The International Descent of Sella River, the most popular celebration in Asturias
Not far from the highest peaks of Asturias, the Picos de Europa, the Sella River hosts the International Descent of Sella River held on the first Saturday of August every year. Les Piragües, as locals refer to it, sets the stage for a truly Asturian festivity. The first attempted descent of the stretch of river between the villages of Arriondas and Ribadesella was made in 1929, and the event has since become popular among international canoeists – attracting up to 15 different nationalities from around the world.
It wasn’t long before the descent became an activity that travellers and aficionados alike wanted to enjoy, and not only on race day. Today, canoeing down the Sella River is the most popular tourist attraction in the region – 350,000 people made the descent in 2013 alone. The event creates a lot of buzz, keeping the canoe rental companies, restaurants and hotels busy throughout the summer. Read on to find out more about the history behind the race and the festivities. We’ll also share a few tips on how to make the descent.
Canoeing down the Sella River: Tracing its history
We cannot talk about this event without mentioning its founder, Dionisio de la Huerta. Born in Barcelona to an Asturian father, he spent his summers in Asturias. His love for the sport led him to purchase a canoe in the 1920s to explore the rivers of Asturias. Between 1929 and 1931, Dionisio and his friends unsuccessfully tried to canoe down the Sella River from Arriondas to Ribadesella.
In 1932, they finally did it, establishing the start and finish line of a canoe race that would become a regional competition the following year. From that point on, the Descent of the Sella River only gained in popularity; first on a national level, with athletes coming from all over the country; and then in 1951, when the first foreign canoeist participated, earning the race a seat at the international level.
There are currently more than a thousand canoeists taking part in the race, and participation only grows year after year.
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The Sella River: The itinerary and descent
The traditional 20-km long river itinerary starts in Arriondas, an island village, and ends in Ribadesella, a coastal village at the mouth of the Sella River. Participants gauge the distance they have covered with the help of bridges and walkways.
Pasarela de Fuentes marks 4.5 km, while Puente de Toraño marks 8 km and Pasarela de la Uña, 11 km. Puente de Ribadesella marks the end of the itinerary where participants are greeted with a boisterous, cheering crowd.
An interesting fact about the route of descent is that it is never the same! The sea causes minor fluctuations, altering the river course and guaranteeing no two races will be the same.
The Canoe Party: The most popular part of the event
The descent is just part of the festivities – join the Canoe Party, one of the most iconic traditional celebrations in Spain. Declared a festival of international tourist interest, the celebration kicks off on Friday night in Arriondas and wraps up on Saturday night in Ribadesella. No need to fret about which one to attend. They are both equally as festive; the spirit of the celebration is kept alive thanks to the jubilant ‘river train’ that follows the course of the race between the two towns.
No celebration can start without the enunciation of a traditional verse, delivered in this case by an important figure in the canoeing world. The official kick-off is once they have read the famous words the founder, Dionisio de la Huerta, used: “Remain silent as we utter these words. On the order of Don Pelayo, after measuring the water, the canoe race is duly authorised to begin in Arriondas”.
Once the canoeists and the cavalcade reach Ribadesella, that’s when the party breaks out – processions of decorated cars, singing, extravagant costumes, bands, and cider flowing at every turn. Head to Campos de Oba in Lloviu to watch the winners of the race receive the prizes and dig into some superb traditional Asturian delicacies.
Canoeing down the Sella: Fun with children or friends
The beauty of canoeing down the Sella River is that anybody can do it, at any time of year, with friends or with family. Canoe rental agencies offer 6 km, 10 km or 14 km itineraries that accommodate all levels of fitness, schedules and preferences. They even offer the possibility of being picked up half way on any of the itineraries. All itineraries begin in Arriondas.
Wear sportswear or a bathing costume, comfortable trainers, and bring a raincoat, towel, a change of clothes, sun block, a hat, and an airtight bag to store your mobile phone, wallet and keys. The canoe rental agencies provide all the technical equipment such as the canoe, paddle, life jackets and an air-tight box to store your belongings. Most agencies also offer the possibility of a picnic lunch and a taxi service from Ribadesella to Arriondas
Jaire Aventura and the Escuela Asturiana de Piragüismo-RanaSella are two agencies that offer these services and are both located in Arriondas.
Information of interest
How to get there:
- By car: Take motorway N-634 towards Nava-Arriondas, and take the exit towards Arriondas.