6 Keys to Understanding the River Sella: the Canoeing Temple of Spain

Ignacio Luque
Ignacio Luque

Just like the New York Marathon is the first one of those types of races, the River Sella descent is the most relevant of those types of river descents. Its fame comes from the amazing nature surrounding the area and the consolidation of it on the sport calendar.  For more than 75 years, the waters of this amazing river are for one day a year a pilgrimage area for canoeing lovers.

Professional and amateur canoeists from all over the world meet every first Saturday of August to canoe the last 20 kilometers of this river until it meets with the Cantabrian Sea, looking for emotion and prestige.

Piragüistas río Sella© Pepe Rubiera (Turismo Asturias)

But descending the River Sella is much more than a competition.

If you prefer a canoe over a car, then sailing on the River Sella waters will be your yearly option. I invite you to descent this ideal river for lovers of canoeing, nature and adventure.
Basic Guide of the Descent of River SellaNattule gives you 6 keys to enjoy its waters, regardless of you get to the finish line at Ribadesella bridge:

1. The Origin of the Race

Dionisio de la Huerta could hardly imagine, when he suggested to his friends an easy canoe stroll on Piloña River, that his idea would be the seed for the most important canoeing race.

The race has solved obstacles even outside the water. It didn´t even stop during the Civil War or diminished its importance. After the war, the race reappeared stronger than before, drawing canoeists from all over Europe.

Salida piragüistas en el río Sella© Damián Arienza

Departure is not right in Coya, or even in the same river, but the enthusiasm of those racing today is the same as those ones doing it in 1929: test yourself, have fun and enjoy nature.

Nowadays this is not just a single competition, and you don’t need to wait until August to do it. Anyone who visits Asturias, during any date, can do at least one part of the descent. Although partaking in the Fiesta de las Piraguas is a unique experience.

Thousands of canoeists arrive from different countries, and the festive atmosphere shows the importance of that date. You can watch the thrilling departure marked by the verses written by De la Huerta, and then take your kayak to follow the race.

Fiesta de las piraguas© David Fernández Molina

2. Nature that Hugs the River

The festival isn´t the only thing that surrounds the Sella. The race downriver will take you across one of the most beautiful areas of Spain. The River Sella course is the most important one in all the eastern Asturias.

Its source is in the heart of the National Park Picos de Europa, in a place called Fuente del Infierno, on the province of León. The closeness between this point and the sea, just 42 kilometers, and the slope, makes the River Sella a short river with strong slopes, so appealing to sail in.

Tramo alto río Sella© Enrique Bárzana Viego

On the upper area, the River Sella takes part in one of the most beautiful landscapes of all Asturias. Los Beyos, about 20 kilometers, is an amazing gorge where the river flows, belonging to the Natural Park of Ponga.

The descending area, although near the Cantabrian, keeps showing nature on its splendor. As a canoeist, you will sail among dense forests of maples, oaks and ash trees. If you pay close attention you may see a tiragaña, a small carnivorous plant of violet little flowers that grows on the shaded and wet slopes of the Sella riversides.

Paisaje Sella© Carmen F.T.

3. The Other Inhabitants of Sella

Nature lovers will find in the upper area of the river a refuge for the most emblematic species of the Iberian fauna: brown bear, Iberian wolf, bearded vulture and Cantabrian capercaillie. Another one of the fauna treasures found in this area are the unknown Iberian desman (an Iberian endemism that recalls a water mole) and the gold-striped salamander.

In addition, this Asturian river is one of the last refuges for salmon and trouts spawning, that look for upper and innaccesible areas at the end of the spring season.

Montañas Sella© Víctor Sánchez

Big beech forests, and the little ones of yew and holly, bring color to this rough area. If you don’t like crowds, then it would be best not to visit this area during summer season, in order to enjoy all its treasures of nature. Wildlife watching and crowds do not get along well.

The middle part of the river is more navigable, with deeper waters, and is where the most part of the International Race takes place. It´s the dweling place of otters and little birds such as the dipper, and some raptors that hide on the thick riverbanks.

4. The Thrilling Note

The River Sella route seems easy, but for those not acquainted with it, it may have some surprises that can complicate the descent.

The Diablo rapids, and the ones on the old dam of Santianes, may make your canoe dance a little bit. The water will speed up once you pass the Toraño brigde, and you will have to look for the best way among the spredaded rocks of the riverbed. The long straight of La Requexada, where one of the most deep pools of the river is located, is a privileged location for observers.

Rápidos del rabión del Diablo - Sella© David R. Moreno

Before that, Picu de la Vieya, is another interesting area. Here the river narrows to suddenly enter into an area of rapids that you will have to fight against. The name comes from a closeby mountain peak that you will see on the right side of the river.

It is far from being dangerous, these little difficulties add thrill to the route.

Picu de la Vieya Sella© Turismo Asturias

5. Meeting the Cantabrian

Four kilometers before the end of the descent, the river meets the Cantabrian forming a sea inlet. The tide action makes this part of the route different every year, and lots of effort has to be made to fight the water currents. This is the reason why the eco-tourism companies finish the route 5 kilometers before, in Llovio.

Último tramo Sella© asturiasguiada.com

If you are among the braves, you will go through an area listed as Special Bird Protection Area, and a place of interest.

In the middle of the sea inlet, the island of La Boticaria, just a few meters before the mouth of the river, is a key location for canoeists. When the tide is high, you may go around it on its right side. However if tide is low, getting over that point may be difficult. Some years canoeists have been given authorization to cross it on foot, carrying their canoes.

Ribadesella© Eduardo Aquilare

6. The Alternative

Paddling is not the only way to enjoy the Sella River. For those ones not into sports, on the International Descent Day you can also take a river train. A train that runs parallel from the river during the whole race.

The departure is from Arriondas, right after the canoeists, and follows them along the whole race. It has some stops to watch the accomplishments of the champions.

Tren Sella© Begoña Seijo Marcos

This train is the best stand for those eager to take place in the adventure without effort.

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The same way Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson are the most renowned celebrities of Hollywood, the River Sella Descent is the most famous river race all over the world. Nothing can compare to it. Travelers daring to sail its vertiginous course will be so captivated by the moment that, after this adventure, they will look at lakes with disdain.

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