Whilst staying in León, Nicaragua there was one local tourist activity that was just too good to miss: volcano boarding. If you’re wondering what it involves, the clue is in the title. It really is nothing more technical than sitting on a board and pushing yourself off the edge of an incredibly steep volcano: like an extreme form of tobogganing, but instead of having lovely soft snow to crash into if it goes wrong you’re faced with razor sharp volcanic rocks and sand. Sounds fun, right?
Having made friends with some other travellers at my great little hostel (La Tortuga Booluda -‘the lazy turtle’ – a nice alternative to some of the party hostels in León), we walked to a tour agency called Quetzaltrekkers – one of the best in town as they’re a not-for-profit, and all money goes back to local communities. One of the girls in our group was really keen to go volcano boarding that evening at sunset – something that didn’t seem to be an option, but she was determined to push hard for it. The heat was pretty crippling so I don’t think the rest of us really cared if we had to wait until the following morning, but her persistence won through, and because there were a few of us they agreed to put on a sunset session specially for us.
I’m so glad that she had the motivation to make it happen. Since arriving in Nicaragua the heat had left me feeling seriously lethargic, and there’s a pretty strong chance that left to my own devices I would have been a lazy bastard. Our ragtag little group had a tasty lunch of comida típica at a local place, then piled in the back of a 4×4 to go Volcán Cerro Negro – ‘the black hill’.
The countryside surrounding León is beautifully green and lush, and it stayed that way through forested dirt roads that led to the foreboding black presence of the volcano, rising like a cold, deathly monolith above the jungle hills that flank it.
We were each issued with a bag holding heavy denim overalls, gloves and water, and given our volcano boards: little more than heavy glorified planks, with a rope attached to the front and running through the centre, which provides the only thing for you to hold onto as you careen down the volcano.
Unfortunately my bag had a broken strap, which made it a lot less comfortable on the steep 45 minute hike to the top; although after hiking Acatenango in Guatemala a week or so earlier the walk felt like a breeze. Even so I was drenched in sweat by the summit. Despite burning calf muscles, it was a fun little hike. I had lots of laughs with my friends, and the views were incredible – stretching to the horizon for miles in every direction. Looking out from Cerro Negro a line of other volcanoes trails off to the North West, including Telica which had been very active at the time we were there and was still belching a little smoke into the clear blue skies.
I had a genuine flush of nervous fear before launching myself down the steep, ashy side of the Cerro Negro! Top speed on these things can be as much as 90 kph, and your brakes and steering are both supplied by your feet digging in on either side of the board. Dig in too far and you flip…
The process was made even more unnerving because our guide hadn’t brought enough goggles for us all! I sacrificed mine to the girls in the group, so had to make do with a total bodge-job that had been improvised by cutting a ziplock bag in half and trying to wedge it into the buff I’d brought with me to protect my face and nose. This meant my visibility was seriously compromised. I would have been completely screwed if I hadn’t had this small concession to my visual safety though; as soon as I started my face was showered by ash and small rocks that were thrown up by my flailing feet.
It turned out to be great fun, and a real adrenaline rush. I don’t think I made it as fast as 90 kph – probably closer to the 60 kph mark – but I made it down in one piece and with no wipeouts, a feat only matched by the other English guy in our group. Everyone else took at least one tumble, and picked up some cuts and bruises for their efforts. This definitely isn’t an activity for the faint of heart, but for me this sort of health & safety-lite activity is one of the things that makes travel in Latin America so exciting and rewarding. Since doing it myself I’ve met several people with horrible grazes to show for their experience, and apparently on one trip there was a dislocated shoulder and a popped knee, so all in all I was very happy with my outcome!
We drank a celebratory beer at the bottom as the sun set dramatically across the horizon – I really am glad my friend had pushed for doing the trip at sunset. Nighttime swiftly followed with an inky blackness made more intense when we got back to León to find the whole city suffering from a blackout. The darkness made walking the streets feel a little edgy, but it only lasted for a short while before the streetlights flickered back to life. A surreal end to an exhilarating day.