Dancers in brightly colored devil masks whirled around and shook their hips to the heavy beat of African drums Thursday, marking the beginning of Venezuela's exuberant Corpus Christi celebration.
Thousands packed the narrow streets of this centuries-old coastal town inhabited by descendants of the African slaves who toiled on Spanish-run cocoa plantations watching the "Devil Dancers" shimmy under the blazing sun.
This year's celebration was different than those of recent decades: For the first time in 95 years, Corpus Christi coincided with the equally exuberant festival of San Juan Bautista.
Corpus Christi is usually celebrated exclusively by the "Dancing Devils" in mid-June, but this year the celebration date fell on June 24 _ the same day that revelers pay their respects to John the Baptist, a patron saint to many people living on Venezuela's Caribbean coast.
Revelers traditionally begin celebrating Corpus Christi on June 23, dancing and partying through the night until the end of the following day.
"This is the first time I'll see it. This only happens every 95 years," said Pablo Izaguirre, 74, who smiled as he beat on a drum in a Corpus Christi spectacle that attracted roughly 5,000 of the town's residents and tourists to a central plaza.
Izaguirre is an emblematic figure known as "El Diablo Mayor," or "Eldest Devil," a title pointing to the 57 years that he has participated in the Corpus Christi celebration as a dancer. He kicked off this year's festivities by beating on a drum after dawn to wake up the town's inhabitants.
Within minutes, men, women and children of all ages emerged from their homes, flooding the plaza. Clad in black, long-sleeve shirts, pants painted with colorful saints and other figures and bells hanging from belts, they held up devil masks and vigorously shook maracas.
When the church bell tolled to signal midday, the pounding of drums began and resonated throughout Naiguata. The dancers then started their procession.
Felix Corro expressed confidence that Naiguata's Corpus Christi customs won't fizzle as he safeguarded a statue of the saint amid the cacophony.
"This tradition will never be lost because there are many younger generations participating," Corro said.