I arrived in Nicaragua brimming with excitement for several reasons. For one, it was the first major stop and most-anticipated country of my Central America trip. Even better, my first week would be spent with my perfectly exquisite friend Sabina. To top it all off, Sabina and I were heading to the colonial city of Leon to experience an infamous, absurd-sounding, mind-boggling adventure sport: volcano boarding.
Leon is situated close to a long line of impressive volcanoes, all of which are at different stages of dormancy or activity. The shortest of the volcanoes, Cerro Negro (“Black Hill”), is still active. In fact, it erupted relatively recently: it spewed lava over the surrounding lands in 1999.
When a volcano has been inactive for long enough, plant life begins to take root on its slopes. These volcanoes begin to resemble forested mountains. However, since Cerro Negro erupted so recently, the sides are still entirely covered in loose, black, volcanic stone.
Naturally, mankind looked at that hot, black, rocky hill and thought: I bet I can sled down that at extreme speeds.
And naturally, once the tradition was established, I had to try it.
Sabina and I decided to volcano board with Quetzaltrekkers, a Leon-based non-profit. We chose them for three reasons: 1) Their profits help street kids in Leon 2) They are one of the only tour groups that lets you board down a second time and 3) After boarding, their tour included “volcano burritos.”
It was an obvious choice.
The day started with a covered truck ride over to Cerro Negro. The last half of the ride was on narrow roads made entirely of volcanic sand. This sand is apparently extremely fertile and the foundation of many farms in Nicaragua. It was strange to watch vehicles and people moving towards us through the eerie black dust:
When we reached the volcano, our guides gave us each a large denim backpack full of gear and a volcano board. Although the ads for volcano boarding often feature people essentially snowboarding down the rocky slope, standing volcano boarding is unpopular because it’s difficult to maintain speed. Instead, we were going to sled down on narrow wooden boards. The record speed for sledding down Cerro Negro is north of 50 mph!
Geared up and ready to go, we began the long, windy walk to the top. In all the dozens of reviews and blog posts I’d read about volcano boarding, nobody ever spoke of the hike. It was surprisingly difficult. Although Cerro Negro is not terribly high, you are constantly slipping and losing your footing on the loose rocky paths.
As you approach the top, it also becomes extremely windy. This is particularly difficult/dangerous when you have a volcano board strapped to your back. There were times when I had to lean my full body weight into the wind to keep from being blown off the side of the volcano. If the wind catches the board at the right angle you essentially become a human kite.
Despite how difficult it was, it was also breathtaking. For the first half, you are completely surrounded by hills and cliffs of black and gray volcanic rocks. It feels like you’re scrambling through some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Then, all of the sudden you crest a ridge and Nicaragua is laid out beneath you. The view is incredible: in the foreground, the long black fingers of Cerro Negro’s lava stretches out into the surrounding countryside. There is a distinct line between black volcanic rock and the untouched farmland that avoided the last eruption. Beyond that, Nicaragua’s farmland, mountains, deserts, volcanoes and lakes prove that you haven’t stepped into an alternate universe.
After we’d gaped at the view and taken dozens of pictures, the tour guides wrangled us together to give us a short safety/skills lesson on volcano boarding. Then we got suited up for the ride: thick denim coveralls, gardening gloves, lab goggles, and bandanas to cover our mouths. We. Looked. Dope.
Then it was time! I volunteered to be first and pushed off down the rocky slope at my guide’s signal. At first I was nervous, but I soon adopted a “screw it, I’m volcano boarding!” mindset and leaned my weight back to speed up. I zipped past the guide halfway down the hill, a plume of volcanic dust marking my trail.
Stones bounced off my coveralls and goggles, Nicaragua’s stunning landscape wooshed past my field of vision, and I was too blinded by adrenaline and speed to notice any of it. And then, in the blink of an eye, I was done. I slowed to a stop at the bottom and watched as the others in my group descended behind me.
Just, for the record—in case anybody cares – not bragging, just saying – cough – I was the fastest.
Once everybody finished, we de-robed and chattered excitedly about the experience. The guides joined us a moment later and offered us the clincher Quetzaltrekkers experience: a second hike up and a second ride down.
About half of our group declined, but Sabina and I were raring to go. Together with one of our guides and one other brave soul from the group, we started the hot, windy hike again. We wasted no time at the top this time, but suited up and zoomed down the hill again, practically experts.
IT WAS AMAZING.
Afterwards, we met up with the rest of our group and ate lunch under a shady pavilion at the base of Cerro Negro. Quetzaltrekkers provided the fixings for our veggie “volcano” burritos and we chowed down before riding the truck back to Leon. Exhausted, sore, and exhilarated, we collapsed into hammocks at our hostel and didn’t move again until it was time for bed. It was a fantastic and unique experience.