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Volcano Boarding in León, Nicaragua

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“You just have to bring a need for speed,” the man behind the desk told us.

“Really?” I asked, slightly cynical.

“Okay, okay,” he relented. “Bring some sunscreen, good walking shoes, your camera, and a rain jacket.”

We paid the man our $30, picked up our free t-shirt, and told him we’d see him the next morning at 8am.

***

I was in León, the second largest city in Nicaragua (after Managua, the capital). I had already had a few days here, in this city on the west coast; I had travelled all the way from the east coast of Honduras, passing through some of the most dangerous cities in Central America. After spending a night in Tegucigalpa, the city with the world’s highest murder rate, León felt like a wonderfully quiet and peaceful place. I loved its colourful colonial buildings, its ornate churches, its easily navigable streets.

I was travelling with an Australian woman I’d met in Utila, Honduras, and we stayed together in a gorgeous guesthouse with a pool. After a day trip to Las Peñitas, we decided to try the very popular volcano boarding we kept hearing about from other backpackers.

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View from Cerro Negro

Central America is full of volcanoes; Cerro Negro, not far from León, is its youngest, and one of Nicaragua’s most active. A few years ago, someone got the wild idea to start boarding down it. Much like a Canadian toboggan, pieces of wood are equipped with handles and metal on the bottom to make them slide faster. Speeds have been recorded up to almost 100 kilometres per hour.

As a Canadian, people often scoff when I tell them I don’t ski or snowboard. But toboggan? I grew up tobogganing. Doing so down a volcano didn’t scare me at all.

I really had no desire to go with the popular tour run by Bigfoot hostel; they regularly had packs of 20 or more backpackers, and I didn’t like their hostel party vibe. We enquired with our little guesthouse and they arranged some local Nicaraguan guys to pick us up the next morning.

At 9am, two guys on motorbikes pulled up.

“Um, where’s the equipment?” Chelley, the Australian I was travelling with, asked. We were quickly told not to worry, it was stored at one of the guys’ father’s house along the way to the volcano.

“Um, where are our helmets??” I then asked. Again, we were told not to worry; only drivers had to wear helmets in León, but they were going to pick up helmets for us in a few minutes, at a place just down the road.

Reluctant, we got on the backs of the motorbikes, and sped off into the streets.

Five minutes passed, and we still hadn’t stopped anywhere. I didn’t like sitting on the back of this strange man’s motorbike, helmet-less. I nudged him and told him to stop. The other guy pulled over, too.

“I don’t feel comfortable riding without a helmet,” I told them in broken Spanish. They rolled their eyes; it was commonplace for people to ride without one in Central America. Although I did so a lot in past, at some point I vowed to myself that I would never again take a risk with my life that was so stupid, a risk that might lead to a very preventable death. The men finally admitted that there were no helmets for us, but that they would drive slowly.

Fearing that this was only the beginning when it came to lacklustre safety standards, Chelley and I decided to quit while we were ahead. We made our way back to the guesthouse, slightly defeated. As fate would have it, however, we passed by an open door, and I glanced in. A sign for “Quetzaltrekkers” hung above the desk, and I saw a wall full of t-shirts bearing the same name. We stepped in.

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Chelley and I on Cerro Negro

This is where we met the Quetzaltrekkers team, a mix of expats and locals who run a variety of hikes and treks around Nicaragua. Some, like the volcano boarding tour, last only a day; others last for longer. Instantly, however, I was intrigued by their background and their promise.

Quetzaltrekkers was founded in 1995 in Guatemala, and is run solely by volunteers. On top of that, all profits go to helping local charities that work with disadvantaged youth, working to get kids off the streets, get them housed, and get them educated. They are completely non-profit. They opened their doors in León in 2004, and work with the local charity Asociación Las Tías, which was started by merchant women to help kids and teenagers with drug addictions. Their idea is simple: raise money from tourists and give it all back to the community. It’s a win-win situation, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. We signed up immediately.

The next morning, we met our small group at the office. After some introductions, we climbed into the back of an old truck, and were soon riding down bumpy roads, past green farmland. The wind whipped our hair around, but we shouted out our stories of Central America.

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When we reached Cerro Negro, we were each given a small pack to carry, as well as our board. Inside the pack was our jumpsuit, goggles, gloves, and water, and later we could put our cameras inside as we boarded. The hike would last over an hour as we walked up the black volcano, rocks jutting this way and that, once in a while a strong smell of sulphur hitting us. Our guide told us the history of the volcano and the Maribios range around it, pointing out the Pacific Ocean not too far in the distance. While the hike was made difficult by the awkwardness of the board, it was manageable, and the views were stunning.

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“Oh hey, go pose in that giant sulphur cloud! It will make a great photo!” (cue nearly dying of coughing and watering eyes)

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We walked along the ridge of a crater, finally reaching our end goal: a 45 degree slope of black volcanic rock, fine enough to slide down. We all geared up, pulling on our obnoxiously bright jumpsuits. Suddenly, clinging to the side of the volcano, tobogganing down it seemed like a very dumb idea. There was no turning back now, though.

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I swear this look will be all the rage one day

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One by one we slid down, leaning back in our sleds to be as streamlined as possible. I swallowed my fears and pushed off. It really was like tobogganing, and I found myself whooping and laughing as I raced down the volcano. Despite a small tumble (which didn’t hurt at all, thanks to the fine texture of the volcano’s surface and to the jumpsuit), I arrived at the bottom full of adrenaline. I didn’t even come close to 100 kilometres per hour, but it was exhilarating.

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Can you believe it boys? I’m single (she says, picking volcanic ash from her teeth)

We were given the option of hiking the volcano again for round two; Chelley and I decided to take the other option, that is, lay in hammocks, look at iguanas, and eat cookies. While I would have loved to try my hand at volcano boarding again, the hour-long hike to get there deterred me (for those who haven’t figured it out from my blog yet, I am supremely lazy when it comes to anything involving the word “hike”). We rounded out the afternoon with vegetarian burritos and more great conversation.

All told, it was a terrific day. I made a few friends, got to see a side of Nicaragua I didn’t know existed, and earned the right to say I boarded down a volcano. If you are ever in León, or are looking for a fun activity to try in Central America, I definitely recommend volcano boarding with Quetzaltrekkers. Not only do you get an exciting day out of it, you give back to the community. And really, how can travelling get any better than that?

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Would you be interested in volcano boarding? 

As always, if anything is ever compensated I will disclose that information. I paid for this experience out of my own pocket, and was happy to donate to such an awesome organisation.  

34 Responses to Volcano Boarding in León, Nicaragua

  1. Marie G January 21, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

    Awesome, once again!

    • Brenna Holeman January 21, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

      Thanks, Marie!

  2. Jenn January 21, 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    That is so cool! I would totally do this if the opportunity presented itself 🙂 I love Central American and can’t wait to go back in November!

    • Brenna Holeman January 21, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

      Oh wow, that’s great! I’d love to go back to Central America, I feel like I only saw the tip of the iceberg…

  3. Kaelene @Unlocking Kiki January 21, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

    What a cool experience, I would def do this it is something completely different!

    • Brenna Holeman January 21, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

      I hope you get to try it one day!

  4. Helen January 21, 2014 at 10:43 pm #

    I love that you still manage to look cool in the get up! 🙂

    Looks like a lot of fun! x

    • Brenna Holeman January 21, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

      Ha ha – “cool” is stretching it, but thank you! It was indeed a lot of fun.

  5. Silly Medley January 22, 2014 at 2:31 am #

    Wow, that looks like a blast! I’ve never been called brave but I would be tempted to try that. The views alone are enough incentive.

    • Brenna Holeman January 22, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      Yes, the views were incredible. The slide down really wasn’t that scary, and you could easily control your speed!

  6. Lindsey January 22, 2014 at 4:05 am #

    Oh man that looks FUN!

    • Brenna Holeman January 22, 2014 at 11:13 am #

      It really was!

  7. Zalie January 22, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Sounds like so much fun! I would love to try it one day, although only once like you did! I am also much too lazy 😉

    • Brenna Holeman January 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      Ha ha – I’m pretty sure everyone in our family would only do it once.

      • Zalie January 22, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

        Well, there would be ONE who would be totally eager beaver and irritating…

      • Zalie January 22, 2014 at 7:43 pm #

        Nope. U cute

  8. Zalie January 22, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    p.s. you look so cute in your jumpsuit!

    • Brenna Holeman January 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      Zalie, I think you need glasses.

  9. Linda January 22, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    This reminds me of that bicycle ride down the volcano on Maui! Same jumpsuits…?? I agree about the trek up: an hour of work for 3 minutes of fun…like much of life!

    • Brenna Holeman January 22, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

      Yes! I remember – same jumpsuits. At least our journey up the volcano that time was done in a van, hah. And yes, I’m pretty sure that analogy can be used for everything in life… but at least Cerro Negro’s hour hike had beautiful views!

  10. Hayley Griffiths January 23, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    Brenna! I’m so happy you’ve done this too! I too boarded down Cerro Negro last summer but had a bit of a different experience… http://lovepuffin.me/volcano-boarding/

    Must chat about it next time we meet up! 🙂

    Hayley x

    • Brenna Holeman January 23, 2014 at 6:26 pm #

      Oh nice! It was so fun, wasn’t it? I’m sorry your day got rained out, though.

      Hope to see you soon… x

  11. Jamie Pilgrim January 24, 2014 at 5:00 am #

    This is amazing! This is definitely on my list of Must-do’s when I make my way down to South America one day. I’m always on the look-out for unconventional tours to partake in, and this one combines beautiful, unique scenery with an adrenaline packed adventure! Gah! So perfect!

    Thanks for sharing, and those selfies are epic!

    jamiepilgrim.com

    • Brenna Holeman January 24, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      I think you’d really love it, plus the company is part of such a great cause! I hope you’ll check it out whenever you’re in Nicaragua.

  12. Anna from The Blonde Banana January 27, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

    WOW this is amazing! Looks so fun. I will definitely try it out if I ever make it to Nicaragua.

    • Brenna Holeman January 27, 2014 at 11:59 pm #

      Cool – I’m sure you’ll have just as much fun as I did!

  13. Alyssa James January 31, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    That looks like it was a lot of fun! I’m so scared of heights, I don’t know if I would have been able to go through with it.

    I’m also really glad you mentioned the Quetzaltrekkers – it’s such a great initiative! I wish more people would do that

    • Brenna Holeman January 31, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

      Yes, I hope that more people go with Quetzaltrekkers – SO much cooler/better for the community than going with some big hostel group.

  14. Hannah @ Getting Stamped February 4, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    We went volcano boarding with Bigfoot in August, and trekked with Quezal in Guatemala. We did their 3 day trek it was amazing. I wasn’t a huge fan of the volcano boarding….Check out our experience on our blog. I ended up stopping at the half way point and walked down….yes I am a loser!

    • Brenna Holeman February 4, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

      Some of the toboggans didn’t work that well, and wouldn’t slide. I really think it depends on the day and the board you get. I know a few other people who walked down, don’t worry… you’re not a loser!

  15. rebecca February 18, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    this is great! how lucky that you saw it and didn’t go with that dodgy sounding tour. I will certainly check this out!

  16. rachel April 2, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    i’m wondering about the name of the guesthouse that you stayed at. i’m leaving for nicaragua soon. would love any tips! thanks!

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