Cartagena, the cruise ship port and gem of Colombia’s Caribbean coast is famous for its beautifully coloured buildings surrounded by history, architecture and archaeology. Well maintained with a historical center packed full of gourmet restaurants, clothing boutiques and emerald stores, the city of Cartagena is most definitely for those who prefer a more comfortable style of travel. Let’s take a minute to step outside of the upscale features of the city of Cartagena and look into a more unique and slightly dirtier activity this area of Colombia offers. The mud baths of El Totumo Volcano.
El Totumo Volcano is situated about 1 hours’ drive from Cartagena. The Volcano rises about 15 meters above the ground and is accessible by a staircase which leads to the crater. The mud filled crater can hold around 15 people who bathe in the dense warm mud with optional massages from attendants. The folklore of the volcano is that at one point it spewed fire, ashes and lava. Then, a local priest sprinkled holy water into it and turned it into mud which is now rumoured to have healing powers. You will have to be your own judge.
Our journey to El Totumo Volcano, one of the top things to do in Cartagena, started early in the morning at 7:30 with a drive through the Santa Catalina district of Colombia which provides sweeping views of this tropical region. When we pulled up to the Volcano, I’ll be honest…I was a little underwhelmed. It was a little smaller than I expected and even maybe looked a little bit… in my opinion, manmade. Whatever though, I was there. I was committed. If nothing else, it would be a funny experience.
We were ushered into a small building containing change rooms with some lockers to store our belongings. Next we paid our entrance fees. We were able to give our phones to attendants who would take pictures of us while we were in the mud for just $3,000 pesos ($1.50 USD). I loved this! It was great to have them there to take pictures with our phones and not have to ask the awkward question, “Will you take a quick picture of me?” Also these guys can use any camera and any phone and amazingly enough, they remember which belongs to whom (as they hold 6 or 7 cameras in their hands at once).
Once in our swim suits we marched up the staircase of the ‘volcano’ and took our first looks into the magical mud bath we were about to climb into. There were two ladders into the volcano and once inside, we could see the framing of the volcano….but who’s judging anyways? One by one we descended the ladder into the mud which felt odd. It wasn’t overly warm, it was thick enough to float in, but not sink, but not be on top of…I don’t know…I am assuming this is what astronauts feel like in 0 gravity.
There were some attendants (men) in the volcano mud waiting to give ‘massages’ for $3,000 pesos each. We had been warned before entering the volcano…you can’t see their hands under the mud and there are rumours of fingers ‘slipping’. So I entered the Volcano basically screaming ‘no gracias…no gracias…no, no, no, no, no….gracias…no quiero’. Ladies and gentlemen, I am helping you.
I was amazed at how many people they could fit into this little volcano pool. More and more people from different tour groups entered the volcano. When you’re in this weird consistency of mud, you basically have no control over what you’re doing. You may be perfectly balanced but as soon as someone new bumps into you…away you go and you can’t stop. My hands, feet, knees, elbows, and toes were going places they shouldn’t as more people joined the volcano circus. There is just no option for movement hence there is a lot of immediate bonding amongst travelers. We had a lot of fun flip flopping around the volcano but when it was time to get out…I was ok with it. I headed out first, climbing to the top of the crater where there was someone to help squeegee the mud off of me…and take pictures.
From here we were guided from the ‘volcano’ to a nearby lake where some women directed us one by one into the lake. This was a surprise and they did not take no for an answer. They simply grabbed you and took you with them into the water. Once deep enough in the lake they told us to sit down and began splashing water in our faces with plastic bowls. They were cleaning us and thoroughly at that. They were cleaning our hair, arms and even ears…yes, I think I even had a finger in my ear. Before I knew it, the woman had even taken off my bikini top…what?…what just happened. She was cleaning the mud from my bathing suit, as well as me. I just could not stop laughing. A few seconds later BOOM, she had managed to strip me of my bikini bottoms as well. I don’t even know how she managed it but I was naked amongst other tourists in the lake. Also suffering the same fate. Boy’s…don’t think you are exempt from this either, they took everyone’s clothes for a wash.
After a lot of laughing at the shock of fellow mud bathers arriving in the lake and being thoroughly stripped and cleaned, we managed to get our swim suits back on and headed back to the building where our lockers were. There were showers here which we used to clean off any leftover mud and change rooms for us to switch into our dry clothes. After having some complimentary fresh fruit, we got our phones and cameras back, paid our attendants and washers with cash and headed back into the bus for our ride home.
Did I feel the magical healing powers of this lava turned mud via holy water…probably not. I did laugh a lot at the entire process of slipping around a ‘volcano’ with 15 others and I laughed even more at the washing event which followed. Upon reflection I had a pretty good time during my morning spent at El Totumo Volcano. If you are not in a rush and have a little extra time to spend in Cartagena I believe the experience to be fun and quirky. If it is not for you then there are lots of other things to do around Cartagena. It was definitely not spa relaxing but something you won’t regret doing…once. Let me know how it goes for you.