Volcano Boarding Down Nicaragua's 'Black Hill'

Volcano Boarding Nicaragua
Jack Moore boards down the Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua. Bigfoot Hostel

A week before I reach Nicaragua's second-largest city, Len, the pioneer of this burgeoning extreme sport that is volcano boarding, Zoltan Istvan, warns me in an email that the active Cerro Negro (Black Hill) is considered a "touristy bunny slope" by dedicated boarders.

"The danger and thrill of the sport comes from what comes out of the volcano: lava bombs and poisonous gasses, specifically. Molten lava shooting randomly with your back turned to the volcano when you're riding down it," he says, naming the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea as hardcore volcano boarding hotspots.

However, boarding the Cerro Negro is no small feat. The world's most active cinder cone volcano and the youngest in Central America, it stands at 2,380 ft and, since it was born in 1850, it has erupted 20 times with the last blast coming in 1999, and has been ranked fourth as one of the most death-defying travel destinations in the world. Our Australian guide helpfully lets us know that it is due for another eruption in the near future.

The boarding tour, established in 2005 and hosted by the Bigfoot hostel in Len, has taken thousands of backpackers up, and more rapidly down, the Cerro Negro. Our group of 22, the majority backpackers from Britain, the U.S., Ireland and Israel, receive our gear on arrival at the base of the volcano—goggles, bright orange, prison-like jumpsuits and plywood boards, layered with a plastic slab on the bottom which helps it gain speed over the volcano's rocks.

On a break from the hour-long hike up the volcano, our guide tells us the story of Eric Barone, the daredevil who attempted to break the land-speed record down the Cerro Negro on an aerodynamic push bike, crashing and landing 100 ft past his wheels and in ending up in a full body cast. The fact that he returned and finally obtained the record does nothing to steady my nerves.

Volcano Boarding Nicaragua Cerro Negro
Cadi Melo of tour company Bigfoot gives instructions to tourists as they prepare to volcano surf down the slopes of the the Cerro Negro volcano, one of the most active in Nicaragua, in Leon, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest from Managua July 23, 2012. Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas

When we finally reach the top of the volcano we are greeted with views of the stunning panorama of Len, the Los Maribios volcanic chain and the Pacific in the distance in one direction and the speckled yellow and red innards of the beast as we peer over the edge of the volcano's crater. Its insides are eerily quiet but the rotten smell of sulphur stings our nostrils. Our guide orders us to move some dirt on the floor and put our hand to the ground. It's as hot as a frying pan and we can't touch it for more than a few seconds.

It was time to board, our orange boiler suits contrasting with the black ash all around us. Our guide shows us the volcano boarding technique. Those imagining this would be something like snowboarding, pulling 360s off of a volcanic halfpipe, would be wrong. It is effectively a kind of extreme sledging.

Sitting down and holding a rope taut in between our legs, you have to keep your knees bent, lean back to accelerate, sit forward to slow down. The steering consists of tapping your right foot to go right and left foot to go left.

It sounds easy but it looks less so as the first three backpackers disappear out of sight as they hurtle down the rocky 41-degree slope with clouds of dust rising behind them. Further down the slope there's a man with a speed gun. The person before me sets the fastest time so far at 41 miles per hour.

I push off, gaining speed and the adrenaline kicks in. As I continue to pick up speed, ash and rocks pummel my goggles and I can't see a thing. My technique flies out of the window. Instead of bending my knees, as instructed before our run, my legs straighten in the blur of the descent, my heels dig into the ash.

Acrid pumice flies into every crevice of my face not protected by my goggles. It stings and I can literally taste the volcano. My messy descent limits my final speed to a measly 21 mph. But who cares? I get to my feet in my orange jumpsuit looking like a Guantanamo Bay chimney sweep and feeling utterly exhilarated.

Volcano boarding
A tourist volcano surfs down the slopes of the Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua, July 23, 2012. Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

We watch as the rest of the group descends, removing rocks from our ears, noses and mouths as the rest of the group board down with the inevitable GoPros and selfie sticks. Our guide, the last to go, rockets down at a near-record 57 mph, forcing the group to dash out of the way as he heads towards us.

As we jump on the truck back to the hostel, a woman separate to our group flies off of her board and flips sideways three times. She gets up, brushes herself down with a smile and proceeds to collect her board. Her fall encapsulates the experience.

While lava bombs are not flying at you from every direction, volcano boarding will leave you bruised and battered and has plenty to offer the travelling thrill-seeker. It made me long for a thick layer of snow but to the elated, ash-covered backpackers standing at the bottom of the Cerro Negro, a "touristy bunny slope" it is not.

Volcano Boarding with Bigfoot Hostel, including transport, safety equipment, board, beer at the bottom and mojito back at the hostel, costs $31. Entry to the national park is an extra $5 and extra $5 for a local to carry your board up.