When I was a kid I went sledding down a hill near my house. I went a little too fast and a little too far and I crashed into a telephone pole…twice. The running joke was that maybe it knocked some sense into me. Twenty years later I’m sledding down a volcano in Nicaragua and a telephone pole is the least of my worries.
Ok I’m interested. Tell me more!
When my siblings and I started planning a trip to Nicaragua we did what most people do and Googled “Things to do in Nicaragua”. It didn’t take us long to find out about boarding down an active volcano and that this extreme activity even made a recent list of things to do for thrill seekers. Cerro Negro (Spanish for Black Hill) is the youngest volcano in Central America. Despite it “only” first appearing in 1850, it is a very active volcano that has erupted approximately 23 times in its existence with the most recent eruption occurring in 1999. Boarding or sledding down the volcano didn’t become an activity until 2004 when an Australian was able to perfect a way down the slope. The volcano is a cinder cone and the fine gravel created a lot of friction that made most materials inadequate to board with. After much trial and error it was discovered that a toboggan with Formica sheets glued to the bottom reduced the friction and enabled riders to sled down the slope extremely fast. The current record is 59 mph (95km) an hour!
I’m Ready to Go Too!
There are a handful of tour companies that you can book with for volcano boarding and we were deciding between Quetzaltrekkers and Bigfoot Hostel. Quetzaltrekkers is a volunteer run non-profit company that donates their proceeds to locally-run projects working with disadvantaged youth. Their tour offers lunch and two trips down the volcano. The other tour company is Bigfoot Hostel and this hostel was founded by the original Australian who started volcano boarding. Their tour includes a tank-top, your speed tracked by a radar gun, and beers! While either company looked like it would be a good choice and both had great reviews we went with Bigfoot Hostel as they were able to help us book transportation from Granada to Leon. Cerro Negro is about a 50 minute drive from Leon and Leon is about two and a half hours from Granada. Most people who go volcano boarding are staying in Leon or Managua so it was a long day for us coming from Granada, but totally worth it.
We arrived in Leon in time to grab a quick breakfast at Bigfoot Hostel before the safety briefing at 8:30 am. The briefing lasted five minutes and consisted of ensuring that everyone had closed toed shoes, water, sunscreen, and $5 to enter the national park. After that we all piled into the bus for the 50 or so minute drive to the volcano. When we arrived at the volcano we were given our boards, bright orange jumpsuits, and goggles to protect us from the cinder flying up into our faces. It would also be a good idea if you bring a bandana to cover your nose and mouth. Before starting our ascent we also learned how to sit on the board, steer, and how to protect ourselves if we wiped out.
The hike took about 45 minutes and that included a few water breaks. The hike itself wasn’t too bad considering we had to carry up the board and keep it flat in front of us so the wind wouldn’t take it. There were a few locals who accompanied us on the trek and would carry the board up the volcano for you for $5. The higher up the volcano we got the windier it got, to the point where I turned my hat backwards and then finally took it off or it would have blown away. There was a girl hiking in front of me who couldn’t have weighed more than 100 lbs and there were a few big gusts of wind that I thought might blow her off the trail.
At the top of the volcano we were able to see into the mouth which disappointingly really looked more like a sandpit. It was very windy and hot at the top and we were able to feel the heat from the earth even digging down with our hands an inch or two into the cinder. To further prove the point of how hot the ground below us was our guide said he had a surprise for us. When he had taken a group to the top yesterday he buried a bunch of foil wrapped potatoes in the cinder. Today our guide dug them up and were all able to have a fully cooked/baked potato as snack!
Now it was time to put on our fashionable bright orange jumpsuits and get ready to go down. Our guide gave us one more quick lesson on how to sit and steer the board before he took his camera and walked halfway down the slope to get action shots of everyone boarding down. There were two trails going down the slope and we all lined up at one or the other and alternated going down.
Soon it was my turn and I pushed off. I wasn’t looking to break the speed record but rather take it all in. I’m sledding down a volcano! The goggles and bandana were definitely must-haves as the cinder was flying everywhere and even through the bandana I had the taste of dust in my mouth. I tried, and failed, to pose for the camera as I went by and then really started picking up speed as I continued downward. There was another guide toward the base of the slope with the radar gun gauging everyone’s speed. I made it safely to the bottom and thankfully didn’t totally wipe out. When everyone was down at the bottom we celebrated with beers and got ready to head back to Leon. Here are some of the action shots:
If you’re looking for adventure and/or find yourself in Nicaragua I highly recommend you make your way to Cerro Negro and board down an active volcano. It is one of the few places in the world you can do this. (I had thought it was the only place in the world to do this, but recently discovered you can also do this at Mt. Yasur in Vanuatu). Just make sure you get there soon. We were told that it erupts about every 20 years so it’s due!