I never thought I would throw myself off of a volcano, yet here I was, about to do just that. I took a few timid steps forward, the sulfuric steam from the volcano sticking to the back of my neck and mingling with my sweat as the hot Nicaraguan wind blew. Each time I placed my foot down, scree from the rim of the volcano dislodged and rolled down the slope, my feet creating mini avalanches with every step. I took a few more steps forward and then sat down in the jagged black rocks, my plywood sled next to me as I waited until it was my turn to go: I was about to sled down the side of a volcano!
Volcano sledding is big business in Leon, Nicaragua. Numerous tour operators provide volcano sledding day trips, and any hostel or hotel will be more than happy to book you on one. The main reason we ended up in Leon was to go volcano sledding at Cerro Negro, a volcano located approximately 12 miles outside of the city. This was our first stop in our week long trip in Nicaragua, and we couldn’t wait to finally do it after reading so much about it.
We booked our volcano sledding tour just moments after arriving at our hostel (the Latina Hostel) and we would go to the volcano the following morning. We happily plunked down around $30 USD each for this once in a lifetime experience. All of the tour operators charge about the same amount and all provide transportation to Cerro Negro, boards for sledding, protective jumpsuits, gloves and eyewear, and refreshments after you are back down the volcano.
We were picked up at our hostel around 8 am, and made several stops at other hostels and guesthouses to pick up more passengers. The drive to the base of Cerro Negro took us off of the paved road and into the forest, onto a rutted dirt road full of pot holes and frequent traffic jams involving donkeys pulling carts of lumber back towards Leon and aimlessly wandering cows blocking the path.
Upon reaching the base of the Cerro Negro, we all piled out of the truck and took our sleds and drawstring bags which held our protective gear. Following our excursion leader, we began the hike up the volcano.
The hike itself was somewhat strenuous, but we stopped for a breather every 5-10 minutes or so. It gets tiring carrying your sled and gear up the mountain while the sun beats down on you and the rocks you’re walking on are also radiating heat.
Up on the top of Cerro Negro, there was an amazing view of the surrounding forests and the Pacific. We also took pictures of the inside of the volcano.
Although it hasn’t erupted since 1999, steam still pours from vents and you can feel the heat when the wind blows just right.
Finally, it was time to sled. Everyone had to change into their jumpsuits and line up. My body felt electrified with adrenaline as I looked down. I’m not a fan of heights and I was definitely freaking out at this point. I kept letting people pass me, trying to give myself enough time to muster the courage to actually take the ride.
Before we were able to sled down, we were taught how to steer (pull the reigns and lean to the opposite direction of where you want to go), how to go faster (keep your feet up and lean back) and how to control your speed (put your heels down so your feet drag through the rocks and slow you down). They also informed us that the record speed going down the volcano was over 50 miles per hour, or 90 km per hour. I knew I would not be breaking that record!
I was the second to last person to go due to my crippling anxiety that developed while waiting for my turn. One person in our group decided to walk down the slope rather than sled because she was too afraid. I didn’t want to be like that, so I knew what I had to do. I took a deep breath, put on my safety goggles and gloves, and pointed my sled downwards.
It wasn’t necessarily the height that scared me, although that didn’t help. From the bottom, Cerro Negro doesn’t look that big, but from the top it felt like it might as well be Mount Everest. The slope is steep! I was mostly nervous about the fact that lava rocks are sharp and I made the mistake of reading some blogs about volcano sledding mishaps, like this one, resulting in bloody scrapes…on your face. I was also afraid of reaching the bottom of Cerro Negro and not being able to stop, my sled hurtling into the jungle and my body being flung into the trees.
Pro tip: This won’t happen! As I found out, as soon as you reach the base of the volcano and the slope is gone, you will stop quickly.
I started moving, slowly at first, and actually went so slow I got stuck in the rocks after just a few seconds and had to recenter myself. Soon, I quickly started picking up speed. Rocks and gravel flew everywhere, to the sides, over my head, onto my legs, my chest and my arms. Pebbles struck my goggles and cheeks constantly. I dug my heels into the rocks and promptly derailed myself, my board going to the left and my body going to the right.
That was another thing our guide told us before we sled down the volcano: don’t try to stop yourself or you’ll fall off. Oops!
Lesson learned the hard way, I got back on the board and pointed it towards the base of the volcano and started my descent again, this time with my feet out to the sides to maintain a slow speed. Sometimes I would start going faster, even with my feet dragging through the rocks, so I would purposely fall off to stop myself from going out of control. After about 4 minutes of practically crawling down the mountain, I could see the bottom.
I can’t say I was unhappy that the ride was over. All I felt was relief as I finally lifted my feet and allowed myself to pick up speed for the last few seconds before the sled stopped abruptly and I tipped over for the umpteenth time. Our guide was starting to worry that something had happened to me because I took over twice as long as the average person does. That did not do much for my slightly wounded pride. At least I didn’t walk down, right?
So, would I go volcano sledding again? Maybe. I’m sure if I was presented with the opportunity to try it again I wouldn’t be quite as scared the second time around and maybe I would even go down a little faster than the first time. But then again, maybe once is enough.
Would I recommend volcano sledding to someone who is planning a trip to Nicaragua and thinking about doing it? Absolutely. If you love adventure and you’re looking for a unique experience, you’ll definitely find it volcano boarding down Cerro Negro!
Before You Go
- You absolutely need closed toed shoes to go volcano boarding. You are hiking up and sledding down sharp volcanic rock that will shred your skin if you’re wearing sandals.
- Wearing loose, light clothing will make your hike less hot and miserable.
- There are no trees on the volcano, so wear sunscreen to avoid getting a nasty sunburn.
- Take a bottle of water up with you. Everyone gets a drawstring bag to hold their belongings for the ride down the volcano, and staying hydrated is vital while hiking up Cerro Negro.
- Bring a bandanna or an extra shirt to wrap around your mouth and nose to avoid getting volcanic dust and rocks where they definitely don’t belong. I ended up taking off my shirt before putting on my jumpsuit because I didn’t plan ahead.
- If your goggles fall off during your descent, try to stop yourself to put them back on. My husband’s goggles fell down around his neck right after he started sledding and he ended up with a rock in his eye that didn’t come out until several painful hours later. They give you protective eye wear for a reason!