Staring at the lip of volcanic gravel where a slope drops away below without a sightline to the bottom, I felt a little tremble of fear. How steep is the drop on the other side? How fast will I go? And the most important question, is it really safe to sled down the side of a volcano in Nicaragua sitting on a couple screwed together pieces of wood with a sheet of formica along the bottom?!
Nicaragua’s volcano boarding
We were told that people have clocked in excess of 90 mph on these homemade “volcano boards”. That was not reassuring, but tickled a sense of excitement in the back of my brain – going almost 90 mph down the side of a volcano! The heat is emanating through the soles of my shoes from the active volcano beneath my feet as I plant my butt on the cross panel. Sweating profusely on a 90-degree day is a given, on top of wearing the thick jumpsuit that the Bigfoot Hostel provided. The lava flowing somewhere beneath and my trepidation of going over the edge made it worse. I think a sauna would have been like walking into a freezer at this point.”
There are two entrances to the down slope and I was on the second and second in line from our group of 17 people. As the first of our group went over the edge, I sucked in a mouthful of dry air trying to slow my pounding heart. Our guide was perched somewhere over the hump about a third of the way to the bottom, camera in hand to immortalize us in film on the way down.
The camerawoman gave a yell as the first guy passed her, which was my cue to lower my goggles, scoot over to the edge, grip the rope handle white knuckle tight and place my feet upon the board as gravity took its toll hurtling me downwards.
Before the adrenaline rush
Hours earlier as we neared the end of a ten day trip to Nicaragua, my friends and I hitched up our pants, tightened our shoe laces, put on our most fearless expressions and set off from our rented house in Las Penitas. Leaving behind the comfort of our 4-bedroom beachfront villa and the cool waters of the pool we drove to the colonial city of Leon.
Just before embarking, Bigfoot Hostel handed out liter bottles of spring water in preparation for the heat and our unquenchable thirst. We boarded a truck from the hostel for an hour-long journey through twisted paths and rarely used roads in rural Nicaragua, occasionally sharing the road with stray cows or horses. We stopped at the entrance of the national park to pay our $5 entrance fee before continuing on to the base of Cerro Negro, or Black Hill in English.
The nature of the beast
At first sight this didn’t seem all that much of a volcano, climbing only 726 meters above sea level and 500 meters from the base. It’s most stand out feature being a black blot on a green landscape, an entrance to the abyss.
We were soon to learn the climb to the top would be anything but a stroll in the hills, though.
Our guide and driver unloaded the sleds and gave us the option of carrying our bag with the jumpsuit and goggles in it or to pay a local another 5 bucks to hoist the sled on his back and bring it up for us. I’ll carry my own sled I thought, not wanting to take away from the experience (or my toughness!) but soon after we stepped foot onto the “path” I realized I probably should have swallowed my pride and paid. The first half of the climb was along a winding, boulder strewn path, steep and treacherous at points.
Climbing directly behind our guide who led the way, I looked back here and there for my friends and saw that the group was getting spread apart with many struggling with the rocky climb. Every 10 to 15 minutes we would stop and wait for the stragglers to catch up while gulping down much needed water in the fierce heat.
As we reached the still ascending crest the wind buffeted us in strong gusts, grabbing our boards as if they were sails, threatening to pull us off our feet and plummeting down the rock maw of the volcano. We continued to put one foot in front of the other, those of us with hats held one hand clamped firmly upon it and we trudged towards the crater further uphill along the narrow path.
The ground now was changing from bigger rocks to loose volcanic gravel, as black as shoe polish. Our feet were sinking a little, making the climb a bit more draining. After about an hours climb from the base we reached a spot that we could shed the burden of carrying our boards and set them down while we continued the walk to the crater itself.
The geology changed again to a reddish brown inside the crater, almost mimicking what lay beneath its surface. Our guide instructed us to put our hands on the ground and feel the heat coming from inside the volcano – so warm was it that you couldn’t hold your hand there long. We headed back to our boards, posed for pictures and readied ourselves for the great descent that would take a small fraction of the time it took us to get up.
The big, crazy rush of volcano boarding
As I dropped over the first hump the base appeared before me hundreds of meters below and picked up speed at a ridiculous rate, I plummeted down the volcano side on my rickety sled. I flew by our guide who was perched with her camera and that’s when I started to loose control.
My board turned while my feet came down in a sorry attempt to steer back on track. I ended up flipping onto my side, separating from my board and skidding down 10 meters of slope before I manage to stop myself.
The skin grazed on my forearm and ankles where the jumpsuit got pulled up in my reckless dive stung. My mouth, nose and shoes were so full of gravel that I could have doubled as authentic Nicaraguan Maracas.
Nevertheless, I stood up, shook myself off, placed my board beneath my butt and continued my voyage to the bottom at a slower pace.
I would be digging pieces of gravel out of my ears and shoes for days to come but when I made it to the bottom I was clocked by the driver going a measly 30 kph having lost my speed in my fall. I brushed myself off, climbed out of my jumpsuit and washed of my grazed skin with water, a contentment sweeping over me with the days adrenaline rush.
The rest of the group, my friends included, came down after me, a few wiping out along the way as well and the top clocked group speed was 65 kph. When you’re barreling down the volcano on a few scraps of wood it feels like the speed of light!
The hostel staff handed out complimentary beer to the group as we boarded the truck for our ride back to Leon. Once we arrived back at the hostel, a mint filled mojito was also dispensed at the bar, while I was handed a bottle of vodka to dump on my wounds in absence of any rubbing alcohol.
We came, we climbed, we raced downed an active volcano. For adrenaline junkies, this is a must – hell they even give you a tank top to prove it!