Have you ever bathed in a mud pit? This is the question that our tour guide asked us at the base of “Volcán del Totumo.” The “volcán,” which looks more like an overgrown anthill than a volcano, is located about an hour north of Cartagena, Colombia. I first stumbled upon this tourist attraction through a travel website and booked a tour with the “Backpackers” organization almost immediately before I could talk myself out of it.
A friendly representative met me at my hotel to board the minivan that was to take us to the volcán. My tour mates included two Dutch men in their late twenties and a family of three from Peru. Not more than 15 minutes into our journey, our driver pulled over to the side of the road to inspect the car. He saw nothing visibly wrong with the vehicle, however, when he tried to start up the car again the engine puttered and silenced. He turned the key again with no luck. It looked as if our little tour had come to an unexpected halt.
The minivan sat on the slim shoulder of a bridge on a busy highway, which overlooked the Ciénaga de la Virgen body of water. When it became clear that the van could not be easily fixed, the tour guide called another van to come pick us up. Our tour guide was very lighthearted and personable, which is much appreciated in these sorts of situations. He said that we got lucky because at least we could disfrutamos de la vista (enjoy the view). About 45 minutes later we were rescued by another (better, air conditioned) van.
To get to the Volcán del Totumo we had to drive through rural and impoverished areas of the Bolivar region. There were many “houses” that looked like temporary shelters. Other edifices were more complete (with proper doors and windows), but they still looked rather sad with their barbed wire and chipped paint. We also passed through a small open-air market, which looked just as poor as the surrounding areas.
The volcán sits on a big and beautiful lake with bright blue water and green grass and trees surrounding it. As we parked, our tour guide explained the “pricing” of our experience. The ride and admittance are included, but there were three important extras to take note of: 1. a mud massage in the volcán, 2. photos taken of you in the pit, and 3. a washdown from a local woman afterwards, each cost 5,000 Colombian pesos extra ($1.54 USD each at the time of this writing).
The tour guide watched our belongings as we headed towards the volcán barefoot and in our swimsuits. To get to the top, we had to ascend a long, narrow, and (quite frankly) treacherous staircase. At the summit, we stood around a 10’ x 10’ pit filled with lodo (the muddy mix of water and earthy sediments). The hole was packed with slimy human bodies. The scene was almost grotesque as half-naked people squirmed, slithered, and cried out in pleasure and amusement at the mud massages and the absurd experience. Despite the scene, I stepped in. The lodo, surprisingly, felt very, very nice! It was thick, warm, and had a consistent texture.
After a quick dip, we clung desperately to the handrails of staircase as we made our way down from the volcano. We then bathed in the lake, which was also surprisingly warm and pleasant. I did not opt to be washed down by a local. I did not get totally submerged in the mud, which made it easier to remove the thick, tenacious mud from my skin and swimsuit.
Despite problems with the journey, my experience with Volcán del Totumo was good overall. I think that this has a lot to do with managing expectations. Since I am on vacation, I tried my best to come in with a “go-with-the-flow” attitude. Even though my hotel pickup was late, the minivan broke down, and the volcán experience itself was a little like a cattle call with the high number of tourists, the experience for me was unique and memorable.
It can be hard to step out of one’s comfort zone. It can also be hard to stay positive when things do not go as planned. Regardless, I’m glad I said “yes” to this trip today. While things were not perfect, they were interesting, memorable and, ultimately, turned out to be good. I hope you too, Dear Reader, will open yourself to new opportunities and worthwhile experiences in 2020.