Atop Cerro Negro, getting ready for my ride
As I lined up my wooden sled, aka volcano surf board, with the furrow in the volcanic sand and pebbles that the previous thrill seekers had worn, I tried to picture what his would be like. I was essentially riding a wooden sled down a 45 degree angle on the slope of Cerro Negro -- one of Nicaragua's youngest and most active volcanoes. Would it be a steady controlled ride? Or would it be like a roller coaster hurtling down the slopes of a volcano? Would I panic and spin out or go tumbling down the slopes? Then there was the way you slowed down...you are supposed to lean forward and press your soles harder into the sand and gravel. To go faster, you lean back and press your feet down with less pressure. What if I pressed too hard and flipped?
Cerro Negro, one of Nicaragua's youngest and most active volcanos
The morning had begun calmly enough. After breakfast, we walked several blocks to the office of Tierra Tours. We sat on rocking chairs and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. There would be 20 of us -- Americans, French, English, and Spaniards. The directionally challenged Franco-Spanish contingent was wandering the streets of Leon, trying to find the office. Eventually, the Tierra Tours rep told them to get to an intersection and telephone where they were and we'd pick them up. We loaded up in the van, and headed out. After picking up the lost Europeans, we stopped at a market for water, then headed off. A trucker's mishap blocked our path a few minutes later, but we detoured through a very rural looking neighborhood and were soon underway again.
Gorgeous views of more of Nicaragua's volcanoes, stretching into the distance
It was a dusty, hour-long ride to the volcano through the countryside. We slowed to let wooden carts drawn by yoked pairs of oxen to clear our path. Jenny remarked that rural Nicaragua looks like a hard life. Farmsteads seemed to scratch a living out of the dusty soil with their animals and crops that grew under the blistering sun. Passengers in the window seats had the dilemma of opening their window to catch a breeze, or sweltering by closing to avoid the clouds of dust the billowed in from time. Had we known how filthy we'd be at the end of our ride down Cerro Negro, we'd have tossed the windows wide open. The two French contingents were the most vocal and chatted back and forth loudly. The Americans and English were more subdued, and spoke quietly to one another or just watched the scenery go by.
More scenic views as we climb up the volcano's slopes
We arrived at the volcano's national park station, and piled off the van to sign in and make our choice whether to hire a porter or carry our own board up the slopes. I ended up paying the $5 extra to have my board waiting for me at the top -- mainly because I knew I'd want to take lots of photos. I didn't want to worry about it being torn from my grasp by the swirling winds while I was snapping photos. It was worth it, as the wind howled and tore at us. I watched the others struggle to hold on to their boards.
A line of hikers climbs past the smoking bowl of the volcano's main crater
The hike up was less strenuous than I thought it might be. The views were fantastic, though. This part of Nicaragua is pimpled with dozens of volcanoes. From our vantage point, we could see them stretching off into the hazy heat on all sides of us. Cerro Negro was indeed black. Its slopes are composed of varying sizes of black rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand. In some parts, your feet sank into the soil making it hard to get a firm foothold. In other places, you could step from one larger, jagged rock to another, and work your way uphill easier. Some sections of the pathway were sheltered from the wind, but others were exposed and you were buffeted as if you were running a gauntlet of pillow fights.
The group struggles into its gear while being buffeted by howling winds
Before long, we had climbed high enough to see into the mouth of the crater. We smelled the sulfur, and could see the white and yellow discoloration of the noxious gases and chemicals. We circled the crater on the cup of the edge, working our way up and up. Eventually, we would climb to more than 1,700 meters above sea level. We paused to look at the 360 degree panorama. The area immediately beneath Cerro Negro's slopes were stained black by volcanic rock and ash for its most recent eruption, less than 20 years ago. The dusty soiled regained its reddish-orange color the further away it stretched. Patches of thorny vegetations lent splashes of dull green. The blue sky smiled down upon us, a cheery counterpoint to the angry, intense glare of the sun. We struggled into our one-size-fits-all jumpsuits. Mine was obvious made for a smaller person. We stowed our cameras and water bottles in the thick cloth bags. The guides passed out goggles. I noticed mine were well scuffed and I would soon find out why.
Hurtling down the volcano's slopes, kicking up plumes of dust and gravel
Next, the guides explained how we would ride the sleds down the volcano. There instructions were simple and easy to remember. Keep your soles in contact with the slopes at all times. Lean back to go faster, lean forward to slow. Counter-intuitive, I noticed, and hoped I would mix this up if I started to go out of control! Our guides said the first section of our downhill run is a 40 degree slope, which then sharpens to 45 degrees at the halfway point. He advised going slow in the beginning until we felt comfortable,and then letting loose if we want to at the end. The 20 of us split ourselves among among two chutes or runs that previous sledders had worn into the side of Cerro Negro. I noticed we lost sight of the sledders almost immediately after they began their run.
Finally, it was my turn. I pushed off and slid back and forth through the groove. Apparently, I leaned too far to the right and slewed sideways to a stop. I righted myself and kicked off again. The sled seemed to take off like a rocket -- its smooth metal and Formica underside offsetting the friction caused by my weight on the board. I focused on the position of my legs to ensure they had the correct bend. I watched the storm of pebbles and sand the heels of my hikingif boots created as they fought the increasing momentum. With the mechanics of riding under control, I raised my eyes to look at the slope. And swallowed. Yikes! Picture yourself in the front car of the steepest roller coaster you've even on. Now, cut that car free so you are on your own. Oh, and while you're at it, get rid of the rails. You are roaring downhill completely on your own. The only control you have is how hard you press your soles into the explosion of gravel your feet are kicking up. Press too hard on one side and you begin to lean dangerously, threatening to overbalance and go tumbling off your narrow board.
I never noticed the lesser degree of slope. To me, it seemed my sled was screaming almost out of control at top speed from the moment I kicked off the second time. "Too fast! Too fast!" I kept telling myself. But no matter how hard I pressed my soles into the surface, I kept picking up more and more speed. I felt a wave of dust and gravel bounce off my body, face, and plink away at my goggles. A couple times I was sure I was about to crash at any moment. I was leaning forward to slow down (was that advice actually a cruel joke?), which made me feel I was about to pitch forward off my board. Eventually, I saw the end of the run approaching, and a previous boarder squarely in my path. I leaned to veer out of the chute, which bounced me across uneven slope. I stayed upright, though, and eventually slowed to a stop. "Whoo!" I think I shouted. As I dragged my board over to the group, I couldn't help but comment, "That was a LOT faster than I thought it would be!" I'm not sure if the French understood, but they cheered my ride.
We watched the rest of the group do their runs. Another tour company's group, in bright orange jumpsuits, must have been stocked with thrill seekers. We counted four or five of them who accelerated so fast that they lost control and pitched off their boards, tumbling and rolling downslope. A couple lost their goggles in the process, and one even left his board on the slope and loped downhill in a panic. Once our group was finished, we carried our gear back to the van and boarded. We all felt (and looked) filthy. Everyone's face was blackened by the volcanic dust, and I could feel it on my skin and in my hair. I dozed on the drive back, dreaming of pure cleaner water to drink and shower in. What I liked best about the tour was it was both thrilling and scenic. The views were fantastic from atop Cerro Negro. We got to circle most of the crater, and actually feel we were on top of a volcano. This was part of what I'd missed earlier this trip at Volcan Masaya. I was happy we'd decided to do this excursion. It was definitely one of the high points of Nicaragua.
Leon's museum of legends and myths, housed in an infamous jail where the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza tortured prisoners
Back in Leon that evening, we watched another of the religious processions as it left the cathedral. Earlier, we visited a folklore museum on the site of one of Leon's most notorious jails, where the dictator Somoza tortured prisoners and dissenters. It was somehow fitting that all of the spooky stories from Nicaraguan myth were modeled in life size figurines in a place where political horrors had been committed. Our guide at the museum was fantastic, and took the time to explain each of the dozens of mannequins in the collection, as well as the history of the jail. All in all, it was probably my favorite day of the trip. We would leave for home late the next day, and our trip was hurtling towards an end -- just like the ride down Cerro Negro.
We never saw any of these immense figures (see me for scale) parading through the streets, but it was nice to see them in the museum