Cerro Negro Volcano Boarding read a sign outside a tour office in Leon, the second largest and one of the most beautiful cities in Nicaragua. This charming city sits on the Chiquito river 90 kilometres northwest of the capital Managua and 20 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean.
A city of markets and old architecture including a cathedral over 200 years old built in the baroque style is very laid back and one of my favourite cities in Central America. It wasn’t always like this and a turbulent 20th century saw the former president Anastasio Somoza Garcia shot here in 1956. He subsequently died and was succeeded by his son Luis Somoza Debayle who died of a heart attack aged 44. His younger son Anastasio Somoza Debayle took over power but fled the country during the Sandinista revolution in 1979 and was assassinated in Paraguay the following year.
The anti-communist Somoza government were supported by the US against the Sandinistas who were backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. Corruption and societal inequalities lead to widespread support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Somoza regime ended after the killing of Bill Stewart a US journalist working for ABC who was shot dead a roadblock by government forces in Managua in 1979. Stewart’s crew had been secretly filming when they were stopped and footage of the killing was widely broadcast in America resulting in immediate withdrawal of US support for the Somoza regime. However, the struggle continued until 1990 which pitted both side of the cold war against each other in a country with a population of less than 3 million.
The Cerro Negro is located 25 kilometres northeast of this historic city and has an interesting past of its own. At 728 metres it forms part of the Central American Volcano arc and is the newest volcano in the region first erupting in 1850. Since then there have been over 20 eruptions with the most recent coming in 1999.
Although there has been numerous eruptions and fatalities have occurred there are no large town or cities in its path. Most of the damage it causes is to crops in the area or deposition of ash clouds on Leon. The volcano is currently being monitored by the Nicaraguan Seismic Network which keeps track of things like seismic activity, temperature and gas concentrations to try and predict the next eruption.
Because of its age it looks different from the surround hills which are various shades of lush green vegetation. Cerro Negro in contrast is dark volcanic stone.
This young volcano has sides covered in smaller stones the size of pebbles making it more difficult to climb because your feet tend to slide back down into the loose ground. However, it is ideal for the reason I was there, to slide down it on a toboggan!
So this was the historical and physical backdrop to my day out with a volcano boarding company who picked me up in their 4×4 from my hostel in central Leon for the hour drive to the base of Cerro Negro.
As we wound our way east towards the volcano with 6 other tourists on board on a clear sunny day we didn’t know what to expect. None of us had done anything like this before. I had been lucky enough to climb volcanoes like the famous Mount Vesuvius but had never gone sliding down one on a toboggan.
There were no reports of recent deaths doing this so I assumed it must be safe. Still I couldn’t help wonder at how steep it was and what would happen if I came off at speed into the stones I was skimming over.
Our only instructions on exiting the 4×4 at the base of the volcano was to choose whichever board we liked the look and feel of most. They weren’t complicated in design, just a long piece of plywood curved at either end with the bottom section smoother to allow it to slide over the stone more easily. There was a rope tied to a hole on the front which help control the speed when it was pulled. Apart from some timber pieces on the upper side to rest your feet and backside on there was little more to them.
Having chosen our board we undertook the walk up the volcano which was slow enough going due to the heat and the loose underfoot conditions. Forty five minutes later we were at the top and given a basic safety demonstration before being allowed to have our turn.
After a slow start mine started to gather momentum finally reaching a speed of 40kph. Stone and dust kicked up as I tried to steer by moving my body in the direction I wanted to go. I tried not to pull the rope at the front at it only slows you down but once or twice I had no choice as I felt I was losing control.
They actually have someone with a speed gun at the bottom of the volcano. I came to a stop before the end when I took a sharp turn and ended up with the side of my face in some surprisingly accommodating stones. Not a scratch on me but still covered in black dust. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I was wearing a large dollop of sun cream on my face and neck. And this wasn’t just any sun cream it was very sticky sun cream.
It turns out I was one of the slower of my group but nobody came close to the record which stands at over 80kph. That may have taken a few runs and nobody was keen to go on another 45 minute hike in the midday heat to slide back down again. I may not have been the fasted ever to grace its sides but I did enjoy my slide down one of the most active volcanoes in the world.