Last Updated on August 13, 2022

Volcano surfing is surely one of the most interesting extreme boardsports out there. One may think of it as a spin-off of sandboarding – except it is practiced on hardened lava slopes.

There are only a few, selected active volcanos where this sport can be practiced, despite this it has gained popularity as a tourist attraction (especially in Cerro Negro, Nicaragua).

Although volcano boarding as we know it is a relatively new activity, Hawaiians have been known to sled down beds of volcanic rocks for thousands of years, in what was both a traditional sport and religious ritual known as He’e holua.

Volcano Surfing in Mt. Yasur, Vanuatu
Sandboarding down Active Volcano Mt Yasur, Vanuatu. Sky’s the Limit TV.
Ancient Hawaiian Volcano Sled
Ancient Hawaiian hill sled (papa holua), & surf board (papa hee nalu).

Ancient Hawaiian Lava Sledding

He’e holua (“sled surfing“) was practiced in ancient Hawaii possibly as far back as 2.000 years ago and it is one of the earliest known forms of volcano sledding. It consisted of using a long and narrow wooden sledding platform (papa holua) to glide down a path made of lava stones, whether man-made or naturally occurring.

The practice was banned in 1825 by British missionaries but nowadays there are active efforts to resurrect it, with around a hundred Hawaiian riders currently practicing the sport.

He'e holua lava sledding as praticed in ancient Hawaii
Holua Sledding (He’eholua), the ancient form of volcano sledding practiced in Hawaii. Public domain.

Modern Volcano Boarding

Modern volcano sledding and surfing are much more recent activities, which share much of their popularity and equipment with sandboarding.

American journalist and transhumanist (not to mention past U.S. presidential candidate) Zoltan Istvan claims to have invented volcano boarding in 2002, while on an assignment for National Geographic Channel in the South Pacific.

Istvan filmed himself dune sledding on the slopes of the Mt. Yasur volcano in the island of Tanna, Vanuatu, while an eruption was about start, effectively popularizing the sport.

Video: Volcano Boarding: The New Extreme Sport (2002)

Volcano surfing in Tanna island, Vanuatu. Credits: Zoltan Itsvan – National Geographic

Since then, an increasing number of athletes around the globe have been reported trying volcano surfing. The San Francisco Chronicle described volcano boarding as “Russian roulette on a snowboard”, although not many people today practice it while an eruption is currently undergoing.

Cerro Negro and the Raise in Popularity

What truly popularized the sport were the effort of Australian-born Darryn Webb, who climbed the Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua in 2006 and decided to attempt sliding down using different types of, well, “boards”: mattresses, fridge doors, a pic-nic table, surfboards, and so on.

In the end, he found that the same technology used to build sandboards was what worked best, i.e. a hardwood ply board with a Formica laminate bottom.

Webb was at the time the owner of the Bigfoot Hostel in the nearby city León, which can now be considered the capital of volcano surfing worldwide. Volcano boarding transformed tourism in Nicaragua, with scores of tourists visiting León every year hoping to slide down the black lavic slopes of Cerro Negro.

Unlike Mt. Yasur, which is one of the most active volcanos in the world, Cerro Negro last erupted in 1999, and it’s this last eruption that gave birth to the main slope where sandboarding is practiced.

Expert athletes have attempted sandboarding on Mt. Bromo in Indonesia, the Mt. Etna and Mt. Stromboli volcanos in Italy, and Mt. Fuji in Japan, but none of these locations are as accessible for volcano surfing as Cerro Negro. More recently, sandboarding tours have started being offered on the slopes of the volcano Pacaya in Guatemala, which last erupted in 2021.

Volcano Boarding in Cerro Negro - Leon, Nicaragua
Volcano surfers on top of Cerro Negro in Leon, Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Adam Jones.

Volcano Boarding Tours in Cerro Negro – Nicaragua

Read also: History and Origins of Sandboarding


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