Luminous orange overalls flap in the strong wind as the egg-yolk sun approaches the horizon. It's been a physically tough hike, stumbling over loose rocks, my face caked in black volcanic dust. Atop the cone of Cerro Negra, one of the youngest active volcanoes in Central America, the countdown has begun. All that's left to do is sit down on my wooden board, lean back, grit my teeth, and hurl down the side - 0 to 40km/hr in eight, wild seconds.
You can always tell the "next big thing" by watching the trends of budget travellers, and they're heading in droves to Nicaragua. The beaches, colonial towns, people, and prices are a backpackers dream, along with unique activities like volcano boarding. It took years to figure out the right apparatus to accomplish such a feat, with everything from fridge doors to used mattresses tested to strike the right balance of speed and relative safety. Cooked up by an Australian who owned a hostel in the nearby city of Leon, one thing was certain: while Cerro Negra appears to have soft, sandy steep sides, the granite dust is as sharp as broken glass. Hence the protective overalls, eye-goggles, and the choice to remain seated as opposed to traditional upright sandboarding. Wiping out might just tear you to shreds.
From the roof of Leon's cathedral, the largest in Central America, you can see 11 of the 13 surrounding volcanoes. They sit like a chain of pearls on a necklace, and when they erupt, as Cerro Negra did as recently as 1999, it can cover Leon in a layer of fine, ashen dust. Not that it bothers the backpackers at Bigfoot Hostel, offering everything a backpacker could want: Cheap rooms, cheap booze, good food, and daring activities. When I inquire about the conspicuous absence of waivers for volcano boarding, its affable owner Phil who explains some of the legal differences between Nicaragua, and say, the United States. If tourists want to pay $20 bucks for the opportunity to throw themselves off an active volcano, that's their problem! Even though the volcano is at the tail end of its regular eruption cycle, and could explode any day, Bigfoot is doing a roaring trade, with about a dozen backpackers heading out daily, a wooden sleigh in hand, anticipating the ride of a lifetime.
It's a 40-minute drive to the Cerro Negra National Park, and it's no accident the adventure takes place during late afternoon. The sunsets in this part of the world are spectacular, night after night, from November through June. We pay a small fee to enter the park, grab our boards, and start the climb up the backside of the ominous looking black pyramid. Once we begin our steep ascent, the wind picks up considerably. Seeing the lava from the last eruption spilt like thick oil over the countryside is both beautiful and frightening. After all, nobody can sandboard faster than an erupting volcano. The loose rocks are sharp but we scramble up, shifting the awkward weight of our boards from arm to arm, until a half hour later we arrive at the edge of the cone to find steaming hot sulphuric ash. You can burn your hand on the ground here, so we keep walking, around the lip, a silent prayer that the monster below us remains asleep, at least for today. With the sun perfectly poised, our guide Gemma explains how to use my feet to break and steer.
"Keep the mouth shut unless you want to chew rocks for dinner. Back straight, lean back, and smile for the radar gun at the bottom!"
A thin metal sheet is fixed to the bottom of the wood, along with a piece of plastic that increases speed. As I begin my 500-metre descent, the . grating sound of granite against metal recalls an engine, revving up the faster I go. Rocks and sand attack my goggles, stabbing my lips, filling my shoes. I'd scream, but it's wiser to keep lips pursed and board straight (cone-burn awaits those who flip). Volcanoes have always offered fun for the thrillseeker, but here in Nicaragua, never before has it been quite so accessible. Safely on the bottom, we crack cold beers, compare experiences, and head back to town under a bright canvas of stars.
If you go:
Volcano Boarding in Leon is operated from Bigfoot Hostel, with trips leaving every day. Lasting four and a half-hours roundtrip, the $25US ticket includes guide, transportation, overalls, boards and goggles.
Vancouver-based travel writer Robin Esrock hosts Word Travels (CityTV/OLN) and is the author of the just-published The Great Canadian Bucket List (canadianbucketlist.com). You can find him at: www.robinesrock.com