First there was skateboarding. Then there was snowboarding. Then there was volca- wait what? Volcano boarding!? Come on now. Is that actually safe? What if I accidentally fell down a hidden vent or something? Don’t volcanoes spontaneously erupt sometimes!?
Shush now! (voice in my head). Volcanoes may be capable of destroying EVERYTHING but most of them are pretty friendly and, of course, safe. So safe, in fact, that you can actually go volcano boarding in Leon, Nicaragua!
It generally isn’t that long before any backpacker on the Central America circuit learns of this. I found out a couple of hours after crossing the Costa Rica-Nicaragua boarder. One dude in my San Juan del Sur hostel was enthusiastically regaling us with his totally “balls deep awesome” experience of letting rip down the side of a great big fucking volcano. I listened with keen interest, although admittedly I didn’t particularly want my balls deep in anywhere on a volcano. As long as I could get a guarantee they would remain safely inside my jumpsuit (and pants), I was in.
Volcano Boarding in Leon, Nicaragua: Where and what to expect?
There’s only one place you can go volcano boarding in Nicaragua: León, the country’s second largest city just east of the Pacific coast. More or less anyway. The actual spot, Cerro Negro Volcano, is 25km east of León, which is about 50 minutes on the minibus or by taxi.
Your best bet is going with a tour operator. Many sweep up most of their customers through backpacker hostels in León. Initially, I’d arranged to go with an operator independently of my hostel reservation but since I still hadn’t heard anything about pick up arrangements the night before, in the end I squeezed onto the hostel promoted tour run by Nica Time.
Why should you go volcano boarding in Leon with Nica Time?
Nica Time is a new volcano boarding tour operator in León but the team’s hard work and experience would easily fool you into thinking they’ve been around for years. My guide, Gustavo, who was about 19 years old, had some impressive knowledge of the area. He knew the dates of every single eruption to have taken place over the last few decades and described in detail how the lava flows had affected the plant life and local communities in the years after. He hoped to study Biology at University one day but was nonetheless content with his current job for the time being, even though he earned very little. “Anything that keeps me active and outside” he said. I liked Gustavo.
The hike to Cerro Negro’s summit seemed long and arduous from the bottom; after recently taking on Ometepe’s Volcán Concepción and Guatemala’s Vocán Acatenango, I knew the sight (and the pain) quite well. However, to my pleasant surprise we seemed to have covered about half the distance after about quarter of an hour. 20 minutes later and we were standing over the edge of the crater where a major eruption took place in 1992. The colours and twisted rock formations reminded me acutely of the landscape I encountered atop Sicily’s Mount Etna two years ago. It was rough and otherworldly; until I turned back to face all the other sweat-drenched hangovers that had dragged themselves out of bed that morning. Then it was just rough.
But what is the best cure for a hangover? No, not sex or a fried breakfast (although they are both very worthy contenders). ADRENALINE my friend! That’s what!
So how timely and convenient that our next act would be to balance awkwardly on a plank of wood and fling ourselves down a volcano!
Unfortunately, our group had to wait a while. It seemed the bigger (and brighter-uniformed) groups had priority for some reason, but at least that meant we got to watch them go first and assess different techniques and what not. It was pretty straightforward; sit with your feet supported by the first plank and your ass resting against the second, while holding on to the rope tied to the front to pick up speed. To break you just have to throw out your feet either side of you and dig them into the stones. There’s no steering involved. It’s just plain flat-lining all the way down.
Predictably one dude wanted to do it standing up, even though the guides said it wouldn’t be like snowboarding and he would definitely fall over. Did he listen? Nope. Did he fall? Yes, many times. And he looked pretty embarrassed about it afterwards. There’s always one.
After waiting about half an hour, it was my turn. I’d mapped out my path. I could see my line dead ahead, the finish line at the bottom and Gustavo fiddling with my Lumix DMZ-TZ60 camera about halfway down. I’m not much of a photographer but I am generally disappointed with the result when I entrust others to take pictures of me, so I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
Down I went, so slowly at first that I had to kick back against the stones to actually move forward. But once I was sliding and my feet were tucked back in, my speed increased quickly. Before I knew it I was careering past Gustavo, who shouted something inaudible at me. I just hoped it wasn’t “No funciona el cámera” or “Erupción! Erupción!”. Now I was really going like the wind. Time to break a bit, maybe? Yes, definitely break a bit. Feet out. Break. Break! Fucking BREAK!!
OK so breaking doesn’t work. And what’s this? My t-shirt which I wrapped around my mouth his coming loose. And now I can see nothing but black stones, pummeling my face and the back of my throat. But wait, it’s not over yet. Yes, now my goggles have come loose too! And they are rapidly filling up with more black stones! I am powerless to stop it, until I finally grind to a halt. I am blinded and I can barely breathe, but FUCK YEAH that was awesome! Like totally balls-deep awesome.
Thankfully, Gustavo didn’t let me down – he got a couple of great shots AND had some ice-cold water and juicy watermelon waiting for us in the cooler back at the truck. I’d never been so grateful. Not only was I thirstier than I’d ever been, but there were what felt like hundreds of stones buried deep beneath my eyelids. It was agony. It hurt to blink and it hurt to keep them open, but a couple of water bottle shots to both eyes got the worst of it out. Lesson to learn for next time I go volcano boarding in Leon? Tighten those damn goggles!
Best Hostel in León?
Back at the hostel, I discovered just how covered I was. Tiny black stones were hiding all over me: in my hair, my boxers (how?) and my ears – where I even found one 8 days later on my flight back to Manchester!
The hostel I chose was Latina Hostal. I couldn’t have picked a better one. Right from the moment I arrived I felt relaxed and in good company. The vibe in the back yard was very chilled – hammocks, reggae, ice-cool beers and budget-friendly cocktails were all on the menu. The rooms were clean and comfortable, and the showers were awesome (we all know how much that makes a difference after a long day’s travel). But what impressed me the most about Latina was its exceptionally hard-working staff. Everyone from Roger the owner, to Carlos who runs the tours, to the lovely Alezka on reception. They are a great crew and run a very tight ship!
More Things to Do in Leon, Nicaragua
Latina Hostal not only offers Volcano Boarding Tours but also the opportunity to check out León, go salsa dancing and even watch a cockfight! Now I absolutely do not condone animal cruelty (bullfighting particularly sickens me) but on this occasion it has to be said that curiosity/peer pressure/FOMO all got the better of me. Cockfighting is legal in Nicaragua, so I figured I’d seize the opportunity, even though I realise that that doesn’t make the practice any less morally unacceptable. I could harp on about the ethics of cockfighting, or lack thereof, but I think Matthew The Expert Vagabond, who has also attended and blogged about a cock fight in Nicaragua, sums it up pretty well in his post.
Anyway, about 8 of us went along – 6 dudes, 2 girls – and we were the only tourists there; us and about 200 Nicaraguan locals – all men. The girls weren’t harassed but were constantly eyeballed from dudes on the other side of “the pit”, which was hardly surprising really. But most eyes were firmly locked on the brutal battles taking place in front of us. And it really was fucking brutal. There were no decapitations or whatnot but the pecking, ripping and clawing bore a lot of blood. That we could have predicted; what we didn’t know was that when the cocks are on death’s door, their owners actually perform CPR on them to clear the blood, so that they can continue fighting. That was a bizarre and frankly stomach-turning sight I won’t ever forget. No photos, sorry.
We gambled a little but by and large they were pretty pathetic amounts. Backpackers got to budget after all.
After one hour we’d seen enough and eagerly piled back into the minivan. It was back to Latina to wash away our sins with yet more Flor de Caña 7 rum (the key ingredient to any memorable night out in Nicaragua), play several rounds of Spot It! (best game ever, seriously) and enjoy the amazing atmosphere Latina Hostal has to offer. If you’d like to see for yourself how cool this hostel is (and/or find an alternative to the non-stop party hostels like Bigfoot hostel), check out their website (latinahostal.com) here or their profile on Trip Advisor. And if you go, say hey from me!
Many thanks to Latina Hostal who hosted me while I was in León. I wasn’t paid to write this post – just telling like it is – but like every backpacker I save money where I can! Have you been volcano boarding in Leon? Anything else you’d like to know about Nicaragua? Leave a comment! Did you like this post? Please share!