How would you feel about volcano boarding in Nicaragua? Find out what it’s all about and what to expect in this tried and tested guide.
As I looked over the edge of the steep, ominous charcoal-black volcano, I thought to myself: “Puh-leeze, what’s with the whining, everyone? This is going to be AWESOME!
It wasn’t until I was 20 meters down the slope, racing 50 km/h on a little piece of wood that I realised, this was probably not so well-considered after all.
Let’s take it from the beginning..
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Volcano boarding in Nicaragua
In May, Thomas and I decided to try volcano boarding in Nicaragua, a country of 19 active volcanoes. Climbing a volcano was one thing, but sledding down its slope on a wooden board? That’s a story for the grandkids.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of flying off a pebble-scraping volcanic slope, previously occupied by you and your volcano board. It’s hot, dusty, a little scary – and one of the absolute craziest things I’ve ever done.
Volcano boarding is possible at Cerro Negro volcano, just outside Leon; a colonial city with beautiful churches, colourful houses and sprawling revolutionary murals. But today, it’s mostly known amongst thrill-seeking travelers for volcano boarding.
Read next: 12 epic things to do in Leon
Who invented volcano boarding?
Volcano boarding was invented in 2004 by Daryn Webb, an Australian who was intent on riding down the side of an active volcano. First on a picnic table. Then a mattress and, later, his front door.
While he did survive to think up more ideas (I’m not sure about the front door), he eventually created a sledlike piece of plywood. And bam – volcano boarding in Nicaragua was born.
There’s only two places in the world to try volcano boarding – in Nicaragua and Chile. In parts of South America and Africa, you can also try sand boarding, but this is nothing like volcano boarding.
Hiking Cerro Negro
Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, and like a rebellious teen, it’s active. Since its birth in 1850 it has erupted over 20 times, the last in 1999. Made up of small grains of volcanic rock, the dark, smooth ash on Cerro Negro make it perfect for sliding down the slopes.
We climbed Cerro Negro on a sizzling hot day in Nicaragua. With a height of 728 meters, it took us 45 minutes to reach the summit with a few breaks included.
At the top, we continued to the main crater’s exposed rim. The views were surreal: on one side, the cooled lava flow from the 1999 eruption covered the side of the mountain; on the other, the gaping crater in burnt orange, yellow and pitch black volcanic ask, spewing out smoke here and there.
Once we reached the drop zone, I sat on my board, grabbed the rope in front, and off I went! Building speed rather quickly, I was soon blindsided by dust and sharp rocks, and all I could feel was the panic rapidly building up inside me. The board was hard to control and the faster I went, the more volcanic gravel was kicked into my face.
My cocky arrogance had fled the scene.
Heart pounded so loud that I couldn’t hear my own thoughts, and finally I did the only rational thing possible: leaned way back to gain balance and slow down. But oh, what a bad idea! Not only did it have the opposite effect, but it resulted in the board going sideways on me. Two feet down, both elbows deep in the burning hot gravel and a serious squealing moment later, I fell off and finally got the board to stop.
Safely back at the base and without any battle wounds to show, I realised that I had volcano dust and pebbles über alles! In my mouth, ears, nose, socks, everywhere.
As I rinsed my mouth of the last bad-tasting gravel, I found volcanic ash and small stones in my bra. Yes, it was gross, but also kinda awesome. I mean, volcanic ash in your bra – how often do you get to try that!
The board is basically a sled with a rope handle. It’s rectangular and made of plywood reinforced with Formica and with metal mounted on the bottom.
You use your feet to steer and control speed.
How to board down Cerro Negro
There are two ways to go volcano boarding in Nicaragua. You can stand up like on a snowboard, or you can sit down like on a sled. Standing up may look cooler for photos, but it’s actually lame. You can’t go that fast and it’s tougher to keep balance. It’s much better to sit on the board like on a sled.
Once you’re seated, you more or less control the speed yourself. You either put a foot down to go slower or lean back if you want to speed up. Your guide will explain all of this before you go down.
It goes pretty fast if you want it to. Average speed is around 45 kmh and the record is 100 kmh. But you can also take it slow and just put your feet down.
Travel tip: Try to keep your mouth shut on the way down. There’s pebbles and dust everywhere.
Which tour to book with (costs and details)
While Bigfoot Hostel is one of the better-known operators, other smaller tours have also emerged. We went on a private tour and I wish we had gone with a larger group. It’s just more fun with other people.
Another large tour operator is Quetzaltrekkers, which donates all profits to local nonprofits that work with children at-risk. They also allow you to board down twice, although as awesome as that sounds, remember that sliding twice means also hiking up twice.
Costs: The price of volcano boarding Cerro Negro is around $25 per person, plus you have to pay another $5 at the entrance to the volcano. If you want a local to carry your board up the volcano, that’ll cost you another $5.
What to wear for volcano boarding in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is a hot and humid country so dress light. Before takeoff, the tour company gives you some fancy overalls, goggles and gloves to protect the clothes and skin. The volcanic stones are sharp enough to tear holes without the protective gear.
This is what to wear on volcano boarding in Nicaragua:
- T-shirt or top
- Hiking boots or sneakers (with sturdy soles because you’ll use your feet to brake)
- Bandana to cover face.
- Plenty of sun lotion.
- Hat (optional)
Is volcano boarding safe?
In general, yes. If you follow the guide’s instructions, volcano boarding in Nicaragua is relatively safe.
Of course, there’s always risk involved when you do adventure sports, just like there is with sandboarding, biking or surfing. And if you try to break the speed record (100 kmh), you might end up with bruises and cuts since volcanic rock is not as forgiving as sand or snow. I was told that it’s not likely to break any bones.
By the way, it should go without saying, but if you’re brave enough to try to board down an active volcano, remember to get travel insurance! I use and recommend World Nomads, which covers adventure sports like volcano boarding.
And if you change your mind at the top, don’t worry. You can always run down or just walk. That’s what the guides do.
So, let’s have it. Would you ever go volcano boarding in Nicaragua?