The Crater Crashers
Cerro Negro, Léon, Nicaragua
The ominous black slope of Cerro Negro in Nicaragua drops dramatically below the feet of some brave backpackers. It appears like a giant coal mound with a frightening drop to the dusty fields of this volcanic wonderland in the north west of this Central American country. This steep incline has become the latest place for the latest craze in exotic adventure sports—volcano surfing. Brave volunteers don bright orange jump suits and goggles before mounting a plywood sled and shuffle toward the edge. Suddenly they are off, heltering down the charcoal slope in an aftermath of hot dust and stones. The scraping noise is deafening as the board rocks and bounces, reaching speeds of 81kmph (50 mph). Some riders get scared and try to break—a big mistake as the speedy flow is suddenly interrupted and the riders tumble and somersault in the dust, the board skittering on ahead of them. Savvy riders go with the flow and bound down the 720m (2,400-ft.) mountain, reaching the bottom in a matter of minutes. It is actually wise to be in a rush. This volcano is live.
Cerro Negro is the youngest and most active volcano in the Americas. It first sputtered to life in 1850, creating an ever growing mound that has erupted 20 times since, the last in 1999. It is part of a chain of volcanoes known as the Maribios that stretch all along Nicaragua’s northern coast like smouldering sentinels. This particular smoking mound is located 24km (15 miles) northeast of the university city of León, a rambling town of revolutionary murals, majestic churches, and charming colonial architecture. León was the center of operations for the Sandinista movement that toppled Nicaragua’s dictatorship in 1979. It’s now a flowering city with some excellent hotels and lively nightlife.
Revolutionaries are now few and far between and the only thing fiery about this part of the country is the sulphur emitting craters that top each volcano. Cerro Negro has several craters, new ones submerging the old in beds of rock and ash.
Several hostels and hotels in the city ferry people up every day to the base of the volcano. It is then a 45-minute hike over rock and shale to the crater edge where there is a marvelous view of the countryside. Then it’s onto the board for the white-knuckle ride down the 40-degree slope. Riders want to scream but they can’t open their mouths for all the dust and rock. Below a reception party measures their speed with a radar gun and survivors stand around clapping and cheering and somewhat relieved, their faces as black as coal miners. —CO’M & ML
Bigfoot Youth Hostel (organized volcano trips; 505/8917-8832; www.bigfootnicaragua.com).
When to Go: June–Jan.
$$ La Perla, 1 Av NO, León ( 505/311-3125; www.laperlaleon.com). $ Big Foot Hostel, 1⁄2 block Servicio Guardian, León (505/8917-8832; www.bigfootnicaragua.com).