Author: 
By LAURA SICILIANO-ROSEN
Date: 
19 Apr 2009
Scott B. Rosen for The New York Times map

THERE’S nothing quite like the sudden silence one experiences midway through the descent down a roughly 1,600-foot volcanic slope, having just somersaulted out of the pebble-scraping, air-rushing trajectory previously occupied by you and your volcano board.

Squinting in the Nicaraguan sun, I found the goggles that had flown off my head during my tumble and shimmied over to my board, slowly slipping downhill all the while. I somehow regained my seated position on the board and immediately submitted again to gravity, zooming down, down, down, until I slid to a gentle stop amid applause from fellow boarders.

This was my introduction to volcano boarding, a young adventure activity that has popped up, most notably at Cerro Negro, an ominous charcoal-black volcano in western Nicaragua. Boarders hurtle down the active volcano’s bald, steep slope atop a sledlike piece of plywood, at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. It’s hot, dusty, a little scary — and crazy enough to be fun.

Cerro Negro is accessible from León, a colonial city historically known as a center of left-wing intellectualism that is about 15 miles southwest of the roughly 2,388-foot mountain (the height can vary from eruption to eruption, experts say). The city was once a Sandinista stronghold occupied by poets, revolutionaries and university students. But today, aside from its magnificent churches, bright-hued colonial architecture and sprawling anti-corruption murals, León is becoming synonymous, at least among backpacking adventure-seekers, with volcano boarding.

In February, my husband, Scott, and I decided it was too unusual to pass up. Climbing a volcano was one thing, but sledding down its slope? That’s a story for the grandkids.

I had heard of a tour offered by Bigfoot Hostel, which Darryn Webb, a tour guide from Australia, founded in 2005, when he was developing the sport on Cerro Negro. He’d grown up sandboarding in Queensland, and once he visited the volcano, he realized its boarding potential. Here was a dunelike slope, only bigger and blacker, and with the added thrill of a potential eruption.

After a lot of trial and error with sledding vessels — he tried boogie boards, mattresses and even a minibar fridge — he settled on plywood reinforced with metal and augmented with Formica under the seat. “Once we figured out the sit-down boards, it became a lot more fun for people,” Mr. Webb told me by phone from Perth, where he now lives.

When we got to the hostel, two tours that week were already sold out, but we were able to join one the next day. (Bigfoot, which Mr. Webb sold in 2008, averages about 15 people a tour, but has handled as many as 34 — numbers even Mr. Webb never anticipated.) Nowadays, Gemma Cope, the manager of Bigfoot, runs the tours. With nary a waiver in sight, our group of 17 piled into pickup trucks for the 40-minute drive to Cerro Negro National Park. The dusty rural roads are still largely blanketed by dark ash spewed by the last eruption, in 1999.

Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, and like a rambunctious youth, it’s active. Born in 1850, it has erupted over 20 times.

At the volcano’s base, we were handed boards and a cloth bag containing a jumpsuit and goggles. The steep 45-minute climb up the cone’s rocky backside, for which we carried a 5- to 10-pound board, was moderately difficult.

Dropping our stuff near our push-off point, we continued up to the main crater’s exposed rim. The views proved sublime: on one side, the gaping black craters splotched with egg-yolk yellow and burnt sienna; on the other, Cerro Negro’s hulking neighbors in the Maribios chain and León under a haze.

All too soon it was go time. We clumsily pulled on the oversize orange jumpsuits and gathered for Ms. Cope’s brief, cheeky lesson on boarding techniques — how to balance, steer and control speed on the slope, which is 41 degrees at its steepest, she said. Then, she informed us that the women would go first, so that they could sit back and giggle at their male counterparts, who were likely to “crash and burn” while recklessly trying to set speed records.

Two women reluctantly volunteered to go first. They were soon lava-colored streaks speeding down the hill. One made a smooth, controlled slide all the way down. I was encouraged.

Then I watched the other boarder take a spill. And then another.

After two more descents, I couldn’t take the suspense any longer. I slid over to the starting point, got into the ready position, and took off.

Immediately, I realized that letting out a shout was a bad idea: pebbles and dust flew everywhere, including into my mouth. Unlike a smooth, soft sandboarding descent, the ride was bumpy, the noise deafening.

I hunkered down and began tapping my feet in the slope along the board’s sides — a technique to slow speed — but I evidently dug in too hard. The result was like braking too suddenly on a bicycle: crash and burn.

At the bottom, Bigfoot’s radar gun registered my end speed at a respectable 46 kilometers an hour — over 28 miles per hour. The whole run had taken just a few minutes, even with my fall.

I stumbled over to the group, suddenly aware of a scratched hand and aching knee. Everyone was dazed but grinning, faces blackened by dust. Some of us bore scrapes on skin left exposed by the suits; volcanic pebbles aren’t as forgiving as sand.

Volcano boarding, it was agreed, isn’t easy to master, but you can’t help but want to try. It’s a cheap adventure and a novel challenge, with actual technique required and speeds recorded. The post-boarding mojito Bigfoot throws in didn’t hurt either.

“I didn’t like flipping three times,” one boarder from Germany said, laughing, “but I want to do it again.”

UP AND DOWN

Bigfoot Hostel (half a block south of Banco Procredit in León; 505-917-8832; www.bigfootnicaragua.com) runs boarding tours Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The price is $28, including $5 park admission. Dorm rooms at the hostel cost $6 a night; there are also four double rooms for $13, and a room for four is $28.

The elegant, neo-Classical Hotel La Perla (one and a half blocks north of Iglesia La Merced; 505-311-3125; www.laperlaleon.com) offers 15 modern rooms around a lovely courtyard or a small pool. Rooms start at $80.50, including breakfast.

Daredevils can also try the stand-up boards provided by Va Pues Tours (505-315-4099; www.vapues.com; $33 a person) and Tierra Tours (505-315-4278; www.tierratour.com; $28 or $30).

For a quick bite in León, the food stands near the cathedral and, at night, along Calle Ruben Dario are good spots for the crispy chicken and pork taquitos favored by local residents, while CocinArte (north side of Iglesia El Laborío; 505-315-4099) offers primarily vegetarian cuisine.