Before my round the world trip, there was only two things I knew about Nicaragua: that it grew coffee, and was famous for the long conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras. After spending three months in Central America in 2009, I discovered it was famous amongst backpackers for quite a different reason: it was the home of volcano boarding.
Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, having first erupted out of the countryside in 1850 – and since then it has erupted a further 23 times, covering nearby Leon in ash in 1995 and most recently erupting in 1999, and in the process growing to a height of 728 metres. Its name means ‘black mountain’ – and it’s a pretty perfect description: it’s so young that no plant life has had a chance to get a foothold, meaning it’s a great big black mound rising starkly up out of the surrounding lush green fields. It’s this black rock that is the key to its new incarnation as the local must-do for travellers: down one side in particular, the volcanic rock is broken up into very small particles – not as smooth as sand, more like a very loose shale. A few years ago an enterprising hostel owner realised that this surface would be perfect for hurtling down on a plank of wood. Five years on, and every day sees a steady stream of tourists clambering up its flanks in search of the ultimate local adrenaline rush.
Early one morning we found ourselves at the foot of the mountain, very glad to be there that early as already the temperature was starting to rise, and set off on the pretty easy (and rather quick) ascent, with the only difficulty being carting the boards with us – these were big thick planks, not modern lightweight boards. Pretty soon we reached the top and were able to admire the rather incredible views all around – over to the Pacific ocean in front, away to the jungled interior of the country behind us, and across the long chain of volcanoes that runs parallel to the coast, from Consiguina near the El Salvadorian border in one direction, right down to Momotombo on the shores of Lake Managua in the other.
The other spectacular view was far closer to hand – and that was down into the crater, from which sulphurous steam billowed out, occasionally clearing to reveal multi-coloured rocks in shades of black, red, yellow and white. Despite the knowledge that the volcano has quite a good early warning system (and we’d brought our own handy emergency escape vehicles with us) it’s still a rather unnerving feeling stood atop the crater of something that could go off at any time. It’s the kind of thing that could make you rather terrified if you thought about it too much (especially with the knowledge that the last properly active volcano I’d climbed, Volcan Pacaya had erupted almost exactly a year later, killing one person.).
So rather than hang around for too long (although with just enough time to take the obligatory jumping photo), we headed over to the top of the long, even western slope and prepared to board. I have to admit, I was pretty nervous, and for good reason – the night before, in Leon, we’d seen a few people with rather impressive scabs running up their arms and on foreheads, as well as the odd bandaged leg. The reality, alas, was somewhat different: we’d chosen to go with a company that provided us with slightly rubbish boards. I sat on my board as instructed, gripped tightly onto the cord, lifted my feet off the ground and prepared to hurtle down at a dangerous speed. Instead, I only gained momentum slowly and soon found myself falling off, for as soon as I reached even a moderate speed the board veered off to one side. I gradually got the hang of maintaining balance using one foot, but this also served to add enough drag that it was impossible to reach the dangerous speeds I’d hoped for. Even as the final section steepened, I was still only able to get a mild adrenaline rush rather than the full-on fear-of-death hurtle that I was expecting. I figured that maybe I was just being a bit lame, but as the group headed down one by one, we all had a pretty similar experience.
To be honest it was a massive letdown compared to the high speeds and huge adrenaline rush I’d had on the massive sand dunes of Huacachina in Peru last year. But the disappointment soon subsided as I realised I’d had quite a lucky escape – as much as the adrenaline appealed, I can do without the risk of broken limbs and giant scabs thank you very much – but I still wish I’d chosen a company with better boards. If you want to give it a go, I would recommend using the marvellous Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-run organisation that runs volcano and canyon hikes throughout northern Nicaragua, all of whose profits go to a charity that helps local street kids (and not only do you get to know your money is going to good causes, you also get two goes at the boarding, unlike the one attempt we were allowed; plus going with them also gives you a discount off any hike you subsequently do with them – and I can confirm after trekking up another nearby volcano with them, they are the perfect people to go hiking with). Just be warned that if you do give it a go, those boards can go up to 82kph, and the rocks are larger and nastier at the end of the steep bit at the bottom, and thus certain to give you a rather bumpy landing if you come off…a rather extreme example of which can be seen at the end of this world speed-record breaking downhill cycle that also took place on Cerro Negro:
Ouch. Still, that’s one of the joys of travelling in countries like Nicaragua. You can be pretty sure that even if there were active volcanoes in England, you wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them, let alone be able to peer in to the active crater and then risk death by sliding down afterwards.
You can see all of my photos of Cerro Negro here.
Next stop – a two day hike up an even bigger active volcano.