break.

Read the full story at National Geographic Traveller magazine

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Sunday, September 6, 2015

Venezuela's Mini Miracle - The Coromoto Virgin

Venezuela celebrates a miracle in the first week of September with pilgrimages and processions in honour of Our Lady of Coromoto (Nuestra Señora de Coromoto), the Patroness of Venezuela. The main focus for the faithful is a tiny yet miraculous piece of papyrus - just 2.5 cm high by 2 cm wide - that is as revered in Venezuela as the Guadalupe Virgin is in Mexico. According to believers, this is a true image of the Virgin Mary that was given to an indigenous chief in the 17th century to convince him to convert.
Colonial Conquest and Conversion
According to local lore - handed down for generations - on 8 September 1652 the Virgin Mary, holding a young child in her arms, appeared before the Cacique, or chief, of the Cospes Indians near Guanare. the capital of present day Portuguesa State.
The Cospes had fiercely resisted the Spanish conquest and conversion to Catholicism for over 100 years. The radiant young lady told Coromoto to go to the church and accept conversion. The chief, awed by this apparition, took his tribe to be converted but stubbornly refused to be baptized himself.
Second Apparition of the Virgin
That night, as he rested in his hammock, Coromoto was again visited by the Virgin. At first he grabbed his bow and arrows, but when the Virgin held out her arm as if to embrace him, he dropped them, leaning forward to push her out of the door of the hut. As he tried to grab at the sleeve of the radiant image his hand began to burn, as if on fire, and the Virgin suddenly vanished. Left in his clenched fist was a small image of the Virgin and child on cotton paper. The unlucky chief, startled by the strange events ran hurtling through the dark forest until he fell headlong into bushes where he was bitten by a venomous snake.
Knowing his days were numbered he made his way to a path, where a passing Spaniard agreed to baptise him before he expired. Coromoto's final wish was that his people should build a shrine and forever venerate the Virgin Mary and the miraculous image she had left behind.

Modern Sanctuary
Today, the tiny, sacred image of the Virgin Mary is preserved in a gold reliquary in a purpose-built church, the Basilica Sanctuary of the Virgin of Coromoto. An uncompromising combination of concrete and stained glass, the sanctuary has a spacious central aisle that can hold some 2,500 worshippers. Designed by Venezuelan architect Erasmo Calvani, this space-age sanctuary was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II who on 10 February 1996 held a Mass here to bless the Virgin. Every year, thousands of believers make the pilgrimage to Portuguesa State on the days leading up to and after 8 September to pay their respect to the Patroness of Venezuela.

Getting There
The sanctuary is located 12 km from the city of Guanare, capital of Portuguesa State. Buses and taxis from Guanare regularly make the 20-minute journey.

Where to Stay
The best accomodation option in Guanare is the comfortable Nuevo Hotel Coromoto, which has a good restaurant, coffee bar and swimming pool. For more information visit the hotel's website or Twitter account.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Margarita Pays Homage to the Virgen del Valle

The Basilica of the Virgen del Valle in the Valley of Espiritu Santo in Venezuela's Margarita Island is a pastel-pink chapel that houses an image of the Virgin Mary that dates back to the 1530s. (All photographs copyright Russell Maddicks).

In Margarita Island the biggest religious celebration of the year comes on 8 September when the Catholic faithful turn out en masse to pay homage to the Virgen del Valle, the patroness of Margarita, Coche, Cubagua, Los Roques, Chichirriviche and many other places in eastern Venezuela.

Nuestra Señora del Valle del Espíritu Santo, to give her full title, is also considered the protector of fishermen and sailors and the Venezuelan Navy includes an image of the virgin on all its vessels.
Pilgrims throng to the Virgen del Valle's pale pink and white Neo-Gothic shrine on 8 September, her annual feast day, which is a public holiday in Nueva Esparta State and is marked by fishing communities along the whole Caribbean coast. 
The origin of the small wooden statue of the virgin is shrouded in mystery. The story depicted in the stained glass windows of the Basilica follows the version by historian Father Nectario María, who wrote that the statue was brought from Spain to the New World in 1529 for a church in Nueva Cadiz on the island of Cubagua, one the first Spanish cities in South America.

Overfishing of the pearl beds led to the decline of Cubagua in the late 1530s. In 1541, when a hurricane destroyed Nueva Cadiz, the statue of the Virgin was taken to El Valle where the first shrine was built and the cult of the Virgen del Valle began. 
The twin-spired Basilica, which is always painted in soft pastel colours, was built in 1909 and is surrounded by Plaza Mariño, filled with vendors of religious souvenirs, and refreshment stalls. 
A museum called the Museo Diocesano de la Virgen del Valle on the south side of the Basilica is filled with objects donated by pilgrims who have asked the virgin for help, including graduation rings, sports trophies and miniature objects in silver and gold to represent favours granted by the Virgin to heal wounds, or secure jobs, cars or houses.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Venezuelan San Pedro Festival Recognized by UNESCO

Venezuelan Folk Festival for San Pedro Recognized by UNESCO -- A centuries-old Venezuelan folk festival called the Parranda de San Pedro, which is celebrated in the small towns of Guarenas and Guatire in Miranda State every year on 28 and 29 of June, has been included in the United Nations'  List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The official announcement was made by the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on 5 December.

The tradition dates back to colonial times, when large numbers of African slaves worked the sugar plantations of the area and folk festivals linked to the saints were some of the few times when the slaves could organize themselves, enjoy a day off from the grueling toil of the plantation and take control of the streets for a few hours.

According to local lore in Guarenas, back in colonial times a woman called Maria Ignacia was deeply concerned for the health of her sick daughter Rosa Ignacia. Fearing the worst she went to the church and made a solemn promise to San Pedro (Saint Peter) to sing and dance for him if he would help her daughter to recover.

So infectious was her faith and so sad was her plight that other women, feeling her pain and suffering, began to join her.

Local slave owners were also moved by her act of faith and gave a day off to their slaves on San Pedro's day so they could participate in the singing and dancing in honour of the saint.

Rosa Ignacia was miraculously cured of her illness, but after a few years of dancing to the saint Maria Ignacia grew gravely sick. Before she died, she begged her husband to uphold her promise, and the tradition that survives to this day was born.

Nowadays, a man represents Maria Ignacia by weearing a dress of stitched rags, with a straw hat and dark braids. Accompanied by the other parranderos, he sings in front of the church with a black doll in his arms representing Rosa Ignacia.

The parranderos are men with their faces blackened who wear top hats, dark frock coats and large red or yellow neckerchiefs.

They provide the music for the procession on their cuatros (four-stringed guitars similar to the ukelele) and maracas. Some of them carry statues of San Pedro from the different neighborhood associations that take part in the festivities.

Other characters are the tucusitos, usually young boys dressed in yellow and red harlequin outfits and the coticeros, who are paranderos who wear squares of leather tied to their alpargata shoes that make a distinct sound when they dance.

As UNESCO points out in its description of the Parranda de San Pedro, this is a living folk tradition that brings together young and old, women and men, in a shared celebration of their history and culture:  "Women decorate the churches, dress images of the saint and cook traditional dishes. Adults and children in the community all celebrate a vital tradition that symbolizes and reasserts the struggle against injustice and inequality."

In December 2012, the Diablos Danzantes (Dancing Devils) of Corpus Christi were the first of Venezuela's cultural traditions to be granted Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status by UNESCO.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Whitewater Rafting in Barinas

Whitewater Rafting in Barinas State: The Merida-based adventure tour company Arassari Trek took me on a bumpy, adrenaline-pumping ride down a Grade III stretch of foaming rapids on the Rio Acequias in October as part of the FitVen2013 International Tourism Fair.

It was my first time rafting in Barinas and for a relatively short ride of some 90 minutes it lived up to all the hype I've heard about the rivers here.

I was travelling with a group of international journalists and it was interesting to hear an Ecuadorian travel writer from Baños rave about how pristine the forest was around the river and how clean the water was compared to rafting sites in Ecuador.  

The water in the Acequias was cold at first, but that's not surprising, considering that it's source is one of the glaciers on Pico Bolivar, the highest mountain in Venezuela.  

All in all, rafting with Arassari was a great experience and the barbecued beef we had for lunch was so tender a Uruguayan journalist called for a round of applause for the chef. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Paragliding in Merida, in the Venezuelan Andes

Author of the Bradt Guide to Venezuela Takes to the Air in Merida

On October 26, while taking part in the Venezuelan International Tourism Fair (FITVen2013) in Merida, I did a tandem flight from Tierra Negra with local paragliding legend Jose Albarran, better known by his nickname "Piojo" (Flea).

Jose has been flying from Tierra Negra for more than 15 years. When not paragliding you'll find him taking tourists hiking and mountain bilking all over Merida State with Fanny Tours, which he runs with his Swiss wife Patrizia.

If you want to fly tandem from Tierra Negra, or would like more information on the adventure sports available in Merida State, contact Jose at

For full details about this and many other amazing adventures you can experience in Venezuela purchase my book: the Bradt Guide to Venezuela.

For a full description of what it's like to fly tandem in a paraglider from Tierra Negra, read an account of my first paragliding experience.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Animal Planet: Giant Anacondas in Venezuela

Local Venezuelan guide Juan Carlos Ramirez of Akanan Adventure and Travel recently took scientist-explorer Niall McCann on a hunt for giant anacondas in Los Llanos and the Rio Caura for the programme "Biggest and Baddest" on Animal Planet.

The pair started their search in Hato Cedral, a working cattle ranch in Los Llanos that is one of the best places in Venezuela to see birds and wildlife.

Apart from hundreds of species of raptors and wading birds, Hato Cedral is blessed with rivers full of cayman alligators, red-bellied piranhas, and herds of large, toothy rodents called chiguires (capybara).

It is also a place where you can guarantee an up-close-and-personal experience with an anaconda.

I once had to walk in front of the car and drag the anacondas off the road as we made our way out of the hato to the main road.

But those were small anacondas, no more than 2 metres in length. Nothing like the 5-metre beasts that have been found here.

Juan Carlos and Niall had even more success in the Rio Caura, a tributary of the Orinoco River and one of the most pristine jungle river systems in Venezuela. There, they traveled up to the mighty Para Falls, which separates the Upper Caura, heartland of the Yekwana indigenous people, from the Lower Caura.

Finally, they found their monster, a 5 metre 50 cm long anaconda, with a girth of 64 cm, although it's a baby according to the local Yekuana and Sanema (an indigenous group from the same family as the Yanomami).

For more information about anaconda watching in Los Llanos and the Rio Caura, contact Juan Carlos Ramirez at Akanan Travel and Adventure.

Further reading:
An Account of my Visit to the Yekwana Village of Nichare for a Big Fiesta That Included Copious Amounts of Yuca Beer

Some photos of my trip to Para Falls on the Rio Caura