The verdant, volcanic landscape of Nicaragua offers a variety of opportunities for adventurous travelers to explore this dynamic (and occasionally volatile) region. The most unusual and unique of these volcanic activities is volcano boarding, a sport that involves riding a narrow wooden board down 1,600 feet on the 41° slope of Cerro Negro, the youngest and most active volcano in Central America.
Most visits to Cerro Negro commence in León, a town that entices travelers with its vibrant colonial buildings and bustling markets lining a tight grid of colorful, gritty streets. Bold colors adorn the outer walls of baroque and colonial churches which vary in preservation. Some are immaculately maintained while others reveal crumbling facades that have been blackened by time and ash, leaving the observer to appreciate their beautifully grimy appearance. Tourists and locals alike congregate in the Parque Central under the shadow of the magnificent Catedral de León, the largest cathedral in Central America and the burial site for some of Nicaragua’s most famous artists and intellectuals. Strolling among the bleached-white domes and turrets that rise along the cathedral’s rooftop is easily the most picturesque way to admire stunning views of the city and beyond.
Volcano boarding tours begin with an early departure from León, traveling the 25 kilometers to Cerro Negro past fields of cassava and banana to venture deep into the sparsely populated countryside. Locals herd cattle or pedal bicycles down rocky dirt roads alongside rumbling pickups hauling tourists toward the mountains.
Upon arrival to the foot of the volcano, everyone is outfitted with a board, a liter of water, and the necessary protective gear of a denim jumpsuit, goggles, and gloves. Boarders are advised to bring a t-shirt or bandana to cover their face to prevent swallowing mouthfuls of sandy black dust. After the gear and boards have been dispersed, the 45-minute hike to the top begins, following a narrow path that cuts through a sea of rocks in varying sizes and colors, their present location a recent and merely temporary arrangement.
Situated within Nicaragua’s ring of fire, Cerro Negro volcano was born in 1850 and has erupted a handful of times, most recently in 1999 when fiery lava and a seven-kilometer column of ash exploded from its crater, bringing the volcano to its current height of 2,388 feet. The hike to the top of the volcano offers incredible views of the surroundings, including the massive Volcán Momotombo rising from the shores of Lake Managua. The original city of León stood in the shadow of Momotombo until the early 1600’s when a major eruption destroyed the city, inspiring the survivors to relocate the city nearly 50 kilometers to the west.
As the trail winds around the rim of the crater, steam escapes through vents within the rock, sending the pungent aroma of earth’s bowels to the surface. This venting is a good sign as it indicates that the volcano is gradually releasing some of the pressure boiling below. The wind can pick up during the final leg of the ascent, requiring a repositioning of the board to avoid being blown off of the trail. Once at the top and facing northwest, 40 miles of the Cordillera Los Maribios mountain range extends into the distance, marking Nicaragua’s contribution to the Central America Volcanic Arc that stretches through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. The peaks of San Cristóbal, Pilas, and Telica rise from the flat green earth, straddling the collision of tectonic plates, each crest a topographical reminder of the structural weaknesses that lie just below the surface.
Once the view has been fully enjoyed, boarders begin to clumsily don their protective gear in blasting wind. The volcanic rock is coarser than sand, requiring extra protection to avoid volcanic road rash. The guide provides a short tutorial regarding the impending descent and how to sit on, slow down, and even properly fall off of the board. The slope is surprisingly steep, and as each person climbs on their board and slides down one by one, there is plenty of time for those waiting for their turn to hope that they remember the instructions.
After a few scoots to get going, the board hits its stride, zooming straight down the volcano, a cloud of dust rising behind. Equipped with only the illusion of control, attempts to slow down feel ineffective and a little risky. Boarding a volcano is to submit to its inherent instability, for a few moments becoming the hot mass of energy that rushes down its slopes.
Insider Tip: Most people sit on the board but it is possible to stand on it, however this approach is more difficult and not necessarily recommended for the first run. Don’t bring fragile items because there is nowhere to put them on the way down. Use a phone for photos since it is easier to hold in your pocket while boarding.
Volcano boarding can only be done as part of a guided tour, but fortunately, there are plenty of tour operators to choose from. One socially-conscious company in particular that offers daily volcano boarding tours and multi-day volcano hiking treks is Quetzaltrekkers, which is the only non-profit, volunteer-run tour company in Nicaragua, donating all of their profits to locally-run projects that work with disadvantaged youth. Tourism also benefits the community through the jobs that are created for locals to work as guides and drivers. For $35, a volcano boarding tour through Quetzaltrekkers includes transportation, gear, guides, and lunch. This tour also gives people the option to board the volcano a second time if desired. Most tours can be booked the day before by going to the company’s office in León.