To this point in our climb up the sooty black slopes of Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro volcano, Danillo Martinez has been the perfect adventure tour guide—equal parts playful, competent, and relentlessly encouraging.
But now that we’ve reached the 728-metre summit and are contemplating our descent down the outer slope of the volcano on thin metal-bottomed wooden boards, Martinez is getting seriously bossy.
“You must not go too fast,” he says to our group of three. “You will put down both feet to slow yourself. Both feet!?” He makes intense eye contact with my husband and 17-year-old son. “Please,” he says with the wisdom of someone who’s seen the bruised and bloodied results of volcano boarding gone bad, “do not go too fast.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him that going too fast is exactly why we hiked to the top of one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes.
In fact, the opportunity to go zooming down Cerro Negro’s 40-degree slope (compare that to the 28-degree slope on which Olympic mogul events where held at Cypress Mountain) was a big selling point for our vacation in Nicaragua. There were others, of course. Nicaragua’s natural charms include verdant jungles and pristine surf beaches, nesting turtles and wild monkeys, steaming volcanoes and bird-filled lagoons. Add the Spanish colonial cities of Granada and León and a proud, hospitable people, and you’ve got the ingredients for a blockbuster destination.
Yet tourism in Nicaragua is maturing slowly (to which many visitors would add “thank goodness”). This is due in part to the country’s economic reality—it is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, behind Haiti. It also has a lingering reputation as the 1980s Sandinista-Contra battleground, and modern-day politics that include a sketchy government run by a dictatorial Daniel Ortega.
Oh, and then there are those erupting volcanoes. Nicaragua has some 40 volcanoes, about a half dozen of which vent clouds of gas, churn out boiling mud, or spew rocks at any given time. Volcano-monitoring equipment and evacuation routes are in place to ensure residents and visitors get out of harm’s way. But still.
The night before our boarding adventure we’re told by Tierra Tours, the volcano-boarding outfitter, that Cerro Negro is “under watch” and might be too dangerous to visit. Given this young volcano has erupted steadily since 1850 when it first emerged in a farmer’s field, and last erupted in 1999, the threat is real. Fifteen minutes before our scheduled departure from León, I’m relieved (sort of) when we’re given the green light.
We drive 45 minutes through sun-baked plains and along pitted highways and black-sand roads to Cerro Negro. At the base, we slip on backpacks containing safety gear, tuck our boards (about two metres long and weighing five kilograms) under our arms, and follow our perky guide Martinez up the slope.
Because of its youth and frequent eruptions, Cerro Negro and the area immediately surrounding it are a black moonscape, completely devoid of vegetation. It’s a hot, tough slog over large rocks and across loose volcanic scree. We stop often to sip water, enjoy a bit of a breeze, and admire the views of lava flows and neighbouring volcanoes.
The breeze turns ferocious when we reach the back of the volcano and its dramatic rust-coloured crater. Our boards get buffeted like sails and we must carry them hip-height and parallel to the ground to avoid being blown into the crater. We move carefully up the razor-edge ridge that rims the crater, marvelling at the steam rising from its depth. Fifty minutes into the hike, just below the summit, we drop our boards and continue on for another 10 minutes to higher ground.
From here we can see neighbouring volcanoes including San Cristobal, Nicaragua’s tallest. Martinez kneels and brushes a few centimetres of sand away, then invites us to put our hands on the exposed ground. It’s so hot I pull mine away as if I’ve touched a stovetop.
Back at our boards, we pull on the company supplied safety gear. First come knee and elbow pads, then lime-green and yellow jumpsuits, cotton gloves, goggles and, finally, wrist guards. We look like mad scientists. Martinez snaps some photos, makes one more plea for moderation, then runs down the slope 30 metres to take more photos.
First up is my son. He sits down on his board, grabs its front rope, puts his feet up, and is off. He passes Martinez in a flash and continues down, down, down, until all we can see is the rooster trail of volcanic ash and small rocks marking his decent.
When it’s my turn, I’m unnerved by how quickly I accelerate. I drop my feet almost immediately and spend the 90-second ride being pelted with rocks and ash kicked up by my heels-cum-brakes. It’s a fun, wild ride, and I high-five my son when I reach the bottom. We are all covered in ash and tiny rocks and begin what will be a two-day process of extracting bits of Cerro Negro from our shoes, pants, hair, and ears.
Back at our hotel in León, I search for a YouTube video recommended by Martinez. In it, French sportsman Eric Barone careens down Cerro Negro in an attempt to break the world speed record for bicycling. He succeeds—passing the radar gun at 172 kilometres per hour—then crashes spectacularly when his bicycle snaps in half. Watching his body somersault, slide, and slam against the same slope my family just rode down is sobering indeed.
I bet Martinez would have given him hell for going too fast.
ACCESS: Tierra Tours offers half-day volcano boarding trips from León. The cost is about $30 per person, depending on the size of the group and where you book.