Alison Ince, manager of Collections in National Geographic Libraries and Information Services, headed down to explore the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
Who would have thought that lying in a pool of thick gray mud would be one of the highlights of my trip to Colombia?
But there I was, in the crater of a small volcano, floating on a column of mud that stretched a mile and a half down into the Earth, thinking this was certainly one of the more unusual experiences in my life. So much mud filled my ears that the rest of the world sounded as though it was underwater. The masseuse moved from rubbing mud into my scalp down onto my shoulders. There was nothing to do but try to keep the mud out of my mouth and relax.
My two travel companions and I had heard about the mud pool at Volcan del Totumo near the coastal Caribbean city of Cartagena and were determined not to miss it on our trip to Colombia. Eager to avoid the mud rush hours–vans from Cartagena hotel tour groups in the morning, buses from cruise ships in the afternoon–we hired a taxi for the same price as a tour to drive us the roughly 30 miles from Cartagena.
An hour and a half and one flat tire later, we turned off the main paved two-lane highway onto a dirt road leading through the forest of totumo trees that gave the volcano its name. After a few hundred yards, the trees opened up to reveal the shores of a wide lagoon with Volcan de Totumo at its edge.
The volcano was smaller than I had imagined, more of a five-story high dirt hill than a seething fire mountain. But any disappointment was appeased by the realization that we had timed our visit perfectly. Here we were at a major tourist destination infamous for its crowds yet we could hear birds off in the lagoon, the wind in the trees, and light laughter from the volcano’s opening above us.
Within a few minutes the other small group had left and we were the only visitors for the next two hours. Vendors selling food and bottles of the therapeutic mud lingered around the base of the volcano but our single taxi did not seem to arouse much interest. I would later realize that this was usual; coastal Colombia is not a place you get hassled much.
We paid the $2 entrance fee, left our clothes in the taxi, and climbed the steep wooden stairs on the side of the volcano in our bathing suits. Once on the top, I confess that I took almost no notice of the spectacular view out across the lagoon next to us. I could only gaze down at the wooden ladder caked with mud that stretched ten feet into the crater to the gray mud below.
The mud was not especially pretty to look at. It had the drab color of fresh cement and while it didn’t have a strong sulphuric odor, it still smelled just as you would imagine: heavy, wet earth.
But sliding into it was all comfort. As I stepped off the ladder, the mud parted smooth as water and held me up on the surface. My legs floated up, as if I were in a sea of salt, and the easiest positions were either floating on my back or stomach.
The inconsistency of the mud intrigued me. Some layers were cool, others warm. Sometimes it felt as smooth as well-melted chocolate; other times the graininess of the dirt brushed my skin like a gentle exfoliant and small rocks moved between my fingers.
The massage was part of the experience (tips were expected at the end) and my friends and I were each treated to rubs that lasted nearly 40 minutes. While the massage by the bored-looking young man was relaxing but not especially intense, it was certainly unusual. Because we were floating, our backs and stomachs could be rubbed at the same time, lending a curious gravity-free sensation to the experience.
After the massages were over, we bobbed around in the mud for another 15 minutes, chatting with one of the masseuses. Now in his early 30s, he had been working at the volcano for more than 20 years. His baby-smooth face could have been an advertisement for the beneficial properties of the mud.
Our mud bath finished with each of us being pushed completely under the mud. For a moment I felt the mud pressing against my eyelids and worried that the seal of my lips would break from contained laughter. The situation was so absurd, so strange. We each emerged from our dunk sputtering mud and laughing.
But the adventure was far from over; now was the time to be bathed. As we wiped the mud from our eyes and slipped messily down the stairs on the outside of the volcano, three women approached us and led us down a path and into the lagoon. Pushed down into a crouch so that I was in water up to my neck, I could barely catch my breath as buckets of fresh water were poured over my head, fingers were stuck into the crevasses of my ears, and my hair was kneaded so vigorously that clumps of mud and small rocks rained into the water around me.
Both parts of my bathing suit were pulled from me, beaten against the water and tugged awkwardly back over me. As we stumbled back up the path to our taxi, stunned almost more at this final surprise than at any of the mud wallowing, I realized that my bathing suit had been replaced inside out. But it was all part of the adventure.
If you make it to Volcan del Totumo, keep these hints in mind:
- Leave all your valuables back at your hotel in Cartagena. Our driver was a friend of our B&B owner but I would not have felt comfortable leaving my belongings with a random taxi driver (true for anywhere in the world).
- Make an effort to go in the off hours and not with a tour group. In the mornings and afternoons, when the tours descend, the massages last only 2-3 minutes and up to 40 people might be crammed into the crater at one time.
- Don’t forget to tip. We tipped our masseuses, the volcano employee who held my camera and took photos of us, and the women who bathed us in the lagoon.
Photos: Alison Ince