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Surfing a volcano in Nicaragua
Peering down from atop Nicaragua's Cerro Negro volcano, it's easy to see how a daredevil on a bicycle earned a land speed record gliding...
Volcano boardingBigfoot Nicaragua (which also has a hostel in Leon) offers the five-hour volcano-boarding tour for $23, www.bigfootnicaragua.com
Tierra Tours (www.tierratour.com) also offers a five-hour trip that costs $35 each for one or two people, $30 each if the group is larger.
In most cases, you will also need to pay a $5 entry fee into the Pilas El Hoyo natural reserve.
Nicaragua tourism: www.visit-nicaragua.com/
Peering down from atop Nicaragua's Cerro Negro volcano, it's easy to see how a daredevil on a bicycle earned a land speed record gliding down its cinder cone slope.
The drop is a stomach-churning 41-degree angle, for nearly 2,000 feet. Now tourists do it for fun, surfing down the volcano on boards.
The instructor laid out the drill. He would give each of our simple sleds a push, and we would hurtle down the slope as fast as we could.
"Most of the people, when they get down to the bottom of the volcano, are always wishing they went faster," Anthony Alcalde said by way of encouragement.
Not me. I was just hoping to survive.
Volcano-boarding, or volcano-surfing, is the latest and most unusual adventure sport to hit Central America, and it's only done on Cerro Negro, a 2,388-foot-high active volcano that's one of a string of some 25 volcanoes that traverse Nicaragua.
Some of Nicaragua's jungle-covered volcanoes are majestic and verdant. A few send off plumes of gases. Cerro Negro, which means "black hill," is neither handsome nor imposing. Rather, it is a belching mound of black cinder with a cone indented by two craters.
It's Central America's youngest volcano, spewing to life in April 1850 and erupting more than a dozen times since, most recently in the 1990s. It remains distinctly active. Dig into the cinders a bit with a shoe, and one feels heat.
At least three tour companies operate volcano-boarding trips to Cerro Negro from Leon, the onetime colonial capital of Nicaragua and the closest city.
The first person to come up with the idea of sledding down the volcano's cinder slope was an Australian.
"He decided to go down the volcano on surfboards, French doors, mattresses, anything he could find. Then he came up with the idea of the board we have now, the wooden board with the Formica (bottom)," said Gemma Cope, co-owner of Bigfoot Nicaragua, one of the tour companies.
A French cyclist, Eric Barone, brought Cerro Negro to the attention of adventure seekers. In 2002, Barone sought the bicycling land speed record pedaling down the slope of Cerro Negro. He already held a number of mountain bike speed records, mostly on snowy slopes in the Alps.
In a first attempt, Barone went down on a serial production mountain bike, hitting 100 miles per hour. Then he reascended and mounted a custom prototype bicycle, zooming downward even faster. Barone hit 107 mph before calamity hit. His front tire blew and his frame collapsed.
With the blowout, Barone "landed 100 yards past the bike. He was hospitalized for three months here in Leon with broken ribs, bones, ligaments," Alcalde said.
Worse, while he was recovering, an Austrian came to Cerro Negro and broke the mountain bike speed record Barone had just set, reaching more than 102 mph. Barone still holds the prototype bike speed record.
Each of us has been given a canvas bag containing a bright orange jump suit and green goggles. Alcalde showed us how to sit on the wooden sled, which is nothing but a piece of plywood with a crude seat and a rope handle. The Formica on the bottom reduces drag. The only brakes are heels plunged into the cinders.
At the bottom of the slope, a tour company employee aimed a radar gun, clocking the speed of each sledder. (The top speed among the 17,000 people Bigfoot Nicaragua has sent down the slopes is 54 mph, held by a woman.)
The sled starts out slowly but quickly gathers speed, swooshing over the tiny rocky cinders. Cinders pile around my legs as dust and sand pummel my face. I remember to keep my mouth shut.
When I get off the sled at the bottom, I take off the goggles and see a jubilant Sara Marie Sanders from Columbus, Ohio. Soot smears her face, setting off her huge smile.
"Oh my gosh, it was absolutely amazing. You can't really tell how it's going to feel until you're going down it," Sanders said. "I would do it over again 100 times."
Volcano-boarding adds to other activities — including surfing and jungle zip-lining — that place Nicaragua on the adventure trail. Long overshadowed by Costa Rica to the south, with its developed tourist industry, Nicaragua now has its own luster.