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.
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.
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?