This is what space must feel like. The feeling of floating on nothing but being held up by something. A sensation that you are weightless. Feeling totally at peace even though a small part of your brain is screaming, “You are about to be sucked into a volcano!” In short, it was awesome.
This weekend, I visited the Totumo Volcano, a mud volcano about 50 km from Cartagena. Known in Colombia as El Volcán del Totumo, the site has become a very popular tourist destination. After reading about the volcano online, I decided that it would be a worthwhile excursion and made a reservation for a tour with Ruta Ecologica which cost around $16, $22 with lunch.
We drove along the Colombian coast for about thirty-five minutes while our tour guide, Vanessa, delivered an informative yet slightly lengthy summary of the volcano’s characteristics. The volcano is pretty deep and the mud is composed of several different minerals that are supposedly beneficial for your skin and health. From arthritis to rashes, Vanessa claimed it could heal all for a short period of time.
I began to feel a little skeptical. Was this a tourist trap? It sounds a little too good to be true. I was also a little weary of the fact that the locals were willing to become your personal masseuse, washer, and photographer for a “small price”. Vanessa said that each person would charge 3,000 pesos, a little less than $2, for each service and that we could simply say “no gracias” if we weren’t interested.
I wasn’t buying it. After living in Cartagena for three weeks, I’ve learned that the vendors are ruthless. They will do almost anything to sell their merchandise, may get upset if you don’t want what they are selling, don’t like to take no for an answer, and have adopted the strategy of battering the customer until you just buy the darn thing so that you don’t have to listen to them anymore.
When we got to the volcano, I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s pretty much the smallest volcano in the world. I think a more appropriate term for it would be a large hill. Vanessa informed us that three tour buses were behind us and we should change quickly to avoid long lines. We whipped our clothes off and began making our way up the makeshift staircase to the top. Although the volcano wasn’t much to look at, it did provide a great view of the nearby lake and surrounding scenery.
Inside the volcano turned out to be a lot smaller than I had expected and the mud was lower than the photos I had seen online. Nevertheless, the people inside the “mud hole” looked like they were having a great time. When I finally joined them, I understood why. The mud is very thick and hard to move around in. You can’t touch the bottom and it’s almost impossible to completely submerge yourself. It's like you are paralyzed on a tempurpedic mattress in space. It's a really cool feeling.
The masseuse gently pushed me through the mud in between two other tourists. Shoulder to shoulder, we were packed like sardines but I didn’t mind being so close to strangers. I was comfortable, it was cozy and the mud was cool, which was nice since it was over 90 degrees out. I got a massage and then clumsily tried to move around. After about ten minutes and a few photos we got out.
My biggest complaint is that things felt very rushed. Get in, take a few photos, get a massage, get out. When there is a huge line behind you, a “10-15 minute massage” turns into two minutes and “as many photos as you want” turns into about 5 per person. This wasn’t the tour company’s fault. It was simply the result of too many visitors.
After we carefully made our way down the volcano, we were directed to the lake where we could rinse off. We waded into the water and that’s when the locals pounced. They surrounded us and started pouring water on our heads. I repeated that I didn’t want a shower about ten times but they either didn’t listen or didn’t care. After a while I gave up, and let them scrub me down. At one point, they tried to rip my bathing suit top off but that’s where I drew the line. Even though I was annoyed, they did do a pretty good job of getting all the mud off.
For lunch, we were driven to Playa Manzanillo, a nice and quiet beach outside of Cartagena. We were given the typical dish of fried fish, rice with coconut and fried plantains. I thought it was pretty good, but the other Colombians weren’t too impressed with the food. Lunch is optional and, if you decide that you do not want it, there is another bus that will take you back to Cartagena. For about an hour, we explored the beach and relaxed.
If you are planning to visit the volcano, I would suggest going during the week and to try to avoid holidays. When there are fewer people, your experience will undoubtedly be more enjoyable. Also, decide whether you want a massage or bath before hand. If you don’t want to spend the extra money, make it very clear that you don’t want what they are offering.
Overall, the trip was very worthwhile. Being inside the volcano was really fun and a very unique experience!