Surviving Volcano Boarding on Cerro Negro

Read any list about the top things to do in Nicaragua and you will probably find volcano boarding on the Cerro Negro. (I am, of course, no different and you can find my top ten list, featuring volcano boarding, here). An experience you can’t have anywhere else, volcano boarding is the tropical version of sledding, only instead of soft, forgiving snow, you are sliding down a mountain of rough, volcanic ash.

So, you can understand why I had been putting off the experience. The stories I had heard from the brave souls who had already tried it varied from gushing praise to injury horror stories. Quite a few of the latter, too. Also pretty telling: I hadn’t met a single other expat who had done it. No doubt because they heard the same stories I did. Still, I knew I would have to try it, if the opportunity arose. Cerro Negro is located near Leon, in the north of the country and is far enough away that I figured it wouldn’t come up. Eventually the day would come when Alex would decide he wanted to go, but that was in the nebulous future. I would worry about that later.

As you can probably guess, the day did come. Alex’s family came for a visit and his sister, Kelsey, stayed with us for a week after the rest of the family had left. She had been talking to another tourist, one of those people who couldn’t say enough good things about volcano boarding. Kelsey was thoroughly convinced and when we asked her what she wanted to do before she went home, volcano boarding was at the top of her list. I was honestly tempted to chicken out and stay home where it was safe. I probably wouldn’t get another chance though, so I stomped down on that fear and tried not to think too much.

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The hike up

After a long meandering route to Leon, we booked the boarding tour for the next morning. We went with NicaTime Nicaragua. We didn’t do any research and simply went with the tour company associated with our hotel. The cost of the tour was $20/person and included transportation to the volcano, guide, jumpsuit, gloves, goggles, board, water and fruit. Entrance to the volcano is an extra $5, paid directly at the park entrance. Everything was booked within moments of arriving in Leon, giving me no time to chicken out at the last minute.

Transportation was right on time, or close enough for Nicaragua. We drove around Leon to different hotels, slowly filling the van with other people as crazy as us. I distracted my buzzing head and anxious stomach by talking to the new arrivals, trading the vital information of travelers. The actual trip took very little time and soon, after a quick stop at the park entrance, were parking on the black lunar landscape that surrounds the volcano. Unlike other volcanoes I have visited, this one is most like the volcano I pictured as a child. Piling out of the van, we were handed our gear. First, a flimsy cloth bag containing our jumpsuit, gloves and goggles, and then, our board. Made of plywood, it resembled a rough sled. A plank of wood to sit on, reinforced with a sleet of metal and a rope to hang on to. Simple, but apparently good enough.

Looking at his board and then glancing up to the top of the volcano, someone asks our guide if anyone has ever died doing this. Our guide laughed like it was a ridiculous question and said, no. I mentioned that I’ve heard that people have broken bones and he laughed again and said, lots. I got the impression that broken bones were not considered a big deal with these guys.

I hoisted the board under my arm and contemplated the volcano. It looked pretty high. With all of the fear surrounding the way down, I forgot about the way up. I was assured that it was “only” a forty-five minute hike. The sun beat down on us and I was thankful that I remembered to put on sunscreen. Pumices stones scratched at the soles of my sneakers as I walked, the stones making a clinking sound when they knocked against each other.

I started out strong, with enough energy to look around and take in the surroundings. It wasn’t long, though, before I was breathing like an asthmatic pug. Alex took pity on me and took my board about half way up, carrying mine along with his own. Cerro Negro is one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua, and evidence of its last eruption in 1999 is everywhere. From the top you can see the sharp line in destruction, greenery abruptly giving way to black rock.

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Inside the crater looked deceptively quiet. No flowing lava like at Masaya volcano. But you only have to dig down a centimeter to feel the heat coming from inside the earth. One guy sat down on the edge of the crater to take a picture. He was only sitting for a moment before he jumped up, the heat already leaking through his clothes.

After the requisite pictures (to prove you were actually there), we got a quick safety demonstration. Basically, hold onto the rope with both hands and use your posture and your feet to control your speed. Not that complicated, but I didn’t find that very reassuring. We donned our protective clothing, one size fits all. I was swimming in the jumpsuit, the crotch floating somewhere around my knees. Holding my pant legs up like a long skirt, I walked slowly to the waiting spot on the edge. I had to be careful not to trip and catapult myself down the volcano early.

The slope was so steep that. from the our gathering spot, we couldn’t see the bottom. Other people started to show some nerves which always makes me feel oddly brave. Some were second guessing their decision to do this and talked about walking back the way we came. There was no way I was hiking back down and I knew that the longer I waited, the harder it would get. So, after one or two guinea pigs went first, I rushed in to take the next turn.

The starting point was a few feet down from where we were waiting. Once I was in position, I was relieved to find that I could see the bottom. True, it was a long way away. But at least I could see it. I kicked myself free, sitting up as straight as I could to keep my speed under control. It doesn’t take long to pick up some speed and soon I felt like I was flying. My feet, my only breaks, were firmly planted on either side of my board, pushing into the rocks. I had to resist the urge to push them in harder. Any imbalance and I could easily tip. Rocks and dust, kicked up my both my board and my feet, flew into my face, getting into my loose fitting goggles. I squinted my eyes, to avoid getting the sharp dirt in my eyes. The incline increased in the second half and my speed picked up. Careful not to move, I could only think about how fast I was going. The bottom came up fast and I skidded to a stop on the flat ground. Elated that I had done it and I was still alive, I almost skipped over to the two who had gone before me. After stripping off our jumpsuits, we watched everyone else come down. After watching two or three people bail, I was glad I had gone before I could see some of the failed runs. It was clear that some people were simply going too fast to control themselves.

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When Alex started down, I could see immediately that he was going quite fast. Despite the speed, he seemed to be in control. He reached the bottom without bailing and I was just about to relax when he unexpectedly went over a huge bump at the bottom, landing hard and coming to a stop. He was on his feet before I could make it over to him. He held up his board, now broken into pieces. I broke my board, he said. And I think I broke my wrist. Holding up his wrist so I could see it better, it was clear that it was already swelling. We flip-flopped back and forth about whether an x-ray was necessary. In the end, Alex decided he wanted to get it checked out. Vivian Pellas Hospital in Managua became our next destination. But that’s a story for another time.

So, volcano boarding: yay or nay? I don’t think I can answer that for anyone else. Terrifying, dangerous and fun. Nowhere else can you do something like this (maybe that’s a good thing), so weigh your love of adventure with your love of your bones. As for me: I did it, I survived, and I won’t be tempting fate again.

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