Leon, the intellectual hub and revolutionary capital of Nicaragua was our next stop and a much anticipated one. Perhaps the string of 10 volcanoes, the most seismically active region in Central America, was the reason for the fiery passion that inspired the arts and culture of Leon, but whatever the reason, it is definitely worth a visit. Whether you spend your days tobogganing down active volcano faces, lounging on the sunny beaches or absorbing the culture through a cup of coffee, there is definitely a few days worth of stuff to do here.
While eating a delicious cheap meal in PureEarth Cafe, we spotted a long-lost couchsurfer from Flores that we didn’t think we’d see again..Stav! A few minutes later, I see on Facebook that our other fellow traveling couchsurfing partner, Alex, had just arrived in Leon!! How funny…we all had said our goodbyes, yet here we were again! So we all got together and headed to the markets to buy some juice in a bag…very common among locals. It was Saturday afternoon, so the town was bustling. We checked out the main cathedral and wandered through an outdoor concert and more markets. We decided there wasn’t a whole lot more to see so made plans to try out the beach the next day.
After a 1km walk to the edge of town, out went the thumbs. Thanks to Alex’s Spanish skills, we ended up hopping in with a couple women at a gas station. They took us halfway to the beach, which happened to be on a very dead highway. After managing to find the one spot of shade on the highway and a few failed attempts of getting picked up…a truck up ahead leaving his house waited for us to run up and hop in the back! YAY! Weirdly enough, when we arrived, he decided he WASN’T a bus service afterall, and kept going past our stop. We had to wait for him to slow down before trying to jump out the back…I said “Try” because I ended up falling flat on my bum haha! But all was good and we made our way to the hot black-sandy beach in Nicaragua.
Brad and Alex rented a surfboard for $3 and headed straight for the water while I watched the things…Alex stepped foot in (and saw) the Pacific Ocean for the first time in his life! With lots of failed attempts at surfing, the boys gave me a try…also a major fail, but fun nonetheless. Midday, blaring sun on black sand is tough, and being slightly unimpressed with the beach (so hard after being in WA’s beaches) we were soon back on the road, this time in the back of a workers truck, complete with a hammock and all!
Later that night, Brad and I explored the central area of town. It was nice to actually feel safe walking around at night….it’s been a while since we’ve been out of the hostel after dark! Not only was it safe, but it was bursting with joy – the little markets selling jewelry and knick-knacks, playgrounds set up for kids, teenagers playing volleyball, food stalls everywhere! We sat and people-watched for a bit before turning it in, in anticipation for what was to come tomorrow!
A great deal of respect is owed to those who were the first to scale up the side of an active volcano, knowing at any time it could level an entire city raining down ash and spitting out fiery lava. Now-a-days it’s easy to forget those who were brave enough to be the first since numerous tour groups throughout the region offer packaged treks onto and into the liveliest of our world’s volcanoes. Finding that unique hybrid combination of fresh and adrenaline packed, but not yet ruined by mass tourism is something every traveler searches for but often proves elusive or expensive.
However, a few years ago in Leon a perfect recipe of straight up insanity gave birth to the aforementioned hybrid – By strapping a piece of Formica onto the bottom of a wooden plank, sitting down toboggan style, pulling back on the rope and sliding down the face of Cerro Negro – Central Americas most active, Cinder Cone Volcano! After a few trial runs, they threw in thick denim prison hand-me-down jumpsuits, and goggles and it is now safe for tourists through companies like Bigfoot (who we went through) and Quetzal Trekkers. Never mind (or do!) the bit about reaching break neck speeds of 89km per hour on lava rocks or the fact that what your sliding down could eventually explode with the same force as a nuclear bomb and presto, Volcano Boarding!
Cerro Negro is as black as night, thus the name, and an imposing figure even from far away. It is the black sheep of Leon’s volcanoes standing out in a way that says don’t F with me. So arriving at the gates of the massive ground swell gave our nerves the jolt we’d been looking for.
A quick beer for some liquid courage and we were off. To board down requires a 45 minute climb up the backside of the volcano. Once you reach about half way the wind becomes more of a threat than the ticking time bomb you’re walking on. We had to carry our boards flat so they wouldn’t act like a sail and blow us off the trail into the steaming cone. It become so bad at one point I had to carry Chelsea’s board so I wouldn’t loose her off the edge… and this wasn’t even the crazy bit.
Once we reached the top and put our gear down, our colorful guide gave us a tour of the cone, yelling at the top of his lungs so we could hear him over the roar of the wind. At one point we almost lost him when he got hit with an angry gust. Soon after we headed back to suit up for the ride down.
The jumpsuits were these gigantic orange arrangements that fit no one, and our goggles were so permanently fogged up that you couldn’t see AT ALL! Once we were all suited up the guide went over a few of the techniques; how to slow down, speed up and stop. His main concern was that everyone went fast and of course that we all made it out unscathed. He recommended that we consider our future travel plans if trying to go fast because “traveling with an injury can ruin your trip.”
All things considered Chels and I decided we would try to go medium speed knowing that there was a potential to reach a max speed of 90kmh (55mph)! Chelsea went first, actually they intentionally send all the girls first so they can watch the guys wipe out from the safety of the bottom. Well this was not the case for me!! I wiped out HARD…3 times!! I actually thought I would do alright – I have good balance and am generally athletic – NOPE! Fall once, fall twice into a major barrel roll, and fall a third time on the 45 degree angle which was killer. I had to climb back up to get my board and then brave it up to keep sliding down. Scratched all over, but it turned out alright – I got a free beer for most injuries
When I knew she reached the bottom safe, I exhaled and prepared for my go. When I first started I immediately fell, having a hard time keeping my feet extended and elevated as instructed. It took a few meters to sort out but once I figured out how to control my speed I was off. I felt myself picking up speed. Faster and faster, the adrenaline was surely pumping, the only problem being that I couldn’t see a damn thing! As soon as I reached that point where I was boarder line out of control I started slowing down. It was not as easy as skiing and my inexperience caused me to stop abruptly. I was proud to receive the third fastest speed of the day with 61kmh! (As I was watching from the bottom, it seemed WAYYY faster!! We were all freaking out that this guy was going so fast and it ended up being Brad!) Now I just needed to find a way to get the lava rocks out of my eyes and I was good.
A beer for the ride back was just what everyone needed. Everyone was chatty with adrenaline and excitement still flowing, and back at the hostel we were greeted with 2 cold mojitos each The night ended nicely with a jam sesh, drinks and card games at the hostel with our newfound friends!