By Lisa TE Sonne
Riding down the black rubble of a volcano on a wooden sled (sitting or standing) may sound a little crazy, but it is one of the latest sports. Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro, the still active and young volcano, is the hot spot — no plants exist on its ebony slopes. The hike up can be steep but the surroundings are starkly, primordially beautiful. Steam puffs out of vents in the vast vistas. Hikers feet crunching provides a rhythmic soundtrack.
Once up, it seems worth the climb just to turn 360s and take in the rawness of uninhibited nature. But thick protective jump suits, pads, goggles and instructions are issued, so we can shoot down safely. Those who tucked in and went for quasi-luge-like speed got their adrenalin rush uniquely leaving wakes of dust.
I was surprised by how slow I could go by sticking my feet out and letting rubble pile up. I could stop, take a photo, then whoosh, or slow down. By the time I reached bottom, I wanted to do the hour plus hike and glorious ride again. But there was more to see in Nicaragua, a place sometimes associated in Boomer minds with revolution and violence. Now, though, Nicaragua's evolution seems to be for friendly, safe, economical tourism, with diverse attractions. I loved the genuine smiles and helpfulness of locals (not yet jaded by too many tourists). I found that I, too, had a lot to smile about – on and off the volcano's black gravel slopes.
A much older boarding sport, surfing may look like the realm of the young, but the glee of yelling “Cowabunga!” s not limited by years, especially if you get a comfy resort lesson.
Probably the most iconic place to learn (and one of the easiest) is a stretch of Waikiki, Hawaii. This is where “The Duke” surfed (Kahanamoku, not John Wayne), and that was good enough for me when I hit 50 and thought experiences, rather than things, were a good way to have a mid-life spree. The Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki where I was staying set it all up, so I just had to do the proverbial “show up.”
As we lay on our big, old-fashioned “long boards” on the warm sand, and practiced getting up quickly on our feet, it was the extra pounds, not the extra years that challenged me, and humbled me. The well-toned kids that flanked me enjoyed seeing someone their parents’ age give it a go.
Time came to paddle out (or let the instructor pull and push the board as he did for some). The guide also cues us novices for which waves to catch. The warm waves here are more like powerful wavelets, not very high but wonderfully long to the shore, so there’s time to get adjusted before standing.
And when I did stand up the first time with pleasure and a bit of astonishment, I saw Diamond Head to my right and felt for a moment like an Aloha Gidget. When I got home, I took more surfing lessons — with colder, bigger waves off Huntington Beach and Oxnard, both California cities renowned for some sweet surf. I’ve a lot more to learn, but I now understand how people can be addicted to the zen of the zone when you catch a ride just right!
Paddle boarding is a sport that can be learned and enjoyed in one lesson—with physical fitness and flat waters. I haven’t tried it in the ocean yet. My initiation with Aquatica Dive and Surf was on a warm, slow river without rapids, so standing up on the broad long board was not much harder than straddling a wall and then standing up. Getting from the water onto the board takes some practice and willingness to forgo grace. The guides were there to help.
In paddle boarding, like in so many things in life, the key is finding your center of balance, as well as the center of balance of what you are depending on. On the shores of a Caribbean lagoon, we practiced how to hold and to turn the pole with one curved paddle. Then in shallow water with a soft, sandy floor below, we tried finding the right place on the board for our feet to achieve a center of balance
The experience was a bit like stand-up kayaking, or hiking with your arms. With no machines involved, our little group could hear nature’s songs and sighs around us. We could talk and laugh with each other, as we paddled our way past tropical vines, flowers, birds, and small waterfalls.
I love watching these colorful commas carve up the sky off Southern California beaches, but to actually try the lofty sport, I opted for a lesson in warmer waters: Puerto Rico – no passport, currency exchange, or language lessons required for US travelers.
The Tourist Board recommended X as an early pioneer and great teacher who works on a part of the coast that usually supplies the right wind speed (X) and direction of wind for easier learning.
We practiced with harnesses in the sand for the knowledge and feel of playing with the wind and to learn to steer. The harness was much more comfortable than I anticipated, designed not to pull on any particular body parts. The rigging carries the strain. The sport seemed to require more mind than muscle, so I was warily excited when we graduated to the water. We took turns being towed along the shore with the kite portion in the sky, plowing us through the chops until we were allowed to fly up..
Too suddenly, the weather went from paradisical to foreboding as I waited my turn. Then the sky cried, and I wanted to also.
I wouldn’t get my chance that day to be a kite. I was on an activities tour that moved on in the warm rain,, but if I were planning a vacation I would have allowed days to learn and soar — to play in the air. But, at least now when I see the commas in the sky, they give me pause to think, "That’s not impossible!"
Boarder Beware: If you have any doubts about your heart or knees, et al, check with a doctor before you head out. Exercising to improve your strength, flexibility and your cardio-vascular health…well, you know!
Puerto Rico Tourism www.seePuertoRico.com
More on Paddle Boarding: http://luxurytravelmavens.com/destinations/paddleboarding-in-puerto-rico/
Austin Adventures (formerly Austin Lehman Adventures) for customized trips in Nicaragua: http://www.austinadventures.com
And here’s the Resource List from World Tourist Bureau for International travel, to check on the safety and health requirements of individual countries: http://www.worldtouristbureau.com/resources.html
Lisa TE Sonne just won a Gold for Destination travel writing from NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association). Her travels have taken to all seven continents as well as up (weightless with astronauts in a training plane over Russia) and down (the “Tongue of the Sea” as first woman to “fly underwater” in an aviator submersible.) She also likes traveling “to” (restaurants, spas, plays and museums) and “in” (intriguing retreats; caves with sharks, sea turtles or ancient pictographs).
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