Last year the government started a new promotional campaign for the country under the slogan “Nicaragua: Unique and Original.”
I have heard many people say they don’t like this campaign. But for those of us who really know this country, we understand that it really is a unique place, with many distinct aspects, especially in the areas of politics, cultural richness and, above all, natural beauty.
Still, some prefer to continue referring to Nicaragua as “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes” – a slogan I have heard my whole life and which clearly describes our natural richness.
Yet at the same time, that slogan – along with the infamous early 20th Century postal stamp featuring Momotombo Volcano – is thought to have been part of the excuse that the French used to build the canal in Panama and not Nicaragua, despite the geographic advantages of the Rio San Juan and LakeCocibolca.
Today, however, the Pacific zone of Nicaragua, where all the volcanoes and volcanic lagoons are located, undoubtedly represents an excellent tourist attraction for nationals and foreigners alike.
As someone who was born and raised in Masaya, one of my most vivid memories of childhood were my visits to the Masaya Volcano, the Laguna de Apoyo and the lookout at the Masaya Lagoon. Since then, I have had the chance to visit many other lakes and volcanoes in Nicaragua.
But nothing was like my last trip to Cerro Negro Volcano, which has recently become a hot tourist attraction for the unique new adventure sport known as “sandboarding.” Since the first time I heard about sandboarding on Cerro Negro, I thought it would be fun to try it. But I never thought I’d be able to do it, because I’ve never been an athletic person or someone who takes those types of risks.
However, when my friend Kristen recently visited Nicaragua from North Carolina in the United States, she wanted to give it a try and so the decision was made for me.
We went to León and contacted the tour operator Tierra Tour (tel. 2315-4278, 8440-4429, www.tierratour.com). Even though it was a Sunday and their offices were closed, they answered their cell phone number listed on the Internet and arranged everything for us to go on the tour the following morning.
At 8 a.m. the next day, Tierra Tour picked us up at our hotel along with several other tourists – a group of three Dutch travelers, one of whom was a photography apprentice shooting photographs of volcanoes in Central America.
The trip to the base of the volcano was easy – only 30 minutes from downtown León in a Land Cruiser. At the base of the volcano, we paid 100 córdobas ($5) at the entrance to the reserve and gave all our information to the official from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), in case of an accident. At around 9 a.m., we began the hike to the top of Cerro Negro, up the rocky side of the volcano. Several times I thought I was going to fall, but thanks to our guide, who knew the best route to take to the top, we continued up safely until we got to the first crater.
During the hike up the volcano, I went from being the first person in the group to the last in the group. Even though the guide made us stop several times to catch our breaths and drink water, it was tiring carrying the sandboard to the top of the volcano.
Once on the top, we got to walk around the two crater rims and our guide went down into one of the craters to show us a sample of the rocks and materials found inside.
It took us a total of two hours to hike up the volcano, explore the two craters, take photographs and rest for a bit while enjoying the excellent panoramic view of León and the neighboring volcanoes Telica and San Cristóbal.
Then the real adventure began.
Our guide gave us all the safety equipment we needed for our descent: helmet, goggles, knee and elbow pads, and a board originally made for snowboarding.
He explained how we were going to ski down the black sand and gravel slope, and I started to get very nervous (even though after the difficult hike up, I thought going down was going to be the easy part).
Kristen went first, and I followed behind her. The sensation of skiing down the side of the mountain on a sandboard was incredible; I felt the adrenalin coursing through my body and felt invaded by emotion – a mixture of excitement and fear, which led me to fall three times.
Fortunately, our guide showed us how to fall backwards and land in a sitting position to avoid injury from tumbling down the mountain.
Once at the bottom of the hill, I had lots of sand in my shoes and big smile on my face. The experience was fantastic, and showed me that I am capable of doing whatever I put my mind to.
And the adventure of sandboarding Cerro Negro, which is reportedly the only volcano in the world that offers this extreme-sport experience, is further proof that Nicaragua truly is unique and original.
Cecilia Espinoza, originally from Masaya, lives in Granada. She is a social worker who works as a researcher for a United Nations’ Human Development Report.