Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
El Tunco to Leon, Nicaragua
We cheated for the first time in nearly 3 weeks and got a shuttle instead of using Chicken Buses. It was a simple conclusion in the end as we were mostly done with El Salvador and couldn’t hike San Miguel Volcano in the East thanks to its latest eruption 2 weeks earlier. This meant we were looking to get to our next destination of Leon, Nicaragua with as little pain as possible. Chicken buses could take anywhere around 15-20 hours depending on connections, border crossings (into Honduras before Nicaragua) and anything else that may happen. The cost by chicken bus seemed to range around $30 from what we had heard and the shuttle was only $45 each.
The company is Gekko Trails Explorer which operates shuttles around Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The shuttle was scheduled to take 11 hours door to door (9am-8pm) in air conditioned comfort and had us sold fairly quickly. We were meant to depart around 9am from El Tunco, but didn’t end up leaving until just after 10am. We’ve gotten used to the shuttles taking longer than expected and were well prepared. This was actually a really nice and comfy shuttle. I forgot to count the seats, but we had 11 passengers, the back seat filled with luggage and still had at least 5 or more spare seats amongst us. The day went past fairly quickly as I caught up on some movies and TV shows. We made several stops along the way for washroom breaks and food. The lunch stop we even managed to get a local comedor with $3 fried chicken and drink. The border crossings did take their time, probably because they put as through as a big group. The one into Nicaragua must’ve taken the best part of 45 minutes. At the end of the day, we arrived into Leon at 7.30pm which was 30 minutes ahead of schedule and a very pleasant surprise.
Maybe it was the fact of getting in at 7.30pm on a Tuesday night, but the town seemed a bit quiet and closed up as we drove through. The population is somewhere near 200,000 people, which is one of the biggest we’ve been in overnight for months except for Santa Ana, El Salvador. Maybe I expected a bit more action or people movement. When I look back on that now, the hot daytime temperatures and the relative coolness of the night; I would’ve expected even more people on the streets enjoying themselves.
Our first step as always is finding accommodation. The big party hostel here is Bigfoot and it has a reputation for a reason. Do not go there expecting anything short of loud bar music, party friendly people and a lack of sleep. Don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing wrong with it, but our trip isn’t revolving around endless nights spent at a bar. After trying a couple of options, we ended up at a place almost across the road from Bigfoot called Hostal Guardabarranco (the name of the national bird of Nicaragua). A private room with bathroom was $19/night and had a decent sized kitchen, free coffee and Wi-Fi. Simple stuff, with a good location, it was all we needed.
Banking problems and fraud
The day we were coming into Leon, we’d had a few card issues and that first night in Leon after talking to the bank, the story had become a lot darker than we’d expected. So much so, that we wrote another blog post here to separate the story.
Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro
This is something we’d been hearing about regularly from other people who’d been to Nicaragua and knew our thirst for danger and adventure, well Toby’s thirst especially. Coming into town we’d heard of Bigfoot hostel and volcano boarding (they claim to be the originators of it in 2004). There are other companies that run these tours, all with slightly different markets they aim for. We chose Quetzal Trekkers for a couple of reasons; it’s a few dollars cheaper at $30 total ($33 at BigFoot), Quetzal Trekkers included lunch and we wanted a smaller more personal sized group (we had 10 including our guide). The biggest appeal for Toby was that you got 2 runs down the volcano whereas most other companies including BigFoot only include 1 run. Quetzal Trekkers is also totally non-profit with money going back into valuable community projects.
Here’s what they Include: volcano boards (basically a wooden plank), gloves, goggles, bag for carrying stuff, purified water, Park Entrance Fees (not included at some other companies), Transport, Snack and Lunch (veggie burritos) and a T-shirt.
The volcano itself is called Cerro Negro (Black Hill) and it is the youngest in Central America having first appeared in 1850 and last erupted in 1999. The current elevation is listed as 728m. It is located about 25km North East of Leon. The road there is fairly rough and narrow, so it is recommended going with a guided tour or an experienced local with a good vehicle.
We had a total of 10 people including the guide who climbed into the back of the truck. At first it was a smooth ride, but then we got onto a dirt road, passing many horse and carriages on the way. It was so bumpy you had to physically hold on to the bars of the truck to stop yourself falling off the seat. It took about an hour to arrive at the ranger station.
At the station we all signed in and picked up our volcano boards, protective goggles and gloves. We were then driven a short distance to the start of the hike. The initial hike was relatively easy and only had a gradual incline with a clearly market trail. We stopped a couple of times on the way up to enjoy the views.
From this point the trail got steeper and steeper and the surface of the trail got quite slippery. The problem was the loose packed rocks rather than having hard packed dirt to climb on. We both slipped a few times but finally made it to the ridge at the top.
When we reached the ridge it was quite windy; so much so that our boards ended up feeling more like a sail. Our guide explained to us that we should carry our boards across our chest like a table, to prevent the wind from catching onto the board and knocking you down the volcano. It became apparent that a few of the girls on the trip couldn’t carry their boards, so the guide helped out by carrying a few for them. Luckily we are used to carrying snowboards, so carrying the board while climbing was a piece of cake for us.
It took us about 45 minutes including breaks to get to the top. Rodora was a little nervous as it looks quite steep from the very top and possibly even a little dangerous. Toby loved it at this point in time. We ventured off to another view point to look down into the crater. It was obvious from the steaming vents that the volcano is still active beneath the surface.
The other side of the viewpoint had two other volcanoes in the distance, a perfect jumping photo moment.
Then it was time for the fun to begin with our volcano boarding experience. There are two trails defined by ropes for volcano boarding straight down a steep slope. It looks a little like a toboggan chute, so you have a clear defined path to get you started. We were then given instructions on how to volcano board.
The basic instructions for volcano boarding are as follows:
1) Sit at the very back of the board and hold on to the little string with a handle attached to the front.
2) If you want to go faster, lean back with your feet as close to your body on the board as you can and pull on the string like a toboggan.
3) If you want to go slow; lean more forward, and dig your feet into the gravel.
4) If you’re going faster than you want to go, slowly put your feet into the gravel (don’t do it quickly or abruptly), because if you put your feet in the gravel at high speeds you can flip your board.
Then it was time to go.
There was no way I was going first but since we wanted photos, to make it easy for the guide to identify us we both went first. Our guide walked down to a halfway point where he would signal us when a lane was clear and safe for us to come down. Toby had switched his regular board with a client of the Sonati company (who were there at the same time) as he wanted to go faster. He was brave enough to be the first one down the volcano as we all watched what we were in for. He of course didn’t want to put on the brakes at first but was gathering too much speed. Toby eventually lost control as his board veered off the runway a bit and ended up flipping over. He found out the hard way when you fall off that it’s nearly impossible to walk back up again. He was scrambling to pick up his water bottle and board that were above him on the volcano.
Now a little bit more cautious Toby sped off again, this time breaking from time to time making it to the bottom with a recorded top speed of 47 kph. Sonati also had a speed gun which they had let us use for our first run. The current record by someone at BigFoot is 95 kph.
When Toby safely made it to the bottom, I was given the sign by our guide in the middle that it was my turn to go. Looking down and sitting on my board I hesitated; still petrified I was going to fall off the mountain somehow. After hesitating I finally built up the courage to go down. Starting slowly with my feet firmly on the gravel I started moving down the volcano at a very slow pace. I’m usually the world’s slowest snowboarder, so this was awesome for me as I could control my speed. My biggest fear was plummeting down a volcano and not being able to stop. Apparently the only injury they have had (different tour company) is when someone went down extremely drunk and didn’t know what they were doing. I found I was going so slow I could control myself at all times. The initial incline is low which means you don’t get out of control with speed. After the midway point, this is when I found it more difficult to reduce speed, so I just let the board do its own thing. Despite the gravel in my mouth, the feeling of the wind in your hair and plummeting down a volcano is amazing. When I reached the bottom, it became apparent a few of the guys including Toby had a few minor cuts and scrapes. Toby ended up with a Spongebob Squarepants bandage to cover his cut.
We then stopped for a break at a shaded area next to the ranger station. We had something to snack on and drink to recover and get our energy back. Rodora thought she wouldn’t like volcano boarding being a little scared of these extreme sports, but she wanted to go again for round two. On the second run, our boards were beaten up from the first run, so they weren’t as fast the second time around. The second run for everyone was fairly uneventful since the speeds were slower. We had lunch immediately after before packing up and heading back to the office in Leon.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/