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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Mariano Rangel: Merida Sculptor Carves Life into Wood

Mariano Rangel is a Venezuelan folk artist from Tabay, Merida, and something of a local legend. Born in 1944, he is completely self-taught. He worked as a farmer until 1984, when one day his wife asked him for help to finish a wood carving of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.

The idea of creating the image had come to her in a dream, she said. The Virgin had appeared to her in person, so this was no mere whim, but an obligation that needed to be met.

Mariano was working in the fields at the time, driving a plough with oxen and pulling potatoes out of the soil with his big, strong hands.

After work he would try and help his wife with the carving. Neither of them had ever carved anything before, but she was determined it must be done, and he seemed to have a natural instinct.for working the wood.

By the time the Virgin was finished and painted, Mariano realized he had a natural affinity for carving and wanted to do more. Over the years he gradually perfected his skills, took on larger and more ambitious projects, and his makeshift workshop became a magnet for national and international collectors of folk art.

Mariano's sculptures have been exhibited as far away as France, Japan and the USA.

The inspiration for his art has barely changed over the years. He still focuses on the saints and virgins of the Catholic Church, and 19th century independence heroes like Simon Bolivar, with his trademark mutton chop sideburns, bright blue jacket, white trousers and riding boots.

Mariano likes to leave a section of bark showing on his sculptures so that when you handle them you get a tactile sense of the wood. He's also keen to mark the difference between his own work and ceramic figurines.

This October, Mariano's sculptures were featured as part of the International Tourism Fair, FITVen 2013, which this year was held in his hometown state of Merida. I had seen his work before in exhibitions of popular art in Caracas, but it was a great honour to finally meet the man in person and shake his massive gnarled hand. It was even more impressive to see how delicately he carved a figure of Simon Bolivar with his tools of choice, two stubby kitchen knives that he had filed down for easier whittling.

He told me that he never imposed a figure on the wood, but just handled it until the shape and contours inspired him to carve. That's how he achieves figures that seem to have an inner life, a sense of movement, something which sets them apart from many other carvers who display their works in Merida,

Mariano's success has now inspired his children and grandchildren to take up carving and there is a recognized "Rangel School" of carving.

If you are in Merida try and visit the family workshop where works of all sizes are displayed. From Tabay head for Mucuy Baja and ask for "Taller Mis Principios".

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Merida Cable Car to Re-Open Mid-2014 as Mukumbari

This short but enlightening film, "En lo Mas Alto", shows exactly the working conditions I encountered on my trip on the cable car at the end of October as part of the FITVen2013 press trip with the Tourism Ministry (MinTur). 

It used to be known simply as the teleferico (cable car) but in mid-2014 when work finishes in the Andean city of Merida on a huge project to completely rebuild the longest and highest cable car in the world, the teleferico will be known as Mukumbari.

This is a major moment for the people of Merida who relied on the cable car to attract tourists to the so-called  Ciudad de los Caballeros (City of Gentleman) ever since the first cable car system opened to the public in 1960.

Back in the 1950s it took some 25 European companies three years to put together the towers, winches and wires that took cable cars from Barinitas in Merida (at 1,640 metres above sea level) to the stations at La Montaña (2,436 metres), La Aguada (3,452 metres), Loma Redonda (4,045 metres), and finally Pico Espejo (4,765 metres).

This time, the work is being undertaken by the Austrian firm Doppelmayr in conjunction with the Venezuelan government and the project is much more ambitious, not just replacing the old infrastructure but creating a completely new cable car system with completely new installations that will offer greater access to the mountain and allow wheelchair access.

The work has not been easy, and the dismantling of large concrete buildings at such a high altitude while respecting environmental concerns has proved difficult, It also represents a physical challenge to the more than 500 local men and women who have been toiling away on the project over the last few years, sometimes in severe weather conditions that include high winds, freezing mist and snow.

The video shows the conditions the workers have had to endure better than I can ever describe them, as well as the investment that local people have made in the success of this project.

For the local guides, known as baquianos, who take travelers on horses and mules from the Loma Redonda station on the four-hour trip through classic paramo vegetation to the picturesque mountain town of Los Venados, the reopening of the cable car cannot come soon enough.

As one of the Austrian supervisors told me when I traveled to Pico Espejo "this is the highest and longest cable car in the world, by it's very nature it's a challenge to achieve this but we have the cables in place, you can travel to the top now, and we just have to finish the buildings. It will be ready in June 2014, trust me".

Riding with the workers in an open-sided car that left nobody in any doubt that we were suspended on a wire with a huge drop below us, I was able to corroborate that the cables do indeed take cars all the way to the top.

 I also had the privilege of traveling down the final stretch in one of the shiny new cable cars, decked out in the colors of the Venezuelan flag and with ample viewing room. The new cars can carry 60 passengers compared to the old cars that carried 40. Once fully functioning the system will be able to take 500,000 passengers a year to the top, explained Jose Gregorio Martinez, the head of the Merida Cablecar System.

That's why Mukumbari is such a fitting name for the rebirth of Merida's greatest tourist attraction. An indigenous name for Pico Bolivar, the highest peak in Venezuela, Mukumbari means "place where the sun is born".