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Volcano Sandboarding

August 15, 2011

Note: More photos of the experience are in my first and second updates to this post.

Volcán Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America, last erupted in 1999. Less than twenty miles from León, a city that I will be posting about soon, the volcano’s main attraction isn’t the crater itself, although the powerful opening to the center of the Earth–which in the past three decades has spewed columns of ash and gas up to 24,000 feet high–is not unimpressive. Instead, most people climb Cerro Negro just to descend it. Why? Because its steep slopes, almost 2,400 feet high, consist of black volcanic stones, which are finer than normal gravel and heavily mixed with ash and dust. How do visitors get from top to bottom? Many locals do it by foot, running down in great leaps. Most tourists rent a wooden board with a metal underside: either a snowboard or sled design depending on their experience and daring.

The volcano and its surroundings, together known as the Reserva Natural Complejo Volcánico Pilas El Hoyo, amount to a protected area of 2,140 hectares that includes at least five different types of ecosystem. Entrance fees, as well as the rental of sleds and protective gear, somewhat help incentivize the conservation of the volcanic complex by surrounding communities, mostly farmers (cattle, peanuts, eucalyptus, corn, etc.).

Having only snowboarded once before, I opted for the sled, and Pierre did the same. We hiked up the volcano on the larger rocks (fist-sized to full boulders) for maybe fifty minutes, pausing to take photos of the beautiful hills that starkly contrasted with the black volcanic rocks. As we reached the top, the mix of natural colors grew even more amazing: red, white, black, and even yellow on the volcano alone, the variety of greens from the hills, the blue sky, and white clouds.

A palette of natural colors

Reaching the point of descent, we found a group of international tourists learning about the somewhat apocryphal development of volcano-boarding on Cerro Negro. Apparently an Australian who offered guided tours of the volcano got tired of walking back down the volcano after a tour, so one day he brought his surfboard to the top and tried sliding down on it. Needless to say, the surfboard was quickly destroyed. Next came a mattress, but it was too soft. Better luck was had with a wooden door, and from there the size of the wooden board decreased and materials were added to the bottom: metal on the whole surface, and a patch of very smooth vinyl-like plastic where the most pressure would be applied (in the case of the sleds, it is under the area one sits on).

Leaving the group to themselves, we wandered around the summit and looked down into the crater, which had several “fumaroles” releasing sulphuric fumes, which may have been the gasses responsible for attracting insects to the top of the volcano. Those little bugs, as well as butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles, and these bees, were easily seen on the dark gravel and provoked much curiosity on my part, especially since most of these insects were found dead, apart from the butterflies and bees.

Trees can’t grow within a certain radius from the volcano due to Cerro Negro’s youthful eruptions

We started putting on our elbow and knee pads and got behind the orange-jumpsuited tour group, who also sported strong-looking goggles. Pierre and I, each in shorts and a shirt, wearing sunglasses and the aforementioned protection, looked like we either knew exactly what we were doing or had no idea what we had gotten into. To make matters more amusing, a group came behind us wearing neon green jumpsuits and even more intense goggles, so that Pierre and I were sandwiched between two seemingly better prepared groups than our own.

Finally, we couldn’t put off sledding down the volcano any longer. We sat down a couple meters apart from each other (going two at a time is the recommended maximum in case of accidents) and got ready to reach speeds between thirty and fifty miles per hour, depending on how liberally we applied the brakes (how much we dug our feet into the gravel). We counted down from three and pushed ourselves downhill. Pierre sped ahead pretty quickly, leaning back and pulling on the rope tied to the front of the sled so that he would go faster. I, on the other hand, worried more about wiping out and taking gravel to tender areas of my body, so I leaned back, pulled very slightly on the rope (which I may have had in a death grip), and kept my feet lightly pressed into the gravel. Even with these precautions I was going enjoyably fast, and felt no danger of losing control, so I let up a bit on the brakes.

However, as the slope descends it gets steeper, so I was soon going so fast that even when I dug my shoes completely into the gravel I didn’t seem to reduce my speed at all. The reason I was trying to brake so hard was that the slope doesn’t gradually get less steep as it meets ground level, so I feared a sudden crash into the base of the volcano when I reached the bottom. Gravel completely covered my sled in a huge pile, and it was accumulating in my shorts and shoes. Dust gathered around my head and mouth as I squinted past the shower of small black rocks flying into my sunglasses. But even with burning feet, blackening limbs, increasingly bumpy underwear, and grit in my nostrils, I was smiling. How often can you sled down an active volcano?

80 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2011 8:44 PM

    Beautiful images…

  2. August 15, 2011 8:45 PM

    wooww.. great post.. it looks scary but beautiful as well.. :-)

  3. August 15, 2011 8:49 PM

    Ho. Ly. Crap.

  4. August 15, 2011 8:52 PM

    Great post!

  5. August 15, 2011 8:58 PM

    Awesome! You are my hero of the day!

    Congratulations on FreshlyPressed!

  6. August 15, 2011 9:13 PM

    OMG that’s the most awesome thing ever. Can’t wait for video.

  7. August 15, 2011 9:17 PM

    So cool! well prepared or not, it’s an experience of a lifetime!
    Great post!

  8. August 15, 2011 9:20 PM

    You are braver than I am! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  9. August 15, 2011 9:23 PM

    Great post! Look forward to some video.

  10. August 15, 2011 9:42 PM

    Oh, wow! What an amazing adventure! I hoped you picked up a piece of that volcanic rock to save as a memento. :-)

    Your pictures are amazing! Thanks for sharing.

  11. August 15, 2011 9:48 PM

    Now THAT is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience … totally worth the idea that you’ll be picking sand out of crazy places for weeks!

    Congrats for seizing the moment…
    :)

  12. August 15, 2011 9:52 PM

    That is so awesome!! I mean, it sucks that you got gravel in your underwear and all, but what a ride! ;)

  13. August 15, 2011 10:04 PM

    That looks neat. I was checking it out, but I would like to see some pictures of the boards.

  14. lycon[MANOJ] permalink
    August 15, 2011 10:13 PM

    Huge no of contributors , indeed they are the best

  15. August 15, 2011 10:19 PM

    Seriously wacked. Seriously cool.

  16. August 15, 2011 10:37 PM

    Sledding down an active volcano souds like quite a thrill. Looks like a beautiful place too.

  17. August 15, 2011 10:48 PM

    GREAT!

  18. August 15, 2011 11:22 PM

    That sounds like it would be AMAZING!

  19. August 15, 2011 11:36 PM

    Its the first time I hear of something like this. Definitely sounds like something I would be willing to try at least once in my lifetime :D

  20. Alessandro Paiva permalink
    August 16, 2011 12:00 AM

    Wow!

  21. Mackenzie | Red Roan Chronicles permalink
    August 16, 2011 12:24 AM

    That sounds like an awesome experience, but I’m not sure it’s one I’d want to have. :D The potential for volcano-burn just seems far too high. :D

  22. August 16, 2011 12:28 AM

    Very nice post today thanks for sharing it with us.

  23. August 16, 2011 12:31 AM

    Well done article-very interesting/informative..

    Travel Safe- WORLD TRAVEL UPDATES-FOREIGN TRAVEL GUIDE:

    http://www.travelaskthelocals.yolasite.com

    (Feel free to post on our forum)

  24. August 16, 2011 12:40 AM

    Sounds like great fun!

  25. Eva McCane permalink
    August 16, 2011 1:26 AM

    wow! i bet that’s quite the rush. looks amazing…and maybe a little scary.

  26. August 16, 2011 1:31 AM

    Your experience does sound amazing! I sometimes snowboard in the alps, but I guess it isn´t the same feeling …

  27. August 16, 2011 1:34 AM

    That looks insanely crazy ;) Thanks for sharing something unique that 99% of us will never have the guts to try! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  28. August 16, 2011 2:10 AM

    Sounds GREAT! How much space is there at the bottom to slow down before you run into streets, people, whatever?
    And, pardon my ignorance: What country are we talking about? I wanna buy airline tix… Sign me up!

    • October 8, 2011 7:53 PM

      Thanks MG! This is in the middle of the Nicaraguan countryside; there are certainly no streets or random passersby around!

  29. August 16, 2011 2:57 AM

    wooooooooooooooow. amazing! Thanks :)

  30. August 16, 2011 3:19 AM

    SICK!

  31. August 16, 2011 4:07 AM

    Surfs up! You are much braver than I! :)

  32. August 16, 2011 4:21 AM

    This looks very cool, but you would need snow skis to ski the volcanos near where I live in the Pacific Northwest.

    Thanks!

  33. August 16, 2011 4:28 AM

    wow this is great

  34. August 16, 2011 4:41 AM

    cool i wish i could try ive done alpine sledding (very fun) but this is cooler

  35. August 16, 2011 4:49 AM

    That’s pretty sweet! Like the blog!

  36. August 16, 2011 6:08 AM

    Cool idea! I’d try that… but only if I had a face mask. The dust that kicks up must be crazy!

  37. August 16, 2011 6:10 AM

    NICE PICTURES! Exciting thing to do.

  38. August 16, 2011 6:36 AM

    How cool! I think that’s now on my list of things to do at some point in my life :)

    http://tehcatspajamas.wordpress.com/

  39. August 16, 2011 7:31 AM

    This looks incredible! I had to give this a read because I’m in Costa Rica right now and have seen my fair share of volcanoes – but this is really something. You may have just inspired a weekend trip… Thanks so much for sharing.

  40. August 16, 2011 9:00 AM

    wow great pictures and thats very cool . congrats

  41. August 16, 2011 11:12 AM

    I have NEVER heard of such a thing in my life! I’m not so sure I would have been able to push off. Well done! Thanks for posting and congrats on the FP

  42. August 16, 2011 11:52 AM

    awesome! what an experience!

  43. August 16, 2011 12:07 PM

    Volcano sandboarding? Nice.

  44. lena_ski permalink
    August 16, 2011 2:20 PM

    wow.

    That’s thrill seeking on a whole new level. As much as I am tempted to go sandboarding – somehow I just can’t see myself on one of these dunes ….

    but send more pics …

  45. August 16, 2011 4:41 PM

    Love these pictures – looks like quite the adventure. Congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  46. August 16, 2011 5:00 PM

    I felt like I was with you on the way down, very enjoyable read, many thanks.

  47. manu permalink
    August 16, 2011 5:24 PM

    Talking about Living On The Edge!

    Cool Post though!
    Manu
    Rancilio Silvia

  48. August 16, 2011 5:33 PM

    Sounds like fun but I think prefer sand dune sandboarding more to the volcano. Sand in your undies (it happens at the seaside anyway) is better than getting grit and gravel in there!

  49. August 16, 2011 6:45 PM

    very very beautiful

  50. August 16, 2011 6:55 PM

    Okay that is amazing, beautiful photos and awesome experience, thanks so much for sharing!!! :):):)

  51. August 16, 2011 8:07 PM

    Bloody hell. I’m not want to such displays but “YOU ROCK!” Would I do it? No way, but snaps to you!

  52. August 16, 2011 8:27 PM

    Well Done. Congrads on making FP.

  53. August 16, 2011 8:36 PM

    Sounds great fun – thanks for sharing! Great photographs too,

  54. August 16, 2011 10:20 PM

    Volcano sandboarding?? Wow. Although it sounds dangerous, it is definitely cool! This is the kind of thing people should be putting in their bucket list!:p More photos please! Also, it would be interesting to see the sample video of you sandboarding!:)

  55. August 17, 2011 11:24 AM

    Oh, wow! What an amazing adventure!

  56. August 17, 2011 11:24 AM

    This looks incredible!

  57. toogreytogrind permalink
    August 19, 2011 1:24 AM

    I was there about 4 years ago, fantastic time. I tell people about it but I’m sure they don’t believe me. Would love to go again:

    http://toogreytogrind.wordpress.com/2007/09/12/cerro-negro/

    • October 8, 2011 7:46 PM

      Thanks Simon! Looks like things haven’t changed much in 4 years!

  58. August 19, 2011 8:54 PM

    Sounds like you had a great time. BTW, cool photos.

  59. September 7, 2011 1:56 AM

    Superb post, please do publish more posts.

  60. October 8, 2011 8:02 PM

    Thanks to everyone for liking and commenting on the post! I really enjoyed volcano-boarding, writing the post about it, and reading your replies. To those of you who would hesitate to slide down Cerro Negro, I would encourage you to try–it is not as hard as it sounds! To those of you who have been wishing you could give it a shot, go ahead and buy your plane tickets!

Trackbacks

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