© Mark Fox

The Amazon Canoe Challenge

15 March 2023

On 11 June 2023, ten teams will depart on the adventure of a lifetime as they race more than 260 km through the Peruvian Amazon by canoe. Held in the heart of the remote Amazon Highlands, the nine-day challenge is hosted in partnership with the Asháninka communities who live along the Ene and Tambo Rivers. 

The first event of its kind, the Amazon Canoe Challenge (ACC) aims to push the boundaries of traditional community tourism while raising awareness of the threats facing the local environment and Indigenous communities. By using the challenge as a platform to support tourism development, the ACC team hopes to boost conservation efforts in this part of the Amazon. The challenge route follows the Ene and Tambo Rivers through Asháninka territory, and participants are hosted by communities along the way. 

“We are extremely proud to be working with the Asháninka communities to make the Amazon Canoe Challenge a reality,” explained ACC Director Carlos Heine. “Their stories and courage have been an inspiration to us to keep pushing to make the race happen.” 

Originally from Mallorca, Spain, Heine left a brief career in finance to work in adventure travel. It was while leading a motorbike trip in 2018 in Peru that he first spent time in this part of the Amazon and met people from the Asháninka communities. Shocked at the scale of the deforestation, he began to envision an adventure tourism initiative that could bring alternative income to the region and to help to conserve it. 

“We heard stories of threats, bribes and more. This is not just limited to small operations either – we were really shocked to hear about some big-name companies sending undercover operatives with suitcases of cash to bribe communities for permissions for new mining or gas projects,” said Heine. “The craziest thing is then going back to Europe and seeing the advertisements of these companies and how much they ‘care for the planet’. It’s insane that this is still happening in the world in this day and age.”

More than 50,000 Asháninka people live in the Peruvian Amazon, making them the largest ethnic group in the region. Often overlooked by the government, Peru’s Amazon has yet to see the economic benefits of tourism that are common throughout other parts of the country. The Asháninka communities in the region have suffered greatly, both under the Shining Path terrorist group as well as routine intimidation from illegal logging, land-grabbing, and other exploitation that runs rampant. Deforestation is still incredibly high in Peru, with more than 1,000 square miles of rainforest lost every year. Community leaders are often threatened, and in some cases killed, in the fight to protect their land. 

© Mark Fox

“We have been left alone here for decades. Back in the 1980’s entire communities would be exploited or kidnapped by the Maoist group Shining Path,” said Fabian Antúnez Camacho, an Indigenous community leader and the head of the ACC’s local partner organization, the Central Asháninka del Rio Tambo (CART).

“I’ve seen it. No one did anything,” he added. “Now, loggers and foreign narco traffickers have been threatening us. With the help of God we have managed to keep them out of our ancestral lands. The government says they are here but they never leave their military bases, they don't care about us.”

This has led to a feeling of abandonment and mistrust, and as a result, a reluctance to work with anyone deemed an outsider. For the ACC team, whose members spent years working in the area prior to founding the challenge, building trust with the people who live there has been key to designing the event – which in such a remote area is not without challenges. An unstable political situation, lack of basic infrastructure, acquiring the necessary permits, and complex logistics all require months of preparations in partnership with the Asháninka communities. 

According to Heine, the importance of asking permission, building relationships, and working to earn the trust of the community can not be understated. He began developing the project by spending time in the region, learning the local etiquette and customs from an elder.

“At first people hid from me, thinking that I was either a narco representative or a big oil company negotiator,” he said. But he approached everything slowly, and talked to every single community in the area – listening to the elders in particular. “That involved hours and hours of chats and explanations, liters and liters of masato, and a lot of shared mapachos (local cigars without nicotine),” Heine added.

The initial research and scouting for the ACC was done in 2022. Joining Heine were Elias Inuma Pinchi, a former logger or maderero from near Campo Verde, and Shirley Mirella Izurieta del Aguila, an Asháninka descendant who grew up in the community and studied medicine abroad before returning to her beloved selva, or jungle. Both work as local guides and advisors for the ACC team. They traveled to the region, tested canoes, mapped the route, and met with community organizations and the people living along this part of the Ene and Tambo Rivers.

Asháninka leaders are excited for the first race in June, and an Asháninka team sponsored by the ACC will also be competing in the challenge. They hope the event helps to break the stereotypes many believe about outsiders. “We never thought the gringos would like our Pitotsi canoes,” Antúnez Camacho said with a laugh. “This is a great chance to share our customs and traditions with the world, and bring some international influence to our communities. We hope it helps to put a spotlight on the issues we face here.”

During the 1980s and 90s, the Asháninka suffered forced conscription, forced labor, and massacres at the hands of the Shining Light and MRTA guerillas. Of the 55,000 Asháninka in the region, around 6,000 were killed, 10,000 were displaced, 5,000 were imprisoned in camps, and about 30 to 40 Asháninka villages were obliterated, according to Antúnez Camacho. Today’s direct and indirect threats include land invasions, oil companies, drug traffickers, illegal logging and roads, and the changing climate. There is also the tension between the old traditions and modernity. 

“We want to look into the future, youngsters want their phones and cool jeans, but we want to make sure that transition is done without forgetting our identity and who we are,” he said.

It is with these struggles in mind that the ACC team hopes to put a spotlight on these areas to encourage increased regulation and better environmental protection. Encouraging sustainable community tourism projects such as the Amazon Canoe Challenge can be a key driver in moving away from environmentally damaging practices. Illegal logging is particularly common in the area, and many people turn to logging due to a lack of alternative sources of income. 

Elias Inuma Pinchi, one of the guides from the region supporting the race, understands this from personal experience. Like many of the young men in the region who don’t migrate to Lima, he worked as a logger with his uncles and cousins. In the dry season when the river was low, they paddled up the river to chop down trees. Once the rainy season came, the river levels rose and they would float the massive logs downstream. 

But one year, when their town was washed away during the rainy season, the impacts of deforestation became alarmingly clear. Now, Inuma Pinchi has a vision for a brighter future. “I’m promoting tourism so that the people can see that tourism is profitable,” he said. “You can make money without cutting down trees, and protect the environment and the future of our children.”  

© Mark Fox

The connection between community tourism and environmental protection is not to be overlooked. Although the importance of the role that Indigenous communities play in conservation cannot be denied, it is important to note the complex relationship between the two. For one, the international community cannot depend on Indigenous communities to preserve their land if they do not have the economic means to do so.

Worldwide, almost 80% of protected land is cared for by Indigenous communities, for whom land stewardship is a deeply ingrained way of life. This includes the region of the Ene and Tambo Rivers, where the communities have been tenacious in their fight for survival – including winning a lengthy legal battle to halt a megadam that would have destroyed their homes and the surrounding rainforest. Antúnez Camacho explained that for his community, the forest is not simply a resource or place.  It is part of their life, which is filled with spirits which need to be respected. 

“We are referred to as the guardians of the forest many times,” he said. “But what we also want is educational and economic development for our brothers and sisters.”

Encouraging responsible community tourism is one way to boost economic development in a region, which in turn empowers improved environmental protection. As part of their agreement with community leaders, the ACC team will be running workshops in tourism leading up to the race within the communities. These workshops will cover basic skills in hospitality and tourism and are free of charge to anyone who would like to attend. It will also cover an introduction to sustainable tourism practices. 

"The Amazon Canoe Challenge is a fantastic alternative for the Asháninka people, who are well-versed in this traditional method of river transportation. It not only preserves their customs, but also promotes ecological sustainability," said Shirley Izurieta, one of the few female guides in the region.

Participants in the Amazon Canoe Challenge range from professional paddlers to adventurers that are looking for their next challenge. No experience with canoes is required as teams will attend an ACC Base Camp training, where participants will learn how to handle the traditional canoes, navigation, and safety briefings. Anyone can sign up for the event, providing they are confident swimmers with a reasonable level of fitness. The most important consideration is to bring the right mindset, since mental perseverance is key. 

Support vessels are on standby if teams require assistance during the day, however teams will paddle independently throughout each stage. Due to the remoteness of the area, food is supplied for teams at each checkpoint and a cook who travels with the group. During the day teams will carry what they need for that stage and some emergency supplies.

The Amazon Canoe Challenge is an opportunity to make a positive impact on the communities who call the Amazon rainforest home. For more information on the challenge and how to participate, visit the website. ATTA members get a £200 discount for entry – register with the code ATTA2023.

About The Amazon Canoe Challenge Team:

The Amazon Canoe Challenge (ACC) core team is made up of Carlos Heine (Challenge Director), Freya Watkinson (Project Manager), Elias Inuma Pinchi (Local Guide), Shirley Izurieta (Local Guide & Community Advisor) and Mark Fox (Photographer). 

The team also includes an extended crew who will work with during the challenge including additional guides, support staff, team hosts and more. On average, 60% of our total crew are part of the Ashaninka community.

After the first edition in June, the team at Amazon Canoe Challenge plans to scale the challenge further. If you are interested in being a part of this pioneering project, or to sponsor a team, get in touch.

The Amazon Canoe Challenge on social media @amazoncanoechallenge

About Freya Watkinson:

Freya Watkinson is the Amazon Canoe Challenge Project Manager and ATTA New Zealand Ambassador. Growing up in New Zealand, she spent most of her adult life working and traveling around the world. With a background in tourism and project management, she has a passion for adventure travel and her personal travels have taken her to destinations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and overland from U.K to India.