60 Minutes Up, 60 Seconds Down: Adventures in Volcano Boarding

Ben Beiske / Getty Images

One of the new weekly features at Trading Places is Flashback Friday, where I’ll share a favorite travel experience from my past — hopefully, to inspire your weekend travel dreaming! Today, for the first Flashback Friday, I’m going back to 2012 when I spent a few weeks in Nicaragua — and boarded down a live volcano just outside Leon.

Cerro Negro is a very young volcano. At a mere 161 years old, it’s a newborn baby in fact.

“The Black Hill” is one of 25 volcanoes in Nicaragua, of which 9 are active (or at least erupted in the last two thousand years). Cerro Negro is very definitely one of the active ones; in its young life it has erupted 23 times, or an average of every seven years. The last eruption was in 1999, so this baby is overdue for a hot lava and steam explosion.

We are about to climb this volcano – and then board down the other side.

Keith and I arrived in Nicaragua two days ago, flying into Managua and making our way first to Leon, a small colonial city to the north. I was told about the volcano boarding tours by INTUR, the government tourism office, and they set us up to go out with Va Pues, a local tour operator.

And so at 8 am on our second full day in Leon, Frankie arrives to pick us up and lead us on this adventure. Frankie is young and enthusiastic (I find out later he is 34, a bit older than he looks), and promises that the volcano will not erupt today. We stop at a hostel on the way out of Leon to pick up a couple of twenty-something guys who are going with us, Gary and Matt who are also both American.

“The motto for today is have fun, and don’t die,” Frankie tells us. Good motto.

It’s about a 45-minute drive out of town to Cerro Negro, bumpy after we turn off the main asphalt onto a rutted dirt road. We pass a lot of yoked oxen pulling carts filled with wood, water, and other necessities of life. “They are called junta,” Frankie says of the oxen. “It means best friends; with your amigo, you are together all the time, side by side. That is how these oxen pairs get their name, always together.” Occasionally these carts are followed by men on horseback carrying machetes; presumably, to cut through foliage and hack down the small trees they harvest. At least, I hope that is what they are for.

We pass several wells and get out to take a closer look at one. Because this is on an elevated volcanic mountain, people must dig really deep to reach the water. This particular well is 160 meters deep, and it takes a junta pair to pull up the container of water from its depths. All of the community come to these wells to get their supply of water.

After a little more driving we reach the entry building for the volcano area – it’s a protected national reserve, and here you sign the guest book and pay your entrance fee of $5. We drive right past the sign that reads, “No Pasar – Zona de riesgo por eruptions volcanicicas inter” – or, “Do not enter – volcano eruption zone.”

We climb out of the vehicle with our boards – Keith has a stand-up style, like a snowboard, while Gary, Matt, and I all opted to ride down seated, toboggan style. I’ve read that you can go faster this way and the stand-up boards get bogged down in the volcanic gravel more easily; plus, I think I’ll feel more steady seated. Frankie leads us as we begin the ascent, along a very rocky trail up the side of Cerro Negro. After a few hundred meters the trail gets abruptly steeper, and the lava rocks beneath our feet are completely loose. It’s a little challenging finding a foothold, especially carrying the boards, but not hugely difficult.

Arriving at a peak, what turns out to be about the halfway point, we put down the boards to enjoy a spectacular vista. Several nearby volcanoes surround us, some active and others dormant and verdant with a rich green landscape. Just below us are several steam vents where Cerro Negro is releasing its gaseous fumes. We hike down, trampling over yellow sulfured rocks, and are persuaded to stand in the steam vents while Frankie takes our picture. I blame this for my subsequent light-headedness.

The next part of the climb proves to be the most difficult. We begin the trek along the exposed top ridge of the volcano, along a very narrow trail, and it’s windy. I mean, wicked windy. The boards we are carrying basically act as a sail, trapping the wind and threatening to pull my 110 pounds right over the edge of the ridge. I had thought of taking a picture along here but instead, I am concentrating hard on just staying upright, planting one foot cautiously in front of the other. For the first time, I begin to feel a little nervous. I’m sort of wishing I had let Frankie carry my board when he offered, but I don’t want to be a wimpy girl.

I’m really fighting the wind for purchase on the narrow ledge. I think about how my dad always teases me that I’ll blow away in the wind; if he could only see me now. He would definitely shake his head with the unspoken expression that says this was not one of my more brilliant moves. “Whose idea was this anyway?” I shout back at Keith. “Yours!” he reminds me. Oh, yeah. Damn me. That ride down better be worth it.

Finally, Frankie stops and leads us down to a path that’s a few feet below the very top; it’s still windy but a bit more sheltered and easier to navigate. A few minutes later we blessedly reach the spot from where we will board down the other side of this bad boy. I drop my board, relieved. After a look at the crater and some photo ops, Frankie does a quick demonstration of how to use the boards; the toboggan is pretty simple. Get on, hold on, and use your heels for brakes. Okay. We don helmets, safety glasses, knee, and elbow pads.

Keith, the sole stand-up boarder, goes first. He handles the board pretty well and starts down the black lava gravel. The board gets a little bogged down and it’s hard for him to go very fast, but it looks like a fun ride all the same. Then it’s my turn. I sit on the board, grab the rope handle, and lift my feet off the ground. The toboggans go much faster than the stand-up boards; immediately I pick up speed, and start careening from side to side. I plant my heels back down to slow; I haven’t gotten the hang of how to control the board and direction yet, and I’m a bit nervous of gaining speed and then wiping out. This isn’t snow, after all, or even sand. It’s small jagged pieces of lava, and I do not want to go sliding across them sans board.

The ride is pretty fun, though I admittedly keep my heels down most of the time. Every time I pick them up I start rocketing down and veering from side to side, so the potential speed of the toboggan is wasted on me. In a minute or two we are all at the bottom. It was a quick ride but a definite adrenaline rush; I do wish the run was longer, or there were a couple of them because I just started getting the feel for how to control the board and it would have been fun to keep going and try a little more speed.

Keith says that while the snowboard-style was fun, he would have enjoyed the speed of the toboggan. Both of us, and Matt and Gary as well, all thought the entire experience was well worth it. The volcano boarding is of course unique and adventurous; but the scenery, climbing the volcano, and the entire hike (in spite of the moments of precariousness) were all just as good as the boarding itself.

Frankie was an awesome guide. After we remove our gear and load up in the battered four-wheel drive, we head back to the park entrance to wash our filthy arms and legs and have a cerveza fria, chatting about travel and our lives and getting to know one another a little more. Frankie tells us about the university he went to, and the many conferences and training on tour guiding that he has gone to. When I ask him what he likes to do in his spare time, when he’s not guiding tourists, he says climbing or boarding the volcanoes. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do anyway; this guy seriously loves volcanoes.

A lot of tour guides might be of the “It’s good money taking gringos to slide down a volcano, so that’s what I’ll do” variety. I’m not knocking that; it is a good way to make a living, and it’s an enterprising soul who goes after that opportunity. But Frankie has gone to school for this, continues his education on it, is passionate about both guiding and the topography and adventures available in his country, and takes it seriously. It’s a calling for him.

Later that night, we all meet up again at Via Via, a hostel and bar in Leon that is the spot for live music on Friday nights. Frankie meets us there along with Gary, Matt, and a friend, Casey, that they bring along from their hostel. A few beers with new friends, a good band, and a fun bar with a 50/50 mix of locals and visitors is a pretty stellar way to end an awesome day in Leon, Nicaragua.

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