had first heard about the La Ruta Maya River Challenge from Julian,
a friend who was getting established in Belize. "You have
to come down here for this race"” he told us. We had
a lot of whitewater rafting and kayaking experience, but had never
been in a canoe race before. After talking about it for a few
months, we finally decided to make the commitment and do it.
Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge is a grueling
multi-day canoe race traveling a perilous river
route across the country of Belize. The route
runs West to East along the Macal and Belize Rivers,
once the only link between beautiful San Ignacio,
in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and the
bustling port of Belize City."
from the Official La Ruta Maya River Challenge
are 7 divisions in the race: Male, Female, Mixed, Masters, Dory,
Intramural and Pleasure Craft, and we were to compete in the
Pleasure craft division. The Race started in the beginning of
March and it looked like we were all set to go; Julian had found
a canoe, a third person for our team and we had plane tickets
all set up, when just a month away, the canoe wasn’t available
and our third person was not able to make it. We had the option
of backing out or scrambling to try and put something together
and we all decided to try and make it happen. Luckily, a plan
came together and we were on our way.
We arrived in Belize City and from there we boarded a bus to
St. Ignacio where the race would start. We realized what a big
event this was when we were in Belize City. Everyone we spoke
with was impressed that we were going to participate in the
race and wished up luck, and the cover of the Belize City phone
book was a spread on the La Ruta Maya River Challenge. Once
in St. Ignacio, we finally met up with Julian and the third
person for team, Eduardo, a Ketchi Mayan from the Toledo District.
It was quite an honor for Eduardo to participate in this important
race and represent his village of Indian Creek. He had also
never been to Belize City before and was looking forward to
seeing the city. We had heard in Belize City that the Mayans
were the best paddlers, but to our surprise, we found out that
evening in conversation with Eduardo, that he had never touched
a paddle before in his life. He seemed nervous about being in
the race, but we tried to encourage him, letting him know that
we would help him along the way and that our ultimate goal was
to just finish the race. In addition to no previous experience
in a canoe, there was a communication mix-up and he had not
brought any camping gear either. It was too late to do anything
that evening and we figured that we could work something out
for him with what we had brought for ourselves.
BelizeRivers.org team Edurdo Pop from Indian Creek, Toledo, Belize,
Lisa Toth and Tim Truman of Indianapolis, Indiana, just before
the start of the race in San Ignacio (left photo) and after the
finish line in Belize City (right photo)
was that night, where all the teams gathered to hear the rules
and regulations of the race and how things would be organized
for the next 4 days. The local TV news was on site and Julian
arranged for our team to be interviewed, which was televised later
that evening. We also had a chance to meet with the National Geographic
Explorers club team, which consisted of the President of the club,
Richard, and two of his friends, Bo and Jonathan. It was their
first time participating in the race as well and they were in
our division, so we decided our goal would be to try and keep
up with these guys. We retired early that night in anticipation
of an early start the next day.
Day 1: The next morning we awoke to drums
beating in the distance. We nervously got all of our gear together
and headed down to the river to see what kind of canoe Julian
had arranged for us and to get started. The whole town was up,
with people lined along the shore and both bridges crossing the
river. Excitement and anticipation was thick in the air.
found the fruit truck that would transport our gear from camp
to camp, picked up our supply of water and bananas, which were
to sustain us for the day, and headed to our canoe. It was a mass
start, in which everyone lined up across the river according to
two visual markers on either side of the river. There were 88
teams total and the professional teams were to line up in front.
It was tough trying to keep the canoe in place with 88 canoes
jammed together and the current pushing the boats as well. The
BATSUB (British Army Training Service Unit Belize) crew were the
official timers of the race and they began the starting countdown
with a megaphone. At zero we were off! It was a frenzied sprint,
with rough water being caused by the mass start. Canoes were tipping
over and teams were pushing others away that came close. The crowd
was cheering loudly and the local fire dept. had the hoses spraying
water across the river from both sides. It was very exciting and
the adrenalin was pumping.
Start of the Ruta Maya River Challenge 2004 in San Ignacio on
March 5, 2004. This photo is taken from the canoe of the BelizeRivers.org
along the river
Thirty minutes into the race, the crowd of canoes started to spread
out, and we tried to get into a rhythm that would last us for
the 49 miles that we had to cover that day. There was a lot more
flat-water to the river than we expected, with only occasional
shoals and small rapids where the current moved more swiftly.
A lot of the canoes would tip in the faster moving water, but
throughout the whole day we managed to not tip over. We also had
the advantage of river running experience, so we were able to
use the current, when it was around, to our advantage. Overall,
it was a grueling, long, hot, eight hour day on the water. The
only thing that kept us going was the competition with the other
canoes, like the National Geographic team whom we managed to beat
that day. Each day, or stage, was timed and at the end of the
race, your total time would determine your standing, but it was
the small competitions each day with other canoes that would keep
the time we reached our first camp, Banana Bank, we were all exhausted
and starving. We were told at orientation that lunch and dinner
would be provided for us, but what we did not know was that both
were provided at the camp. So, if you were a fast team that made
it there in four hours, you received your lunch at a reasonable
time and dinner later that evening, but if you were a slower team,
like us, that finished in eight hours, you received your lunch
and dinner right after one another. We ate our lunch of fried
chicken wings and French fries, and then picked up our camping
gear and found a spot to set up. We set up our rain-fly for Eduardo,
using our paddles as a pole and then gave him a camp chair that
lay flat, so he had something beside the ground to lie on. It
worked really well and luckily it did not rain during trip. After
dinner, we talked about how tough this first day had been and
how we were dreading tomorrow, which was going to be the longest
day of 60 miles. We all took some Motrin and went to bed, hoping
to get some rest for our tired bodies.
2: It was a beautiful night with a bright full moon
and cool temperatures. Our alarm clock the next morning was a
man in the camping area bellowing, “get up, get up”.
It was 4:30 am. The start was at 6:30 am. We packed up and got
on the river for another long day. Eduardo commented that he felt
strong that morning, which encouraged us. Once on the water, we
heard some strange noises from the bush, which Eduardo informed
us, were Howler monkeys. We had heard the noises the night before
in camp, but did not know what it was. We were not too far into
the race, when Eduardo spotted some monkeys in the trees. The
rest of the day, we spotted many more monkeys (and heard them
too), along with many iguana and tropical birds. It was a long
day, but a beautiful stretch of river. There were always supporters
cheering for you along the way as well. We would travel through
areas of jungle, then come across a small clearing with people
swimming or washing their clothes, or just sitting and watching,
all of them giving some encouragement to the participants.
We found ourselves paddling with the same group of people during
the race; a BATSUB team, a Peace Corp team, the Fyffe Banana Export
team and a team of girls that were volunteer teachers. It was
a friendly, competitive atmosphere, with conversation back and
forth to pass the time as we would pass each other on the river.
The dreaded second day of paddling ended up being a lot better
than we anticipated. We finished in about 8.5 hours, just a little
longer than the previous day! We set up camp, purchased some rum
drinks and waited for our dinner of stewed chicken, rice and beans.
We sat around and discussed the day with the guys from the Explorers
club and watched the sunset over the hills, giving our support
to the lingering teams still getting to camp. It felt good to
know it wasn’t us! Later that night, as we were going to
sleep, the locals serenaded us with Patsy Cline and other country
songs on the karaoke machine at the local bar. Laughter also filled
the night air from the local women cooking our breakfast for the
next day on an open wood burning stove.
Monkeys viewed from the canoe during the Ruta Maya 2004
3: We thought the worst part of the race was behind
us since today we only had to cover 36 miles. No problem! Packing
up and eating breakfast was at a more relaxed pace and we actually
were able to get a cup of coffee, some Ben Gay rub, and Baby Ruth
candy bars. We got a pretty good start this morning, catching
the surf behind the wakes of the other boats, and we felt like
we were really moving for a while! Coming around the first bend,
still in a pretty tight pack, there were two large trees in the
river, one coming out from each bank with a canoe stuck on the
right one and people swimming downstream; it was chaos. We smoothed
right through and stayed in the current, while the safety boat
took care of the carnage. Soon the adrenaline of the start ebbed
and the ache of 109 miles set in, and boy, did that suck; but,
we just kept paddling. Flanked by the Fyffe Banana Team and the
Peace Corp group we rolled through the valley looking for iguanas,
listening for howler monkeys, drinking 12 oz. packets of water
and you guessed it – paddling.
25 miles into our day, the river made a sweeping turn to the left
and the paddlers ahead of us started to put on life jackets. Several
people on shore warned us of “big falls” ahead and
told us to make sure to run on the river right side. We put on
our life jackets and looked forward to a good rapid ahead. As
we paddled to the right at the current split, we saw the other
teams in front of us sliding over rocks. When we looked over to
the left, there was a nice three foot standing wave and some nice
fast current. Dang! We just missed the best wave on the river!
It was especially aggravating since the rest of the day it felt
like we were paddling up stream in pea soup, because the current
was so slow. Instead of being easier than the day before, this
day turned out to be the most painful. We finally heard the music
from Burrell Boom, but it still took us another 2 hours to reach
camp. During this time, Eduardo enlightened us about the monkey’s
habit of pooping and peeing on people down below. We made sure
that we did not get to close to shore under the trees.
The scene at Burrell Boom was a small street fair on the river
bank, with make shift shops set up and people selling roasted
chicken, beans and rice, home made wines and many other items.
Everyone was having a great time, especially the older men playing
dominos and the karaoke singers. We pulled the boat up on the
ramp and someone handed us a cold beer; we were finally getting
the hang of this canoe racing.
We saw the Explorer’s club team and found out that they
were the team that was wrapped around the tree at the beginning.
Their account of the whole incident was pretty hairy, but they
came out unscathed, except for a nasty cut on Jonathan’s
forehead, which we helped clean up. That night while we ate dinner,
they showed video of the race on the side of the dinner truck.
It was really impressive to see the top teams in action, since
we normally only see them for a short while at the start.
4: Our last day! We were served our last breakfast
of eggs, beans and bread, and were given coffee, Baby Ruth’s
and Ben Gay again as well. We gave our candy bars to a local boy,
whose father was cooking us breakfast. He was hanging around our
camp site the night before and told us to keep clear of the swampy
area nearby because there was a crocodile that lived there. We
did not see the croc, but thought we would repay him for his advice.
camp at Burrel Boom
start this day was another exciting one. A BATSUB helicopter
was hovering above and the shore was crowded with spectators.
Today was our shortest stretch of 25 miles and everyone was
primed to finish. We were off in a quick sprint and were able
to keep up with the front boats even longer today, but all to
quickly, reality set in and it was going to be a long 25 miles
to the finish. The river had become wider and slower, and there
was a significant wind coming in from the ocean. There were
a lot more spectators on this last stretch since we were getting
closer to the city and all of them were cheering loudly for
the racers. There was turn off the river into a mangrove forest
that we needed to take in order to get to the finish in downtown
Belize City, otherwise, we would have ended up in the Caribbean
Sea. The mangrove forest was a beautiful, surreal area, with
a channel that ran only fifteen feet wide with a lot of turns
and a lot of roots. Once we were out of the mangroves, we only
had 2 miles left! Paddling was getting very difficult with the
wind and tide, but we knew the end was close. Finally, we saw
the finish, with crowds cheering on both sides of the river
and on the bridge. Yes! We did it!
it really was a great experience and we met so many wonderful
people along the way that we hope to see again. We would like
to thank Belizemagazine.com and Belize Rivers.org as our sponsors
and look forward to racing again next year!
Finish of the 2004 Ruta Maya River Challenge at the Belkan Bridge
in Belize City, seen from the canoe....
and the team as it reaches the end of the race.