León, Nicaragua is a hidden gem for adventure travelers in Central America. It’s best known as the birthplace of and launch pad for Volcano surfing—sand boarding down volcanic sands of a lava spout. And…one of the best times I’ve ever had on a volcano.
Streets are small. The town is made of nearly all Spanish Colonial buildings painted in faded shades of gold, copper, turquoise, and emerald.
León doesn’t feel like Nicaragua’s second-largest city. It feels hard to place, perhaps somewhere lost in time, in the old world, with the stark white cathedral piercing the skyline.
Volcano boarding in León? Where to Stay
A two-and-a-half-hour journey from Managua Airport via taxi and public bus, I arrived in the afternoon and was struck first by the immense heat and humidity. Most locals and visitors seek refuge indoors during these hours.
Upon settling into my hostel, La Tortuga Booluga (a steal at $25 for a single private room, $40 for 4), I indulged in an ice-cold dollar beer while waiting for the sun to mellow. It was the perfect time to plan my next four days of adventure. Looking back, I probably should have done more research; my room lacked air conditioning.
Later, I discovered that Hotel El Convento, a magnificent hacienda with AC, a swimming pool, and antiques, started at only $93 a night. Nevertheless, the company and experiences in León were worth it.
León Comes Alive at Night
An evening tour of the town, guided by a friend I’d met tin the hostel, revealed the vibrant life hidden within the city’s streets. As soon as the sun set, the streets came alive. Locals chatting on rocking chairs outside their homes. Children playing, and young adults congregating outside taquerias.
With few tourists around, León felt like a well-kept secret, reminiscent of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. It’s one of the rare Central American cities that feels safe after dark, and it won my heart before I even embarked on my adventures.
“Why are you here?” is a common question from hotel owners and locals. Most travelers, like myself, come to León for one reason: volcano boarding.
The Thrill of Volcano Boarding
Cerro Negro is a striking black cone of pebbles and ash–a stark contrast to the lush green hills and clear blue skies that surround it. An active volcano formed in the 1850s, it hasn’t gone off since 1999. No big deal.
And here, the locals claim, is the birthplace of volcano surfing, also known as volcano boarding, which really took off in 2006. Just a 90-minute drive from León through scenic sugar cane, corn, and sesame farms, Cerro Negro Volcano Boarding, offers an adrenaline-pumping experience.
Upon arrival, you’ll be equipped with a volcano board (a wooden plank with a reinforced bottom) and a jumpsuit to shield you from volcanic ash. After a one-hour hike to the summit, where you can admire sweeping 360-degree views of the countryside, you’ll witness the volcano’s activity up close.
Our guide demonstrated the volcano’s liveliness by stirring up the dirt, causing sulfuric gas to escape just inches below the surface. The descent is a thrilling 1,500-foot drop at a 45-degree angle, with speeds reaching up to 30 miles per hour.
I opted for the toboggan-style descent, as did everyone else, using my boots to control speed by digging into the ash. It was a heart-pounding 10-minute joyride. Our guide, on the other hand, surfed down the volcano snowboard-style on two feet. By 2pm, we were back in León, exhilarated by the adventure.
Witnessing Lava at Telica
Telica is one of the few places in Central America where you can witness bubbling lava inside a volcano. There are different ways to experience this spectacle: morning hikes, sunset hikes, or multi-day camping trips. Given the rainy season and sweltering mornings, I opted for the sunset hike.
About an hour and a half’s drive from León, the hike itself is relatively easy, aside from the occasional plume of toxic sulfuric gas that the wind can blow your way. Unfortunately, the windy conditions and an approaching storm obstructed our view of the lava. We heard thunder and witnessed lightning strikes so close that we could see their intricate details.
Our guide urged us to descend quickly. Once off the summit, we were safe, and the 45-minute, rain-soaked descent back to the van added a unique thrill to the experience. It wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for, but it was undeniably memorable.
Conquering Momotombo: The Toughest Climb in Nicaragua
If you’re seeking bragging rights, Momotombo is the ultimate challenge. Widely considered the most challenging climbable volcano in Nicaragua, it begins in the swampy jungle. But, it quickly transforms into a steep, scorching oven of volcanic ash.
Climbing becomes a test of endurance, often taking one step up and two steps back. The relentless sun made things even more challenging; I sweated off my sunscreen within minutes and ended up in a tank top, hoping to catch a breeze. I returned with the worst sunburn of my life. In all my adventures, including scaling ice-capped 20,000-foot peaks in hailstorms, I’d never experienced anything quite as intimidating.
Yet, reaching the summit was a triumph. At the top, you’ll encounter an active and turbulent crater, a sight few are fortunate enough to witness. The breathtaking countryside serves as a backdrop to this thrilling accomplishment. The camaraderie formed during the climb extended into the evening, as our group gathered for beers to relive the harrowing journey.
Relaxing at Las Peñitas Beaches
After conquering a volcano or even surfing one, you can unwind at the beach in León. Taking a 50-cent public bus ride from León to Las Peñitas takes about 45 minutes. Ask the driver to drop you off at the second “playa,” which leads to the Isla Juan Venado natural reserve.
To the left, the beach stretches for miles, featuring natural pools and beachside rivers where fishermen moor their boats. The shoreline eventually meets a mangrove forest. I spent time wandering, observing fishermen as they launched their boats through the crashing waves.
To the right, you’ll find smaller but equally serene beaches, dotted with surfing schools, hostels, homes, and restaurants. At “Bar la Curvita,” I savored a plate of freshly fried fish and enjoyed a cold Toña beer for just $2 while watching the sun dip below the horizon.
Before or after you go volcano boarding in León, don’t miss the chance to visit the rooftop of the León Cathedral. This pristine white structure, shoes-off for visitors, features minarets that evoke the architectural wonders of Turkey or Greece. From the cathedral’s rooftop, you can gaze out upon the entire city, the lush countryside, and capture some of the most stunning photos in Latin America.
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