Racing Down Peru’s Amazon River

"It started out as a lot of ripples, but next thing you know there are two-and-a-half, three-foot waves. We started gathering our gear together, but our platform got ripped apart. We hadn’t seen the Coast Guard in about two-and-a-half hours."

Cantley, who currently teaches English in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, probably began wondering whether he had made a mistake in bringing along his stepsister, Shannon Covington, from Edgewater, Maryland.

Raft number 13 before the storm tore it apart

enlarge Raft number 13 before the storm tore it apart on Friday.

"We could see the storm coming but we didn’t have enough time to get to the shore," Covington said.

"We had three-foot swells coming over the top of the logs but couldn’t turn the nose into the waves. Then the raft started falling apart so we just held on," the 30-year-old youth camp counselor said.

They floated for 45 minutes in the pelting rain and lighting storm before the gray Coast Guard boat pulled alongside. After hauling the team into their boat, the Guard pushed the mangled raft away into the swells.

"Our team is pretty much done. We will enjoy our time on the boat," Covington said.

So what were a group of Americans, with little knowledge of a gigantic river renowned for its piranhas, anacondas, and disease-carrying mosquitoes, doing in a wild storm on a flimsy log-raft?

They were taking part in what may be the world’s longest river race on wooden-rafts.

The seventh annual Great Amazon River Raft Race began in the village of Nauta on Friday and ended Sunday in Iquitos, Peru’s largest city on the Amazon.

Villagers in Nauta watch the race begin

enlarge Villagers in Nauta watch the race begin on Friday morning.

Over three-days, some eighty-eight participants from Peru and abroad churned up the river with wooden paddles as they struggled to complete the 133-mile course.

The grueling journey was made by six international teams and 16 Peruvian teams from nearby areas. Various local and foreign sponsors in the Iquitos area put on the race.

Despite the traumatic rescue experience, Shannon Covington called the race the "opportunity of a lifetime."

"I’m defiantly glad I did it but next time, I would prefer to have a Peruvian who knows what they are doing on board."


In the end, the Peruvian teams took all the top prizes and left the foreign teams trailing hours behind, but then, that was expected.

The cross-cultural dynamic of a mixed race was clear from the get go. At the blast of the start-horn in the village Nauta, Peruvian teams plunged their oars into the water, pulling away from the muddy banks as fast as the primitive rafts allowed.

enlargeRafts drift by the jungle near the confluence of the Maranon and Ucayali rivers, where the Amazon River begins.

Meanwhile, foreign teams with participants from Russia, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Australia, Canada, England, and the U.S., eased out gingerly, apparently just trying to get a handle on maneuvering the flat rafts.

Peruvian teams were clearly in it for the prize money, which totaled 6,000 soles ($1,850) in all.

The best local teams began training as early as two months ago, intent on winning prizes which amount to more than half a year’s salary for some. Many sat in the dark on the night before the race, sanding and chipping at their rafts with machetes — fine tuning the balsa logs — which are fixed together with nails, and tightly lashed with twine. Rafts were permitted to have no less than 6 and no more than 8 logs.

But the foreign teams, whose rafts were commissioned from local builders by the race organizers, came for adventure. Even if a foreigner won a money prize, the value would be less than the cost of their airfare to Peru.

It was Dale Baskin, a mild-mannered product manager for a genetics company in Seattle, Washington, whose team took first prize among the foreigners — a two-night stay at an Amazon River lodge.

Dale Baskin shows his sore hands after day three

enlarge Dale Baskin shows his sore hands shortly after coming in first among the foreign teams.

Baskin said he learned about the event from an advertisement he saw posted in the South American Explorer’s Club in Iquitos.

He gathered a team together and collectively; they pooled the $200 entry fee.

One of his team members, John Montana, has lived in Iquitos for four years.

"It was one of the better challenges I’ve experienced throughout my life, the 59-year-old American said.

"But I never expected that I would put out so much energy after I retired."

Second place among the foreign participants was a team of four female veterinarians.

Team captain, Beth McGenniskin, lives in Iquitos working for an organization called Community for Animal Rescue Education and Safety, or C.A.R.E.S., which is the only organization providing free-treatment for street-dogs in Peru. Had they won the race, the team hoped to give their prize money to their nonprofit group.

"The best part was just making it, getting to the end, because it was such a long way. It required so much endurance, physical and mental endurance," McGenniskin said after completing the race.

Janey Little from South Africa, one of the four veterinarians on board, called the experience "unforgettable".

"The first day was just hell because we were so unprepared, so dehydrated. I hit a wall with the sun, and threw up," she said. "But it was such a privilege rafting down the Amazon."

Team of vets on the river

enlarge The team of veterinarians paddles down the river.

Three foreign teams were disqualified from the race. The first was Michah Cantley’s group, whose raft was destroyed by the storm. Two other teams were disqualified when they allowed the river boat, Dawn on the Amazon III, to tow them part of the distance.

"The Over the Hill Gang", led by 74-year-old Mort Caplan, took a tow after their raft became water logged and one log began to sink.

Caplan, a retired lawyer from Arizona, heard about the event through the Southern Arizona Paddling Club, of which he is a member.

His team consisted of another American and two Canadians.

"This is an across-the-border kind of handshake. We have two flags and if we lose, we take down the American flag and blame the whole thing on the Canadians," Kaplan joked.

A team member, Joe Divito from Nova Scotia, said he spent over a month planning for the event.

"My wife bought lots of insurance and heard that the piranha are very hungry at this time of year." Divito said.

"We were pincushions for a while; we got Hepatitis A and B, and Yellow fever, and are taking malaria pills."

But whatever the dangers, most participants seemed to enjoy the event without much fear.

The third place team, "Tenemos Ganas" (we have the desire), consisted of three professional river rafters from Lake Tahoe, California, and a baker from San Francisco. Each said the race was the most difficult physical thing they had ever done.

"Our name is ‘Tenemos Ganas’ — and we’ve got the desire — for winning, for losing, for having a great time whatever happens," said team captain, Hugh Denno, who recently left Tahoe to begin volunteering for an ecotourism nonprofit in Ecuador, called Huri Pachamama.


Race organizer Mike Collis

enlarge Race organizer Mike Collis on the banks of the Amazon River.

The race was invented and organized almost single-handedly by Mike Collis, an Englishman living in Iquitos. Collis, a.k.a. "mad-Mick", divided the race prizes into three categories: a cash prize for the fastest rafts, a second money-prize for the fastest women’s raft; and non-money prizes for the foreign teams.

Prize money was awarded in bundles. Each day, the fastest raft took home 750 soles ($240), and the best time for the three-day race overall won an additional 750 soles.

"If you don’t spread the prizes up over the three days, the Peruvians will just drop out of the race when they think they don’t have a chance at the final prize," Collis said.

The fastest women’s raft each day earned 500 soles ($160). Three international prizes included a two-night stay at the Amazon Rain Forest Lodge near Iquitos, and three blood-wood sculpture-trophies for the second and third placers.

In the end, victory went to the same team that has won the race every year.

Relative greets first place rafter

enlarge Relative greets one of "Los Invincables" just moments after crossing the finish line.

The so-called "Invincables", from the local river town of Pardre Cocha, finished the race in 13 hours and 17 minutes, winning best time on two of the three days and overall best time. The second place team, also from Padre Chocha, was just six minutes behind.

Almost unanimously, locals also said they thought the prize money should be raised.

"It would be great if the mayor helped us but there’s not much support for this event," said Edison Apuela, the leader of the Invincibles team, which, as a group, took home 2,500 soles ($800).

"The (prize) money is to split up and covers basic needs," said Apuela, who spent last year’s winnings to buy a moped.

"We like to participate because we like rafts, but the prizes are too low. A good prize for first place would be 8,000 or 10,000 soles ($2,500 or $3,200)," he said.

The event’s main sponsor, Peter Schneider, owner of the Rain Forest Lodge, provided $1,000 for the event. 2,000 soles ($625) were also offered up by the municipality of Iquitos and another 1,600 soles ($500) was given by Bill Grimes, an American who runs a local cruise company, Dawn on the Amazon. Collis, who worked entirely on a volunteer basis, spent 2,000 soles from his own pocket to promote the race. LivinginPeru.com also helped promote the event.

The mayor of Iquitos had originally promised to provide 12,000 soles ($3,750), but the city took too long to begin looking for the help of local sponsors, Collis said.

"When I met with the mayor last year I told him that I wanted 10,000 soles ($3,200) and that I wanted him to get sponsors from the city. But they didn’t even start working ’till a month ago," he said.

Then a few days ago, Iquitena, a local beer company, showed up and asked permission to provide the participants with beer and T-shirts at the finish line.

"If the city had found sponsors (sooner), the prizes could have been three or four times as much. I’m sure they thought we wouldn’t even get here," Collis said.

Some of the participants said they would have also liked to see more money go towards organization.

Sharadon Harvey from Hawaii, one of the rowers on the veterinarian team, said that the incident with the Coast Guard had worried her.

"With the storm, I think that was really dangerous and something bad could have happened. No one checked on them (the last group) all day," Harvey said.

Another participant, Eric Wolfinger from San Francisco, California, called the event’s safety "a joke".

"It’s like walking a tight rope with a few holes in your net," he said.

Captain of the Coast Guard boat, Jorge Oinet, said he had not been informed of the number of participants, and so he did not know one raft had gone missing. Later, Oinet claimed he was not provided enough money from the Iquitos municipality to buy the fuel he needed to properly supervise the event.

Organizing security and looking after local Peruvian participants, was the job of the city of Iquitos. But the city’s tourism chief, Serafin Otero, said funding had been cut short.

Tourism chief of Iquitos, Serafin Otero

enlarge Tourism chief of Iquitos, Serafin Otero, near the finish line on Sunday.

"The mayor told Mike he would be able to support all of the race, that we would cover the prizes, and that we would collaborate with the local authorities, but we did not get their help," Otero said.

"The towns that we asked for help did not give anything, so my team was trying to secure loans up until the last hour."

Otero admitted that there were serious defects in this year’s race, especially in security, but said that the city  recognizes the potential of the event to promote Iquitos and genuinely hopes to play a bigger role next year. The race dates corresponded with Iquitos’ annual tourism week. Otero also hopes to diversify sources of funding.

"I have been trying to contact international entities that promote this type of event, to look at how we might do something of real magnitude," he said.

Other foreign participants complained that there was not enough space on the Miron II, a riverboat specifically hired for them. The boat, which is made for 20, was housing 40 people in all.

Sleeping cuarters for foreign rafters on the boat Miron II.

enlarge Sleeping cuarters for foreign rafters on deck of the Miron II.

Squeezed into hammocks exposed to the rain and doubling up in bunk beds, the participants said the water for showers was minimal and the toilets always occupied.

In addition, many foreign participants were surprised by the difficulty of the race. They said Collis had led them to believe that whether they paddled or not, the current would bring them to their destination each day in about 5 hours. The reality was that many paddled hard, and only arrived in 8 hours. Some did not bring enough food or water on the first day, not anticipating the length, or the brutal heat.

Collis said that better services could have been provided if the entry fee had been doubled to $400 per four-person team.

"As far as people’s complaints over sleeping, I would refer them to the motto of this race which is, ‘the faint of heart need not apply’. It cost them $50 each for the lodging for four days and three nights, which is nothing," he said.

Next year, Collis will retire from the role of organizer, and pass the job onto an as of yet, unpicked volunteer, as well onto the Iquitos City Council, he said.

While locals paid just 30 soles ($10) to enter the event, they had even fewer services provided.

Racers had their rafts delivered by truck to the starting point in Nauta, but many had to sleep on the hard ground the night before the race began because the city had not promptly delivered mattresses. Others complained that there was no food available to buy on the second night of the race in Nuevo Esperanza, and some said they did not eat.

Otero said he would like the city to provide food at every stop for all participants at next year’s event. Group dinners might also foster a greater cultural exchange, since the foreign and Peruvian teams were largely separate during the race.

"The camaraderie of all those involved was brilliant, though I feel that if we were better integrated with the Peruvian teams it would be an even greater experience." said Karina Berg from the U.K.


First place team celebrates with trophy

enlarge First place team celebrates with the "Schneider trophy", which is engraved with the names of sponsor Peter Schneider’s parents.

At least four foreigners have said they plan to return to race next year.

"The reason I think we talk about coming back is because we see a great amount of potential in this event," said Hugh Denno, a river rafting guide.

"We work on a river where there’s 48 companies. 5,000 people come down a week. If we put up one sign, we could get thousands of river guides out here," Denno said.

Denno’s fast friend, Derek "Condor" Bowles, who is also a river guide, said the experience had served as a cultural exchange.

"This trip is definitely altogether one of the most amazing bridges for learning another culture. They have been doing this (raft riding) for ages, for thousands and thousands of years, and were lucky enough to come down here and spend $50 each to paddle and learn everything we’ve learned." Bowles’ team hopes to return a few days before the start of next years race so as to build their own raft.

One of the Peruvian rafters, Mirial Garcia, who owns La Noche restaurant in Iquitos, said she thought the event had great potential.

"This is a benefit for tourism in Iquitos. And if we want this to grow, we have to put on better organized events so that they who come from abroad will have more respect for us here."

Emillie Dahua, a fruit seller in Nauta, said she thought the race was good for her village.

"It is the first time I am observing something like this. It seems to me that all the city of Nauta is watching. This promotes something of culture and the environment. It is something very very good," she said.

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To read another article about the event and view numerous public comments, click here