Long before I ever booked a flight to Nicaragua, there was one activity I knew I’d be signing up for: volcano boarding. Like partying at Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur, volcano boarding in León is just one of those things backpackers go, do, and get the t-shirt for — literally.
Though you could book the excursion anywhere around town, I went with the original — Bigfoot Hostel. The hostel’s original Australian owner came to León in 2004 and immediately became obsessed with descending Cerro Negro, a nearby volcano. After experimenting with picnic tables, mattresses and spare doors, he landed on a sort of makeshift toboggan made of metal and reinforced plywood. Today, backpackers use those same inventions to hit speeds of up to 95km/hr downhill.
But first, you’ve got to get to the top. And before that, you’ve got to get to the base. Our day started with a long, rattling ride through the León countryside in the back of an open-air truck.
Arriving at the base of the volcano, it suddenly dawned on me that we would have to ascend it. Though I was up for a little exercise, when the option was offered to pay a bit more to have our boards carried to the top, I quickly handed over a wad of cordobas.
I was up for a little exercise, I said.
It was an incredibly hot day and the black volcanic rock we were crunching on radiated heat back up at us. Yet the hike itself was under an hour and our sweet Australian guide made sure we had frequent breaks to catch our breath and fuel up on water.
When we reached the top, there was already another group gearing up, and we watched transfixed as they slid down a slope so steep they disappeared within seconds.
And then it was our turn to don our bright orange jumpsuits, and for me to test the patience of my group-mates by making as many Orange Is the New Black references as humanely possible within a thirty minute period.
Photo courtesy of Big Foot
Photo courtesy of Big Foot
And then it was time to hop on board. Despite my enthusiasm for the tour overall, I was actually kind of anxious of the, um, volcano boarding bit. Ever since a psychologically-scarring motorbike crash in Thailand, I’ve always been a little anxious of reaching out-of-control downhill speeds. I always knew I’d take it slow, and I was okay with that.
Photo courtesy of Big Foot
I did, however, have another problem. I’d decided on taking my dSLR up the volcano, and that meant it had to come down. Wearing my day pack in front was the only option, and it both obstructed my view and made me look absolutely ridiculous in pictures.
Ah, the things I’ll do for photography! In the end I’m happy I had it as I love some of the photos I took, though if you really want to excel at the boarding I’d leave all but the essentials behind.
Photo courtesy of Big Foot
Photo courtesy of Big Foot
At $31 for the tour plus $5 for park entrance plus $5 to have your board carried to the top (optional… technically), it’s not the cheapest day out in Nicaragua. But with cold beer and warm cookies on the way back, a round of mojitos awaiting at the Bigfoot Bar upon return, and prizes for the fastest girl and guy, there are plenty of perks to the day. The guide also takes great photos which are later posted to Facebook, though to nitpick I wish they were also uploaded somewhere like Flickr so we could have full-sized versions as well (Facebook compresses images significantly, hence the pixelation in the Bigfoot photos in this post.)
I couldn’t help but compare the experience to sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru, which of the two I found to be infinitely more entertaining. That said, I don’t regret spending my big day out in León this way in the slightest. Our very young, perma-cheery guide had me constantly smiling (seriously, when I left I told her she better get herself a hospitality degree or she was missing her calling!), I had a uniquely Nicaraguan experience, and the volcano was gorgeous.
And did I mention the warm cookies and the cold mojitos afterward?
After carefully ridding my body of every grain of volcanic black sand — believe me, no easy task — my month in Nicaragua was up. Though I was gutted to leave, I knew I’d be back. And I couldn’t look over my shoulder for too long — new adventures in El Salvador awaited.
Would you go volcano boarding?
This does look super fun but I don’t know whether I would be brave enough! Does anyone ever get hurt?
Not in our group! Though I have heard some crazy stories… which may have been part of what made me cautious 🙂
This was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua and I got to do it on my birthday. The video is still up on my site. Very cool you got to have the same experience except the only boards we had were standing ones (until mine broke and I wiped) We didn’t have sleds…
Glad to hear you loved it! I can imagine it would be crazy for a true adrenaline junkie 🙂
Oh wow, at first I thought you were going to go down standing up and I got super scared! I don’t even like to get going too fast when I go skiing… and snow is a hell of a lot softer than volcanic rock/ash (well, I would assume). So glad that there’s the option of riding it like a sled. And yes, your photos were totally worth it!
I think I made the wrong call, though everyone in my group definitely looked at me like I was nuts 🙂 Gotta get that camera, always!
I’ve done the sandboarding in Huacachina (absolutely amazing!) and on 90-mile beach in New Zealand but this looks pretty different, I had no idea this was even a thing! What a crazy idea – I would go for it but I think I’d take it slow as well, I was already scared of breaking my neck in sand so I can’t imagine how I’d feel about volcanic rocks!
Huacachina was definitely my favorite of the two, but this one was a day well spent as well!
I also did the sandboarding in Huacachina thang, and thought this looked similar. I know that in Huacachina sitting was way more intense than standing (I did it both ways) because when I was sitting “sled style” I went WAY faster than when I tried it standing. Was it the same way here? Also I am happy to hear your camera survived! Our camera got sand in it in Huacachina and we had kernels of sand in every photo until we replaced it…
These boards were designed so that sitting was the ONLY method, though I saw other groups going down standing up — so I guess it depends on which tour group you go with. I think this was the same — sitting was faster! My camera was all wrapped up for the going downhill bit and frankly it’s in rough shape regardless, so I wasn’t too worried about a spare kernel of sand. I’m sure I will when I eventually replace it, though!
It was definitely worth taking your camera! Love the colours in these pictures
I think I made the right call 🙂 Thanks Sarah!
That looks like a blast! Def adding this to my to-do list if/when I go to Nicaragua! Is there an age limit? Can kids do it (age 13)?
We had two kids in my group! The younger one I believe was around ten. So Bigfoot definitely accommodated kids — I would just let them know when you’re booking, of course 🙂 Enjoy!
Sandboarding is something I’ve always wanted to do. I actually have no idea how it has managed to elude me for so long. It looks like you had a blast! Am I the only one who is super excited at the prospect of wearing an orange jumpsuit? You all look awesome 🙂
Ha, I can’t say I was UNexcited about getting to wear a ridiculous getup! I love dressing up, even when it’s somewhat silly…
That looks absolutely terrifying!!! The climb to the top was worth it just for those gorgeous pictures though, and you’re a total ringer for Piper in that jumpsuit 😉
Ha, I hope so! I always wondered how she looked so darn good in prison…
I didn’t even know that something like this exists. It looks like a lot of fun. Isn’t it super painful on the volcanic gravel surface? 🙂
Well, when you’re all bundled up in the jumpsuit and on the board, the theory is that you won’t touch the surface 🙂 Some does fly at you, hence the goggles!
Alex you are the exact opposite of a losertron. Please move to South Africa immediately so we can be best friends!
Haha, this made me smile. Thank you Sasha 🙂 I do hear Cape Town calling!
When I was reading the text, my thoughts were also: I wonder if anyone ever got hurt, wow they are doing it by standing up #notforme and how did her shoes look afterwards. I think I got the answers to all this questions 😀
I aim to please — and inform 🙂
I went sandboarding in Huacachina too and, I don’t know if you remember the last big dune, but I was actually really scared to go down it. I ended up on my belly frantically pushing my feet into the sand so I am not as fast. I guess the volcano would be similarly scary for me, but it still looks like a blast.
I do remember that one! I think I had such a major adrenaline rush that day that I was really going for it and tackling the dunes head on. Here there’s just one so no time to get into the swing of things…. hence my so-slow-its-embarrassing speed levels!
I’ve read about this in the past and I would definitely up for some volcano boarding. It looks like a lot of fun.
All the free extras, drinks and cookies etc are a great touch.
You look very fetching in an orange jumpsuit Alex. New wardrobe?
I should have asked how much it would be to take one home as a souvenir!
God! Ever since I found out about this activity I been wanting to do it so bad!! I found a package that includes surf lessons and hiking up the volcano, would you recommend it doing that way or, in terms of cost, just doing the volcano activity?
Hey Naville! I’m not sure what the cost of the package you were looking at or just surfing lessons are, so I can’t say. Sounds like you’ll enjoy no matter what you decide!
Whaaaat! This is a thing?? Man the world is an amazing place. Definitely adding this to my adrenaline junkie list. Looks like an absolute blast!!
Isn’t that fun? Finding something you never knew existed and are now totally obsessed with? Happens to me on a very regular basis 🙂
This does look like a lot of fun, but if I’m being honest your sandboarding in Huacachina post oozed with more enthusiasm! When I get to Central America I’d like to try both though.
Yeah, as I wrote, I really preferred the Huacachina experience! But certainly no regrets on making this one happen as well. When in Leon…. 🙂
It looks scary! Can you actually slow yourself down or do you go super fast no matter what?
The tour guide definitely gives instructions on how to go slower and faster as needed! I went the slow route and was pretty pleased 🙂
This looks like an incredible day! This is definitely not an activity I even knew existed, but it definitely looks like something I’d LOVE to do!
I just recently got back from Bergen, Norway where we did a 22km hike which took about 5 and 1/2 hours, and the entire way, there was nothing but incredible views of the Norwegian fjords! I can’t recommend it enough! If you feel like checking it out, read my blog post about it! https://www.travelalphas.com/hiking-in-bergen-norway-from-mt-ulriken-to-mt-floyen/
If you get the chance, I’d love to know what you think.
Loved the post! 🙂
That sounds fantastic, Maddy. I adore hiking, especially when it comes with a side of incredible views.
How fun! Looks kinda dangerous though. They don’t give you any pads or anything? In any case, glad to see that you and the dslr made it down in one piece! 🙂
Nope, no pads! There is definitely risk involved but hey, it is Nicaragua 😛 And you do sign your life away first!
This is sooo on my bucket list. I think mainly to wear the orange jump suit, you rocked it Alex!
Don’t forget the fetching goggles! 😉
So glad you did this! When was in Leon there was 80 students from an all-girl college in Norway, so my memories of Leon are quite fond.
Of course you did, Luke! 🙂 You always have the best stories to tell. I only wish their male counterparts were visiting when I was there…
This looks like so much fun! Seems like you had a great day. I’m pretty sad I missed out on sand-boarding in Namibia, but this definitely looks to be a great alternative if I make it over to central America!
Ah, Namibia! I would love to make it there one day, to complete the sandboarding trifecta 🙂
So awesome! I did this back in 2007, so your photos brought back some wonderful memories. Such great fun 🙂
Hannah! I miss your face — let’s Skype soon 🙂
YES! That would be wonderful. Email me and let’s set something up 🙂
I’m going to do so today! So if you don’t get one… you’ll know our emails are wonky again, ha.
Haha! VOLCANO BOARDING!
I would have never imagined that something like that even could exist! Crazy thing! 🙂 Cool and informative post! Thank you for sharing!
You’re so very welcome! Hope you get to give it a shot one of these days!
Such an amazing experience! I didn’t know about volcano boarding! Now I have to do it!
Add it to the bucket list 🙂
This is so awesome! I heard some good stories about the sandboarding from other travellers, but I couldn’t really find any good information + some good photos. How the hell did they make those photos of you? :O Did you also sleep at the Bigfoot Hostel by the way?
They just took them with a regular old point and shoot camera 🙂 I stayed in Lazy Bones, not Bigfoot, which I reviewed in my other Leon post!
Hi Alex, I enjoy reading your posts. I am an aspiring travel writer so I learn a lot.
I wish to know, do you use a particular pinterest plugin for the pin button that shows on hovering over the pictures in the post? What is it? Thanks. Sande David
Hey David! I believe it’s a plugin called Pin It (my developer did it all so I’m kind of clueless 🙂 ) Best of luck!
Whoa that looks awesome! I’ve neither done sand nor volcano boarding but they’re definitely going on my to do list! xo
Must dos for any true adrenaline addict 🙂
Wow you’re brave! I get panicky when I ride a bike down too steep of a hill, nevermind boarding down a volcano. Kudos to you and the pictures look amazing.
Ha, well like I said… I went pretty slow 🙂
This reminds me so much of my experience in BigFoot hostel and also the volcano boarding. People change but places never. Just wondering if they still have lava shot for the people who got the highest speed record.
They did have some kind of alcohol-based prize, but I can’t remember exactly what it was. We all got mojitos upon arrival back at the hostel, though!
It is my DREAM to do this!
It was a lot of fun! Definitely worthy of a spot on the bucket list 🙂
Great blog! I’m off to Nicaragua this year but I’ve already done the sand boarding in Huacachina which I loved (paired with dune buggy ride). Is it worth doing this one if I’ve already done it?
I loved doing both! Personally I found the sand dune bugging in Huacachina WAY more fun, but I didn’t regret doing it in Leon as well in the least! If you’re super tight on time or money I’d skip it, but if not, enjoy!
What a great experience! I really enjoyed this tour. Even the hike to the top was fun with lots of great views.
Ha well I can’t say I loved that part in the moment, but I did enjoy the adrenaline boost after!