Thursday, June 18, 2015

Kicking Ash in Nicaragua

León, Nicaragua (N 12°26.234 W 86°52.560). An hour was all it took, we were tired from the double border crossing, but not too tired to promptly sign up for some volcano boarding early the next morning! Cerro Negro means black hill in Spanish, and it is Central America's youngest volcano. Born in 1850, and one of Nicaragua's most active volcanos, it has erupted 23 times already, the last being in 1999. Locals seem to think it is due anytime now, but in the meantime it is a top site for adrenaline junkies looking for a unique experience.

Countryside view while going up Cerro Negro.

We head out early with our guide through the lush farmlands that lie in the towns surrounding the volcano. The black volcanic soil makes perfectly mineral rich fertile land for farming... so although they seem slightly crazy to be living under an active volcano, we are mighty thankful for the delicious veggies we amply find at markets! Our driver scares us a bit with a few close calls with some cattle and horses along the black sandy road, but we make it, ready for a new experience.

We head up the rocky trail carrying our supplied gear: board, safety glasses, gloves, full length jean jumpsuit, and bandana. The board is a slender piece of plywood with a couple of foot rests installed along with a rope handle for steering and a padded front lip to help cruise over the pebbles and ash. Underneath the board is the key component, sheet metal and a smaller piece of formica, the latter of which gets replaced after each ride, this gaurantees each trip is packed with the ability to reach top speeds. We can clearly see the path the lava last took through the forest, along with a stunning view of the countryside as we make our way up to the rim of the two craters that sit atop Cerro Negro. The ground is palpably hot, with steam vents scattered around, smelling strongly of sulfur.

Chris demonstrating some chivalry and helping carry his ladies board.
Mal lookin good with the
Actual steam coming out of the ground!
Crater #1, and some people far off on the rim.
Posting up in front of crater #2.

After taking in the views, we suit up. The fine black rocks are about to come flying at us as we slide down the 40 degree slope in front of us. The hike up took an hour, but takes 45 seconds to slide down the 1,500' descent! Our guide offers to stand in the middle of the slope with our camera so she can snap a few photos as we speed past her one at a time. In drag race fashion, she raises her arm then drops it giving the signal to go. Chris goes first, the sled is a bit cumbersome initially, requiring some effort to build up momentum. Then almost magically the sled overcomes the drag and picks up speed, and quick! It takes a matter of seconds to appreciate why we are in so much safety gear, small stones begin flying up pelting the body and face. Once you get used to the relentless bombardment of volcanic debris, the fun factor really picks up as you realize how fast you are sliding down this volcano playground. Within 45 seconds the ride was over, but totally worth it. Mallary shot down next like a bat out of hell. She flew down so fast, the only thing heard at the base was a series of hilariously loud explicatives. Highest recorded speeds have exceeded 60mph, but we didnt quite reach that. Fully peppered by ash and pebbles, we ride back to Leon for some much needed showers.

About to hit the slopes looking like an 80's rap group.

In Leon, we enjoyed some $2 typical Nico meals, and $1 local Toña beers. On the downside, we did experience our first theft of the trip. The morning we left Leon, we discovered that the seat had been stolen off of Chris' bike. Why they chose to steal the most uncomfortable seat ever made was beyond us, but ultimately they did a us favor because for $6 we found a replacement that was ten times more comfortable! Thanks for the forced upgrade, thief.

Typical Nico dish.

We pointed the 4runner south towards some neat places that were recommended to us. The first was Apoyo Lagoon, a large lake that over time had filled in the crater of a massive extinct volcano. Sadly, this is one of the few lakes in the whole country that can be safely swam in. The saving grace for this lake is that almost the entire rim and drainage zone is protected lands....preventing the unchecked development and dumping of hazardous waste that plagues most other lakes. The crystal clear waters felt great, and the park had kayaks, inner tubes, and a floating dock to play on.

We could have, and maybe should have, stayed at Apoyo Lagoon much longer, but we knew that volcano Masaya was nearby and that you could sometimes get a glimpse of some red bubbling lava at night. So we headed there, hoping we would just get lucky this particular night and see the "gate to hell". There are sometimes guided tours at night, but rather unlucky for us, tonight the volcano was exceptionally steamy and there would be no night tours. With a bit of daylight left, we drove to the top and peered into the steamy abyss, only able to tolerate the conditions for 5-10 minutes before the continous emittance of sulfur dioxide gas burning our eyes and noses sent us back to the base. Bummed that we wouldn't see lava, and also that we left the beautiful Apoyo to camp at the foot of an angry rumbling volcano, we made the best of it and cooked up a lovely camp dinner, having the entire park to ourselves for the night. It was storming, and it was quite hard to tell what was thunder and what was the volcano growling... so as advised by the park staff, we parked facing out, front seats clear of anything, ready to make a quick getaway if indeed Masaya decided to let loose that night!

Note rule #1 on the park pamphlet, they mean business!
Rare parakeets in the background that have evolved to tolerate sulphur and other hazardous gasses.
Peeking into the half mile wide crater!

Masaya National Park (N 12°0.181 W 86°08.909).



  1. Your volcano boarding looked much warmer than your snow boarding trip in New Hampshire. Carol & Lou

    1. Haha, yes total extremes!! :)

  2. You know the trip is going well when even the thefts work in your favor.