‘Bizarre’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘delightfully awkward’, ‘farcical’ and ‘ridiculous’ are just some of the words that have been used to describe the experience of visiting Colombia’s acclaimed El Totumo mud volcano on the Caribbean coast – and I couldn’t agree more!
Located 32 miles (52km) northeast of Cartagena, the Volcán de Lodo El Totumo is a 15-metre high mini mud volcano that rises up from the saline marshes and swamps in the municipality of Santa Catalina. Many tourists and locals are drawn to this volcano due to the alleged medicinal benefits and the surreal sensation of floating in mud.
But is this tourist honeypot really a volcano or more of a manufactured mud pit? Well, legend has it that a natural volcano once spewed fire and lava until a local priest declared that the eruptions were the work of the devil and with a deft dousing of holy water the priest miraculously changed the fire into viscous mud with healing powers. OK, so perhaps the folklore is a modicum far-fetched and it may resemble more of a 4-storey dirt hill – but in geological terms it is actually classified as a naturally formed ‘mud volcano’. Instead of the red-hot molten lava that most volcanoes spew, you’ll find harmless warm mud. Here’s the science bit: the mud is formed when hot water begins to blend with various underground mineral deposits deep below the earth’s surface creating slurry; this mud is then forced upwards from a depth of 2,500 metres through a geological fissure and the mud-mountain is formed through the build up of sediments over many years… so there you have it, the very real ‘El Totumo’ mud volcano!
After glancing at online reviews about the place it seemed that the gloopy mud in the volcano seemed to attract almost polar opposite views from travellers – like marmite, they either loved it or hated it. I wanted to find out for myself so decided to go on a tour to the mud volcano from Cartagena.
Leaving the walled colonial city of Cartagena, it took around an hour up the coast by tour bus until we arrived. There it was in front of me – the fabled mud volcano of El Totumo! Now there’s something about the word volcano that paints a picture in your mind’s eye of something immense and astonishing. I have to admit that in reality, the first sighting of this ‘volcano’ was a little underwhelming and slightly comical! A half dozen rustic shacks and ramshackle outbuildings are the only infrastructure for what looks very much like an overgrown anthill at the end of the road.
We were ushered to the changing rooms where we got changed into our swimwear then got told by our guide to leave everything apart from our cameras in the lockers. A pilgrimage of semi-naked tourists then set out to ascend the makeshift wooden stairs complete with rickety bannisters to summit the 50-foot highpoint and enter into the belly of the mud volcano. Reaching the top we got our first glimpse inside at the thick black treacly mud a few metres below. There were already several people completely coated in mud. I handed my camera over to a local boy who gave me a knowing nod as I tried to explain the zoom. He had an array of cameras placed out in front of him – this kid was most definitely a professional. At last it was my turn to descend the slippery mud-caked ladder into what looked like a dark chocolate human fondue. The mud was warm and thick and difficult to move around in. There was no bottom to stand on but the density of the mud held me afloat – a strange feeling of weightlessness considering that this pit plunges towards the centre of the earth.
The mud volcano can accommodate 10 to 15 people at a time crammed into its crater and this close proximity means there is a lot of unintentional brushing up against or clutching at strangers as you struggle to balance. The easiest position is to lie horizontally on your back but there isn’t always enough room to do this. It wasn’t long before I was covered from head to toe and found the warm mud to be extremely soothing and relaxing. For a small tip local men offered a 10-minute mud scrub to bathers. While I was happy to embrace the bizarre and go with the mudflow, a few of the girls in our group mentioned that the masseurs were touching body parts that they would rather not have had touched! Wallowing in the mud pit for half an hour with 15 complete strangers was a lot of fun and we all emerged at the end of it as friendly laughing mud monsters. Climbing back up the slimy ladder was slightly tougher when you are clad in mud and it is probably worth scraping the mud off your own body rather than letting another eager local man oblige.
With each step down the volcano the afternoon sun baked the mud to my body a little more and the drying mud started to crack on our faces as we laughed at each other’s rigid zombie-like walk to the nearby lake. There laying in wait at the lake’s edge were the local washer women who beckoned us closer to pour buckets of water over us. One lady roughly scrubbed my hair and even cleaned my ears out with her fingers! Then with one lightning quick manoeuvre she swiped my swimming trunks clean off so my only choice was to swim out a little deeper into the lake to cover up while she rinsed them clean.
So is it worth it? Totally. The whole experience was bizarre, ludicrous, delightfully awkward, farcical and ridiculously brilliant! To top it all off my skin felt soft and invigorated.
Overall, El Volcán de Totumo is one of those quirky one-off travel experiences that everyone will be talking about for different reasons long after their trip to Cartagena has come to an end. The volcano itself is unexceptional to look at but the therapeutic mud bath is an exceptional, weird and fun experience. Don’t go expecting to see a volcano! Whether you enjoy your visit or not depends largely on your own outlook and expectations. Interacting with tourists and the locals at such close quarters is something you should consider before booking up on the trip. If you have explored the old city and the main sights in and around Cartagena then El Totumo mud volcano could be an unforgettable addition to your itinerary.
Tours to the mud volcano leave from Cartagena in the morning and afternoon. The general cost of this trip at time of press is COP$40,000 per person. Check if lunch is included on your tour. In addition to this cost, you should consider that tips to the local people (photographer COP$3,000, masseur COP$3,000, washing lady COP$3,000) and are an expected part of your trip if you use their services.
Some helpful hints for your visit:
1. Leave your valuables and any jewellery in your hotel in Cartagena. Apart from a camera and small amount of cash there’s no need to take other valuables.
2. You’ll need to take your own towel to dry off after you’ve washed the mud off in the lake. The bathrooms and changing rooms are very basic. Go with an open mind.
3. Try to be the first in line up to the mud volcano. In a big group, you’ll avoid having a wait of up to 45 minutes while other tourists bathe before you.
4. The massage, photos and washing are not compulsory but are almost enforced! Do keep in mind that they are part of the experience and not at all expensive. Bring small peso bills. The people you will tip rarely have any change.
5. Bring some water and snacks for the journey back to Cartagena. Alternatively, there are small stalls to buy drinks and food near the mud volcano.
by Mark Boultwood
About the author:
Mark Boultwood is an Englishman currently living in Bogota, Colombia. Mark first ventured to South America in the late 1990s, years later found himself volunteering at an animal refuge for a year, caring for a Jaguar in the depths of the Bolivian jungle. His passion for travel and new experiences landed him a decade-long role specialised in leading small group tours from Mexico right down to the tip of Argentina and almost every country in between. His interests include wildlife photography, hiking and collecting treasures from the places he travels. He is a freelance correspondent for Uncover Colombia. Follow him on Twitter @markboultwood