VOLCANO BOARDING IN LEON, NICARAGUA
I had arrived in the cultural city of Leon in Nicaragua just at the right time. I was still high on adrenaline from completing my Advanced Open Water Diving Course in Honduras and just felt like I wanted to do something crazy. We'd had such a long bus journey from the island of Utila and had been looking forward to Nicaragua for so long that it was time to enter the country with a bang.
When Stu mentioned about volcano boarding, I was shocked I had never even heard about it. How is this a thing? Who made this up? I simply couldn't imagine it being done. I knew one thing for sure though, it was exactly the activity we were in the mood for.
THE LAND OF LAKES AND VOLCANOES
Nicaragua is known for it's stunning lakes, warm lagoons and impressive volcanoes. Home to 19 volcanoes (many of those still active) - it's one of the best places in the world to experience these natural fiery wonders. Eight of these reside near Leon (two of which last erupted only in 2015!) making it the perfect city to jot down to your bucket list.
One of the most interesting volcanoes in the area is Cerro Negro. Last erupting in 1999, this ashy 'Black Hill' is the youngest of all volcanoes in Central America. This is the place where dozens of travellers get to hike to the summit and then make their own (very thrilling) way down -- by board!
CHOOSING THE COMPANY: VOLCANO DAY
Multiple companies can be found on the streets of Leon but I strongly recommend the company I went for -- Volcano Day.
Not only do they offer volcano boarding day trips but also other volcano experiences from sunset hiking to overnight camping trips! Their shop is located on one of the main streets next to Via Via Hostel and Big Foot Hostel.
1 Morning Trip (8am-1pm) Volcano Boarding: $30
Included: Transport - Entrance Fee - English Speaking Tour Guide - Snacks - Protection Clothing / Gear (Jumpsuit, Goggles, Gloves plus a Bag to carry it in) - Board - 1 free (very cold) beer - 1 free t-shirt
What to Bring: WATER - Bandana (to cover your face) - Appropriate Shoes / Hiking Boots - Sunscreen - Sunglasses - Action Camera (GoPro)
Do Not Take: Your main / proper Camera (it will only get damaged)
These guys know what they're doing and I can guarantee you will have a fantastic trip with them. Not only is there a guide to explain about the volcano itself and 'train' you on how to board down properly but there are also volunteers there to help out and answer questions. Take any belongings you wish but be prepared you will most likely be asked to leave your rucksack in the vehicle that's taken everyone to the starting point of the hike (we were told there's been no known theft taken place).
This is because what goes up must come down. Anything you take up to the summit must travel back down again with you so there is no point taking your passport, large camera, phone etc unless you want to risk damaging it or breaking it altogether. GoPro's are built to survive this type of stuff so it's fine to take and I actually kept my phone in my bra which ended up ok but the choice is yours. The company capture brilliant photos throughout the day of everyone and upload them to Facebook so you can save them from there for free!
You also want a company that provides good quality protective gear and a proper board. This is because you will pick up speed dramatically and therefore catch the tiny volcanic fragments that fly at you EVERYWHERE (inside shoes, within hair). It can be dangerous so it's really important to wear your jumpsuit, goggles, gloves and bandana like what is advised. You don't want to get the sharp dust in your eyes, mouth or up your nose.
MY VOLCANO BOARDING EXPERIENCE
It was mainly excitement and the happiness of trying out something new that took over me the morning of volcano boarding. We were picked up early by one of the volunteers while we were still having breakfast. I would definitely recommend doing the morning tour opposed to the afternoon as it can get extremely hot. We were first taken to the office in town and briefed on our day ahead. This is a good time to purchase a bandana if you don't have one already and to get water if need be.
The two trucks were loaded with passengers and then we made our way on the hour journey to the volcano. It was a really bumpy ride making it extremely uncomfortable along with the heat and how crammed in everyone was. We passed loads of local farmers and wandering cattle as well as bison's with carts (which we had to stop for to let pass). It did feel good to get a break at the registry office. Here you have to sign your name and can use the toilet and buy any more water or snacks.
Next the trucks took us to the starting point of the hike and we were given the small backpacks to carry our jumpsuit, goggles, bandana, water, gloves and GoPro in. Here, we were given the chance to pay a local $5 to carry our boards for us, if we chose not to, we would carry them ourselves which most ended up deciding to do. I reluctantly left my own rucksack in the truck with everyone else which included my Canon camera and passport. I hated having to leave such stuff unattended but we were reassured nothing had ever been taken.
Then, it was time to make our way up Cerro Negro! The ascent wasn't too bad to begin with as we stopped regularly to learn about the volcano and it wasn't as steep as I had expected. We had been told to carry our boards like a surfboard which was easy at first but started to become a little draining. As we made good progress the views started to get so interesting. Two craters were visible and the contrast between the green landscape and the black volcano that surrounded us was beautiful. After around 15 minutes of hiking, the path ahead became rockier, steeper and a little slippy. As we got closer the rocks started to change colours, there was a blend of browns, blacks and grey formations all around us. It was here we could see smoke and could smell the volcanic gases being released which proved the volcano was still alive and active - so cool!
Our final stretch was an intense 10-15 minute hike up the most steepest path. It wouldn't have been so bad but the thick dust beneath us was like trying to climb on sand. You would take a step forward then slide back. This, along with the now heavy board under your arm...I must admit I struggled! It was all worth it once we reached the summit. The cool air at the top was soothing, the views were incredible and I felt like a true adventurer. All and all the actual hike took us around 45 minutes. We were allowed to walk around and slowly take it all in as another group had just started to descend down. We looked down to the bottom and saw the thick, black, gravel-like ash spilling down all the way to the ground and beyond. As we looked straight in front, we could see brown volcanoes dotted in the distance as well as green fields and blue skies. Walking from one edge to the other we saw the HUGE crater on the other side - it's really an incredible sight.
After some more picture taking, it was time to suit up and sit on our boards to practice our own descent. We were told to sit at the back of the board with our legs stretched out. The ropes must be held with two hands (your GoPro can be held with the rope but I would also use a clip to attach it from the holding stick to your wrist to be safe). To go faster, lean back with your feet together on the board. To slow down, sit up straight and move your feet to the side of the board either tapping the ground or dragging your feet. If you find yourself falling, try your best to fall backwards, away from the board. This way you won't land on your face or hit the board.
As I took my position on the edge, lining up. This is when my adrenaline began to rise and the fear kicked in. It began to look a lot higher and steeper than before. One by one other people would slide down then almost drop over an invisible edge out of view. I couldn't hear any screams when was a good sign. As my turn crept up, I tied back my hair like the guide kindly advised me to do and wrapped my bandana round my face. Goggles, check. Gloves, check. I was so glad of the protective gear now because I had realised it was going to be much faster than I had imagined before.
Slowly to start with, I edged out sliding down. 'This isn't so bad', I thought as I placed my feet on the board and gently leaned back. Wow -- once I could see clearly in front of me what I was facing, the feeling inside I couldn't explain it. Everyone seemed so tiny and as I picked up speed in seconds, I felt as though as I was going as fast as any high moving vehicle. Rocks spat at me, hundreds and thousands of fragments flying into me. Faster and faster I went down until I started to feel myself lose control. When I could no longer hold on, I let go of the rope as I pushed myself from the board. I felt myself flying through the air, spinning around landing on my front on some larger rocks which really hurt. I looked at my hands, they would of been completely cut up if I hadn't worn my gloves. Normally, I would of thought my instinct would say enough's enough I'll stop now but there wasn't really a feeling of giving up. I wanted to finish this properly. I sat back on my board and started again, picking up speed once more. I nearly made it all the way to the bottom, towards the others who had gone before. Just at the end I went crashing off once more. My hair tie had fell out so my hair was filled with the tiny rocks as was my shoes! What a rush, I can honestly say I've never done anything so scary. I had done bungee like things in the past and sky-dived but this is something I'm not in a rush to do again. I'm so glad I done it and I know I'll probably never get the chance again so I'm really happy I went for it. It was exactly the kind of crazy thing I was looking to do.
We were given some snacks afterwards and piled into the trucks again where to my great relief, our stuff was all there safe and sound. We chatted to everyone on the way back and drank our free beers together back in Leon. The company offered free transfer to the beach afterwards if anyone was still up for it but we went back to our hostel to scrub ourselves down.
MY OVERALL TOP TIPS
Go for the Morning Tour (8am-1pm) as it can get so so hot!
Take plenty of water (we didn't take nearly as much as we should and suffered for it the rest of the day)
Please wear a bandana around your face and tie long hair back
Clip your GoPro to your wrist to avoid searching for it on the side of a volcano...
Don't try and show off and do something stupid
Listen to the guidelines of the instructors
Only take an action camera / GoPro with you
If you feel yourself falling while descending - fall backwards, away from the board. This way you shouldn't hurt your face
Celebrate and feel accomplished once it's over! This is an experience you won't forget anytime soon!
This is our video above, filmed by Stu!
I hoped you enjoyed reading about one of my adventures in Central America! Maybe it inspired you to try it out! Have you ever been volcano boarding before?