Leon is instantly charming, and becomes even more so the longer you wander its uneven sidewalks, eat its outstanding food, partake in its many neighbouring activities, and melt in its almost oppressive heat. We had vague notions of things to do in and around Leon. We’d heard something about seeing lava, and Tim was dead-set on volcano boarding. We began the process of scouting out things amongst a beat of cold beer and ridiculously good BBQ.
Let’s start with the barbecue. There are a number of restaurants on the fringe of the centre that offer a basic, large, filling plate of tasty meat, rice, and salad for around 60 Cordoba (around 25 C to the USD, so about $2.50). There are options to add sides of delicious fried potato fritter things, plantains, etc. Despite being at a marginally higher price-point, with slightly less delicious chicken, my favourite location for such tasty awesomeness was a barbecue stand set up behind the main cathedral in the centre of town.
Every evening, a couple of ladies and their crew of helpers set up epic barbeques directly behind the cathedral. You pick your meat of choice, from chicken to chorizo to beef, add whatever sides you like, and sit and devour your glorious meal on the plastic picnic furniture situated behind the barbecues. You can get these meals to stay or to go, with the “to go” option getting wrapped up in banana leaves and put in a plastic bag. Sides are plentiful here, and you’re able to choose any or all of rice, cabbage salad, fried potato fritter thing, fried spinach ball thing, fried zucchini pancake thing, fried banana, fried corn fritter with cheese thing, and more. (See a pattern? Who could not love so many delicious fried goodies?) Depending on how big you make your meal, it will probably run you somewhere between 80 and 100 Cordoba ($3-$4). The first day we ate there, after our long and poorly nourished bus ride, we went big. The subsequent evenings we ate there (almost every one) we refined our ordering strategy to get the best of all worlds. It’s really impossible to go wrong. We did venture out to established eateries offering a similar thing, and the chicken was, indeed, better, but I personally preferred the smoky, loud, interesting ambience of the street side barbecue.
Well-fed on barbecued meats and far too much fried stuff, we were, over the next couple of days, well-equipped to begin shopping around for things to do. Things to do around Leon primarily revolve around volcanoes, and a quick glance at the horizon tells you why. Nicaragua is a key piece in the Pacific Ring of Fire, and has an arc of – depending who you speak to – between 18 and 50 volcanoes illustrating that point. (Only a handful of these are considered active today). Many of these are a short hop from Leon.
Quetzaltrekkers is a well-regarded tour operator in Guatemala and Nicaragua. It’s staffed by competent and knowledgeable volunteers, and all of its proceeds go to local charities. We popped into their office to see what was on offer out of Leon. They offered volcano boarding for $30 per person, including park fees, to Cerro Negro. They also answered our question, basically before we’d asked, about our other desired activity in Leon – their activities board had “See Lava!” scrawled above a picture of a volcano and we learned that this opportunity existed at Volcan Telica. They offered an overnight guided trip to the volcano for 55 USD per person.
Similar to our experience in Guatemala with Acatenango, it sounded like something we wanted to do, but we just didn’t want to pay that much for it. Their overnight trip was leaving the next morning, and their office closed in about two hours, so we had some quick decision-making to do. A quick bout of research yielded less results than I would have liked, but it seemed like enough, so we decided we’d attempt to do the volcano excursion sans the tour.
The other decision was less of one: We didn’t own volcano boards, so we were sort of obliged to book onto a tour for that one. Quetzal didn’t have the numbers for a confirmed trip yet, so we ended up jumping on with Bigfoot Hostel, the pioneer of volcano boarding in Leon. The trip cost $27 to the hostel, plus $6 for park entry fees. You get transport, boards, guides, a beer after boarding down, and a mojito back at the hostel. One of the trump cards for Bigfoot is that they also are the only operator that has a speed cam, so they are able to clock your speed and let everyone know how fast they went. Obviously this makes for a bit of fun competition, with the winners each day getting their names on the board. The fastest-ever times have been there for months, with the top speed being 93 km/hour. Mental.
Volcano boarding works like this. They give you a sort of plywood board with a chunk of formica glued to the base. This is what makes you slide. The (Aussie, of course) guy who came up with this in the first place tried all sorts of items before coming up with the simple board design – a snowboard, a fridge door, a mattress. You also get a little backpack thing with an orange jumpsuit and safety goggles. You then walk up the scree-and-rock slope of Cerro Negro. The wind can pick up and grab your board a bit, throwing you off-balance, but in general it’s not a hard walk. Bring water, as the heat is a big punishing – Leon is reportedly the hottest city in Central America. Once you get to the top, there are peeks into the crater, some playing with steam, and a brief lesson on technique. It’s then time to start sending people down the slope of the volcano.
It can look a bit loose, but you can essentially go as fast or as slow as you want. The further you lean back and lift the front of the board, the faster you go. You then use your feet, just touching heels down on either side, to steer. I saw a few people get stuck because they were going too slow, so I attempted to go for it right from the start. About halfway down, I felt like the speed was getting a bit hectic, so I sat up a bit to ease the board off. The last ¼ or so of the track is where you really pick up, as the slope is about 40 degrees. At this point, I leaned back again and tried my hardest not to crash directly into the man pointing the speed cam at me. (Luckily, he moved.) They aren’t the most responsive vehicles in the world. I felt like I’d gone at a pretty good clip down the volcano, and when I got my time reported, I was right – 72 km/hr, just enough to scrape me into top position for the day. Tim had clocked in at a very quick 69 km/hr, though he had the disadvantage of going first, and also down the other trail. It had come with a couple of turns at the beginning and a few extra bumps, which I think slowed him down off the start.
I wasn’t prepared for how much fun it was going to be. Volcano boarding has been put on a number of adrenalin-junky-things-to-do-before-you-die-bucket-lists, but I don’t know if it’s really intense enough to warrant that. It is entirely unique, and a hell of a lot of fun. I highly, highly recommend it for anyone who finds themselves in Leon!
We enjoyed our (cold) beers as we piled back into the truck for the drive home. You really start to appreciate anything cold in this part of the world. Once we got back to the hostel, covered in volcanic dirt, we got into the mojitos, took the required celebratory photos, and were slowly convinced to scrap our plans of hiking Telica in the morning. Instead, we jumped on a truck that was headed out to Bigfoot’s other hostel, located right on the beach. Here we had more mojitos, played a couple of games of rather poorly executed beach volleyball, played in the pool, and then made our way back to Leon for the night. Ah, the best laid plans.