On Saturday, before a large crowd, Venezuela's famous 'palmeros' will descend from Waraira Repano Park carrying leaves from palm trees. They will cross the exclusive neighborhood of Chacao to reach the Church of San José, where the following day some 2,000 parishioners received the "blessed palms" brought from the mountain.
is listed in the Unesco register of good safeguarding practices and aspires to become world heritage.
This tradition, dating back more than 250 years, is listed on the UNESCO registry of good safeguarding practices. Many hope it will one day be recognised as a World Heritage Site.
"I want to be a palm tree and climb the hill", sing the "palmeros" – men and children who extract branches from the palm trees in Ávila Park, in the emblematic mountain range that borders Caracas, and give them to the faithful on Palm Sunday.
Many faithful lined up to confess during the Eucharist that was held outdoors, in the square adjacent to the church, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We cry when we deliver the branches. It is incomparable (...) We feel it in our hearts," explains Carlos González, a 37-year-old carpenter.
A quarter-century ago, yellow fever was devastating and Father Mohedano – the first parish priest of Chacao – asked the faithful to look for the branches and leaves in the mountains, promising to perpetuate the practice if the disease disappeared.
Wednesday, 1.30am. Carlos González and Álvaro Porras, both 36 years old, plunge into the forest followed by half-a-dozen young people to the place where they will camp.
About 300 palm trees are scattered in this national park.The branches of the palm, Caroxylum carifarum, an endangered species. They search among trees they have planted previously. Before they used to cut palm trees at random, but at the risk of making them disappear, and with them, the tradition.
"Today we are palm growers 365 days a year. We plant, we clean the forest. We carry out operations in other parks. We give back to nature what it gives us," explains Álvaro.
The "palmeritos," Santiago Coriat and Joseph Rincón, both 12 years old, are filled with fear and emotion.
"I'm a little nervous. It's the first time," says Santiago, who carries a backpack with food, a sleeping bag and a budare (metal plate) to cook arepas (corn pancakes).
It's a load that will be too heavy for the child during the difficult ascent rising to 1,000 metres. Álvaro and Carlos carry around 60 kilogrammes on their backs.
They bring food, things to cook and sleep... Without forgetting "the vitamins," some bottles of rum seasoned with pesgua (a mentholated mountain herb) to warm up and liven up the work, jokes Carlos.
The light from Caracas is enough to illuminate the steep road. At first, everyone concentrates on their breathing. The conversations and the songs stop.
3.30am. First stop to catch their breath. "The climb is hard but lowering the branches for the faithful, there is no comparable feeling when you see the joy of the people," says Álvaro.
During the ascent, the group overtakes others who rest or let faster palmeros pass. Some wear rosaries around their necks or T-shirts with the name of the event.
6am. Dawn breaks and the group lies down to sleep a little in a viewpoint with a view of Caracas. Before resuming the ascent to the camp, where a small fire is lit and a snack is distributed accompanied by clouds of mosquitoes.
"There is faith, the responsibility to perpetuate tradition, but there is also friendship. We are united above. We are all one," explains Álvaro.
"The spirits of the deceased palm trees accompany us, we feel their presence," says Carlos, who has grown palm trees since he was six years old.
'We are happy'
The tradition, from which women are excluded, includes a campfire and jokes that have been inspired, in part, by alcohol.
"What happens in the mountains, stays in the mountains," jokes one palmero in his 30s.
The palmeros go in search of branches. They trudge through the forest, climbing or descending steep walls, sometimes on all fours.
Álvaro teaches the youngest how to manipulate the palm trees without causing them damage and so that they can grow back in time for next year. Santiago and José are thus "baptised" by cutting their first branch.
On Saturday morning, after two nights in the mountains, they go down with the branches on their shoulders. For many, it is a kind of "stations of the cross" – a form of penance.
"We are happy to have fulfilled the mission. No matter the pain or the fatigue," sums up Jean-Paul Blanco, a tattoo artist.
To the sound of fanfares, firecrackers and accompanied by dancers, the palmeros parade through the city, passing in particular through a popular neighborhood called El Pedregal, where most of them come from.
"El Pedregal is a big family. Each neighbour has a common ancestor," says Álvaro.
They make stops in front of the houses of deceased palmeros, where families hang portraits.
"It's as if they were waiting for us at the door of their house," Carlos says as he passes the home of an elderly man.
4pm. The palmeros arrive at the church where the priest blesses the branches before placing them in the parish house.
It is the end of the adventure. Fatigue and emotion mix. They hug, they scream, they kiss, they cry, they laugh. "Mission accomplished," they say.
by Patrick Fort, AFP