Leon is a cute little colonial town in Nicaragua. Although second in size to the capital Managua, it is known as the intellectual capital with it’s own university and also acting as a commercial centre for Nicaragua. After a day and a half of traveling through Honduras, it was a welcome site to get to a town where you weren’t scared to leave the confines of the hotel/hostel.
I was travelling with Ben and Sarah, a couple who I had met on the way to Utila. We weren’t spending much time in Leon as we all had limited time left in central america, so we wanted to experience what Leon is known for amongst tourists and that is the Volcano boarding.
Volcano boarding from what I know is only exclusive to Nicaragua. Nowhere else in the world lets you slide down an active volcano on a dodgy makeshift board. It could be the accessibility from a major city, or probably the dodgy regulation of the ‘sport”? Volcano boarding was conceived by an Australian guy who opened up the Bigfoot Hostel in Leon. He wanted to offer travellers a unique experience and when he hiked up Volcano Cerro Negro, he found that offering. Cerro Negro is a relatively young volcano with it’s first eruption in 1850 and since then has become one of the most active volcanos in Central America, erupting 23 times with the last one in 1999. Apparently the next eruption is due any day now.
At first, in order to slide down the mountain he trialled snowboards and sand boards. Even a mattress and car door were used in the experiments to discover an effective way to cruise down gracefully downthe side of the volcano. In the end, he settled on a design that hasn’t changed much since. A plank of wood, with a metal base and a piece of laminate at the arse end that minimises friction and allows one to slide down the mountain. After each use, the laminate is replaced as it’s completely worn out.
Getting to the Volcano site is petty easy if you book directly with Bigfoot. After a 45min ride through the country side on the back of a truck dodging tree branches and passing by farms on fertile volcanic earth, we finally arrive. From there you’re issued with a board and a bag containing the latest orange coloured prison designer overalls that act as protection from getting cut up by the volcanic dirt in the event you come crashing off the board.
The current record for a human on a Volcano board is 90km/h. For an animal, it’s 25km/h which was broken a dog the weekend we were there. As for the record for fastest or most foolish human on any contraption down Cerro Negro? That would go to Eric Barone, a crazy frenchman once stuntman who has made it his life ambition to break every land and speed record…on a bicycle. In May 2002 he used a prototype to break zip down the mountain at 172km/h. That was until his front wheel decided that it had enough, sending Eric and his speed suit tumbling down the rest of the mountain resulting in multiple fractures and a battered ego. He has since retired from cycling down volcanos and now only sticks to cycling down ski slopes.
So hiking up the volcano isn’t so hard. You just need good footwear, a couple litres of water and and a few ounces of will power. The treck is broken up into three parts with the start being a climb up a path made up of volcanic rock. The middle section is the steepest and most challenging only due to steep incline and the gravel. There were a few whiners who were holding the group back but you get that in every group now it seems. The last part was a steady but cruisy incline where we navigated the rim of the crater and Rosco the guide explained how there are now two craters with the latest one being blown out by the latest eruption in 1999. When you reach the top, it’s not hard to escape the heat. Steam permeates from the surface and it’s known to be only 5 metres between earth and lava at some points in the crater so walking into it is obviously prohibited. You only have to dig a small hole with your foot and you can spot the steam escaping from the earth.
At the briefing we’re told how to sit on the board and how to speed up as well as slow down. The fastest and straightest way to go down is to lean all the way back with your feet up a though you were about to give birth. There is a rope attached to the front you pull back which keeps the nose up. If you want to slow down then you just lean forward and the friction from the increased surface area across the board will slow you down. Direction and speed is also controlled by tapping your feet on the ground to counterbalance any shifts in direction caused by any minor bumps in the track.
I was in the middle of the pack to go down. The first half seems fairly easy. The best way to go down is the first half of the descent to get a feel and to stablise yourself. Rosco was waiting half way down with a camera so as soon as you cross him the gradient tilts a few more degrees so you can pick up some decent speed. On word of warning. You will get lots of volcanic dirt and rock in your face and mouth. I was confused as to why the previous boarders were so quiet and when I went down past Rosco to give him a “YEEW!”, I copped a mouth full of volcanic dirt. My final advice is that that moment where you think you should slow down, DON’T. If anything you should be trying to go as fast as you can. Most of us had the feeling that we could have gone faster but chickened out, and yuou only get one shot.
If you pass through Leon and chances are you will if traveling through Central America, then Volcano boarding is a must. It’s not as dangerous as being chased by an erupting volcano like in Dante’s Peak but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun and relatively safe. We stayed in Leon a total of two nights at Bigfoot hostel. It’s a pretty cool and friendly hostel that is also a refuge for baby kittens and home to a couple of tortoises.
When not volcano boarding, check out the Cathederal of Leon. It’s the largest in Central America and third largest in Latin America. It has seven tunnels underground that lead to other churches in the city and also houses the tombs of several bishops, priests and other dignitaries. We also checked out the food markets north of the city where I had a delicious local stewed beef dish and later that night we checked out a street stall behind the Cathedral of Leon based on a friend’s recommendation for some BBQ’d meats .
So my friends, have you ever done or would like to try anything as strange and unique as Volcano boarding?
My run down the mountain. I clocked 34km/h