The annual La Ruta Maya River Challenge (the Maya Route), first started in 1998 and is a four-day, 170-mile canoe race across the country by way of the Macal and Belize Rivers. The route of this grand race was once the major trade route of the ancient Maya civilization, then later used as a primary highway by the British for the transportation of timber.
This year is no different as hundreds of participants, varying in canoe experience from international competing professionals to the laid-back folks who get involved just for the fun of it, will line up their canoes under the Hawksworth Bridge. They do it for the challenge, and of course the grand prize and fabulous smaller station prizes along the way. The race also serves as a commemoration of Baron Bliss Day, a Belizean holiday celebrated on March 9th in honor of Baron Bliss, a British traveler that willed a large sum of money to Belize in the early 1900s. It’s a long weekend that many Belizeans look forward to for its magnificent weather and long days spent on the beach with family and friends.
Just after dawn today, thousands of Belizeans and visitors alike line the bridges and banks of the Macal River in San Ignacio (just 10 minutes away from Ka’ana!) to see the paddlers off on the first day of the race. At the crack of the gun, total pandemonium breaks loose as some canoes try to get away and claim the first huge station prize just a couple hundred meters away from the start. Some are unbalanced, others collide and even tip over. Teams bark orders at each other, trying to avoid collisions and to distance themselves from the chaos.
It’s all wonderful fun!
They’re cheered on as they finally get going, to the joy of onlookers, who encourage them with loud shouts and applause.
The race makes it way down the Macal River and through the ancient Maya trade route of the Belize River, a source of great excitement for the villages that line its path. There are a few designated villages where the competitors camp and tally their time scores. The villagers throw grand traditional festivals in their honor as they prepare to continue on their journey the following day.
The grand culmination is on the fourth day, when the masses again gather to witness the furious rush to the finish (and possibly a broken record) at the Swing Bridge in Belize City. Grand prizes are issued in different categories such as men, women, intramural, masters, pleasure crafts and mixed. Bragging rights are will be theirs for an entire year as they continue their training and they look forward to doing all over again.