There's only one real rule to remember when skiing down the face of an active volcano in Nicaragua: Don't fall.
With a couple of feet of snow, it'd be four turns down the 40-degree slope near the summit of Volcán Cerro Negro, a 2,215-foot smoldering mound that last erupted in 1999. On lava rocks, well, that's another story. Outfitter Pierre Gedeon, who lured me here, has would-be schussers sign a release in case the volcano blows them into space, but I was more leery of sharp little black rocks standing in for powder.
I launched from the top, soon picking up speed, and that's when I violated the rule. Because rock resists in a way snow doesn't, the proper turning technique involves planting and jumping. Instead, I tried to slide, caught my edges, and skidded down the volcano on my arms and chest. When I stopped, my forearms resembled carpaccio. I didn't need to look at my chest; the dozen red matchstick points on my shirt told that story.
Once I started turning correctly, though, the run was a blast. Gedeon, 37, a Frenchman who grew up skiing at Chamonix and carved his first turns on Cerro Negro in August 2001, did the last stretch in a straight line, lying back on his tails. Halfway down, I paused to look around. I could see four active volcanoes of the Cordillera Los Maribios stretching to the north, whitecaps on the ocean 20 miles west, and intensely green countryside rolling south to the horizon. Central America's largest country49,579 square mileshas heaping helpings of what its neighbors offer: Caribbean islands to rival those in Honduras, cloudforests and fauna to equal Costa Rica's, impressively preserved Spanish colonial cities to match the ones in Guatemala, and enough secret surf spots along its 230-mile Pacific coast to put Panama to shame. It has 19 active volcanoes and dozens more that sit dormant. All this in a nation that hasn't felt the commercial scythe of Cancún-style development.
When we reached Cerro Negro's base, six armed men on horseback appeared. Twenty years ago, during the contra war, when U.S.-backed forces were fighting the leftist Sandinistas for control of the country, this might have been worrisome. Even today, many Americans think of Nicaragua as a war-torn nation. But political and criminal violence is rare now, after more than a decade of peace and with a stable government in place. And if the tourist infrastructure remains thin, it just means that visitors spend more time getting to know real Nicaraguansand the expats who have gravitated to a country where their dollar goes further than anyplace between Mexico and Colombia.
The riders, it turned out, were deer hunters. We joked that we wanted to trade our skis for a horse. They laughed in a way that indulgent parents might, as if to say, "Yes, gringos are crazy. Some are dangerously crazy. But most, like these two carrying skis around a smoking volcano, are just harmless lunatics."
During my two-week ramble last Novemberfrom the Cordillera Los Maribios to adventure base camps in colonial Granada and León, from San Juan del Sur on the Pacific to Little Corn Island in the CaribbeanI found the best things to do in Nicaragua. And not all of them are crazy.