Elbows In, Knees Together: Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua
I used to think that you needed water, waves and a wetsuit to surf. I was wrong.
When I first arrived in Nicaragua, I’d never heard of volcano boarding and thought it would be enough of a feat to scale a volcano, let alone hurtle down one on a wooden plank minutes after having reached its peak.
But no sooner had I arrived in the colonial city of León, my friends and I had booked ourselves on a Bigfoot trip for the following morning – seeing as all the ones for that day had already sold out (always a good sign).
Discovered by an Australian just over five years ago, volcano boarding (or surfing) is one of Central America’s newest extreme sports and promises an exhilarating ride to all who are brave enough to try it.
Our Everest was to be Cerro Negro which translates into English as ‘Black Hill’, although I prefer the term ‘Black Mountain’, and is located in the West of Nicaragua. It’s the region’s youngest volcano (born in 1850) and also one of its most active — having last erupted in 1999 causing ash damage to the city of Leon, 25 kilometers away.
Due to its young age and constant volcanic activity, it is impossible for vegetation to grow, which means, coupled with the 41 degree gradient, it’s the perfect terrain for volcano boarding.
The next morning we left our hostel, cradling cups of strong coffee to calm our nerves, and cautiously bundled into the back of a truck along with about 10 other people –- all wondering if we’d return in one piece.
After a 40-minute journey through Leon’s surrounding villages, some of which are still blanketed in ash from Cerro Negro’s last eruption, we arrived at its base and marvelled at the steep, black slopes that we not only had to climb up, but also slide down.
Gravity vs. Stupidity
I started to think that maybe it would be a better idea to sit at the foothills – a safe distance away from the action – and admire the other adrenaline junkies in my group career down the rather ominous looking 2,300 feet high volcano.
But suddenly I wasexchanging my belongings for an orange jumpsuit, a pair of goggles – the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my high-school days – and encouraged to begin my ascent. This really was to be a science experiment: a test of gravity vs. stupidity.
Complete with a rather splintery-looking wooden sleigh my friends and Ibegan the moderately difficult trek up to the top of the black mountain, clambering over rocks and solidified lava as we went. Circling up and round the back of the volcano in the intense sun, we arrivedjust 45-minutes later at the summit.
We took some time to explore the incredible views from its top and wander around its crater rim which plunged and soared in differentdirections. We could feel the heat of the lava and actually see it smoking in different areas.
Nicaragua – The Adventure Destination
If you look at any map of the country you will see that volcanoes litter the landscape, forming an impressive chain that runs like a dot-dot-dot puzzle from the north to the south of the country; and at the top of Cerro Negroyou can see a number of them.
With the thrill seekers in the group churning at the bit to launch themselves off the top, the cocktail of intense sun and increasing wind meant that the rest of us were also surprisingly keen to descend too. But not before a quick demonstration from our guide on the safest way to ride down the slope: elbows in, knees together, back straight.
We changed into what appeared to be the uniform of an in-mate at Guantanamo Bay and each took to our boards, attempting to mimic the sitting position we’d just been shown. I was alarmed by the lack of padding –- it really was just like sitting on a wooden plank. Prepare to bruise, I thought.
Mastering the Stance
With a quick how-to lesson completed and a five metre practice run conquered, my fears began to subside and I started to plot my escape route down the 500-metre slope… to the left of that pile of sand, to the right of the other one. This was going to be an experience!
While the bravest amongst us volunteered to throw themselves off the volcano, our guide informed us that it was company policy to let the girls go first…probably so that we weren’t too put-off by the boys’ antics.
I waited back with my faithful, plywood companionand watched the various tumbles, spins and falls through a mist of black sand that my fellow adrenaline junkies had ignited on their speedy journey down.
First it was just the fearless women who were keen to leave the top of the crater, then a handful of others, before I knew it my friends had disappeared too and I was quickly running out of people to hide behind.
Learning the Hard Way
Then suddenly, in a now-or-never kind of attitude I flung my wooden slat down on the peak and climbed aboard. Elbows in, knees together, back straight. I felt someone push me from behind and I was away, soaring down Cerro Negro at, what appeared to me to be, breakneck speed.
It was beautiful, it was amazing, it was terrifying, it was…. crash! A large amount of gritty, scratchy, volcanic ash flew up my nose. It had gotten into my ears and somehow even down my jumpsuit.
In my rookie attempt to slow down I had leaned too much to the right and unwittingly caused my board to unbalance which resulted in it flipping up and then my body painfully colliding with the slope. It hurt. But I was smiling and I wanted more.
I quickly remounted and came to the conclusion that since my previous breaking manoeuvre had failed me, I should avoid shifting my weight to reduce my speed.
In essence, I should stop trying to stop. So I did. I pushed off from the ground beneath me – elbows in, knees together, back straight – and watched a haze of black sand and green scenery merge together.
My heart was beating out of its chest as a distorted Nicaragua soared past my eyes. I wanted to break, but I didn’t want to fall, so I just kept going at an exhilarating speed and prayed that I didn’t topple again. The noise was deafening.
I let out a yelp that turned into a wail and just held on to the ropes. Pebbles flew into my mouth, but I kept going – rocketing down Cerro Negro terrified of how I was ever going to manage to stop.
Now or Never
The collection of tiny people and boards, once so far away, were getting bigger and bigger and suddenly I realised that I had to start breaking or else I’d go plunging into them.
Luckily the slope was starting to even out and the blurry images were coming into focus. I could feel my board slowing down a fraction, but not enough to avoid a second collision. I tugged on the ropes once, twice, three times and then decided that I was now going at a safe enough speed to put my foot out and stop. Now!
I rolled out onto the sand and emerged covered in volcanic ash, my eyes and teeth glowing white against the black sand that covered my face. My jumpsuit was torn at the knee from my previous fall, I had a few minor scrapes and bruises, but I was still in one piece –- grinning and wishing there was time to go again.
Booked through Bigfoot Hostel it’s a 4.5-hour round trip and costs just under $30, which includes everything from park entrance to ‘survivor’ drinks back at the hostel bar.
Daredevils can even try surfing with stand up boards at VaPues Tours.
Volcano boarding is a must for anyone visiting Nicaragua with a taste of adventure. Where else in the world can you scale an active volcano and then launch yourself off it at a speed of over 80kph?
Just remember: elbows in, knees together, back straight.
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