Vagabonding Field Report: León and her volcanoes, Nicaragua
Cost: $20 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen recently?
Volcano boarding down the slopes of Cerro Negro, outside of León, Nicaragua has become a popular activity with travelers, especially since making number two on CNN Go’s Thrill Seeker’s Bucket List. Ignorant as to what was involved in this new sport I had visions of cutting sharp turns in powdery volcanic ash, much as as snowboarder would in fresh powder. In actuality volcano boarding is far from graceful. Instead of standing on the board you sit down as one would on a sled. There’s a loop of rope you hold onto like reigns, which gives you some semblance of control as you hurtle over jagged bits of volcanic rubble. Orange jumpsuits and protective goggles are worn to prevent bits of volcano from piercing skin and eyeball. Participants look a bit like extras for Walter White during a meth cook. After a short ¨How to Volcano Board¨ introduction the group I was with started down the slope one by one. It quickly became apparent that the protective attire was rather important. Over half of our group fell off their boards showering themselves in bits of basalt as they spun and rolled like a gran prix cars crashing off circuit. I managed to keep my butt plastered to the plank of wood but only reached a measly 57km an hour. A feather weight girl in our crew reached 83km an hour before her head met the slope in an unwanted embrace. Fortunately she was fine and won bragging rights for the day.
Describe a typical day
Volcano based activities are plentiful around León and plenty of time is spent scrambling up steep slopes for the rewards upon reaching one of the summits. From atop Volcán Telica you can stare into its immense crater and watch magma slosh around as it farts noxious sulfurous gases. Volcán Momotombo offers expansive views of lesser volcanos, glassy Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean. And Cerro Negro, of course offers a bumpy ride at high velocity astride a volcano board.
In León itself I occupy myself by organizing the next adventure at non profit Quetzal Trekkers, eating cheap street food (hamburgers or a variation of chicken, beans and rice), or playing pool and foozeball over a couple of Toña beers, which appropriately have an image of Volcán Momotombo adorning the label.
Describe an interesting conversation you’ve had with a local
Frustratingly my Spanish is still not good enough to have a thoroughly interesting chat with a local. I’ve had the same conversation many times: where are you from? How old are you? Do you study or work? So you’re an animal doctor? Does that mean you have to kill lots of animals? I crave the ability to communicate on a deeper level and would love to be able to make a joke in Spanish that results in laughter, rather than total confusion.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Despite being amongst the poorest people within Central America, Nicaraguans happen to be amongst the friendliest and, for the most part, Leon is a safe city that you can walk around freely day or night. This came as a great relief after spending time in La Ceiba and Tegucigalpa, where I felt as if a shanking was in order if I happened to wander around after dark. Nicaragua is inexpensive to travel through and the locals don’t apply gringo tax as liberally as in other parts of Central America. On top of all this the volcanic landscape and close proximity to the pacific ocean make Leon a great base for outdoor enthusiasts.
The volcanic landscape is undoubtedly one of Nicaragua’s greatest assets, yet many of the locals fail to grasp this and don’t think twice about hurling trash out of bus windows. I cringe when I see lush swathes of vegetation riddled with the refuse of careless people. An additional annoyance regarding Leon itself is that, like many other Latin American cities, it’s plagued by a constant bleating of car horns. Do you know what sounding off with your car horn every five seconds achieves? Nothing. Nothing at all.
Describe a challenge you faced.
I’e given myself five and a half months to travel through Latin America, a time period that really doesn’t do the area justice. To expedite the process of getting to South America I decided to fly, rather than race down to Panama and sail to Colombia. You would think that flying to South America would be inexpensive given the short distances involved, however I’ve found this isn’t case. I spent hours giving myself a headache in trying to figure out the cheapest way to get to South America. Eventually I had to settle on a flight through Florida to Lima (not a very environmentally friendly option despite my frustration over the locals littering).
What new lesson did you learn?
After three months of wandering around somewhat aimlessly in Central America I’ve come to the conclusion that having a rough plan can be helpful indeed. It can reduce the hassle involved and time spent skimming through guide books and blogs last minute tryig to find a source of direction. The prices of flights from Central to South America wouldn’t have come as such a shock to me with a little foresight. Plans can always be discarded if you’re craving some spontaneity. Rolf talks a about this a bit in Chapter 4 of Vagabonding.
Where to next?
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