LEON, Nicaragua — Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro volcano has erupted 23 times in the past 100 years, burying homes, crops and people in lava and ashes.
But recently the menacing black mountain has become a tourist draw, thanks to a newly invented extreme sport: volcano boarding.
Thousands of thrill-seekers have climbed to the top of Cerro Negro, peered into its crater, then zipped down its rough-and-rocky 41-degree slope on homemade toboggans.
The volcano-boarding speed record, set by an Israeli woman, is 54 mph.
“The adrenaline rush of going down an active volcano is something that people crave,” said Anthony Alcalde, an expert volcano boarder and tour guide.
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The sport was developed in the mid-2000s by Darryn Webb, an Australian who founded the Big Foot tourist hostel in the Nicaraguan city of Leon. Webb had climbed the nearby Cerro Negro but was looking for a faster way to get to the bottom. He tried sliding down on surfboards, snowboards, mattresses and even a refrigerator door before inventing a sit-down sled made of plywood with a Formica strip on the bottom.
“Darryn’s initial plan was to use a snowboard,” said Gemma Cope, a British woman who now runs Big Foot, which sponsors volcano boarding tours.
“But he realized you can’t carve into the mountain. It’s very gravelly, so you can’t cut an edge. So then he came up with the sitting-down option and realized you can go pretty damn fast.”
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Tourists, who are nearly all foreigners, pay $28 for the experience, which begins with a truck ride from Leon over bumpy dirt roads to Cerro Negro, a 2,400-foot-high conical-shaped volcano that last erupted in 1999. An early-warning alarm system is in place should heavy volcanic activity renew while people are on the mountain.
Visitors must carry their boards during the half-hour climb to the top. There, they don plastic goggles and protective orange jumpsuits. They go straight down the slope because it’s impossible to steer. They use their feet for brakes.
Along the way, the sled fills with rocks and dust, making boarders almost blind. Crashes are common.
“I wiped out twice and ripped my pants,” said Melinda Vorisek, a tourist from Miami. “But I’d do it again.”
An Australian tourist added: “It was sheer terror. I was eating dirt. But how many people can say they’ve bombed down a volcano?”
There have been a few injuries, but so far nothing too serious.
One tourist who tried volcano boarding later addressed the security situation in a blog post: “My favorite stupid question came from a concerned Irishman who asked if there was a liability waiver to sign. No, Darryn said, it's not his fault we're stupid enough to pay him $20 to throw ourselves down a volcano slope.”
Due to its clear pathways and steep angles, Cerro Negro has a long history of luring extreme-sports enthusiasts.
In 2002, Frenchman Eric “the Red Baron” Barone set the land-speed record on a bicycle on Cerro Negro. He reached 107 mph before his carbon-fiber mountain bike snapped in two, sending Barone tumbling down the last section of the mountain.
He broke five ribs, dislocated a shoulder and tore muscles in his hands — but he fully recovered — so it's OK to watch:
Another oddball boarded down Cerro Negro in a Borat-inspired “mankini.” (Consider, before deciding whether to watch the video, how that might work out.)
Still, Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti, will take all the visitors it can get, no matter how bizarre.
Tourism has been slow to take root here. In 1972, an earthquake destroyed much of Managua, the capital. In the 1980s, the country took a nosedive amid a U.S. economic embargo and a civil war between the Marxist Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.
Now, however, the country is at peace, and the number of foreign visitors is growing — topping 1 million for the first time last year. Nicaragua features well-preserved colonial architecture in cities like Leon and Granada, pristine Pacific beaches, as well as excellent surfing. And it’s far less crowded than nearby destinations, like Costa Rica.
While the government might at first have been skeptical of adding volcano boarding to that list of perks, officials have come to support it now that it’s the main draw for some adventure tourists.
More than 17,000 tourists have sped down Cerro Negro so far. Many came to Nicaragua mainly for that reason.
“We looked up volcano boarding on the Internet,” said Vorisek, the tourist from Miami. “We basically planned our whole trip around this.”