28 June 2018 Update: in the 3 times i have visited Nicaragua, I have always felt safe. Yes, I am aware of crime issues (especially petty crime, and especially in bigger cities such as the capital), but I have never encountered any real issue. But starting in April 2018 civil unrest and protests against the government have caused the situation to worsen.
I still think that Nicaragua is safe for travelers, but I know that a lot of hotels, restaurants and places that work with tourists are shutting down, at least temporarily. I hope things can get sorted peacefully as soon as possible, especially for the people fo Nicaragua. Should you decide to visit despite everything, you should not skip Cerro Negro. This post explains why.
If anybody had told me that one day I’d go volcano boarding, I would have laughed at them.
I have recently revealed my passion for volcanoes, of which I became fully aware of only once I traveled to Central America. Coming from Italy, I grew up with the news of volcano eruptions of Etna or Stromboli. But that’s what it was to me: just news material when a big eruption occurred.
I didn’t realize I was really interested in volcanoes before I found myself literally surrounded by them, first in Antigua Guatemala, and then in Lake Atitlan. They looked so mighty, so imposing, that they obviously caught my attention.
That’s how I ended up on my first ever volcano hike in Guatemala. I enjoyed it so much that I vowed to hike more volcanoes during my backpacking trip. After all, I was traveling across Central America, and it would be silly not to make the most of it, right?
Then I made it to Nicaragua, and ended up having one of the most fun, adrenaline packed adventures of my travel life.
The incredible sight of Volcan Momotombo in Nicaragua
Nicaragua and its volcanoes
I didn’t know much about Nicaragua before visiting, and had close to zero expectations about it. I ended up falling in love with it, with its incredible vibe, with its welcoming people, to the point that I have been there three times, and I have vowed to go again.
One thing I had no idea of before going, is that Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes and volcanoes. It isn’t by chance: there’s 19 active volcanoes scattered around the country. Of these, a few surround Leon, my favorite city in Nicaragua. Some are close to Granada, Nicaragua tourist hot spot. And two make up Ometepe Island.
Pretty much any time one looks around in Nicaragua, there is a volcano in sight. Eventually, whether one likes it or not, it is inevitable to get on a volcano. I walked on the crater of volcano Masaya, not far from Granada, and explored the lava fields. I hiked Maderas, in Ometepe island. But it is Cerro Negro that gave me the most thrilling experience.
The following is a recollection of my experience on volcano Cerro Negro, with a few tips on how to make the most of it.
One of the many volcanoes of Nicaragua
Volcano Boarding on Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
Cerro Negro is close to Leon, Nicaragua most interesting city. It is the youngest and smallest volcano in the country, reaching an elevation of around 750 meters, yet among the most active ones. Its last big eruption occurred in 1999.
Just knowing these facts, I was curious to learn more about it, and possibly hike it. After having hiked Volcano Pacaya, in Guatemala, I was really keen to go on a similar experience in Nicaragua. After all, I love hiking, I love volcanoes and even more so, I love the thrill of hiking an active volcano.
It was only when I started enquiring about the possibility of hiking a volcano near Leon (and possibly Cerro Negro), that I learned that it is possible to go volcano boarding on Cerro Negro. Needless to say, as soon as I found that out, I signed myself up. I was incredibly curious to experience this: after all, it was considered one of the most fun things to do in Nicaragua.
What makes volcano boarding on Cerro Negro possible is its soil, made of tiny grains of volcanic rock. To date, I haven’t actually heard of other countries that offer this activity – possibly due to the terrain of their volcanos.
Sliding down Cerro Negro implies a short but somehow tough hike to its top. The path isn’t hard in and of itself, actually. What makes the climb difficult is having to carry the wooden board all the way up, and fighting the strong wind which, although providing a good break from the almost unbearable heat of Leon, literally swipes away – especially when the wooden boards act like sails!
The landscape that surrounds Cerro Negro is lush: the vegetation at its bottom is thick, thanks to the incredibly fertile soil. The view from the top is simply splendid: it is possible to see as far as the Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, sunset views from there are simply breathtaking.
Gearing up for volcano boarding – photo courtesy of Andrew White (flickr)
Once at the top, everyone in the group is handed a pair of overalls, leather gloves and goggles to wear for the descent. These are supposed to protect against the dust and to reduce the impact if falling down. Needless to say, anyone who goes volcano boarding, regardless of any protective gear, is bound to get covered in dark dust at least on the face and hair. It took me a few showers to get rid of the dust and tiny dark pebbles from my hair!
People slide down one at a time. The descent is more or less fast, depending on the actual weight of the person going, on how many people have paved the track beforehand, and – obviously – on how one manages the board. I tried to catch as much speed as possible, but I was by far the lightest in my group, yet went before everyone else, with the result that I went down terribly slow, while the rest of the group went very fast.
Between the hike, the actual volcano boarding, and the gorgeous views, the experience is a lot of fun: it is worth every cent and I would totally do it again (sending someone to slide before me, so I manage to catch some speed this time).
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro isn’t dangerous per se, though I know of a few people that fell and got injured (that’s a good enough reason not to go alone: here’s a post I wrote that explains why I don’t hike solo). Once again, it is all a matter of choosing the right balance between fun, adrenaline, and safety: it’s up to each and one of us to decide the speed to which we are sliding down, and to break when going too fast. Some people simply choose to go too fast and then lose control of the board.
Finally, volcano boarding! – photo courtesy of Garret Ziegler
Cerro Negro is at about one hour drive from Leon. There is no public transportation to goes all the way to the base of the volcano, and the road is quite bumpy, so the best way to get there is on a 4WD truck. The entrance fee to the protected area costs $5 USD.
There’s no place to rent the boards used for volcano boarding anywhere near Cerro Negro, so the most time and cost effective way to enjoy this experience is on a guided tour departing from Leon.
There’s various companies that offer volcano boarding. The cost is always the same – around $35 USD. Some tours can even be booked online. Usually, the more people in a group, the cheaper the price.
Tours generally depart from Leon at around 2:00 pm, giving the possibility of experiening an incredible sunset from Cerro Negro.
Gorgeous sunset view from Cerro Negro, Nicaragua
Gearing up for volcano boarding
Wear a good pair of hiking boots, with proper ankle support. The soil is thick and sandy, and the strong wind makes it already hard enough to walk.
Carry a wind jacket: it does get really windy and chilly, which is a novelty in Leon.
Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes against the thick dust.
Pack a small daypack with plenty of water for the duration of the hike.
Carry some dollars or cordobas to pay the entrance fee to the protected area.
Carry a camera to take amazing sunset shots: it can be left with the guide when sliding down, and he can use it to film the experience.
I really did not have great expectations on Nicaragua. I hardly knew anybody who had been there before me, and those few persons were not particularly enthusiastic about it. For whatever reason, I had the impression it was a characterless country. I remember asking them: “Was Nicaragua cool?” And their answer was: “It is not really that great”. I certainly did not mean it to be the highlight of my backpacking trip through Central America. But it turned out to be.
The beaches near San Juan del Sur are gorgeous – photo courtesy of Alessandro Abis
Truth be told, before visiting Nicaragua I did not know much about it. My knowledge was limited to the fact that it is the second poorest country in the Americas and that it had once been under the influence of the United States, that got seriously involved with it to the point of being sued to the International Court of Justice for breaking its obligations under customary international law. Even though I used to be a human rights lawyer, I knew nothing about its current political situation and its human rights issues.
So, when I arrived in Nicaragua, I figured all there was to do there would be going to some beach, try to surf if I had the guts to do so, and just chill out till I continued on to Costa Rica. Soon enough, my plans were all cancelled and I had to reconsider all my misconceptions. I fell in love with Nicaragua on a long lasting affair that has brought me to visit it two more times after my first one, and to hope I can go again.
Isla de Ometepe, volcano Maderas
Yes, I had a really good time in Nicaragua. I found the country to be incredible: gorgeous beaches, beautiful colonial cities, lakes and volcanoes, diverse wildlife and all of this at unbeatable prices. I managed to do so many things in Nicaragua, that I had never done before – such as volcano boarding. But most of all, I fell in love with its history of resistance and revolution, and with its proud people, who chin up and never give up despite all the difficulties that life presents them with and always have a smile on their face. Yes: for as poor as Nicaragua is, I found its people to be happy. And that happiness was contagious. It made me reconsider many aspects of my life, and put back into the right perspective what I thought were some majour problems I was facing.
Life is simple and fulfilling in Nicaragua
I happened to be in Balgüe, the most rural village on Ometepe Island, on Christmas day. I had arrived there the night before, and my Christmas eve had been a very low key dinner at the hostel. I have never been a big fan of Christmas, you see. I just can’t stand all the frenzy: people going crazy with the preparations; all the traffic due to shoppers who rush out to get the ultimate useless gadget to put under the Christmas tree; and the long, unbearable meals with the family and relatives. To me, it was just such a waste of time and money.
Lovely locals in Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
Then, I just ended up spending Christmas (well, part of it) with a random family in Balgüe. I had gone out that day for a walk in the village (no more than a few houses along the main road), and got caught in a thunderstorm. It was pouring, I had no umbrella, and the hostel was a good hike away – it would take me a good 45 minutes under the incessant rain, on an uphill path in the forest to get to the secluded Finca Magdalena. As the rain was getting stronger, I started running to find some shelter. I literally walked in the first place I found – and this happened to be a private house, where people were gathered on a covered patio and played guitars and sang along to celebrate Christmas.
The wild beach of Poneloya
All I did was open the gate, wave my hand and say: “Feliz Navidad!” That’s when I realised that I was standing in someone’s house. In any other place on earth, the owners would have called the police, chased me out, yelled at me. Here, they just stared blankly at me, surprised at first, then handed me a chair so I could join the celebrations. It was a modest house, really: a bare clay pavement inside and out, no more than 2 rooms; children, dogs and chickens all running about, inside and outside. I doubt they had potable water. And I am sure they did not have any fast internet connection, a flat screen tv, a luxurious shower and any of the commodities that we seem to can’t live without at home. I doubt they had had an endless meal to celebrate their Christmas. Yet, they looked happy and they surely seemed to be having a great time in their celebrations, much more than I would do at home when eating the best delicacies that one could find on the table.
Nicaragua – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
How could these people be so happy, even though they were so poor? I finally understood: they had each other; they could count on one another. And more than anything else, they did not fall into the materialism trap: they did not have an insatiable desire to own things, thinking that they would finally feel happy once they managed to get their hands on the latest gadget – be it a smart phone, a new pair of shoes, or a flat screen tv. And since they were not materialistic, they did not turn into selfish and excessively competitive human beings who felt envy for anybody who owned more than they did, including the stranger who had just walked through their gate; they had not lost faith in the human race, thinking that they could not trust anybody.
I am sure that they faced difficult times – times in which they wished for an easier life, for more comforts and simply a bit more money. But this did not turn them into cynical, sour and cunning people who would try to take advantage of others to make whatever little extra that may make their lives a bit easier. It was quite the opposite: they embraced life, and whatever it brought them, in a hopeful way and with a smile on their face. That very smile that had disappeared from mine, because regardless of how lucky I may be, I felt overwhelmed to make money and buy things so to prove others and – most of all – myself that I was really accomplished.
These people helped me put my life back into perspective. They helped me understand what really counts for me. Sure, there have been many times in which I wished I had more money to buy things that I feel I need in order to have a better life: a new laptop that performs better; a smartphone that doesn’t freeze any time someone calls me; a pretty dress to wear at a party. But owning things will never make me feel accomplished, because things perish, they get old, they become useless. What I am truly happy for is that I have a mother that still comes with me when I have a doctor’s appointment and I am terrified of what may happen to me; a father that thinks I am a hero because I can swim really well; and a sister that values spending time with me and is the best friend I could hope for. And I have a few, close friends that support me, whatever crazy thing I do – including jumping off a 12 meter cliff.
I am quite sure that lovely family in Nicaragua forgot about me. I don’t mind. I never even asked for their names, but I will never forget their smiles, their singing, and I will never stop thanking them for teaching me what really matters in life.
Today, when people ask me if Nicaragua is a good place to visit, I say it is – the most underrated country in Central America is gorgeous and its people are truly amazing.
Have you been to Nicaragua? Do you love it as much as I do?
Everybody knows I am in love with anything Latin America. But those who have the privilege of talking to me, quickly find out I have an obsession for Nicaragua. I have been there 3 times, and I hope to visit Nicaragua again soon. Yes, it is my favourite country in Central America, so much so that when people contact me to ask about other countries such as Costa Rica or Panama, I end up suggesting visiting Nicaragua instead.
What makes it so special to me? It simply is an amazing country, that has so much to offer to travellers. Beautiful colonial cities
Leon is one of the best places to visit in Nicaragua
A turbulent yet fascinating history
Museo de la Revolucion, Leon
Incredible nature and wildlife.
Panchito lives on La Isla de los Monos, at Las Isletas: one of the places to visit in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon
Lakes and volcanoes.
Volcanoes are among the tourist attractions in Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon
Poneloya is one of the best beaches in Nicaragua
Kind and warm people.
La cara de Nicaragua, the face of Nicaragua – courtesy of George Kenyon
And, something that backpackers should never underestimate, this beautiful country is still unspoilt by mass tourism (but hurry! This will change, it is such an incredible place), it is very safe to travel even for solo female travellers, and it actually is the cheapest country in the continent: my dollars could get me a long way here.
Not convinced yet? Perhaps these amazing sunsets will do the trick and prove it is time to plan a trip to Nicaragua.
Five amazing sunsets that will make anybody want to travel to Nicaragua
Granada and Las Isletas:
Anybody visiting the country will take a side in the local argument over which city is better, Leon or Granada? Many will say colonial Granada, is the prettiest one among Nicaragua attractions. I must admit my heart beats for Leon, but the most touristic destination in the country (which for some reason reminds me of Trinidad, in Cuba) is indeed picture perfect, and the waterfront of Lake Granada or a boat ride across Las Isletas offer fantastic opportunities to photography lovers. Snapping a good picture is one of the things to do in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua tours can’t skip a stop at Las Isletas
Volcano Mombacho – view from Las Isletas
Poneloya and Las Peñitas
A half hour ride on a chicken bus from Sutiava, Leon, these two Nicaragua beaches are more than a surfer’s paradise. Lay in the sun, challenge the waves, go for a walk, enjoy a cold beer and by all means, do not miss the amazing Pacific sunset.
Catching the waves at Las Peñitas, one of the best beaches in Nicaragua
Volcan Cerro Negro
About one hour drive from Leon, Cerro Negro is a great, short and windy hike. I could practice volcano boarding here and get covered in sand. And, let’s not forget that the view from the top is simply stunning. I absolutely did not want to miss a volcano on my Nicaragua vacation.
It’s not a Nicaragua vacation if it doesn’t feature a volcano: view from top of Cerro Negro
Storm in the distance – sunset from Cerro Negro
Isla de Ometepe
Located in Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is an 8 shaped island which, despite the presence of two active volcanoes, is peaceful, remote, and offers great hikes, wildlife and spectacular views. Among Nicaragua attractions, it may well be my favourite.
That’s one smokey volcano!
Corn Islands Nicaragua
Whether I feel like relaxing under the Caribbean sun, snorkelling in the clear waters, diving or just want to walk around to explore the island, Isla de Maiz won’t disappoint me. And here, I can be treated to a beautiful, almost stereotypical sunset.
Little Corn Island – courtesy of Nomad Kiwis
Care to know about more things to do in Nicaragua? Stay tuned for more posts!
I have been on the road for a month. It seems unbelievable how time is passing so fast. But, this is not the only thing. I have also fled my first work exchange place. I was supposed to volunteer as a receptionist at a hostel in Estelì, Nicaragua. It seemed a good deal – in exchange for my work, I was meant to receive a bed in a dorm, a meal per day, and the chance to take part (for free) in tours organised by the hostel, whose profits all go to environmental education programmes. That’s till I got there and found that the hostel was completely infested with cockroaches, and nobody seemed to care!
I spot a cockroach in the bathroom on my first night and did not bother much with it, as it really can happen anywhere. But then, the morning after as I went to the kitchen I realised that there were so many, coming from all over – cupboards, floor, drawers. There was even one in the fridge! None of the staff seemed bothered by it. They just told me to store my food in boxes (except that I found a cockroach in the box too!). So, I packed my bags and left. The hostel manager did not even bother to send me an email asking why. I guess he knows the reason? Or maybe he doesn’t mind the roaches?
My only memory of WWOOFing is the cockroaches
Back in Leon now, I took advantage of this to work on another adventure: volcano boarding down the Cerro Negro! So much fun, so much dust too.
What is interesting in Nicaragua is that it looks like I can ONLY get on chicken buses now, ie there is nothing else to travel around here. The best was when, on the bus to Estelì, a lady boarded carrying her chickens, which I could hear clucking during the ride. Also, it is possible to buy pretty much anything on those buses, and taking the bus regularly I have also started recognising some of those vendors. They sell medicines, plantain chips, sodas, water, sweets, candies, books and what not.
Getting to Copan Ruinas, Honduras, from Flores, Guatemala, was a really long trip that tested my spirit for adventure, my patience not to mention my physical and mental fitness! It started at 4:30 am, when a cab drove me to the bus station in Santa Elena, which is really just next to Flores. Then I boarded a Fuente del Norte Bus going to Chiquimula. It was predicted that the bus would take 8 hours. I think it easily took 10. Fuente del Norte is a national company, similar to Viazul in Cuba, with the difference that it is widely used by Guatemalans, so it really is cheap. Compared to it, Viazul buses are like first class. I was sitting in a tiny spot, it was loud, dirty, crowded, rotten, I am pretty sure the seats had fleas, and it was hot as hell, not to mention the fact that the driver would stop every now and then to let vendors in, so I got to see a lady selling “chicharrones”, a boy selling water, another candies, a man who predicated something and then tried to sell pamphlets and another who sold who knows what.
By 10 am the bus had a flat tire. It did not occur to the driver that since it was crazy hot he may let passengers out to go in the shade a bit, while he changed the tire. No. He left us on the bus, under the sun. I thought I would go crazy from that heat.
Traveling comfortably is not a thing in Latin America – photo courtesy of John Barie (flickr)
After many more stops, I finally made it to Chiquimula, where as soon as I got off the bus I boarded another one going to El Florido, which is the border with Honduras. The bus could fit some 20 person but I promise there were at least 15 more: they even had extra seats in the corridor. And it kept stopping to let people on and off. There is no proper stops, so when people need to get off, they just call the driver. The problem is that they kept wanting off, every 10 meters! So I was wondering how on earth it would not occur to them to just walk those 10 meters and it would have been much faster. Nevermind! I was just worried that I was not going to make to the border in time to cross (they close here!), and would be stuck who knows where. So at some point I started calling from the rear of the bus asking if it was actually going to El Florido/La Frontera, and they said it was, but it took forever.
I eventually made it there, crossed the border surrounded by people who wanted to change my Quetzales in Lempiras, had to pay a fee to leave Guatemala and one to enter Honduras (a total of 4 dollars) and that was it – although the border control in Honduras did not have change and had to go around ask for it. When I was finally done, I started my way towards the bus stop, but I guess by then I looked so tired as a guy from France stopped me and offered me a ride on his van, he was actually going to my same hostel. At least, I did not have to take another bus from hell!
I then left Copan Ruinas, thinking this time I would travel first class and pay a little extra cash. Apparently there is no such thing in Central America. I spent 18 hours on a tiny bus. It had air conditioning and free wifi, but in order to fit more people, the bus company removed the original seats and in their place put smaller ones, so instead of 15 passengers they could carry 20. It was crazy uncomfortable. But the best part is that to go from Honduras to Nicaragua we actually crossed into Guatemala, then El Salvador, then back to Honduras and finally Nicaragua.
You can surely imagine how happy I was when I made it to my hostel in Leon.
HELLO, NICE TO MEET YOU!
Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated Oct 2018). Learn more about me here…