We could taste the volcano long before we saw it. Salt and ash invaded nostrils and throats as our pickup lurched along a dust-choked track on the outskirts of León. As I took a sip of water and pulled up my bandana towards my squinting, blinking eyes, an ebony peak pushed up over the horizon: Cerro Negro.
At 728m high, Nicaragua’s youngest volcano is an ‘easy’ hike compared to the nation’s other famous sites such as Mombacho (1344m) and Concepción (1610m). But a trip to Cerro Negro isn’t just about reaching the summit – the delight is in the descent.
As we parked at the base of a sheer, coal-black slope, sky burning blue above us, I began to wonder why I’d agreed to hurl myself down the side of a geothermal ticking time bomb. Our guide Marvin – who like all the adventure tour leaders, diving instructors and adrenaline junkies I’d ever met, had a look in his eyes that could be interpreted as carefree or crazy – handed me a bright yellow boiler suit, a pair of goggles and plank of wood. The latter would be my steed.
The long, hot hike to the top of Cerro Negro @ Marvin Noguera Jr / Volcano Day
But first, the ascent.
Three strides in, the challenge was clear. With each step my boot sank into charred gravel and slid downhill towards its starting point; it was like Mother Nature’s own Stairmaster (though it’s not as if I needed reminding at this point, sweat-slicked and breathing heavily, that I should hit the gym more often). Progress was slow and frustrating. The wind threatened to catch my board and fling me into the crater below at any moment. Thighs burned. Cheeks flushed pink. Expletives were muttered through gritted teeth.
Harness the power of a volcano to create silly pics like this @ Marvin Noguera Jr / Volcano Day
Around an hour later, we made it to the top of ‘Black Hill’. A 360º view of Nicaragua’s dry-season landscape stretched for miles around; we could see the cones of Telica, San Cristóbal and a dozen others watching over their little cousin from afar. After a few mountain-top snaps, we donned our dusty onesies (because adding thick layers in searing sunshine is ideal. Just kidding – they’re essential protection for loonies/locos surfing down active volcanoes) and, after an animated training session from Marvin, tottered partway down a dark dune towards our launch pad…
Marvin prepares us for the descent @ Marvin Noguera Jr / Volcano Day
What came next? Two minutes of elation, adrenaline and surprise. Volcano boarding isn’t scary at all – in fact, you can go as slow or as fast as you like – but for me, that makes this experience all the better. Instead of braking in a panic, I found myself leaning back to pick up speed. I had time to appreciate the view and the life-giving breeze. I had a blast.
At the bottom, dirty-faced and smiling, we all agreed we’d do it again… but there was no way I could face that hike twice in one day!
Rocking the boiler suit @ Marvin Noguera Jr / Volcano Day
Make it happen
Book: I went boarding with Volcano Day, who throw a beer, T-shirt and free shuttle to Las Peñitas beach into the tour price of $30. Other companies include Quetzaltrekkers, Bigfoot Hostel and Tierra Tour.
Pack: plenty of water and a bandana – you will need these. I recommend closed-toe shoes, unless you like grit-grazed toes.
Sleep: I stayed at Poco a Poco hostel in León – a great option for those seeking dorms or private rooms. They’ll help you book volcano boarding too!
Volcano boarding in León, Nicaragua – This Battered Suitcase
Things to do in León: the home of Nicaragua’s revolution – Along Dusty Roads