Where can you find swamp-witches, Peace Corps volunteers, Rastafarians and world class athletes in heated competition? Belize! The 2nd longest canoe race in the world attracts characters of all kinds every March to take part in the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge. Canoeing enthusiasts from novice to expert flock to this tiny Caribbean country to compete in a 170 mile, 4 day canoe race in which the British Army competes and keeps the official time. The event gives a respectful nod to the Mayans who used dugout canoes on these rivers as the primary means of transport between the sea and areas inland. This is by far the largest sporting event in Belize and about 60,000 people along the way cheer on these determined paddlers.
When my friends and I first started discussing this race we joked, “Three person teams? Great, one of us can fish the whole way.” A knowing friend informed us that we wouldn’t make it through the 1st day. “This is a race!” he told us. Oh, well surely we didn’t need to train. Did we?
With no training to speak of we lined up very early on a Friday morning with 100 other canoes to set off on our 4 day, 170 mile punishment for ignorance. The fog lay low on Belize’s Macal River and the steel spanned Hawkesworth Bridge towered over our heads. The race starts in the bustling little town of San Ignacio where a crowd of about 5,000 milled about in anticipation of the wild rodeo that is the start of La Ruta Maya. I suspected we might be in trouble as I watched the other teams warming up, stroking up and down the river in perfect unison like well oiled machines. “We’ll pace ourselves”, we wisely counseled one another, “this is a marathon not a sprint.”
The whistle sounded, the crowd cheered and we sprinted for all we were worth, unable to control our excitement amidst the thrashing paddles and clashing canoes. Amazingly we didn’t tip the canoe but it soon became apparent that we would never survive the 49 miles of the 1st day at this pace. It pained us to see other canoes flying by but we steadied our pace, found our rhythm and dug in. A mere 8 hours and 27 minutes later team “Happy Ending” stroked our way into Banana Bank, the 1st leg of the race complete. My wife, paddling for her second year (her 1st year with the “Swamp Witches”), had arrived well over an hour before us. I could see the pity in her eyes as she watched us struggle to disembark from the 18 foot aluminum “tank” we paddled in for almost 50 miles. “They’ll never get back in the canoe for the second day”, was the consensus amongst our friends.
Needless to say, we didn’t brag incessantly about finishing this race only to drop out after the 1st day! Three more days and 19 more hours on the river brought their share of physical pain and mental stress but mostly I remember the glory. A big finish on day three, for example, saw us edge out 4 other canoes at the finish line as thousands of screaming fans cheered on. Competing in front of a wild crowd makes one’s body tingle all over, I like it.
The only thing that provided more motivation than the cheering spectators were the other teams. Regardless of where one stands in this race the teams around you are racing. We finished 70th of 96 boats that year but we raced all the way and after the 1st hour or so of every day, once the field was pretty much set, not a single team passed us. The battles amongst the teams on the river are memorable. Minor skirmishes where we overcame exhaustion to overtake a team that didn’t want to be passed or fend off an attempt to be passed are part of what made this race for me. The high fives and hugs between competitors at the end of each day helped build a strong bond between all of us.
During the course of our days we were treated to the sight of innumerable large iguanas, howler monkeys screaming from the trees and crocodiles lazily sunning themselves on the river banks. Schools of Tarpon churned the water around our canoe and many people saw manatees. I often wished for a fishing pole. The large camps at night have a great feel as international teams celebrate with hundreds of race followers and local villagers who are drawn to the festivities. Rum flows, barbeques are fired up, aromas fill the air, drums beat and, like it or not, there is sometimes karaoke. Some racers retire early, others finish 70th.
The La Ruta Maya ends in Belize City to the biggest crowds yet and heartfelt, well earned praise is abundant. An awards ceremony, cultural dances and plenty of food and drink follow the completion of the race. Some teams arrive with less than the three paddlers they started with. One paddler outlasted his two teammates, finishing the final day without them but to the raucous reception of an appreciative crowd. We were all reluctant to part ways.
This grand event, set against the backdrop of wild Central American rivers, provided serious refreshment for my soul. It reminded me that adventure, an extraordinary challenge and the camaraderie that they forge make us feel more alive. As all of us returned to our daily lives and we did so knowing that we had conquered the 2nd longest canoe race in the world. For me at least, each day was a little better because of it.
Check out www.LaRutaMayaOutfitters.com and see how you can paddle the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.