For the farmers of northwestern Venezuela, San Isidro saint's day means a rare day off.
The sound of firecrackers ricochets around the hills like cannon fire. Smoke from the explosions drifts up in little grey clouds, dissipating into the blue skies above the Sierra Culata mountains. The rockets are part of the San Isidro saint’s day celebrations. “He’s a pretty important saint,” smiles Jose, my local hiking companion. “He takes away the sun and gives us rain. Farmers don’t know whether to love him or to hate him.”
Today they most definitely love him. Later, there will be drinking, lots of it, and dancing, but the day starts with a mass and a procession through the valley outside the Venezuelan town of Mérida. The farmers line up their oxen, decorated with fruit and vegetables. Tractors and cars, also adorned with produce, carry children dressed as farming couples, the girls in long dresses and headscarves, the boys in waistcoats with their faces made up with black drawn-on beards. Local men play traditional Musica Campesina (farmers’ music) on guitar, fiddles, and drums as the procession moves downhill.
The explosions grow fainter as Jose and I hike up a trail, ears popping as we climb to 3,500 meters. To the north are the mountains of La Culata National Park and to the southwest, the Sierra Nevada. White streaks of waterfalls cascade down the mountainside. We follow a trio of wild horses along a stream, then jump on rocks across the fast-flowing water, filling our bottles with pure mountain water en route.
As we climb into a wide valley, the clouds gather and it starts to rain. We take shelter in a small hut, until the returned sun invites us back into the open. But, not long after we take off our waterproofs, the rain is back. The pattern repeats for the next hour, the rain coming harder each time. This is one of the ‘joys’ of visiting Venezuela in the rainy season, one of the heaviest in years. But then the country has such beautiful bright green landscapes for a reason.
It’s drizzling still when we arrive back at the San Isidro festivities lower in the valley. Most of the men look drunk on a mix of meche (aniseed spirit) and beer; faces red, eyes heavy. Some stagger down the street. In a basketball court, there are couples, young and old, salsa dancing. It’s elegant and sexy, very South American. And when the rains return, the dancers seem not to notice, keeping their hips wiggling and their partners spinning, some snatching kisses on the turn.