Since the mid-1800s, Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro volcano has erupted 23 times, the last time in 1999.
In the intervening more than 12 years, the menacing black mountain has developed into a tourist attraction thanks to an extreme sport called volcano boarding.
This newly invented sport involves sliding down the side of a volcano on a wooden sled. Most Nicaraguans will have nothing to do with it, but it’s attracting thrill-seekers from all over the world.
Volcano boarding was the brainchild of Darryn Webb, an Australian who climbed the 2,400-foot high Cerro Negro in 2006. He was looking for a faster way down.
“He decided to go down the volcano on surf boards, fridge doors, mattresses anything he could find,” said Gemma Cope. “Then he came up with the idea of the board that we have now and realized that you can go pretty damn fast on those boards.”
Cope runs volcano boarding tours from her hotel in the city of Leon.
“We take the speed of everybody that goes on the volcano and the fastest speed we have up to now is 87 kilometers an hour held by a girl.”
That’s about 54 miles per hour.
A volcano boarding expedition starts with a bumpy truck ride from Leon to Cerro Negro. A group of foreigners, mainly from Australia and the United States are being led up by Anthony Alcalde.
“Cerro Negro is a cinder-cone volcano,” Alcalde said. “What we’re looking at right now is the height of the volcano. It’s 726 meters in height and we’re going to be volcano boarding 600 meters of it down.”
At the base of the volcano, there are no gondolas or chairlifts. Thrill-seekers have to carry heavy plywood boards, the size of snow sleds, to the top.
“Everyone have a board?” Alcade asked. “You don’t want to get up there and not have a board. That would be very awkward.”
Due to its clear pathways and steep 41-degree angle, Cerro Negro attracts extreme-sports athletes. In 2002, Frenchman Eric Barone set the land-speed record on a bicycle here. He reached 107 miles per hour before he crashed and broke five ribs.
Nicaragua, will take all the visitors it can get. Tourism has been slow since the Contra war in the 1980s. Now the country is at peace and tourism is finally growing, and Cerro Negro has at least a little something to do with that. More than 17,000 visitors have sped down the volcano.
Nicaragua is the only place where you can volcano board. Melinda Vorisek of from Miami said that’s the reason she’s here.
“We saw it online with things to do in Nicaragua so we basically planned our whole trip around this," she explained.
Vorisek said she probably would not have come to Nicaragua, if not for the opportunity to go volcano boarding.
“I mean it’s gorgeous so far, but this was a big motivator,” she said.
At the top of the mountain, everyone dons protective orange jump suits and plastic goggles. Alcalde shows how to sit on boards and use feet as brakes.
“You’re going 50 or 60 kilometers per hour, just like a car, you don’t want to slam on the brakes. You don’t want to slam on the brakes like this because the board will stop.”
One by one, it's time to start sliding down the mountain.
The boards fill with volcanic rocks, and the black dust makes it hard to see. Several people wipe out, but they seemed thrilled.
“Oh my gosh, it was absolutely amazing. You can’t really predict, you can’t really exactly tell how it’s going to feel until you’re going down it,” said Sarah Sanders. “It’s an adrenaline rush but it’s not like surfing. There’s nothing like it. That’s what I think is so surprising, it’s great.”
For surviving the 45-second run, the volcano boarders, now coated in dust, receive free cans of beer for the truck ride home.
Alcalde said volcano boarding can continue to grow in Nicaragua.
“I think the next level would be just creating different aerodynamic boards,” Alcade said, “and maybe increase the speed from right now where we have our record set at 87 kilometers per hour to possibly getting into the triple digits.”