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Riders zip down a slope of the Cerro Negro. (Photograph by Luca Zanetti, Redux)

Adventure 101: Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua

When Cerro Negro—Nicaragua’s youngest volcano—last erupted in 1999, boulders tumbled down the western slope, creating a rocky, ascendable path.

On the opposite side, the wind deposited dark, smooth ash that is perfect for sliding. In 2004, this unique pairing of terrains sparked an outlandish idea: volcano boarding.

“This is the only place in the world where you can sit upright on plywood, feet-first, and coast down a cindery flank of a still-active volcano,” says Nick Porter, an affable, chain-smoking tour guide who left his job at a bank in Manchester, England, in 2013, went traveling, and never returned.

Sensory Overload: Based at Bigfoot Hostel in León, Nicaragua, the expedition begins with a bumpy drive past small villages and farms and into the Cerro Negro national park. The barren volcano, whose name means “black hill,” has loomed over the verdant countryside as a constant specter since it first erupted in 1850.

Peak Performance: At the base, visitors pay a $5 entrance fee and can opt to pay another $5 for a local to tow the boards uphill. The boards are provided by operators but can also be rented at the park. Riders then endure an hour-long hike up the volcano at 90 degrees F.

The wind-beaten path curves past four craters that belch sulfur and dry heat, an impolite reminder that the next eruption could happen anytime.

Go With the Flow: At the 2,388-foot summit, riders slip into orange jumpsuits and safety goggles and take a quick lesson on maneuvering the board, which is basically a sled with a rope handle.Using their feet, riders create friction with the ground to steer and control speed.

One by one, the participants launch themselves over the edge, accelerating as the incline steepens. Small rocks fly from under the board, and riders who spill end up with blistered appendages and soot in the suit.

Most are unscathed, though, and as they approach the bottom, Porter snaps photographs while another guide clocks top speeds (the record is 60 miles per hour) with a radar gun.

Standouts: Bigfoot’s volcano boarding tour was the world’s first: The hostel’s former owner, Daryn Webb, actually invented the sport. But as it has grown to become the most popular extreme adventure in Nicaragua, additional tours have emerged.

One high-end trip begins with helicopter transport from the Mukul resort on the southwestern coast and involves a board that allows participants to stand, snowboarding style.

There also is a less hard-core excursion offered by the nonprofit Quetzaltrekkers. Although Bigfoot’s trips allow only one ride, some travelers make the journey on multiple days in hopes of breaking the speed record. If that happens, Porter says, the hostel will offer the victor “free mojitos for life.”

  • Travel Trivia: Volcano boarding’s inventor made early attempts to slide down Cerro Negro on a table, a mattress, and a mini-refrigerator.

This piece, written by Ashley Harrell, first appeared in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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