One volcano-related assumption which I’ve had to let go of since arriving in Central America is that a volcano is a volcano.
Anyone who grows up in Scotland knows that mountains are not just ‘mountains’. There are mountains, but there are also ranges, hills, Bens, and Munroes. There are the kind that, although tall, the fitter of us can walk up without much in the way of equipment; there are others which may be smaller but are impassable unless you really know what you’re doing.
But volcanoes? It turns out they, too, are every bit as diverse in structure, history and character as their more sullen, stationary counterparts. I’ve only visited three of the fiery giants so far, but it’s already very obvious that each one is quite distinct. Poas is quiet and serene, with one Jurassic-style lagoon and another, sky-blue, active crater (one of the most acidic lakes in the world). Arenal is more typical of what one would expect from a volcano: it’s black, it’s almost perfectly conical and in the evenings it’s not uncommon to see glowing lava rocks and embers raining from the main crater. But Arenal is also covered on one side by lush, green rainforest – a far cry from the blackened, dead landscape one would expect from a volcano hike.
However, this dark wasteland is exactly what my companion Ixqui and I were faced with as our cattle-truck juddered to a pebbly halt at the foot of Cerro Negro, Nicaragua. Stomach churning and head pounding from the character-testing ride, I hopped down from the back of the canopied lorry, just grateful to be doing it of my own free will (I’d feared being launched rag-doll-style over the tailgate at every abrupt lurch of the journey). As I readjusted my kit and looked up, I realised the stupidity of the question I’d posed to the Bigfoot hostel staff earlier: ‘So do they drive us up the volcano, or do we have to walk?’. There was no driving up this monster.
Not unlike Arenal back in Costa Rica, Cerro Negro is a volcano of two halves: one side is rocky, rugged and, if your heart’s up for it, possible to climb. The other side is sandy, gravelly and very, very slidey.
This must be what Australian sandboarder Darryn Webb thought when he first saw the volcano in 2005; because he took it upon himself to invent a vehicle which would allow tourists to board down this more cascading side of the beast, the same way he would board down the sand dunes back in Queensland. The finished product, a simple sled of plywood with a tough metal base and an ethereal strip of Formica for speed, now generates a great deal of the surrounding national park’s income. It is also why Ixqui and I were there that day.
Several weeks previously, I’d found right here on the Raxa Collective a post called ‘Volcano Sandboarding’. It immediately caught my eye because I had just touched down in volcano central, Costa Rica. Since the author was posting from neighbouring Nicaragua, I noted it on my list of things to achieve during my stay here. Ixqui and I found a slot that worked for both of us, took the long weekend off work, and caught the Tica Bus across the border for León. Now, for the small fee of $28 (including park entrance and sled hire), this Sunday afternoon in November would consist of a 45-minute trek up the rocky side of Cerro Negro, and a 45-second descent down the gravelly side; followed by two free mojitos back at the hostel to help calm our nerves back down.
The hike itself was, predictably, gruelling. Errin, one of two guides, kindly helped me with my board (‘You don’t do a lot of hiking, do you?’, he asked – I wonder what gave me away); but the lack of a trail and the constant stumbling over rocks almost defeated me nonetheless. As we gained height, the wind and rain began to roll in, soaking us from one side; but at the summit, it was clear that this would quickly dry. While the mountaintop wind whistled around us from all sides, the warm air lifting out from the crater was quite a sensation. The guide encouraged us to (carefully!) dig our hands into the gravel we were standing on to feel nature’s immense power. I blundered in, deaf to his warnings, and immediately whipped my poor fingers back out of the ground, yelping ‘Ouch! It’s hot!’. Yes, Megan. The volcano is hot.
We were given time to enjoy the view, take the traditional Facebook jumping photo and marvel at the steam rising from the yawning crater, before we headed to the opposite edge for a quick safety lesson.
In Scotland, I had received lengthier safety talks on zoo trips than I did at the top of that volcano. But this was Nicaragua, where people take responsibility for their own actions and the word ‘lawsuit’ doesn’t instil fear in the hearts of every man, woman and child in the nation. Besides, who really needs to be told that boarding down a gravelly active volcano could end badly in any number of different ways? It was made even more obvious by the fact that the base of Cerro Negro is actually not visible from the peak, due to the fact that it slopes at a massive 41% incline; and from the way the guide casually mentioned that it is one of the most active volcanoes in the continent, and that since its last activity was in 1999, it is overdue for an eruption.
With this tasty morsel of information, the guide proceeded to show us how to go as fast as possible down the slope – ‘in case something does happen’. The concept is simple – you plant yourself firmly in a seated position on the board; and you try to stay that way once the guide has launched you down the slope. You don’t scream; you don’t open your mouth, or it’ll be filled with grit. To brake, you tap the ground lightly with your feet. To steer, you tap the ground with one foot. And you just hold on. Since you reach your fastest speeds at the bottom of the volcano, they say you shouldn’t brake as you approach the ground – if you do, your feet might stop while the rest of you keeps going, and you could end up like the poor Danish girl in our group who took a tumble right after matching the speed record of 87 km/h (54 mph). She got knocked about a bit, and her arm was pretty torn up, but she got 5 free mojitos back at the hostel – so it was surely worth it.
Personally, I crawled in at a miserable 19 km/h (11mph). But don’t be misled – they grab your instantaneous velocity at one point during the last stretch, but my ride on the whole was not uneventful. Ixqui and I were shoved off at about the same time, and I quickly drowned her in my dust as I whooshed off in an alarmingly early acceleration. I ignored the ‘don’t scream’ rule, and lived to regret it – my mouth filled with ash, grit and general volcano. I tapped the ground with my feet, and shrapnel tornadoed into my wide orange jumpsuit legs. I began to wiggle out of control, and in trying to correct the problem, came within an inch of dismounting from my not-so-trusty steed. In the end, I just slipped forward, shifting the balance and burying the nose of my ride in about a foot of volcanic rocks. By the time I uncovered it and got moving again, I’d lost all my momentum and slid to a somewhat pathetic stop at the bottom to be crowned with probably the slowest descent ever.
I still arrived before Ixqui, though. Although she finished at 29 km/h (18 mph), she had fallen early on, not once but twice, giving me a head start. Despite being fired up and desperate to go again, faster, we were still quite relieved to be bundled back into the truck, served ice-cold cans of beer, and then cruelly deprived of their contents as the truck heaved off and everyone spilled them left, right and centre. The ride back to the hostel was just as much of an adventure as the volcano boarding itself; and considerably less comfortable. But through the open back of the truck I still expected to be flying out of, we could only just make out in the dying light the two thin trails we’d so recently etched down the sides of the volcano. Even we could barely believe how we’d just spent our Sunday afternoon – but I have the pictures to prove it!
Note: As well as Seth’s original Volcano Sandboarding post here, you can also find his short update here and his much cooler pictures of the descent itself here. And if you enjoyed this post and want to read more from Megan, head over to A Trail Of Breadcrumbs for more of her adventures. Thanks for reading!