Sledding down Cerro Negro at high speed is not for the faint-hearted, writes Victoria Burrows
Standing on the crest of a volcano, I see a 45-degree slope of rock granules rough enough to strip the husk off a coconut plunging from beneath my feet. I'm expected to toboggan down this slope at speeds of anything up to 90km/h on a piece of plywood. All I can think is: "How on earth did I let Cameron talk me into this?"
Cameron had, like any smart travel companion, played to my weaknesses: the promise of getting out into the middle of nowhere and getting a little bit dirty, while getting up close to an incredible natural phenomenon - an active volcano.
Cerro Negro is a volcano in the Cordillera de los Maribios mountains in Nicaragua. The volcano is about 10km from Malpaisillo, the nearest village, and an hour's drive from León, the country's second-biggest city. León is home to what many consider to be Central America's largest cathedral, Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, which was built between 1747 and 1814. The strength of the cathedral's walls has allowed it to endure earthquakes, wars and volcanic eruptions.
Cerro Negro, meaning Black Hill in Spanish, is so named because of the volcano's dark, gravely basaltic cinder cone, which contrasts with the surrounding verdant landscape. It is the youngest volcano in Central America, having first appeared in 1850. Despite its youth, Cerro Negro has been one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua, erupting 23 times, most recently in 1999. Today, however, the volcano seems deep in sleep, only emitting a sulphurous wheeze from the depths of its crater.
Still, I felt a slight undertone of tension in the air among my 14 fellow boarders as we met at 9am at Big Foot hostel. The hostel was set up in 2004 by Australian tour guide Daryn Webb, who had grown up sandboarding in Queensland. He recognised the dune-like slope of the volcano wall and began experimenting with sledding vessels - everything from picnic tables to a minibar fridge - until he settled on his own design: plywood reinforced with metal and coated with formica to decrease resistance and increase speed.
With the sled perfected, volcano boarding became the world's latest adventure sport; León was probably the only place in the world where one could slide down the side of an active volcano. Since then, more than 15,000 people have sped down Cerro Negro's exterior wall. Cameron was dead set on adding our names to the list.
But, like all other volcano boarders, we had to get there. That involved clambering into the back of a bright orange Mercedes monster truck and hanging on to the railings as the driver negotiated the narrow dirt roads thick with volcanic ash from the most recent eruption. A couple of times, trees had drooped across the road, so the driver lifted the manhole cover on the truck cabin, climbed out and chopped the branches down with the machete he had tucked into his belt.
After a bumpy ride past simple homesteads and emerald green fields, avoiding men in cowboy hats on horseback and wandering cows, we reached Cerro Negro National Park and had our first glimpse of the black dome reaching up to about 730 metres above us (the height varies with each eruption, experts say).
Our guide, a handsome Brazilian named Gabriel, handed us each a canvas bag containing a protective jumpsuit and goggles as we jumped from the truck. We were each allocated a sled. We had our own water with us - the heat from the volcano, the Nicaraguan sun and the warm breeze we had been warned about, when booking the expedition (US$25 for the experience, US$5 to enter the park) would all add up to extremely thirsty conditions.
We had an hour-long ascent ahead of us, and we set off excitedly - except for a group of seven Portuguese travellers in their 30s, who had been out partying in León the night before and were looking the worse for wear after the bumpy ride.
The walk started on big boulders that took some concentration to manoeuvre without twisting an ankle. The rocks became smaller, eventually turning to gravel, making the climb easier, though steeper. After 45 minutes of looping in an arc round the back of the volcano, we stopped at a large boulder that jutted out, making it a perfect spot for a photograph. The ebony rocks looked stark against the lush green hills in the background.
Then we dropped down into the crater. Cameron and I were lagging behind after enjoying the view, and Gabriel shouted at us to hurry - we were after all in the crater of an active volcano. The scene was otherwordly: bulbous rocks in brown, yellow, pink, orange and white stacked up in walls; and clouds of sulphur rising up from fissures between white and brown layers of earth. The rock felt hot in places, a reminder of the forces at play underneath our feet.
Our route then led us up the opposite interior slope of the crater to the crest, where we would toboggan down. Here 15 of us gathered around Gabriel as he ran through procedures for the descent - how to balance, steer and control speed. I had complained about my sled being heavy and cumbersome on the climb, but now it seems so flimsy.
I'm wearing the thick orange overalls and green-tinged goggles that make me look like I should be tending a burst main in the municipal water supply, but my hands are bare, and Gabriel is explaining how important it is to not reach out for support.
"Whatever you do, don't try to balance or slow down with your hands," he says, his big smile looking increasingly, to me, like a grimace. "The rock is like sandpaper. You will have no skin left."
When he asks if anyone is going to attempt to beat the record of 90km/h, most of the women, including me, snort in a mixture of terror and disbelief, but Cameron and two German brothers, in their 20s, say they will give it their best shot. Gabriel grins, slaps them on the back and wishes them well.
"You'll have to wait, though. It's ladies first on this volcano."
A couple of women reluctantly agree to go first and sit down on their boards. "Goggles! Goggles!" shouts Gabriel as Mara almost forgets to pull the shades resting on her forehead over her eyes. Then they are off, screaming, clouds of black dust rising up behind them.
I can't take the waiting any longer and put my sled next in line. I sit down, pressing my feet into the board, holding on to the steering rope. The sled starts sliding, and I reach out to steady myself with my right hand. I can feel the gritty rocks scratch my skin and I yank my hand back. I use my feet on either side of the board to slow my speed. Gravel bits fly up into my face and into my mouth. The sled is shaking, rocking from side to side, but I'm trying to use my feet to steady it.
There's a deafening sound of crunching rocks. I'm going faster and faster. Then the final slope is ahead - the steepest at 41 degrees. I'm covered in grit, the end is in sight, so I decide to embrace my fate. I put my feet back on the sled, letting the board gather speed. I rush down the final decline in a straight, smooth line. And then it's all over. It lasted just minutes but felt like hours.
I later learn from Bigfoot's radar gun that I clocked a decent 35km/h.
Cameron was the fastest of the day at 65km/h, but he paid a price for his speed, flipping his board in a dramatic spill that earned him scratches on his arms and ankles.
His board was broken in two. The two German brothers didn't reach the speeds they had hoped, but they looked thrilled. "I wish I could do it all over again," say Hans, with a big grin as I took a photo of him and his brother against the backdrop of the slope.
Orange overalls unbuttoned to the waist, faces dirtied with volcanic dust, it's the kind of photo they will be showing their grandchildren one day.
LIVING IT UP IN LEÓN
There is accommodation to suit all budgets in León.
Bigfoot Hostel www.bigfootnicaragua.com which runs the volcano boarding trips, is a fun option for lively young travellers who don't mind sharing bathrooms, while just a few streets away is the Hotel El Convento www.elconventonicaragua.com housed in a former convent.
Expect a manicured courtyard garden, spacious rooms with stone floors and elegant, old-fashioned furnishings.
León is a fascinating city to wander around, the central area dominated by charming colonial buildings, with plenty of bakeries, bars and churches to catch your breath in. The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, the biggest cathedral in Central America, is a highlight; its grand exterior is matched by a serene interior in the palest of wedding-cake pink.
Don't miss out on sampling the best local food in town at the nighttime stalls behind the cathedral - expect mouthwatering tacos, sausages and barbecued meats.