Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Great Amazon River Raft Race 2011

As promised, a brief (edit: not brief) synopsis of my visit to the jungle.

Signed up for the Great Amazon River Raft Race.  Teams of four, three days, build a raft and paddle it 180 km down the Amazon.  Not really any idea of what to expect here...  The website pretty much just said, Not for the faint of heart.  It also said that raft building supplies, food, and lodging were to be provided for the 500 dollar per team registration.  Whether or not these things were provided is still up to debate...

We flew to Iquitos on the 4th of October.  The schedule read that this night was the "Welcome Rafters" party, the next day was free to explore Iquitos and shop, the next day was raft building, and then three days of paddling, each night staying on school floors or in tents in little jungle villages.  The race ends back in Iquitos and we fly back to Lima the next day (you can only get to Iquitos by boat or plan - largest city in the world with no road access, with comething like 350,000 people.)

We got there and the team met up.  The Velocirafters!  Well, me and Sara and Rob met up.  Jose, my friend from site who was supposed to be on our team, Peru-ed that night, texting to say he couldn't make it, have fun!  Friggin' jerk.  Still doesn't even get that this was a big deal.

Anyways, the little riverfront area of Iquitos, where the party was and we sat at the lovely expat bars all day is called the Malecón.  It's very nice.

I told Rob he would be either the photographer or the star of all my photos.  Mostly he took the rest of my pictures.  At the riverfront bar here.

The lovely view over the Amazon from the boardwalk.

Boardwalk Malecón, Iquitos.

No child sex tourism is allowed in Iquitos.  That's nice.

This was our team mascot, Humphrey.  He hung on our raft but was stolen the first night of the race.  I cried a little.  But check out the sweet cozie on that beer!  Beers actually come COLD in the jungle!

At the Welcome Rafters party.

The Crazy Cuys team.

The Cobbs and friend Mike.  Our archnemesis team - The River City Donkey Show.

The day after the big party, I went with some friends to check out the Iquitos market and we also wanted to find someone to take us on a boat tour of the floating town of Belén that we had heard about.

Iquitos has the most charming combis I have seen yet.

Turtle meat in the market.

Eating market grubs.  It was actually pretty delicious.  Buttery.

Found a boat.

I think Belén was the most impoverished place I have visited yet in Perú.  It was an interesting place, but also a bit heartbreaking.

The Belén bar.

Rob and some folks fishing on their porch.

We were packed in a very small boat.

The Belén church.  Yes, that is where the water level rises to in the wet season.

You can see how the houses are built on logs to float up with the water level.

Floating gas station boat.

Latrines.  Right into the river.

Went behind a guys house to see some giant lily pads.

They are stangely evil looking things.

We explored some of the little villlage areas there, saw the school and the houses.  As I said, really interesting, but pretty sad.  No one had any sort of amenities.  Everyone was very small and not healthy.  We were kind of melancholy when we went back to Iquitos.

We then had to spend the remainder of the day buying raft supplies, ie, something to sit on, some shade, any other little luxuries we wanted.  And of course we went back to the malecón and had more cold beers. COLD.  And we ate alligator burgers.  Yum.

I don't have many pictures after this, just a few.  I didn't use my camera much on the raft, but you can see some tagged pics on the facebook from other people who did.  So the next morning we had to get all of our stuff down to the plaza nice and early to pile all 180-something rafters and all their schwag onto a bunch of buses to go the two hours upstream to Nauta, where we would launch from.

Waiting in the Iquitos plaza.  Kelsi is super stylish.

Silly bus games.

Where the bus of course got a flat.  Fortunately we had a roadside food vendor and got to chomp on grilled bananas and juantes while we waited.

They had a town party for us all in Nauta.

Of course a few friends and I went searching for cold beers in Nauta with Gringa Linda and the Crazy Cuys, consequenially missed the boat to the island where we were building our rafts, and had to hitch a ride over from the Coast Guard.

Raft Building Island, where we stayed that night and launched from the next morning.

Raft building was ridiculous, as the promised lunch didn't arrive til nightfall and niether did the promised raft building supplies, meaning we spent the entire day just waiting and getting angry and starving.  I actually busted out my bottle of Pisco and went around trying to trade shots for rop at one point.

So many people.  With no clue what they were doing (including apparently the organizers.)  Such a ridiculous scene.

So we did eventually get a raft built, thanks to our random assigned replacement guy, a random kid from Iquitos who had done it a few times before.  His name was Roy.  We hoped he would be a ringer but he didn't prove too awesome until the very end.  But I will get to that.

So we got a really basic raft built, dinner showed up really late in the night, while half the people were asleep and the rest were drunk around bonfires, and everyone launched together in the morning.  That first day, we were convinced we were gonna get hauled in at the end, as we were not the world's strongest paddlers.  But our raft stayed almost completely above water and we were mostly able-bodied (except for the part where I went straight from physical therapy for a torn shoulder tendon to the race, and then straight back for more therapy after, with my shoulder then exponentially worse...) so we paddled away hard, thinking we had to.

Now, if you have never spent a lot of time trying to propel four people on eight balsa logs and some supplies down an extraordinary sluggish body of water, know that you are literally putting those paddles in the water and using as much of your body as you can to PULL yourselves along.  It ain't easy.  After about 20 minutes my arms were on fire.  But we pushed through.  We paddled pretty much steadily for 6 hours and one minute that day, until we pulled in at the first night's stop.  So tired.  And of course the only available food was being sold at completely exorbinant prices by the villagers.  The promised food took some many hours to appear, as would be the pattern for the remainder of this worst-organized-event-ever.

We came in 14th that day, out of 40 something teams.  We were shocked.  We had no intention of trying to do that well.  So we of course learned the awesomely bad lesson that we sure as hell didn't neeed to try so hard the next day, and could spend more time chilling and watching the pink dolphins swim around.

That night we tried to have celebratory beers but after I realized I had been carrying around the same open beer for 2 hours without taking one sip, I realized it was time to crash.

In the morning we had another anemic breakfast and set off.  They made us set off in stages, those that finished last the day before set off first, etc, in three groups.  This put my team in the last group to set off.  I tried arguing against it, as we had been the slowest group of the fastest set.  We were only put into the fast set by a margin of FIFTY NINE SECONDS.  I explained that we weren't planning on paddling so much this day and didn't want to be just left in the dust and never see anyone all day.  Didn't work.

So we were left in the dust and didn't really see sign of anyone fore a few hours, til we started to catch up with the very slowest groups.  It was a LONG DAY.  Nine hours, it ended up being.  We slacked for the first four, only paddling every now and then, but then decided to own the rest of it.  So we paddled pretty hard the next five hours.  It was a good thing too.

We started passing people like crazy, right in the most frustrating part of the whole day, when you get stuck in this not-even-moving-slightly patch of water the size of a large lake.  Took us a good two hours to push through that, where you couldn't even stop paddling for a second.

After the lake the shit started to hit the fan.  A huge storm rolled in and the sun started to set.  Lightning was flashing around and the rain started.  Waves picked up.  Rolling in to shore was very dramatic.  By then it was completely dark and we were coming in only by the couple of lights on the shore and the yells of a mob of little jungle children that were waiting there to pull our raft up and secure it.  We knew there were still a LOT of teams behind us, some way behind and wondered how they could possibly be faring out there in the pitch black.

We saw the rescue boat head out right before we landed.  We gathered our stuff and trudged up to the school we'd be staying the night in, so indescribeably exhausted, but also a bit anxious for the others.  We came in 24th I think that day, still pretty good considering how much we relaxed and swam!

It ended up being hours we sat around wondering when the rescue boat would come in with all our friends.  The town we were in was by far the best yet, providing us with AMAZING food, lots of cold beer, and even live bands.  When the rescue boat did come in with about 7 teams, all of which had had to abandon their rafts, there were still two teams missing for a couple more hours.  They were eventually found.

The rescued kids obviously coudn't participate any more, as they had no rafts, and would be riding in the support boat for the final day.  They were in a variety of moods that night.  Some had come in very excited and blown away by what had happened out there, but more came in quite shaken, said it was pretty scary in the dark on the amazon with the waves and not being able to see anything anywhere for hours.  Sea monsters, ya know.  Some got taken in by small villagers and cared for until the boats arrived.  That was nice.

In the school the last night.  Glad I brought my mosquito net.  Not many did.  They didn't get much sleep inthe nights.

Getting ready to launch the last morning, when our numbers had dwindled.

Our raft.
The last day we knew was supposed to be decently short, but they also told us that the last 500 meters would be against the current.  We knew all the slowest teams were out, and we didn't want to come in last, so we decided to paddle hard all day.  So, so sore.

We went at it, playing games keeping track of how many teams were in front of us until all of a sudden we found ourselves the very first gringo team!  It was useless to count the all Peruvian teams as they were local raft people and were competing for the prize money and paddled like machines.  We would stop to watch them when they came by, as they obviously had to start off in the last heat.  They would fly by, literally finishing in HALF the time of the rest of the teams.  We don't even know how they did it.

So we decided we wanted to hold on to the gringo lead.  Roy, our guy-we-hoped-was-a-ringer-but-then-proved-to-be-a-chatty-slacker, said we should cross to the other side of the river, as the finish was on that side and the river only got wider from this point forth.  We went for it, though all the other teams in sight stayed on that side.  It took us a good two and a half hours to cross the river (the Amazon is seriously a huge river) and while we crossed we could see other teams pass us by SO FAR, staying in the current we had been in.  We started to get mad at Roy.

But then at the end he proved to be right.  The teams who had stayed on the other side really had a struggle getting over.  And when you got over, it was time to fight the counter current, taking the turn off to the finish line.  This was the battle fo a lifetime.  It took an hour to go that last five hundred meters, paddling like your life depended on it the entire time.  It was so hard it got funny.  We all just started shouting and yelling and cracking up, thinking it was impossible to go on.  It was like you weren't moving forward at all, but if you stopped working as hard as humanly possible, you started flying backwards.

We hit land and it was the best thing ever.  I fell of the raft into the water, completely drained but also completely elated.  We did end up coming in the first gringo team that day, though some other of course did it in quicker time, with the staggered starts and all.  They had Cuzqueña girls there waiting for us with free cold beers, photographers and reporters, and we just jumped around celebrating and cheering and having no idea what to do with ourselves for the next two hours, watching everyone come in.  Some people came in and burst into tears right hen they hit land.  That was my favorite.  It really was that tough of a three days.

So that's that.  We of course celebrated thoroughly that night.  I think we came in in the top 15 overall, 3rd of all gringo teams.  And then we left!  But I may go back to the jungle to live forever.  I will definitely be taking another vacation out that way, and soon.  Best place on earth.

Heading home to Lima.


  1. It's good to see that people were also engaged in gatherings and party at night time. That serves as the cherry on top of an exciting raft race. Your raft right there looks very durable, by the way.

    David Deland

  2. This sounds awesome... Great blog entry.