60 Minutes Up, 60 Seconds Down: Adventures in Volcano Boarding

Cerro Negro is a very young volcano. At a mere 161 years old, it’s a newborn baby in fact.

“The Black Hill” is one of 25 volcanoes in Nicaragua, of which 9 are active (or at least erupted in the last two thousand years). Cerro Negro is very definitely one of the active ones; in its young life it has erupted 23 times, or an average of every seven years. The last eruption was in 1999, so this baby is overdue for a hot lava and steam explosion.

We are about to climb this volcano – and then board down the other side.

Keith and I arrived in Nicaragua two days ago, flying into Managua and making our way first to Leon, a small colonial city to the north. I was told about the volcano boarding tours by INTUR, the government tourism office, and they set us up to go out with Va Pues, a local tour operator.

And so at 8 am on our second full day in Leon, Frankie arrives to pick us up and lead us on this adventure. Frankie is young and enthusiastic (I find out later he is 34, a bit older than he looks), and promises that the volcano will not erupt today. We stop at a hostel on the way out of Leon to pick up a couple of twenty-something guys who are going with us, Gary and Matt who are also both American.

“The motto for today is have fun, and don’t die,” Frankie tells us. Good motto.

It’s about a 45-minute drive out of town to Cerro Negro, bumpy after we turn off the main asphalt onto a rutted dirt road. We pass a lot of yoked oxen pulling carts filled with wood, water and other necessities of life. “They are called junta,” Frankie says of the oxen. “It means best friends; with your amigo you are together all the time, side by side. That is how these oxen pairs get their name, always together.” Occasionally these carts are followed by men on horseback carrying machetes; presumably, to cut through foliage and hack down the small trees they harvest. At least, I hope that is what they are for.

We pass several wells, and get out to take a closer look at one. Because this is on an elevated volcanic mountain, people must dig really deep to reach water. This particular well is 160 meters deep, and it takes a junta pair to pull up the container of water from its depths. All of the community come to these wells to get their supply of water.

After a little more driving we reach the entry building for the volcano area – it’s a protected national reserve, and here you sign the guest book and pay your entrance fee of $5. We drive right past the sign that reads, “No Pasar – Zona de riesgo por eruptions volcanicicas inter” – or, “Do not enter – volcano eruption zone.”

We climb out of the vehicle with our boards – Keith has a stand-up style, like a snowboard, while Gary, Matt and I all opted to ride down seated, toboggan style. I’ve read that you can go faster this way and the stand-up boards get bogged down in the volcanic gravel more easily; plus, I think I’ll feel more steady seated. Frankie leads us as we begin the ascent, along a very rocky trail up the side of Cerro Negro. After a few hundred meters the trail gets abruptly steeper, and the lava rocks beneath our feet are completely loose. It’s a little challenging finding a foothold, especially carrying the boards, but not hugely difficult.

Arriving at a peak, what turns out to be about the halfway point, we put down the boards to enjoy a spectacular vista. Several nearby volcanoes surround us, some active and others dormant and verdant with rich green landscape. Just below us are several steam vents where Cerro Negro is releasing its gaseous fumes. We hike down, trampling over yellow sulphured rocks, and are persuaded to stand in the steam vents while Frankie takes our picture. I blame this for my subsequent light-headedness.

The next part of the climb proves to be the most difficult. We begin the trek along the exposed top ridge of the volcano, along a very narrow trail, and it’s windy. I mean, wicked windy. The boards we are carrying basically act as a sail, trapping the wind and threatening to pull my 110 pounds right over the edge of the ridge. I had thought of taking a picture along here but instead I am concentrating hard on just staying upright, planting one foot cautiously in front of the other. For the first time I begin to feel a little nervous. I’m sort of wishing I had let Frankie carry my board when he offered, but I don’t want to be a wimpy girl.

I’m really fighting the wind for purchase on the narrow ledge. I think about how my dad always teases me that I’ll blow away in the wind; if he could only see me now. He would definitely shake his head with the unspoken expression that says this was not one of my more brilliant moves. “Whose idea was this anyway?” I shout back at Keith. “Yours!” he reminds me. Oh, yeah. Damn me. That ride down better be worth it.

Finally Frankie stops and leads us down to a path that’s a few feet below the very top; it’s still windy but a bit more sheltered and easier to navigate. A few minutes later we blessedly reach the spot from where we will board down the other side of this bad boy. I drop my board, relieved. After a look at the crater and some photo ops, Frankie does a quick demonstration of how to use the boards; the toboggan is pretty simple. Get on, hold on, and use your heels for brakes. Okay. We don helmets, safety glasses, knee and elbow pads.

Keith, the sole stand-up boarder, goes first. He handles the board pretty well and starts down the black lava gravel. The board gets a little bogged down and it’s hard for him to go very fast, but it looks like a fun ride all the same. Then it’s my turn. I sit on the board, grab the rope handle and lift my feet off the ground. The toboggans go much faster than the stand-up boards; immediately I pick up speed, and start careening from side to side. I plant my heels back down to slow; I haven’t gotten the hang of how to control the board and direction yet, and I’m a bit nervous of gaining speed and then wiping out. This isn’t snow, after all, or even sand. It’s small jagged pieces of lava, and I do not want to go sliding across them sans board.

The ride is pretty fun, though I admittedly keep my heels down most of the time. Every time I pick them up I start rocketing down and veering from side to side, so the potential speed of the toboggan is wasted on me. In a minute or two we are all at the bottom. It was a quick ride but a definite adrenaline rush; I do wish the run was longer, or there were a couple of them, because I just started getting the feel for how to control the board and it would have been fun to keep going and try a little more speed.

Keith says that while the snowboard-style was fun, he would have enjoyed the speed of the toboggan. Both of us, and Matt and Gary as well, all thought the entire experience was well worth it. The volcano boarding is of course unique and adventurous; but the scenery, climbing the volcano, and the entire hike (in spite of the moments of precariousness) were all just as good as the boarding itself.

Frankie was an awesome guide. After we remove our gear and load up in the battered four-wheel drive, we head back to the park entrance to wash our filthy arms and legs and have a cerveza fria, chatting about travel and our lives and getting to know one another a little more. Frankie tells us about the university he went to, and the many conferences and training on tour guiding that he has gone to. When I ask him what he likes to do in his spare time, when he’s not guiding tourists, he says climbing or boarding the volcanoes. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do anyway; this guy seriously loves volcanoes.

A lot of tour guides might be of the “It’s good money taking gringos to slide down a volcano, so that’s what I’ll do” variety. I’m not knocking that; it is a good way to make a living, and it’s an enterprising soul who goes after that opportunity. But Frankie has gone to school for this, continues his education on it, is passionate about both guiding and the topography and adventures available in his country, and takes it seriously. It’s a calling for him.

Later that night, we all meet up again at Via Via, a hostel and bar in Leon that is the spot for live music on Friday nights. Frankie meets us there along with Gary, Matt and a friend, Casey, that they bring along from their hostel. A few beers with new friends, a good band and a fun bar with a 50/50 mix of locals and visitors is a pretty stellar way to end an awesome day in Leon, Nicaragua.

Frankie, Keith, me, Gary and Matt later that night

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85 Comments on “60 Minutes Up, 60 Seconds Down: Adventures in Volcano Boarding”

  1. January 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Volcano sliding. That’s a hot sport.

    http://midnightwatcher.wordpress.com/

    Like

  2. January 10, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Sounds like fun. I’ve tried a sand board on dunes in Peru, but volcanic rock does not seem like a soft surface to fall upon should one lose control.

    Like

  3. January 10, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    Wow! Big falling consequences but that is something I have always wanted to try. Awesome story.

    Like

  4. Michelle Magly
    January 10, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Oh my. We did this in Flagstaff. I’m still having a hard time deciding if strapping a board to my feet and careening down cinder cone volcanoes was a good idea.

    Like

  5. January 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Sounds really exciting!!

    Like

  6. January 10, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Awesome post! Your courage exceeds mine by leaps and bounds -literaly!

    Like

  7. January 10, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    As a geologist and snowboarder I think this might have to go onto my bucket list

    Like

  8. January 10, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    Volcano boarding lol …SWEET!

    Just don’t lip skid (ouch)

    Cheers
    -Ron

    How To Be A DJ
    http://www.beadj.ca

    Like

  9. January 10, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    Nice, I might have to try that some time. Sounds like a blast (no pun intended)

    Like

  10. January 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    That looks like a lot of fun!

    Like

  11. January 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    Insane! I had enough trouble snowboarding on snow, this would not be something to add to the bucket list. Different, I’l give you that! 🙂

    Like

  12. January 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Love the idea of volcano boarding, but the speed was…. kinda unimpressive. I need to give Fankie a call – coat those boards with Wetlander – and then BURN down the volcano. It could be a new extreme sport.

    Great post, thanks for the vid.

    Like

    • January 12, 2012 at 11:54 am #

      I agree about the speed, but as far as my boarding I have to give most of that blame to me. I was nervous about going too fast and kept my “brakes” on the whole way. Wish the ride had been longer so I could have gotten the hang of controlling it, and gone a little faster. Guess I’ll just have to do it again sometime!

      Like

  13. January 10, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    Nice!! I won’t even hike up the snowy mountains here in Colorado! I am spoiled and will only take a chairlift or T-bar! Looks like a great adventure!

    Like

  14. January 10, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    Looks like you had an awesome time. And really well written post.

    Like

  15. January 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    That seems like a rather dangerous (and fun) activity! Great post!
    http://littleexplorer.wordpress.com/

    Like

  16. Bradley Walker
    January 10, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    This looks like so much fun! Sounds like an insane concept but very epic!

    Like

  17. January 10, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    owooo amazing nice place to do those thing 🙂

    Like

  18. January 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    does he seriously love volcanoes or does he seriously love going downhill very fast?

    Like

  19. January 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    looks like fun. I would be the first to hot-foot it out of there if the sparks start to fly.

    Like

  20. January 10, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Wow! What a great adventure. I’ve never heard of people doing this before.

    Like

  21. torivictoria
    January 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    Lovely volcanoe, if at its age a baby volcanoe, then i wonder how old is the adult or granny volcanoe!

    Like

  22. January 10, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    What goes up must come down. This seems to be an adventurous way to prove that. Do people always board down or some make it in less than 60 secs. by an involuntary roll down?

    Like

    • January 12, 2012 at 11:55 am #

      I think the roll-down is entirely possible. Frankie ran down it on foot. Now THAT’S crazy!

      Like

  23. Teen Curiosity
    January 10, 2012 at 11:44 pm #

    hey i really enjoyed your blog. i just started blogging and you might find it interesting. If you have sometime give it a look thanks. 🙂

    Like

  24. January 11, 2012 at 12:12 am #

    People will always find a new way to excitement. Think of a situation you are doing volcano boarding and volcano erupts.. Double excitement!!!!!!!!

    Like

  25. January 11, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    looks like fun

    Like

  26. Joe Labriola
    January 11, 2012 at 12:51 am #

    You can play on volcanos….? Word!

    Like

  27. January 11, 2012 at 12:53 am #

    Very Exciting and beautiful photos as well!

    Like

  28. January 11, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    Reading of such adventures as this makes me realize the scope of all the wonderful things we can do in our seemly short lifetimes. This adventure seems to take perhaps more courage than I can possibly have at this senior seniors stage in my life. Still it was great to see and share in pictures and words. Thank you so much for the adventure. I would have loved to been there with you and your group in a 35 year old body.

    Like

  29. January 11, 2012 at 1:59 am #

    The motto is great! And this is a crazy sport….not sure I would be brave enough to try!

    Like

  30. jam
    January 11, 2012 at 2:43 am #

    wa

    Like

  31. January 11, 2012 at 3:58 am #

    Nice article, great trip! I just imagine that a fall must be quite painful! I did fall several times on concrete while riding a longboard, it is definitelly painful! Anyway, I gotta try this volcano one day!!! 🙂
    Andre

    Like

  32. uklotterynews
    January 11, 2012 at 4:03 am #

    Mad, just mad! 🙂

    Like

  33. January 11, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    Very cool. Makes me want to give it a try!

    Like

  34. Personal Trainer Kiel
    January 11, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    that’s fast. and I see no lift, but a lot of fun. we have no hills in the north 🙂 best regards from germany André

    Like

  35. January 11, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    wooowwww!!! seems like you are had a blast.. It looks like a great place to visit.. awesome pictures… 🙂

    Like

  36. January 11, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    FUN! Great article and who would have thought, surfing on volcano’s. Nicely done.

    Like

  37. January 11, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    great adventure, i always wanted to participate in such activities but never done.

    Like

  38. January 11, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    Sounds like an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing something that I would never have thought to do.

    Like

  39. January 11, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    VOLCANO (?!) boarding?! Wow- you ARE brave!!!

    Like

  40. January 11, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    I totally just did this same thing a couple of months back! Absolutely loved it, and how many people can say they’ve boarded down the slopes of an active volcano?! Those views really were something, weren’t they?

    Oh, and I stayed in Bigfoot hostel, right across the road from Via Via, too 😛

    I blogged about it here if you fancy taking a look:
    http://raxacollective.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/sledding-a-volcano/

    Like

    • January 12, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      We had lunch and some mojitos at Bigfoot, cool place. Stayed one night at Hotel Los Balcones down the street. Yes, the views from the volcano were as awesome as the boarding experience. Thanks Megan!

      Like

  41. January 11, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Looks like fun… I’ve been snowboarding on a volcano (B.I. Hawaii) but not snowboarding on the actual bare cinder 🙂

    Like

  42. January 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Pretty cool. I’ve done skiing at White Sands Nat. Park in the U.S. and been out at volcanoe site in Hawaii but those are not cinder. Sounds like a good day and unique adventure.

    Like

  43. January 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    I’ve always wanted to board down a volcano! I’ve boarded down 4-5 story high sand dunes in Brazil as a kid and teenager, but a volcano–now that’s the mothership, so to speak! Glad you had a good time! Have a great day!

    Like

  44. January 11, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    My husband happens to be in Guatemala right now, climbing volcanoes and studying rock formation with a group of geologists. If he had seen this before he left last week, I am sure he would have taken a snowboard with him!

    Like

  45. January 11, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    This was great. Thanks!

    Like

  46. January 11, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    hey love the motto. have you ever fallen? did it hurt. hope not. i could just see volcanic rocks……… ugh -shivers-

    can you visit my site i need followers

    Like

  47. January 11, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    I am a snowboarder and a sandboarder, so I know about boards and different surfaces. I am impressed by the volcano adventure and will have to put it on my list. I’ll be sure to look up your vulcanologist friend should I ever find myself in Nicaragua.

    Tracey

    Like

  48. January 12, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    How cool! I’m going to have to try that one day

    Like

  49. January 12, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    I’ll go to Mount Etna in Sicily in February.
    Good idea!

    Like

  50. January 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    This looks so cool – something ive never thought of doing but i definatly want to now! Looks like youve had some great adventures!

    Like

  51. January 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    awesome, that’s cool: vulcano boarding as snowboarder i’m a bit jealous now:-) but may it’s a new trend when we have no snow more in the alps in 10 years:-)

    Like

  52. January 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    Wow! What an adventure.

    Like

  53. January 12, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    I have done this at this exact place 2 years ago. Its a BLAST! I went with a group of like 12 and we all love it. Thanks for bringing back great memories.

    Like

    • January 13, 2012 at 11:09 am #

      You’re welcome! It was a really incredible, unique experience.

      Like

  54. January 13, 2012 at 1:40 am #

    Ow! How often do you fall?

    Like

  55. January 13, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    Do people ski down at all?

    Like

    • January 13, 2012 at 11:10 am #

      I don’t think anyone skis down, not sure it’s really possible. You bog down in the rocks/ash a lot more than you would on snow. It’s just sled-style and snowboard-style. Great fun though!

      Like

  56. January 13, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    There aren’t many people that can honestly say they ash-boarded a volcano in Nicaragua. Great read!

    Like

  57. January 13, 2012 at 3:53 am #

    Great post, photos, video! Cerro Negro is a wonderful discovery and an activity that can really go viral. We’ve certainly had a lot of fun with it too:
    http://raxacollective.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/volcano-sandboarding/
    http://raxacollective.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/sledding-a-volcano/

    Like

  58. January 13, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    That looks like a lot of fun! Scary though…..What if? 🙂

    Like

  59. January 13, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    That looks awesome!

    Like

  60. January 13, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    I’ve done sand surfing which I suppose is similar but this looks amazing!

    Like

  61. January 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Frankie’s motto is precious! Nice post! Congratulations!

    Like

  62. January 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    Pretty cool!

    You may also enjoy: Try new things!

    http://happysandbox.com/news_view/11/0/try-new-things

    Like

  63. January 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Ummm? Wow! I am not that adventurous! I tip my hat to you, and congrats on Freshly Pressed. I can remember tobagonning as a kid down a very steep heal that was icy, and crashing (there was usually 6 or 7 of us on it at a time) I always landed at the bottom of the pile face down on the ice. You are talking rocks??? Wow! is all I can say! I think I will have to follow your blog and live vicariously through your adventures.

    Peace and Harmony
    Sallyjane

    Do you love to write? We are having a Murder Mystery contest on our blog, and the books proceeds will be given to charity. Contestants write the chapters, and readers vote. Come join in the fun! http://www.the777man.com

    Like

  64. January 13, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Okay so you love danger! I would rather bathe in the sun and keep it hot this way…but loved reading about your adventure…Keep safe kids!!! T

    Like

  65. January 13, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    this sounds amazing! would love to try it. although i would assume a wipe-out would be less than pleasant…like falling at high speeds on sand paper maybe? ouch.
    http://www.icouldntmakethisshitup.wordpress.com

    Like

  66. January 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    Sliding down an still active volcano must be freaking hot.
    My Blog:
    http://www.3nz0r.com
    It’s still in developing process and due to my very little experience in blogging the design isn’t the most outragous one, but I still think that I’ve done a good job:
    I could use some feedback, so don’t hesitate if you wanna have a look.

    Like

  67. January 13, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

    Really enjoyed this. Felt like I was right there with you it was so well written! Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  68. January 13, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

    Wow. You guy are so brave. No risk no fun ^_^

    Like

  69. January 16, 2012 at 2:29 am #

    Reblogged this on MY BLOG.

    Like

  70. January 16, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    wow, exciting

    http://sksdu.blog.com

    Like

  71. January 19, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    truly memorable experience

    Like

  72. January 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    what an experience!

    Like

  73. wallstreetconfidential
    January 24, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    Convinced.

    Like

  74. January 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    I was looking into doing this too upon my visit to Nicaragua…looks exciting! Thanks for sharing.

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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