By far one of the most exciting activities in Nicaragua is volcano boarding. This activity, alongside Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur is on every backpacker’s lips as they recount their best stories in crowded hostel bars.
This somewhat crazy sport involves sitting on a makeshift sledge (a.k.a. plank of wood) and plummeting down a steep ash slope at incomprehensible speed. It definitely takes some balls, but the exhilaration of the ride combined with relief that you made it to the bottom in one piece will leave you buzzing for days!
If you’re planning a trip to the city of Leon and think you’d like to get involved in this activity, there are a few things you should consider first.
VOLCANO BOARDING IN NICARAGUA: TIPS
Two of the biggest competing companies that offer volcano boarding are Bigfoot Hostel and Quetzal Trekkers. While Bigfoot Hostel is an awesome place and I would highly recommend you stay there if you’re looking to meet fun backpackers to hang out with, I would argue that Quetzal Trekkers is a better place for booking your activities. The main reason for this is that they’re a volunteer-run organisation that donates ALL profits to local projects helping to support disadvantaged youths. Another advantage is that they offer combination tours, so you can go volcano boarding in the morning and then continue on a fantastic scenic trek with overnight camping. At the time of writing, Quetzal Trekkers is also US$5 cheaper, at $30 and offers you two goes if you have the energy to climb the volcano a second time!
LISTEN CAREFULLY TO THE SAFETY BRIEFING
Volcano boarding is by no means accident proof: there are regular reports of people twisting ankles or worse, but if you heed the advice of your tour guides you stand a good chance of making it injury free. Don’t use your feet to break. Instead, lean forwards to slow down and back to speed up (easier said than done!). Follow the route of previous boarders and avoid any major bumps. One of our crew actually took off over a small hill and snapped his board in two on impact! Finally, for the love of God, have comprehensive travel insurance. I always choose WorldNomads, because you can select each adventure activity separately to make sure they’re covered, and it’s really easy to extend your cover if you decide to extend your trip. I had to claim from them once when my bag was stolen in robbed travelling, and they paid out without any fuss at all!
Heatstroke is a very real risk in Nicaragua, especially if you’re spending most of your day hiking on non-sheltered volcanoes in the midday heat. It’s by no means an easy climb to reach the summit of Cerro Negro (you’re hauling a heavy board up almost 2500 feet of unforgiving/unstable slope), and there is literally no shade on the path. Top up your sunscreen before you start the climb, make sure you’re really well hydrated and wear a hat. I may sound like your mum, but take it from someone who has first-hand experience that heatstroke is scary and seriously debilitating – even life threatening.
PREPARE FOR ALL WEATHER
Heatstroke isn’t your only concern. In the wet season, as you reach higher altitude, it can get quite cold despite the exertion. A light poncho is a really good idea.
Volcano boarding is a messy activity. Prepare to be completely covered in black ash by the time you get to the bottom. You will find grit in places you never knew it was possible to get grit. The good news is, there’s a trough of water for you to clean up in before you continue your hike or return to Leon, but even the best shower won’t eliminate all traces. To make your recovery moderately more comfortable, make sure you wear the safety goggles provided and, under no circumstances, open your mouth as you descend. Also don’t wear your best clothes. Light colours may be marked irreversibly and rubber soles have been known to melt on the hot ash! Both companies provide sexy jump suits, but this does not prevent volcanic deposits from entering your underwear.
Quetzal Trekkers offer a range of 1-, 2- and 3-day hikes in the area surrounding Leon. Some can be combined with volcano boarding, and the El Hoyo trek is a popular choice. Although demanding (you have to climb three steep volcanoes in two days with a backpack full of camping gear and water bottles), your efforts are highly rewarded with scenic views, an unforgettable sunrise beside a giant sinkhole and a well-deserved dip in a spectacular crater lake. Note that you may only have the chance to do the volcano boarding once if your multi-day hike dictates that you need to set off after round one.
It’s definitely worth spending a few nights in Leon. It’s a beautiful city with some rather unique attractions. You could easily spend a day wandering from one square to the next checking out the church facades and museums. In particular, the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones (Museum of Myths and Traditions) is one of the most memorable museums you’re ever likely to visit (aside from perhaps the ABBA Museum!). In the courtyard, you’re welcomed by an imposing papier-mâché figure; the walls depict disturbing torture techniques that used to be used on resident prisoners; and some of the dark rooms inside the museum redefine the word ‘creepy’! Leon also has a surprisingly happening nightlife, with karaoke bars aplenty and a lot of explicit dancing in the clubs.
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re not already sold by Bigfoot Hostel – and believe me, it’s a lot of fun – you’ll probably find a great alternative using HotelsCombined to find a place to stay. It aggregates the results of online searches from over 40 travel sites, including hostels, to bring you the best deals much faster than if you had to look them up to compare them separately.