The Great Amazon River Raft Race – Part I

Pilsener Beer

IQUITOS, PERU – Like many great adventures, this one begins over beer. Specifically, the local Ecuadorian brew called Pilsener. There are no thoughts of Tarantulas. Or piranhas. Or 40-hour bus rides, corrupt policemen, sugarcane alcohol, broken bones, lightning, or intestinal parasites. Not yet, at least. That will come later. For now there is just adventure. Or at least the prospect of it.

"The World's Longest Rafting Race" teases the hand-drawn poster on the wall of the South American Explorers Club in Quito. Sitting around with a few like-minded adventurers the poster makes great fodder for alcohol-induced conversation. After one beer it's a running joke. After two it seems like a good idea to enter. After three we have formed a team and my fellow travelers are forking over money to pay the registration. Looking at the poster for fine print we discover there is none. Only a warning that "The faint of heart need not apply" along with the location: the remote city of Iquitos, Peru.

The Great Amazon River Raft Race is the brainchild of Michael "Mad Mick" Collis, a British ex-pat living in Iquitos. Mick has been putting on raft races for years, but this is by far the longest. On paper it sounds remarkably simple: paddle a log raft 142 miles down the Amazon River, arrive at the finish line three days later, and avoid being eaten by the local wildlife en route. Think Huck Finn, except that you're surrounded by piranhas, tarantulas, and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitoes.

The following day while preparing to leave, my team drops a bombshell; after sobering up they have all decided that maybe this isn't such a great idea. They've bailed on me and I'm flying solo. I decide to go anyway, even if the rest of my team never makes it beyond the Quito city limits.

I fire off an email to Mad Mick informing him of my plight. "Don't worry," comes his nonchalant reply. "There are tons of people down here looking for teams. You'll have no problem."

But first I must get to Iquitos.

The Amazon

Situated in the Amazon jungle in northeastern Peru, Iquitos lies just below the confluence of the Rí­o Marañon and the Rí­o Ucayali, where the Rí­o Amazonas, the mighty Amazon River, officially begins. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the city was a boomtown thanks to the plentiful supply of rubber trees in the surrounding jungle, not to mention an indigenous population readily available for virtual enslavement by the rubber barons. Everything was just groovy until a British entrepreneur managed to smuggle some rubber seeds out of Brazil, giving birth to the industrialized rubber plantations of Malaysia. The economy has been in the doldrums ever since.

Iquitos has the distinction of being the largest city in the world that is inaccessible by road. To get there you must either fly or spend several days lying in a hammock aboard a riverboat. And unless you can afford to fly, it takes a long time to get there from almost anywhere else on the planet. With less than a week before the race starts I settle on a compromise strategy: a 40-hour bus trip to Lima, followed by a plane hop to Iquitos. With luck I'll arrive with hours to spare.

Huaquillas, Ecuador

Following an all night bus ride to the Ecuador-Peru border, I find myself in the treacherous frontier town of Huaquillas, wandering through a crowded market selling every black market good from pirated DVDs to fake Duracell batteries. I do my best to avoid the many hands that seem all too familiar with the zippers of my backpack, and eventually make it across a pedestrian footbridge into Aguas Verdes, Peru, where I repeat the process a second time.

I commandeer a taxi for the 20km ride to the coastal city of Tumbes. En route I am stopped by an overweight Peruvian police officer wearing mirrored sunglasses who could easily play the bad guy in any number of movies I've seen. He concocts some story about a problem with my passport and tells me that I'll have to leave the country immediately, then kindly offers to look the other way for $100. Another all night bus ride across the coastal deserts of Peru brings me to Lima, where I make a mad dash for the airport in hopes of catching the last flight of the day to Iquitos.

Crossing Peru

Arriving exhausted and teamless, I make my way to Mad Mick's Bunkhouse and Trading Post to find the man in charge. Mad Mick is a larger than life character who is hard to miss in a city like Iquitos. I find him at the aptly named Gringo Bar, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, along with an impressive collection of empty bottles. I get the distinct impression he has been there since breakfast.

I remind Mick of my need for a team. He responds with an extra-long drag on his cigarette. "No problem," he bellows, his strong British accent seeming out of place in the Amazon. "If you visit some local bars it should be easy to recruit people."

As I am to discover over the next few days, Mick is a guy big on ideas but decidedly small on details.

Mad Mick's

I have been reduced to bar hopping. All I need to do is find three people who are willing to cancel whatever plans brought them to this lonely corner of the planet in order to spend three days floating down the Amazon River on a log raft while dodging piranhas, tarantulas, and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitoes. I decide that I will conveniently fail to mention any prospect of intestinal parasites.

I come close a few times – a young doctor from Holland; a German woman too far gone to remember whether she's really from Germany; a couple from Boston on their way to a jungle lodge – but never manage to close the deal. Then I find Norma.

"I'm going to join your team," she announces in Spanish before I can even make my pitch. Norma is a student from Lima and has already met one of the other teams. She's dying to get into the race and makes me promise her a spot.

Claro. No problema.

My team is now officially bilingual.

After Norma my luck runs dry. The bars close and I retreat to my hostel to sleep for the first time in three days, still missing half a team, too tired to care.

Amazon River Boats

Morning comes all too quickly and teams gather at Mad Mick's Bunkhouse for transport upriver to the town of Nauta where the race will begin. Despite a clear lack of marketing prowess, Mick has somehow managed to recruit teams representing Ireland, South Africa, Russia, Australia, Canada, the U.S, the U.K., and of course Peru.

Teams will compete in two divisions, a necessity owing to the fact that most of the Peruvian teams come from villages along the river. For all intents and purposes they have had unlimited time to prepare for the race; some have been engineering rafts and practicing for months. They are competing for cash prizes of 6,000 nuevo soles ($1850) – the equivalent of half a year's salary for many.

In contrast, international teams arrive one day prior to the race and will use rafts built for them by local crews. We are competing for bragging rights and a three-day trip to a jungle lodge. And to demonstrate to all of our friends back home how truly twisted we are.

There is an eclectic mix of international teams. Among them are the Lady Vets, a group of women veterinarians doing volunteer work in Peru. Then there are the Rasta Boys, a team of dreadlocked snowboarders from Lake Tahoe and a baker from San Francisco. There is even the Over the Hill Gang, a crew of American and Canadian retirees led by a crusty 74 year-old guy named Mort. And, of course, there is my own bilingual half-team.

Balsa Rafts

Arriving in the town of Nauta we see our rafts, or balsas, for the first time. Made of six to eight fire-dried balsa logs lashed together with jungle twine, they are surprisingly small; roughly sixteen feet long by eight wide. I find myself wondering what it was that Huck Finn saw in this mode of transportation, anyway.

Local teams have an impressive collection of balsas, some of them months in the works. Narrow and svelte, built with perfectly balanced logs tapered at the ends to reduce drag, they are the Amazon equivalent of Ferraris.

Balsas for the international teams are large, ungainly, asymmetrical contraptions that are still under construction as we arrive. They look like they were built by someone who has no intention of actually floating down the river on one. Assuming they even float. I conclude that we are about to ride the Amazon version of my parent's 1979 Chevrolet Caprice.

Late in the afternoon Mick pulls me aside. "I found another person for your team!" he says, never missing a drag on his cigarette. He introduces me to "Montana John," a 59 year-old American ex-pat who lives in the jungle outside of Iquitos. I'm usually a bit wary when I meet someone named after a state, especially when he has no last name and his house is miles from the nearest road in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. With less than twelve hours before the starting gun fires I don't have the luxury of being choosy and Montana John joins my increasingly motley crew.

Hammocks

Hammocks are a way of life in the Amazon.

That night Mick gathers the teams – 88 people from seven countries – at the only bar in Nauta large enough to accommodate us. "This should be a really easy race," he explains. "Even with minimal paddling you should be able to complete each day's leg in about five hours." He ceremoniously hands out hand-carved wooden paddles for us to use the next day.

Beers are passed around and a pre-race celebration ensues. Any excuse to drink cold beer in the hot, humid Amazon is greeted with enthusiasm.

We will be accompanied downriver by the Miron II, a classic Amazonian riverboat that will serve as our floating headquarters and bunkhouse. Designed to accommodate 20, it will house 40 people in hammocks and berths, less than half the complement of racers. The remainder will need to find accommodations in villages along the river. To boot, we will be shadowed by a Peruvian Coast Guard launch that has been assigned to monitor the race and provide emergency assistance.

The Miron II

The Miron II. Designed for 20, it will sleep 40. The toilet is a hole in the floor.

Paddle in hand, I traipse off to the Miron II and lay claim to some precious hammock space, falling asleep to the flashes of a silent lightning storm on the horizon.

Race Day

Race day. I wake up in my hammock aboard the Miron II at dawn and look down to see a crowd already gathering along the shore. Grabbing my gear I jump off the boat and track down Norma and Montana John.

"We have a problem," I tell them. "Every team is required to have four people, and we have three. Unless we find someone else to join our team in the next 45 minutes we're going to be watching this race from the deck of the Miron II."

Norma smiles and disappears into the crowd lining the riverbank. Thirty minutes later she reappears, a small local woman named Mirta in tow. With minutes to spare I am finally el capitán of a full team.

Standing on the riverbank Mick raises his megáfono and simply yells "Go!" Twenty-two rafts – six international teams and sixteen local ones – splash madly into the river, jockeying for position to get into the current.

It quickly becomes apparent that our balsas are even heavier and more awkward to maneuver than we anticipated. Compared to the finely tuned rafts carrying the local teams they are poorly built and border on disaster. A corner of our raft is permanently submerged, leaving one person constantly sitting in the muddy Amazon. Another team's raft lists severely to one side. Others have logs coming loose and disappearing downriver within the first few minutes of the race.

Peruvian Team

The Peruvian crews paddle with the precision of a championship rowing team; they have been doing this all their life. By comparison, we are trying to find a rhythm while attempting to hold our raft in one piece as we flounder down the river. It takes 15 minutes for most of the Peruvian teams to pull away, and within an hour all of them are out of sight down the river, leaving the international teams in their wake.

Not that any of us really care. True, we have traveled halfway around the world to race, but all we really want to do is finish. For us this adventure is about discovering a remote corner of the world and testing our own limits in the process.

I survey my fellow teams. The Lady Vets have lashed plastic garden chairs to their balsa for the ultimate ride-de-luxe. The Over the Hill Gang is guarding a giant foam cooler strapped to the center of their raft. We suspect it is stocked with Molson beer they have smuggled down from Canada. The Rasta Boys are lying on their backs and smoking something.

In short order we learn a few facts about life on the Amazon. It's hot. Really hot. Just a few degrees south of the equator, the sun blasts you like an oven, and humidity averages 85%. It doesn't matter how much sunscreen you apply because it simply washes away in the muddy water. At times it seems inviting to jump overboard and cool off, until you remember that the river is a soup of piranhas, alligators, intestinal parasites, and raw sewage dumped from boats.

Caimans

It seems like an easy thing to paddle a log raft all day, but it's not. Logs are heavy, even balsa ones, and over the course of the day they absorb water. You have to paddle hard to move, and despite Mick's assurance that this would be an easy jaunt down the river, it becomes clear that we will have to paddle constantly if we harbor any hope of reaching our destination before nightfall. We study the current, watching for lilies or other floating debris in a futile attempt to find fastest part of the channel.

On the River

As we cruise along I size up my improbable team. I can't decide if Norma spends more time paddling or lounging, but her bubbly personality keeps us in good spirits. Montana John regales me with larger than life stories ranging the gamut from knife-wielding chases through the streets of Lima to psychedelic ceremonies with jungle shamans. I'm not sure how much to believe. All of it I suspect.

Mirta is an enigma. Even when I speak to her in Spanish she replies with little more than a grin. But she never stops paddling. She's a machine.

Except for a couple of passes by the Coast Guard launch in the morning we see no other boats all day; eight hours later we round a bend in the river and spot the Miron II pulled along shore next to the small village of Nueva Esperanza.

Nueva Esperanza is a fairly typical Amazon River village: a collection of thatched-roof buildings and freely roaming livestock surrounding a soccer field. Several Peruvian rafters have joined some local kids in a game of pickup fútbol, and with looks of amusement they grab me as I meander past. The next thing I know I'm playing soccer on a not-so-level field with a bunch of Peruvians. And these guys are good. Really good. I'm about to curse my Teva sandals when it registers that most of them are playing barefoot. They still kick my ass.

Rainstorm

Midway through the game I experience my first Amazon storm. It arrives quickly, wind tearing through the trees. Lightning appears in every direction and thunder is instantaneous; the river turns to froth. We rush en masse to seek shelter under the thatched roof of a small bodega.

My new friends are curious about where I'm from, and while we wait out the storm they pepper me with questions. What is it like where I live? Is it cold? They are captivated by my description of winter, of snow in particular. None of them have ever seen snow except in pictures. What is it like? How deep does it get? I have difficulty explaining in Spanish the concept of building a snowman.

As we chat someone passes around a bottle of clear liquid – aguardiente

. Pure sugarcane alcohol, it is the local firewater. It burns like gasoline as I choke it down, and everyone breaks into riotous laughter when they see the grimace on my face.

Back along the river somebody realizes that amidst the storm one raft is still unaccounted for, yet for some reason the Coast Guard boat is pulled up on shore, its crew in serious chill-out mode. They don't seem to know how many teams are in the race, so they have no way of knowing that a raft is missing. At the urging of other rafters they head back upriver in search of the missing team. We learn later that the storm had ripped their raft to pieces, the Coast Guard plucking them from the water as they clung to logs in the middle of the Amazon.

The storm dissipates as quickly as it appeared, leaving the river calm and serene; perfect conditions for a night on the river.

(To continue reading Part II click here)

Sunset on the Amazon

(Note: Some of the race images in this article are courtesy of Bill Grimes/Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises)