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.

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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.

To read more about my love for Nicaragua, check my post “The day I fell in love with Nicaragua.”

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.

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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.

To read more about my experience on volcano Pacaya, check my post “What to expect when hiking volcano Pacaya.”

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The stunning view from the top of Cerro Negro

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.

To find out about all the other fantastic things to do in Nicaragua, read my post “The most awesome 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.

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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.

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Finally, volcano boarding! – photo courtesy of Garret Ziegler

Practical facts

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.

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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.

Care to know what’s normally in my backpack? Head over to read “My Packing List.”

Have you ever been volcano boarding? Did you enjoy the experience?

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Discover how to prepare for volcano boarding on Cerro Negro - via @clautavani