When I travel, I’m up for just about anything. So when I found out about an opportunity to jump into a volcano and get covered in mud during a vacation to Cartagena, Colombia two years ago, I immediately signed on.
My travel partner and I were picked up outside our hotel by a minivan that already held a family of four visiting from the United States, a young couple on break from their seasonal jobs in Antarctica, a retired couple also from the States, and a Colombian couple with their school-age daughter.
After riding for about 40 minutes through swampy lowlands, the driver turned down a gravel road and a mile or so in sat a tall, gray mound. A few run-down wooden huts were located off to the side, along a slight, rocky and muddy incline that lead to a large lake.
This is the volcano?
VOLCAN EL TOTUMO
According to a faded, hand-painted sign, yes, we had indeed arrived at Volcan El Totumo, a 65-foot-tall mud volcano about 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside of Cartagena that is known for its supposed skin-enhancing qualities.
As we piled out of the van, we were told to leave our bags behind, strip down to our swimsuits (which you’ll want to put on before leaving your hotel room that morning) and hand our clothes to the young local men standing at the foot of a rickety, wooden staircase that leads to the mouth of the volcano.
Up we gingerly climbed.
Sure enough, at the top was a crater full of dark, gray goo that indeed did resemble the Origins mud mask I used to cleanse my face each week. Even though it was an overcast day, the view from the top was a beautiful expanse of lakes, lagoons and greenery.
We handed our cameras to a local villager, who took our pictures with them as we lowered ourselves into the muck. The kids loved it.
Being enveloped by the thick, cool mud felt odd at first, yet strangely comforting. It was more difficult to move around than anticipated, and you don’t sink easily as the mud is very thick and being pushed up from out of the earth, so you end up sort of bobbing on the surface with occasional bubbles and emissions of gas gurgling around you.
Men from the neighboring village help people in and out via the slick stairs and will give massages while you’re in the mud bath. Others in the group weren’t so inclined, but my friend and I, being the massage worshipers that we are, didn’t hesitate, and ended up enjoying a 30-minute full-body rub down — from head to toes and everywhere in between. We looked like creatures from the black lagoon when we finished, but we felt great.
After the mud bath, we were carefully led back down the stairs and toward the lake, where local women carrying large plastic tubs pounced upon us. Before realizing what was happening, our swimsuits were removed (underwater, of course) and scrubbed clean by one group of women while the others worked diligently to purge the mud from our hair, ears, under our nails, everywhere. Just as stealthily as they were removed, within minutes our suits were back in place, and we were led out of the water, clean as can be.
We all agreed — our skin felt amazingly smooth.
At the huts we picked up our shoes, clothes and cameras and tipped the workers for their good deeds — anywhere from $.50 to $3.00, said our guide, depending on the services used. I tipped the boy who watched my belongings $1, the cleaning women $2 each and my masseur $5.
We stopped by a small, seaside fishing village for lunch, which was included in the$15 price for the tour, and returned to Cartagena mid-afternoon, relaxed and refreshed.
I’ve had my fair share of wonderful luxury spa treatments over the years — for much more money — but the unique and authentic mud bath at El Totumo, which in total cost a mere $25, remains one of my most memorable experiences.
Not bad for a day in the mud.
The cost for the El Totumo tour has increased to between $20 to $25 (depending on the exchange rate of the Colombian peso) since my visit, as have the suggested tips. Total cost for the tour, including massage and tips, will likely run $30 to $40.
Volcano Mud Bath — El Totumo, Cartagena, Colombia