Cartagena was still filled with unexplored corners. We’d already spent longer than planned, but the streets lined with bright-hued houses, flower-clad balconies, small cafes and shops had hypnotized us. We roamed for hours, people watching, hunting for street art, taking in museums and historic sites and snacking, always snacking. Fresh fruit, fish for lunch by the beach, a late-afternoon beer on the seawall at sunset. We spent one whole afternoon photographing doors and door knockers! Even so, with only a few days left before our flight to Medellin, we wanted to experience something outside the city walls.
Getting to the Mud Volcano
We decided on a day-trip to the famous El Totumo, a mud volcano located between Cartagena and Barranquilla. Although we usually shy away from them, we signed on for a group trip recommended by the hostel where we were staying. The company seems to have been officially Ecoturismo Los Pinos, though the guides wore items that were also branded Ruta Ecologica. In any case, they are the ones who seemed to pick up from all the hostels. There are two options: one includes lunch, the other goes directly back to the city after visiting the volcano. We opted for the full excursion, which left at 8:30 am and returned to Cartagena at about 2:30 pm. The price was 40000 COP, about $21.
The Nitty Gritty
Arriving at El Totumo, our small group of 9 was led to a private changing area with bathroom and sitting area to leave everything but our flip flops and cameras. There are public areas at the site, but without these amenities. The guide had explained on the ride that there is a process that’s been worked out to pay the local folks for several services. She made it clear that the services were optional, but also that tourism is the only source of income for the people working there. There were three of these services, each costing 3000 COP, or about $1.50. Camera service involved a young guy holding your camera and capturing your mud bath experience on film. His keeping track of whose camera was whose while holding at least a dozen was impressive!
Entering the Bath
After leaving our shoes at the bottom of the narrow, wooden stairs, we gingerly proceeded to the top of the mud volcano. From the bottom, it looks like a giant anthill. It’s a pale brown, dusty cone . . . very strange-looking. At the top, we took the opportunity to snap a couple of photos before turning the camera over to the attendant. The views from the top out over the lagoon are very pretty! Soon, we were ready to descend one by one as soon as there was time to accommodate more bodies in the mud pool. On our visit, the mud was quite low, and required climbing down a very rickety handmade ladder. We’ve seen photos of people in this same bath with the mud just a few feet from the top. It must fluctuate with the seasons and rainfall, but I’d say it was at least 15 feet (3 meters) down to get to the mud. We were told that the mud is several thousand feet deep. One local said he believed it is bottomless!
So there we were, floating in this thick, grey soup, with clumps of mud, small sticks and leaves suspended in it. You can scrape additional mud off the walls to make a thicker paste. The mud is so thick, it’s impossible to sink. There is a definite sense of imbalance in this new environment, and I for one found it hard to keep my legs under me. I found that only in a modified yoga pose, almost as if I was seated, could maintain any sort of vertical position. In a game-time decision, we both decided to go for optional service #2: a mud massage. One of the three attendants in the mud bath maneuvered each of us over so our heads were in the shade of the overhang of the rim above and proceeded to give us a good mud rubdown, back and front. It was very relaxing, and worth the $1.50 for sure.
El Totumo, like other mud domes, is not a true volcano. Rather than containing lava, its mud is formed when mineral deposits mix with water heated deep underground. Local lore, however, says that El Totumo did used to spew fire and lava until a priest, thinking it was the work of the devil, quenched it my sprinkling in holy water and turning the whoe thing into mud.
All thermal mud contains different trace elements. Around the world, people visit spots like El Totumo to benefit from the healing properties that derive from such elements. Thermal mud like that of El Totumo is formed when steam and gas under the ground mix with an upper, barrier layer of mineral water, soil and other debris like leaves and plant material. When we visited Rotorua, in New Zealand, we learned that the mud there has sulphur, calcium, sodium and silicon, among other elements. El Totumo’s boasts iodine, potassium, sulphur and magnesium. The mud is antiseptic, but also acts as a mineral cleanser. It’s said to help stop skin ageing, and we can vouch that it did leave our skin feeling exceptionally smooth and soft. Many come to bathe there for the mud’s magical healing properties, which are said to detoxify as well alleviate arthritis and other aches and pains.
Getting Cleaned Up
After a good, long therapy session, it’s back up a rickety ladder, down the stairs and down a small dirt road leading to the cienaga, the lake. The ladies waiting at the shoreline mean business, and if you don’t plan to participate in Service #3, prepare to be firm. This session involves a lady grabbing you by the hand and sitting you down in thigh-deep water as she whips off your swimsuit and rinses both you and the suit clean of all traces of mud. It’s quick and efficient, and these ladies don’t miss a spot! We were both a bit surprised to find ourselves clothing-less in the lake, Donny especially so as his lady walked away with his swim-trunks, distracted by the arrival of a new potential customer! Back at the changing area, the people who attended to you during the mud bath experience come to collect their fees. It’s a good idea to remember what people looked like, as this portion can be a bit confusing. In our case, someone came and tried to charge for the unsolicited service of rinsing off our shoes.
Manzanillo del Mar
Back on the van, we were whisked off to lunch at Manzanillo del Mar. Fish is the way to go, and beers are charged separately. The meal is essentially what you’d get at any local spot serving the set lunch option, complete with rice and beans, plantains, a protein and a small salad. There’s also time to take a dip in the sea, or relax and watch the fisherman bring in the day’s catch.
Is it worth it?
Even though it was a bit crowded, and definitely touristy, we thoroughly enjoyed our mud bath experience. It was definitely unique. These mud volcanoes are only found in a small number of accessible places, and we’re glad we took advantage of being close to one to make the trip. The total cost of the day was under $50 for the two of us, and with lunch being included, we found that to be pretty reasonable. If you like a little adventure, and don’t mind getting dirty, you’re sure to enjoy El Totumo.