Along the Caribbean coast of Northern Colombia lies El Totumo, an active mud volcano where people come for a spa-like mud bath experience.
The change in scenery was dramatic leaving colorful Cartagena, the Caribbean-facing port city of Colombia, for the active mud volcano of El Tuumo in the country’s rural north. We’d heard of the mud’s healing properties and the unusual experience of soaking in the muck, and so my travel companions and I took the hour taxi ride to Santa Catalina, where the volcano awaited. We watched the dramatic shift from Cartagena’s cobblestone streets and vibrant colonial buildings of UNESCO World Heritage Site to the bucolic landscape of Santa Catalina, dotted by farms and homes with thatched roofs. The taxi turned off the main road and proceeded to our “day spa”: the smallest volcano in the country, approximately 50 feet high with an accessible mud-bath crater.
Upon arrival, we stripped to our bathing suits, paid the 10,000-peso entrance fee and made our way to the steep stairs leading to El Totumo–additional services, like a personal massage, are based on tipping. Or for instance, before summiting El Totumo, you can hand over your camera to a man offering to hold your belongings or take your photo.
There is no way to maneuver through the mud on your own. Workers have to push and pull people across the dense surface in order to relocate them.
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From the vantage point on top of El Totumo, the lake spanned in the distance, hazy on this hot day. We waited for our turn to be submerged into the mud–a long way down. We watched as people entered and exited the pit via the mud-caked ladder. One after the other, people lowered themselves into the muck. The mud renders bathers completely marooned with barely the ability to move your limbs or gain balance. There is no way to maneuver through the mud on your own. Workers have to push and pull people across the dense surface in order to relocate them.
While El Totumo is fairly crowded with people bobbing through the mud pit, there is a sense of organization. The attendants jockeyed each person who entered El Totumo through various stations: the entrance, a massage area, and the final relaxation part of the pit. Being massaged in a crowded mud volcano appeals to people differently. Some found this to be a squirm-worthy experience, while others enjoyed it as if it was a tranquil spa and not a volcano.
It can take a while to get used to the sensation of being in the mud. Your body feels weighed down and it is difficult to move. When (if) you do finally get comfortable with the idea that you are in the depths of an active mud volcano, it can be a relaxing and incredible experience. The mud is the perfect temperature: its depths cool and refreshing and its surface warm from the sun. El Totumo is even alleged to have healing powers. Yet this seemed to be fairly standard, non-restorative mud. While the validity of El Totumo’s curative powers is up in the air, a soak is certainly a humorous experience. The sound of laughter flooded the pit. Strangers share this dip together, sometimes to a strange discomfort.
Awkwardness aside, it can be a wonderful experience. That is until a particular moment when many people entered the mud pool–without any others having left. The workers had momentarily abandoned their stations to collect their tips from leaving guests. A slight feeling of panic seemed to fall over our group. The weight of the mud rendered us unable to exit the volcano without help, but the workers returned to pull us out and scrape us off.
Now that we were thoroughly covered in muck, it was time to wash off. In some instances, mud-bathers are able to rinse off in the nearby lagoon, but the lagoon is often too dried up to do so. Instead, there were stools set up where women from the nearby village dumped buckets of water over us all. The service was thorough: shifting our bathing suits, scrubbing every crevice clean of mud. But even with a good wash, the mud persisted. We left feeling a bit grubby and a bit violated, but fully entertained.