Sorte Mountain does not appear in any guidebook on Venezuela. Nobody is there selling ice-cream or offering to take photos of tourists. It is only discussed, when it is discussed at all, in private and in Spanish. It stands in the otherwise unexceptional state of Yaracuy, and buried somewhere deep inside the 40,000 hectares of virgin forest that it occupies, is the principal altar of the pagan goddess María Lionza.

After weeks of discussion and deliberation, my Venezuelan friend Enrique had reluctantly agreed to take me to the mountain, and as we drove through seemingly endless fields of flowing corn to approach the huge, jet black and thickly-wooded mountain, an ominous feeling crept into my otherwise far from superstitious breast.

Just a few days before, I had stayed at the home of another Venezuelan, whose grandmother had been a famous witch. My friend showed me a huge altar that adorned the spacious back room of their house, covered with images of the goddess and her byzantine pantheon. Gazing over the bewildering landscape of divinities, I told my friend that I was planning to visit his country’s centre of spiritualism and black magic, Sorte Mountain. He looked at me like I was planning to jump into the crater of an active volcano.

“Are you insane?” he protested emphatically. “Why would you want to? It’s incredibly dangerous! People get killed and kidnapped there all the time!”

“Well,” I replied, “I guess that’s one of the reasons why it sounds so interesting.” I was hoping to write a book about Latin America, after all.

Writing in Venezuela


As we came to the turnoff that led towards the mountain, we drove past a monumental eight-meter tall statue of the goddess, and craned our heads to appreciate the magnificently sculpted body of the muscular and voluptuous deity.

An identical statue of María Lionza stands in the center of the nation’s capital, erected in the 1950s by the dictator Peréz Jiménez, who attempted to use her image as a symbol of national unity. The figure holds a human pelvic bone over her head (usually interpreted as a symbol of fertility) and sits astride a giant tapir. Several presidents of the republic have placed wreaths of flowers on the statue as acts of public devotion.