You know that old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? In Leon, Nicaragua, it’s more like “When in Leon, hike up and slide down an active volcano.”
Leon is well worth the visit for its gorgeous cathedrals, easy-to-navigate streets, and bustling central square, where you’ll find families, couples, and tourists hanging out on any given evening. And, of course – not too far from the city is the only place in the world where you can board down an active volcano, Cerro Negro.
While there are a couple of tours that offer volcano boarding, we chose Quetzaltrekkers, which donates all of its profits to locally-run projects working with disadvantaged youth. Founded in 1995, it’s the only non-profit, volunteer-run trekking and outdoors association in Nicaragua. Besides volcano boarding, there are volcano hikes and tours that they offer.
What’s also cool about Quetzaltrekkers is that it gives you two opportunities to hike up and board down Cerro Negro (other companies may only do it once), and the costs include lunch, water, transport, park entrance, guides, and boarding gear.
Our tour started around 8 am that morning, with 15 excited travelers meeting at Quetzaltrekker’s office to set off for the hour-long drive to Cerro Negro. Even though you’re aboard a big truck, expect it to be a bit of a bumpy ride as you get closer to the volcano and onto dirt roads.
It’s then time to throw on your bright yellow backpacks (with your suits, gloves, goggles, and water inside), and slide your “board” behind your back before the big hike. The board looks most similar to a winter sled, made out of wood with a metal base affixed to the bottom to help you slide down more quickly. (As you can imagine, this metal needs to be replaced pretty frequently).
The hike itself can be a bit challenging in parts for those who aren’t accustomed to walking on uneven paths – it is a volcano after all! So it can be gravelly, slippery and as you get to the top, quite windy. The weather here can be so unpredictable, where it can be sunny and humid one moment, then overcast and gusty the next. We had to take the boards off our backs and carry them at the top because the wind got strong enough that if we didn’t hold it, we’d probably fall back onto it!
Once at the top, it’s suiting up time and sliding down one by one. A quick tip: If you want to go fast, lean as far back as you can. And if you don’t, lean forward. But if you do go slower, you’ll start to amass a ton of gravel on the front of the board, which you’ll need to clear out so you can continue to slide down.
I started off slower than anticipated and once I picked up steam, it started to feel like I was going to slid out of my board! It can be a bit tricky to keep straight and still – and I chickened out a bit and leaned forward to try and regain control. But then it happened. Gravel started to pile on. And on and on. And then I stopped, mid-run and mid-hill. Lesson learned – after brushing off the gravel (probably needed to stand up to do it effectively), I was back up and sliding to the bottom! It was exhilarating – and like many of these things – over before you want it to end.
The weather by this stage had continued to change dramatically – we were able to see the first few people slide down to the bottom fairly clearly, but then a huge cloud came over the volcano, making visibility extremely poor. We couldn’t see whether the next person made it down to the bottom, which meant our guide wasn’t sure if she could give the green light to the next person to go.
Then it rained. No – bucketed! Grey skies prevailed, we were drenched to the bone, and the relentless wind cooled our skin. So while we didn’t get to do a second run due to the crazy weather conditions, I admittedly welcomed the chance to get out of the rain. As luck would have it, once we drove to our lunch spot just minutes away, the skies cleared and the sun came out!
After a well-fed lunch, it’s back to Leon and the next adventure.
Many thanks to Quetzaltrekkers for an amazing day, and particularly to our guides (including Aussie traveler Natasha) who made the adventure a ton of fun.