Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro
Upon our return to Canada we were bombarded with questions regarding our experience with volcano boarding,therefore we decided to dedicate a whole article to it. After our night hike in Panama, we wanted to take it to the next level and one of the main reasons we have settled on Nicaragua, was to try sledding down an active volcano. I first stumbled upon volcano boarding while reading (Matt aka Expert Vagabond) and we were hooked! How can one pass along a chance to go down an active volcano on a piece of wood, with a rope as a steer and your feet acting as breaks?
There are various companies that offer Volcano boarding around Leon but one stood out above the rest for us: Quetzaltrekkers. This is an amazing organization that uses all profits to support at risk children. The premise is simple. You hike volcanoes for a small price and your money goes to help at risk kids. This is a truly noble cause and this organization has done a marvelous job of expanding their reach. One can just make their way to the park entrance and rent a board there or you could get a ride in a shabby truck and know that your money will go towards a great cause. We met our guide extraordinaire Robert and climbed into the back of the truck for an hour ride through Leon and the surrounding countryside towards our destination. Robert turned out to be a kindred soul and great conversationalist which made the ride and hike 100% better.
Upon arriving at the park, one must sign in into a log book and a short ride into the park, Cerro Negro appears. This is one of the youngest volcanoes in the world (about 150 years) and it is quite active. Vegetation is non existent as eruptions and lava flows have made this into a barren mountain. There are no stairs, just a “path” that has been carved by many feet going up to get their rush of sledding down. While this is not a very high mountain to climb (2388 feet), the temperatures in their mid 30C and scorching hot rocks that are absorbing this heat have made the climb quite arduous.
A few tips while climbing Cerro Negro:
1. It will be HOT! I strongly suggest wearing long sleeve shirt and a hat.
2. Wear hiking boots as your fancy running shoes will get destroyed on jagged rocks and black sand.
3. Try not to bring too much stuff with you as you will be forced to ride down with whatever you brought up and if you fall off…. you are responsible for your gear.
4. Quetzaltrekkers offer you a chance to ride twice but you have to climb all over again.
Once the climbing up the rocks portion ends, you arrive at the first hill and the views are stunning. To see how beautiful our planet is,that was worth the trip alone. I was surprised at how strong the wind current is up top and while it is a relief, the sun shows no mercy. As we made our way around the crater the wind picked up with a vengeance. Our group consisted of 7 girls and me and at one point I thought that the wind will cause us to lose some of them. The problem is that if you carry your board over your head or in front of you, it will become a sail and a gust of wind can probably push you over the crater. You have to cradle the board tight and avoid walking close to the edge. You also have to watch out as the board absorbs heat on its underside due to a thin layer of metal that helps with traction when going down, hence if you stop to rest, avoid resting your board with the metal side up!
Cerro Negro is a cinder cone volcano and it is the largest of the recently formed 4 volcanoes along the Marrabios Range. Interestingly, it has two craters. The first one has sulfur slowly seeping out from a vent below and the second crater is seen in the pic above. That is the most recent crater and when Cerro Negro decides its time to say hello, this is where the action will be. The reason it is called Cerro Negro is due to black basaltic pebbles. A cinder cone is built entirely of loose, fragmented material. This material allows adventure freaks a unique way of coming down a mountain. While it is not sand, the pebbles are small enough to allow sledding down. They are very sharp though! Even though Quetzaltrekkers will provide you with a protective suit it is still advisable to wear long sleeve shirts.
Upon arriving at the launch pad, our guide Robert took us to see the whole vista up on top. I highly recommend taking the time to explore rather than just get ready for the plunge. You also get a small lesson about the history of the mountains, other hikes that Quetzalltrekkers offer and a chance to photograph some sick views.
Elena was surprised to find that the mountaintop was covered in green Cicadas. They were flying all around and lack of predators had them in droves, resting on hot rocks. After a short rest while dressing up, we volunteered to go down first . When you are getting ready to climb, the mountain does not appear to be steep or dangerous however up top, when you are staring at the steep slope that is a “track”, doubts creep in.It is quite intimidating. The problem is that you are going down a 40 degree slope and the way down disappears. This plays tricks on your mind as it appears as if you are heading towards a cliff.
Some people choose the snowboard way of going down or you can sit down for a sledding experience. The sit down option is by far faster and more dangerous. Snowboard just sinks in and you plod along. Robert offered a tip to get more zip while heading down. Basically, you have to sit as far back as possible and lean back. Farther back you lean, the faster you go. We pushed off and down we flew….
Quetzaltrekkers provides you with a protective jean coverall suit, goggles and gloves. Put them all on! You will not regret it because wiping out will be painful. The rocks will fly into your hair, mouth and ears. Elena flew by me without any glitches. I heard you can get up to 70/km per hour and she probably broke that as she did not fall off and picked up more speed on the way down. My clumsiness did not allow that as I lost control of the so called handle and wiped out while stabilizing the board. The suit saved me but one pant leg went up and some battle scars were left. To be honest, the view is far more intimidating than the actual ride down.
You can ride at your leisurely pace, stopping with your hand and feet and avoid any serious knocks. We have also seen people that opted out from sledding down and chose to just walk back down. We walked back to the truck and decided to head towards the park entrance on foot to see some sights and maybe glimpse signs of wildlife.
The sun is unforgiving in this part of the country and I have heard people say that in Chinandega it is so hot that you will sweat even while taking a cold shower. We were in Nicaragua during the summer months and the sun had destroyed all signs of greenery and the landscape resembled a lunar surface. Birds were not heard and we walked in complete silence in this eerie place.
At the ranger station, you can buy some Tona beer and lay back in the hammocks. The locals sell some amazing honey that they collect from bees on the slope of the mountain. This was a perfect way to unwind after a scorching, hot day. The breeze flew into the shaded area and gently swung the hammocks. We had a chance to discuss politics and the alleged canal building with a couple of guys that worked at the station. This is our way of exploring a country, the befree way. Just kicking back and letting life happen.
Volcano boarding was an activity that was on our bucket list and we were blessed to have experienced it. While in Leon, you should definitely try to carve out some time to do something different.