Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nicaragua – León, a surfer's paradise

Our guide giving a demonstration
on Cerro Negro
León is the place on the planet to surf: Three distinct surfing choices await every visitor, one is exclusive to León... We actively participated in two of them. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though, more about the surf in a while.

We arrived in León in luxury, after quite a trip: 6am ferry from Moyogalpa, Express chicken bus to Managua, which got pulled over twice by the police. Then a sardine can shuttle-van to UCA (terminal in central Managua) and finally from there an unexpected air conditioned mini bus to León. Yep, you read correctly: Air Conditioned! This was the first A/C mini bus in our Central American adventure that is catering to locals and not tourists – Matter of fact; we were the only Gringos on board. It gets even better: the bus left once every seat was full. Full by western standards means: one person per seat, not the usual minibus squeeze of 1½ person per seat...

León is the 2nd largest city in the country and has historically been in competition with Granada as the country's most grandiose city in Nicaragua. It's also known as the city of Artists and Poets – Ruben Dari, a famous poet and diplomat is revered in León. The city itself, is not as picturesque and clean as Granada, but it grew on us. Our first impression of León was rather mixed. It was noisy, hot, dirty... and many of the guesthouses were not really attractive. Overheated and under-whelmed, we ended up settling for the night in a place that was halfway decent called Alberque deciding to continue looking around later.
Success! We discovered a guesthouse called Colbri (which means hummingbird) with a wonderful little courtyard and fully equipped massive kitchen, gigantic rooms and fast Wifi. And especially well run and well kept…so important to us and not often enough found! Clean here is often on the surface level: floors, showers, and sheets…but the walls are ignored and leave memories of travelers gone by…and corners are something that doesn't even deserve a look as they are usually long term cobweb residences.
Laundry machine:
stepping back in time
Maybe spiders are sacred? So this place is clean but still doesn't compete with Granada's Posada Las Brisas where the place is immaculately cleaned daily and even the cloth shower curtain and floor mat was replaced after a couple of days (and everything else too, of course). By the way, something peculiar to this part of the world that rather shocks people here is the toilet procedure. The toilets are normal western ones (not squat ones). They have seats and handles that flush in a familiar way to all westerners; they have toilet paper of decent quality provided…so far so good. The twist is where you put the toilet paper afterwards. It goes in the a waste-paper bin next to every toilet and NOT into the toilet! Okay let's leave the toilet and get back to exploring León.

León cathedral
The buildings in León are certainly much more run down than in Granada. A good reason for that could be that León has not been destroyed and flattened by fires and earthquakes as much as Granada has: thus buildings are much older here. The more likely explanation is that half of Granada is owned by foreigners so more money is spent on restoration and upkeep.

Local girls enjoying the
afternoon shade
What grew on us in León is that it has a hidden charm that lies just below the surface: it just seemed so authentic and matter of fact without the shiny "polish" application that attracts most tourists. Tourists are much fewer in numbers than in Granada, and consequently blend into the cityscape disappearing into the ethnically diverse local crowd. We enjoyed being able to walk the streets both day and night without drawing much attention to ourselves. This is also the case in Granada, where so many full time expatriates live and operate businesses there; so, westerners are the norm.

Two on a bike is popular  here.
How romantic!

At night, León was safe enough for us to wander around, at least in the area near parque central, where nightly street food vendors setup shop. In León, street food is sold in a number of areas: Parque central is for fast food: pizza, hot dogs and burgers. The street behind the cathedral is the territory of barbeque (churrasco) and the area near Iglesia San Francisco is the place to buy what they call tacos (flautas in Tex-Mex). We really enjoyed the street food after Ometepe where there was none of that.

But what captures our taste buds the most was a little hole in the wall bakery that was so busy all day long that you have to take a queue number to get served. It's hard to see the bakery items as the wall of people waiting in from of the glass cabinets can be a few dozen. With loads fresh offerings that even change daily such as donuts, lemon meringue tarts, chocolate cake, all sort of bread... León shall not only be remembered in our memory but also by an extra pound or two around our middle. ;-)

Julane is surfing the WIFI waves.
But let's get back to the surfing thing. Two of the three options are quite obvious: Wave-riding on the Pacific coast and surfing the net. We did plenty of the second at our guesthouse but skipped the waves...

The third surfing option is an extreme sport unique to León and is called: Volcano Surfing. But don't get carried away too fast, it does not involve lightly dressed models surfing down a fiery orange glowing lava stream – we leave that to the fantasy of the special effect studios in Hollywood.

Volcano surfing involves riding on a wooden board down the steep rocky slope of an active volcano, (without the molten lava) and this at speeds of up to 80 km/h (50 mph). Sounds crazy? Trust us: it is!

We went with a tour operator called Quetzaltrekkers, They are a non-profit organization that use all proceeds to help street children and to support various school projects. So while we are going totally loco on a volcano, we are at least doing it for a good cause ;-)
Cerro Negro (black hill)
a very appropriate name
Volcano surfing (or volcano boarding as it's officially called) is done on Vulcan Cerro Negro (black hill), which is the youngest volcano in Central America. It erupts about once every 8 years, last in 1999... Hmm, does that mean that it's overdue? We are assured that it's safe to climb and anyway the pressure must have been released when the volcano Telica ~15km to the north erupted last night – (thanks for telling us on the top of Cerro Negro) now we are relieved ;-)

After an hour on the back of a truck, we arrived at the Cerro Negro national park. There we strapped the "surf boards" to our back and started the steep climb up.
Just 5 more minutes to the top
The path is basically loose, very abrasive, volcanic rock all the way to the top about at 728m. (2388ft), a bit more than 500m (1640 ft) higher than the base of the volcano. At the top, we dropped our boards and walked along the summit to the second (younger) crater that was still steaming. Digging with the shoe a bit into the loose rock we could feel the intense internal heat of the volcano when touching the newly exposed ground.
Look at my pet cricket:seeking
refuge from the hot volcano
It was hot, so hot in fact that all flying insects were seeking refuge by attaching themselves to our bodies and once they found a cool spot to rest on us, they did not want to let go, even when we tried to shake them off hard.... Now why are they up here in the first place??? The only color found here are the dead bodies of fried insects, especially green metallic beetles that look like jewels against the black volcanic terrain. Oh there is a bit of natural color found in the yellow sulfur minerals that surround the smoking geysers in the crater. Yes the smell is quite pungent too.

By the way Cerro Negro was also used to set downhill mountain biking speed records on soil. Frenchman Eric Barone reached 172km/h (107mph) before his bike literally fell apart and he tumbled down the mountain, breaking many bones. Luckily, he survived but has since given up downhill racing on volcanoes. Click here if you want to see his record run.

Surfing time!!!
Quetzaltrekkers provides safety gear for the surf, not the typical wet-suit and sun block though. Our safety kit consists of a bright yellow overall, heavy-duty gardening gloves and badly scratched up goggles... All giving a good hint of what is expecting us ahead.

We are ready to "rock 'n' roll"
The safety briefing was short: The steep slope is made up of pebble sized volcanic rock, 41 degrees at its steepest point, a total vertical drop of 500 meters. Sit on the back of the board, use your feet to steer and brake, try keeping your mouth shut (flying rocks), and try not to fall off the board. Oh, one last detail, once you start to go too fast you can't really brake anymore. Have fun!

We asked if we could stand on the board to "surf" down. You can, but you will fall, even if you are a good snowboarder. And the speed is much faster when you sit… ok, we will sit down, of course only because we want to go faster.

Julane is at the take-off ramp.
There are two tracks to go down so you can also go down in pairs of two if you like to race. The first two riders leave a huge dust trail behind them, once the dust clears it's our turn. Julane goes first and gains speed fast... Soon she's out of sight. Patrick goes next. The ride down takes about 30 seconds, depending on your speed. Small rocks fly up everywhere, hit your face and protective goggles. Even if you are tempted to smile for the camera at the bottom, you will remember that smile later by the grit you'll be spitting out… unless you like the feeling of sandblasting your teeth.

Once at the bottom, we all have a big grin on our faces. Now it is a good time to open your lips and smile for the camera, your white teeth will contrast nicely with your powdery black exposed skin. Julane had pebbles everywhere: somehow they managed to find an entry through the baggy overalls and filled her bra. Shake, shake, shake! We look like chimney sweeps in yellow overalls.

Yeah, we get to do it again!
By the way... see the eruption of
Vulcan Telica in the background?

Phillip our guide asks, "Who wants to go again?" We of course can't wait to do it again,
but half of our group decides to watch the second run from the safety of the nearby ranger station. We actually were impressed with the people that sat out the second run. They were a group of Germans in their late 50's, I don't know many people of that age that would consider doing such a wild thing in the first place, so they have our deep respect for doing even one run!

The climb up is much harder and faster this time and the abrasive ash is scratchy when we wipe the sweat of our foreheads, but the effort is worth it. As soon as we reach the summit we gear up again and go for round two.

Patrick managed to get a faster board this time (the wooden board has a solid steel plate on the bottom that is reinforced with a partial Formica sheet glued to the spot below where you sit, depending on the strength of the glue, the sheet might loosen and create some friction causing a minor braking along the way). His second run was fast, so fast that one of the people at the bottom had to quickly move to the side to make room for him... he's too fast to break Woooohaaa!

Check out our Video below to get a good impression of the crazy ride!

Julane has a slightly slower board this time – her first run was much faster. After the second run, we both look like we desperately need a shower!

The two climbs to the top together added up to a bit more than 1000 vertical meters (3280ft) afterall; hence, we were quite knackered after the two rides down. Thankfully we were offered a good sized lunch before driving back to León. We couldn’t wait to take a good shower. For the next two days we could feel the fine volcanic ash stuck in our hair, despite a number of good rinses. We consider this a free scalp exfoliation compliments of Cerro Negro.
UPDATE: seems that our YouTube video was also appreciated by the German Magazine DerSpiegel

If you are in León you should definitely consider using Quetzaltrekkers, be it for a 2-3 day hike or volcano boarding. The guides were great and your money goes to a good cause.

We are leaving León and heading to the highlands where we hope to cool off a bit... Next stop Estelí.