CERRO NEGRO, Nicaragua — Peering down from atop the Cerro Negro volcano, it's easy to see how a daredevil on a bicycle earned a land speed record gliding down its cinder cone slope.
The drop is a stomach-churning 41-degree angle, for nearly 2,000 feet.
Tourists do it for fun.
The instructor laid out the drill. He would give each of our simple sleds a push, and we would hurtle down the slope as fast as we could, a weird bobsled run through hell.
"Most of the people, when they get down to the bottom of the volcano, are always wishing they went faster," Anthony Alcalde said by way of encouragement.
Not me. I was just hoping to survive.
Volcano-boarding is the latest and most unusual adventure sport to hit Central America, and it's only done on Cerro Negro, a 2,388-foot-high active volcano that's one of a string of some 25 volcanoes that traverse Nicaragua.
Some of Nicaragua's jungle-covered volcanoes are majestic and verdant. A few send off plumes of gases. Cerro Negro, which means "black hill," is neither handsome nor imposing. Rather, it is a belching mound of black cinder with a cone indented by two craters.
It's Central America's youngest volcano, spewing to life in April 1850 and erupting more than a dozen times since, most recently in 1995. It remains distinctly active. Dig into the cinders a bit with a shoe, and one feels heat.
The volcano had particular significance for me. Near the end of a years-long posting in Nicaragua in the mid-1990s, I took my then girlfriend and her young daughter to witness the spectacle of a volcanic eruption.
We joined a line of four-wheel-drive vehicles inching close to Cerro Negro one night, and when we descended from the vehicle it was an assault on the senses. The ground trembled. Lava moving down the slope sounded like a steamroller crunching porcelain plates. Noxious gas lingered in the air. The sight of spewing molten rock from the crater was the best fireworks show ever.
We married and left Nicaragua, and here I was, half a generation removed, back this time with our younger daughter, age 14.
At least three tour companies operate volcano-boarding trips to Cerro Negro from Leon, the onetime colonial capital of Nicaragua and the closest city.
The first person to come up with the idea of sledding down the volcano's cinder slope was an Australian.
"He decided to go down the volcano on surfboards, 'fridge doors, mattresses, anything he could find. Then he came up with the idea of the board we have now, the wooden board with the Formica (bottom)," said Gemma Cope, co-owner of Bigfoot Nicaragua, one of the tour companies.
A French cyclist, Eric Barone, brought Cerro Negro to the attention of adventure seekers. In 2002, Barone sought the bicycling land speed record pedaling down the slope of Cerro Negro. He already held a number mountain bike speed records, mostly on snowy slopes in the Alps.
In a first attempt, Barone went down on a serial production mountain bike, hitting 100 miles per hour. Then he re-ascended and mounted a custom prototype bicycle, zooming downward even faster. Barone hit 107 mph before calamity hit. His front tire blew and his frame collapsed, all recorded on video.
"I do recommend you take a look at this on YouTube," Alcalde tells us after we've huffed our way along a rocky path up Cerro Negro, carrying our individual sleds, and are preparing to descend.