Belize is a small Central American nation, barely the size of Massachusetts. Yet it takes four days to cross it -- the short way, from west to east. By canoe, that is. Every March, hundreds of people do just that, racing in the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.
The race recalls Belize's history, both ancient and recent. La Ruta Maya, or the Mayan Route, is a string of Mayan ruins dotting the Central American isthmus from Mexico, across Belize and into El Salvador. The event is also a highlight of a four-day national holiday, Baron Bliss Day. In 1929, Bliss bequeathed Belize a trust fund of more than $1 million. The interest on the fund has paid for public works across the country, from a nursing school to a city water system.
Competitors in the La Ruta Maya Challenge spend all four days paddling. Each entry consists of a three-member team, and no substitutions are allowed. They start at San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border and end in Belize City on the Caribbean Sea, covering between 25 miles (40 kilometers) and 60 miles (96 kilometers) each day. The total distance of 170 miles (272 kilometers) makes the Challenge the longest canoe race in Central America.