The Descenso del Sella of Arriondas and Ribadesella

This canoeing festival has turned into a massive phenomenon associated with the sport, partying, music, and fun

This festival started out as a form of entertainment that suddenly came to Dionisio de la Huerta Casagrán from Barcelona. He was the son of an Asturian, and he was returning to spend the summer of 1929 in Coya (Infesto, Asturias). This activity has since become an athletic and festive affair, full of activities of all kinds. This festival is centered around the Descenso del Sella (or Fiesta de las Piraguas), which brings thousands of participants, canoeing-lovers, and spectators from all around Spain together in the last 20 km of the Sella River (between Arriondas inland and Ribadesella on the coast).

This festival’s story begins in Barcelona. From Barcelona, De La Huerta took the train to Madrid, and from there, he took another train to Asturias. Along the road from the Barcelona train station, there was a foldable canoe that exhibited the magazines El Siglo. He had already spent a few days in the reservoir of El Molino, and a few days later, he went down the Pilona River, a tributary of the Sella. He was with some friends: the doctor Benigno Morán and the young Manés Fernández, who was in a homemade K-1 with side floats. They spent two and a half hours traveling around five km on the river between Coya and Infiesto. By regaling this story, De La Huerta convinced another friend, Alfonso Argüelles, to join them in going further down the river to Arriondas. He floated down the river in a canoe with side floats while a group of friends followed him in a car. They stopped a few times to empty the water that had gotten in the boat and rest, spending the night in Soto de Dueñas. They had not reached their intended destination, but they had spent more than seven hours having the time of their lives immersed in nature.

In the following year, 1930, they celebrated what is considered to be the first Descenso del Sella. Some say they went from Infiesto to Ribadesella, but others say they went from Infiesto to Soto de Dueñas. De La Huerta, Argüelles, and Fernández spent another seven hours in the river, stopping a few times to share the experience with 14 friends who were following them on the road. In 1931, the excursion left from Soto do Dueñas and traveled down the Sella until they reached Ribadesella, which was a journey of 25 km that took four hours and 12 minutes. In the following year, they decided on the permanent route: between the bridges of Arriondas and Ribadesella, which measured 19 km and took five hours. Thirty rowers, coming from Gijón, Ribadesella, Infiesto, and Oviedo, took part in the first competitive year of the celebration. The winners of this race were the veterans Antón Durán and César Sánchez, spending an hour and 53 minutes in a Canadian boat measuring 6 meters long and weighing 50 kg.

Llegada al Puente de Ribadeslla en 1950

The Spanish Civil War put the Descenso de Sella on hold from 1936 to 1943, but it was celebrated again on August 11th, 1944, with 11 boats. This number grew every year, and in 1951, the first foreign boats were entered in the race, coming from Italy, Portugal, and France.

The unusual lure of the Descenso del Sella for canoeing and kayaking culminated in 1994, when more than 1,400 boats took part in the race, taking up all the physical space at the launch site at the beaches of Arriondas. For years, more than 300,000 people get together every year for the Descenso del Sella. It is celebrated the first Saturday after August 2nd, and it is broadcasted by TVE. Some lucky spectators can even follow the race in the train that follows the course by the river, whose few cars are always crowded.

Around this sporting event, other playful and festive activities have been created, which attract thousands of people for a few days in the villages located on the banks of the Sella. The events begin on Friday with the parade of the participating teams and the flying of the flags under the bridge of Arriondas in a pilgrimage that will continue throughout the night. While the participants rest up, the spectators keep the party going with music, dancing, and a marathon of bowling in which teams compete throughout the whole night.

In the following morning, the arrival of the River Train proceeds to Oviedo and Ribadesella, marking the beginning of a colorful parade of people in different costumes, decorated vehicles, and folkloric groups, who are all presided over by Don Pelayo (Asturian kings and authorities who watch from a platform). The sporting event ends when the participants pass the Bridge of Ribadesella. There, on a monument, the names of the winners of every race are carved. Later, everyone retires to the Campos de Oba in Llovio, where they celebrate with a picnic in which the trophies are handed out. This of course includes bagpipe music and folkloric Asturian dances.

Comenzando el Descenso

The Fiesta de las Piraguas, a unique competition and party in the world of spectacle, color, beauty, and originality, brings together tens of thousands of young people. Ribadesella and other places are filled to the brim by the end of the week of the Descenso by 20-somethings hungry for diversion. With this in mind, in 1997, the Festival de Música Electrónica Aquasella was started. This festival brings DJs and music producers of national and international renown. The first year attracted around a thousand attendees, but that number has since turned into 30,000. And the festival, which was created to be a techno music festival, has been opened up to other styles, artists, and sounds.

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