Saturday, March 5, 2011

La Ruta Maya

One of the greatest things about my job is the opportunities to experience events and festivals that simply don't exist anywhere else in the world.  And while millions of people from Rio to Trinidad to Venice to New Orleans are celebrating Carnivale this weekend, Belize is celebrating the "La Ruta Maya" canoe race.  

The race covers 176 river miles from near the Guatemala river to Belize City and the Caribbean Sea.  Although the race itself is relatively young (I believe this is the 13th year), the route has great historical underpinnings.  The Mayans often used the rivers for travel.  More recently, British loggers used the rivers to get their mahogany from the forests to the seas for shipment back to Britain.  The best part is some of the names of towns that the race passes - Roaring Creek, More Tomorrow, Burrel Boom, Spanish Lookout, Teakettle, Bermudian Landing, Ladyville, and my all-time favorite, Double Head Cabbage.  I assure you that those are all real names of real villages in Belize.

Our current DCM, who used to work in the boating industry before he joined the Foreign Service, built a canoe while here in Belize.  It's not a dug-out canoe, rather he glued thin strips of wood to a frame, sanded down the edges, and put a bunch of sealant on it.  It's actually quite an awesome little boat, named "Up the Cric", although it obviously does have paddles.  He finished this boat last year in time to enter an Embassy team for last year's race.  The team (all Belizean FSNs) had little practice time, but made a solid showing.  This year, they have gone out twice each weekend for the past month and put in practice time.

On Friday, we got to the Embassy at 530 to take a van to San Ignacio to support the team.  About 40 people from the Embassy, both Americans and local staff, were there.  San Ignacio and Santa Elena were packed with people that morning.  Although I am awful at estimating crowds, I'd say there were at least 2,000-3,000 people there.  This is easily the largest crowd I have seen in Belize.  People lined the banks and were on both the high bridge and the low bridge.

Once the horn sounded, the boats took off  paddling furiously.  Within a minute, most boats were out of my site.  A few were clearly in no hurry and several capsized before they reached the low bridge.  Apparently, the low bridge usually causes a few boats to go down and this year did not disappoint.  I saw at least 4 or 5 boats capsize at the low bridge.  One poor boat flipped over 4 times in between the bridges.  They were going to have a long day.

The rest of the weekend is apparently a traveling party, with supporters setting up camp at each of the launch and exit points.  After the first leg, the Embassy team was in fourth place in its division.
The route of "La Ruta Maya"

Approaching the low bridge

Peace Corps volunteers getting their canoe ready

Launching canoes in front of the low bridge

Up the Cric (with paddles)

Steam comes off the water in the early morning chill

My absolutely favorite name for any of the boats

The U.S. Embassy team in Up the Cric

The race begins

People watching from the low bridge


  1. I loved this post -- great story and great photos as well. And for the record, the DCM's canoe is BEAUTIFUL.

    Seems like a great thing to get to be a part of, and I'm jealous.

    Take care,
    (A fellow foreign service blogger out of western Afghanistan --