It’s scary…really, actually quite scary. Every year thousands of people flock to Léon, Nicaragua to experience sliding down the side of a volcano at an unreasonable speed on a piece of wood. Sounds legit doesn’t it? Let me tell you what it’s really like.
Cerro Negro is one of the youngest volcanoes in Central America and also the most active, having erupted 23 times since 1850, in fact, as recently as 1999. At some point someone thought it would be a fantastic idea to turn this scree covered volcano into a ‘snowboarding’ fun spot…he also was Australian, go figure. In order to reach top speeds he slid down this volcano on everything he could find, right down to a fridge door. Now tourists cruise down this exact volcano seated on simple wood planks, hoping for the best…this was my experience.
We were picked up early in the morning from Bigfoot Hostel where I and about 30 others piled into the back of an open-air flatbed truck. We exited the city and bounced along dusty roads passing only the occasional farmer and his cow. The trip to the base of the volcano is anything but relaxing. You need to hold on tight to everything and everyone around you. When we finally arrived at the volcano base, we hopped out of the truck, paid our entrance fees and received a backpack full of goggles, jump suits and finally our vehicle for the day…a big wooden plank with a metal bottom.
The walk up to the top of the volcano is not as bad as it seems. The Nicaraguan sun can be a little harsh at times, I mean, shade is not something often associated with a scree covered volcano. The path to the top however is well worn, making it pretty easy to climb. Carrying all of our gear including our boards, we trekked up the volcano taking a decent break every few minutes snapping photos along the way. Once we arrived at the summit, we were able to drop our things and absorb a very enjoyable view of the stunning landscape provided by the Cordillera de los Maribois. The black volcano contrasts with the lush green of the jungle in such a special way. After a brief moment enjoying the beauty of our surroundings, we looked down. It is STEEP…not just a little steep, but actually steep.
We had to wait our turn, watching other groups of people one by one disappear down the mountain. This volcano is literally steep enough so that you can barely see the rider after they push off from the top. With the far away trucks waiting to pick us up at the bottom, we began to suit up in our jump suits and goggles. The whole group of us shaking with nerves and fighting over who goes first.
The guides explained how it would work. Hold on to the rope, the more you sit up, the slower you will go, when you lean back, you will go faster. Oh yeah, they reminded us often to keep our feet flat on the ground. I elected to go second. Truth be told, I wanted to watch one person do it and then go before I watched others crash and get myself scared.
When it was our group’s turn to go, we lined up in order and before I knew it our first person was flying down the side of the volcano. I was next. I sat down on top of my wooden sled, doing my best to keep from sliding down the volcano before I was ready. I kept going through the rules in my head…’sit up, feet flat, sit up, feet flat’ and finally, I closed my eyes and was off. Let’s be serious here though, I opened my eyes immediately…no one wants to do this blind.
I was off, my speed was increasing rapidly and dust and bits of scree were flying everywhere. I tried to sit up to control my speed, but that didn’t seem to be working. I tried my best to keep my feet flat and my bum centered on the board to prevent a very possible accident from happening. I held on tight and finally I could see the bottom. Slowing down due to the volcano flattening out is the only way to stop outside of crashing horribly. I was almost there, it seemed like I had not taken a breath in forever…because I hadn’t. At the bottom of the volcano however, there are waves in the scree like natural road bumps. Imagine hitting large speed bumps while driving fast in a car without shocks, my board bounced as did I. Fortunately for me, I landed back on my board repetitively. This however, was not the case for everyone. Finally I started to slow down, eventually coming to a controlled stop. I made it without crashing!
After I took my first breath in what seemed like forever, I looked down. Even though I was wearing mountaineering boots and a full jump suit, my legs and hands were bleeding and my smile was black because of all the bits of rock that somehow managed to find their way into my teeth. This did not matter though, all that mattered is that somehow I was still alive and able to relax and watch the fate of my fellow volcano boarders.
One by one I watched group members take their turn conquering the face of the mighty Cerro Negro. Watching them slide down on their boards, occasionally screaming and leaving trails of dust behind them was almost as entertaining as sliding down the volcano itself. Not everyone made it though.
Watching safely from the bottom of the volcano I saw one of the girls in our group fall off her board half way up the volcano and proceed to tumble from her head to her legs to her bum to her head cartwheeling down the volcano uncontrollably. How would you stop yourself anyways if you were cruising down hill at 50km/h? You don’t. Luckily, she was alright but still faced with the daunting task of scrambling back up the volcano to retrieve her board. Then she had to continue her journey down from that point, a harsh reality of the sport. When she arrived she was bleeding from every part of her body…not a cute look. Shortly after, I watched another from our group fall of his board and almost log roll down the volcano. When he arrived he was covered in just as much blood as the last.
At the end of the day however, the majority of the group made it down the volcano unscathed save for a little bit of blood from just a few cuts and scratches. When the group had collected at the bottom of the volcano, congratulations for survival were in order. Luckily for us when we hopped into the back of our truck for the ride home, our tour leaders provided us with celebratory beers and cookies to share. Overall, volcano boarding in Nicaragua was a fabulous experience from the adrenaline rush to the humorous camaraderie on the ride back. If you are looking for a bit of epic excitement…its perfect!