Cartagena, Colombia: a hot, historical city on Colombia’s tropical Caribbean coast. We originally planned to spend a week here, our very first stop on our year long travel adventure. But due to forces beyond our control, we’ve ended up here for a week longer than planned (ok, here’s what happened: we were supposed to go on a 6-day trek through the jungle. But then it was too hot, so we didn’t. We’re not what you’d call hardcore adventure enthusiasts, ok?) During our extra week, having seen all that we could of the historical center, the various museums, the beaches of Bocagrande, and the street art filled Getsemani, we decide to venture out to one of the widely advertised tours in Cartagena: taking a mud bath inside of Volcan Totumo, a dormant volcano filled with, apparently, mud. For 60.000 COP each (about $20 USD) the price seems reasonable for an all-day tour (with included lunch! Sold). We check out the TripAdvisor reviews for Volcan Totumo and they’re legit (we have a habit of always trusting strangers on the internet, usually with disastrous results). Visiting the mud volcano seemed like one of the most popular (and unusual) things to do in Cartagena. We figured taking a mud bath sounded a little bit spa-like. And taking a mud bath in a volcano … well, that’s one of those things you know will come in handy as a conversation starter at a party sometime. Little did we know that Volcan Totumo is Cartagena’s most ridiculous tour…
Leaving Cartagena for Volcan Totumo… sort of
On the day of our mud volcano our, our spirits are high when a shuttle bus picks us up on time from our hostel early in the morning. I’m pleased that we don’t have to spend money on a taxi to get ourselves to the location of the tour office, which is in Bocagrande (because I am a notorious penny pincher and it would cost like a whole $2). The shuttle bus picks up only 1 other guy and then immediately heads in the direction of the office. Hmm, maybe this will be a small trip, we think optimistically. We weren’t yet familiar with the secret rule of Colombian transportation: if a bus has an empty seat, it will drive around for hours to find someone to fill it before heading to its destination.
Once we arrive at the office, we board a larger bus – similar to one of the big coach buses we’d gotten used to taking around Colombia. Definitely not a small trip: there’s room for at least 30. Things are still looking good … until we spend the next 2 hours driving around the same 4 blocks, meeting shuttle vans and slowly accumulating other people from their hotels in Bocagrande. I am not a morning person, and I resent losing 2 hours of my sleep. I think I actually would have preferred to shell out the $2 (GASP)!
After a very long time, and a very in-depth tour of the same 4-blocks, we finally begin the drive out of Cartagena towards the mud volcano.
Actually Leaving Cartagena for Volcan Totumo
A little while after we leave, our guide for the day, Vanessa, stands up and gives us a rundown of instructions. She speaks slowly and clearly, but in Spanish, so I only understand about half of what she’s saying. Somehow, “mud baths” was not one of the categories of vocab words we learned at school in Spanish class.
I nudge Jeremy. “She’s talking about the mud baths,” I inform him unhelpfully. “And I think she said something about lunch.” My job is translator only because it’s the only job Jeremy can’t do better than I can. We’re misinformed most of the time.
After her rundown of rules and guidelines, which are completely lost on us, she has everyone on the bus introduce themselves to the rest of the bus, which seems a little …. odd. I’ve never been on a tour bus before, so I’m not sure if this is common. I felt the social expectations of the day grow by an order of magnitude now that we had officially been asked to interact, and I didn’t like it, because I am an introvert and I actually enjoy the fact that my poor Spanish prevents me from having conversations. It’s like a nice excuse to not talk to anyone for the next 7 months, and here it was being taken away from me. Thankfully, everyone else seemed as awkward about introducing themselves as we did.
Arriving at Volcan Totumo for our Mud Baths
After our awkward introductions, we pull into the long driveway of the mud volcano. At this point our guide says something about “removarse su ropa.” Huh?
I turn to Jeremy. “I think she said something about clothing, but I don’t …” even as I’m translating, people around me start to stand up and take their clothes off, like some kind of improbable ultra-amateur porn.
The Brazilian dad next to us (we knew he was Brazilian thanks to our awkward intros and a lot of cheering about the Brazilian soccer team), with the speed of a superhero changing into their costume in the face of great danger, is suddenly wearing only tiny striped undies. It was as if as he stood, all of his clothes just dissolved and then ceased to exist. Little did I know that he would remain in those striped tighty whities for the next 8 hours of my life.
Horrified at the notion of removing all of my clothes on a bus filled with people (we’re American – privacy is our RIGHT, dammit), and shocked by the hairy Brazilian Dadbutt suddenly filling my field of vision, I stare wide-eyed and stricken at Jeremy. “I’m not changing into my bathing suit here,” I hiss. He nods, similarly horrified. We sit awkwardly in our clothes while everyone around us is happily in various states of undress.
Finally we all pile out of the bus to a little hut sitting next to a large anthill – oh, I realize, that’s Volcan Totumo. I look for somewhere to change into my clothing, and find a tiny bathroom stall with a grimy, dirty urinal and no lock. Lovely. My only other option is the broken, clogged toilet stall next to it. I opt for the dirty urinal and hold my breath, trying not to touch the disgusting walls while I change in the tiny space.
Feeling gross, I look for somewhere to wash my hands, and find a broken sink covered in flies and dirt. Of course. Oh well, I’m about to be covered in mud anyway, I guess. I leave my belongings in a heap and make my way up to the anthill where the rest of the bus has already lined up on a huge staircase.
Attack of the Killer Volcanic Mud Bath
We spend about 45 minutes burning in the hot sun waiting on the staircase. We chat with the American behind us in line, who I find out works at my alma matter. This is exciting enough to distract me from how hot and sunny it is on this stupid staircase for about 10 seconds.
Finally we make our way up to the top of the anthill and get a chance to peek into the volcano. What we see is a small muddy pit, totally filled with writhing bodies covered in brown slime. Some guys are vigorously rubbing people as they lay jostling about in the mud next to other people who are not getting massages. There are like 30 people crammed into a 10×10 foot hole with a mud puddle in it. It’s the furthest thing from spa-like I could possible have imagined.
I start to get icked out. When someone puts her naked baby in the mud puddle, I’m full on squeamish. Like, no diaper?? Nothing to keep this kid from doing whatever he wants in this tiny mud puddle, which, oh god, I realize, has probably had the same mud in it for WHO KNOWS HOW LONG?
I examine the mud a little more closely and to my horror find a thick oil slick on top of it – remnants of sunscreen, hair gel, sweat, and who knows what else from the thousands of visitors to the volcano. How do you clean a mud puddle? You can’t! The realization hits me like a slimy pile of bricks.
I point out the the inch-thick oil floating on top of the mud pool to Jeremy, who doesn’t seem concerned. “I’m NOT putting it on my face,” I tell him obstinately, watching with disgust as several carefree tourists do just that.
Finally it is our turn to climb down the rickety ladder into the mud pool. As I descend, someone grabs my hips. “NO!” I shriek, unnecessarily loudly. “NO MASAJE!”
When I reach the bottom of the ladder, the massage guy throws me across the pool. I say “across” but there is no across because the pool is filled with bodies, all of which I careen into on my crash course to the edge of the pool. I flail helplessly but the mud, like some kind of alien goop, has different properties than water and there’s no way to control the propelling of your body. To my relief, Jeremy grabs my hand and pulls me towards a wall, rescuing me from flying face first into Brazillian Dadbutt. We hunker in an unoccupied space, trying not to touch the various limbs of people all around us.
“Having fun?” I grumble in Jeremy’s general direction.
Of course, he is. My husband is like a happy puppy in every situation.
— Practical Wanderlust (@practicalwander) June 2, 2017
I push the oil slick slowly advancing towards me away every 3 seconds and hold on to the wall for dear life.
hiding vantage point, I can observe the rest of the cramped pool. Lots of people have decided to completely cover themselves in mud, faces and hair and all. I have no idea why, but they looked like they were enjoying it. Meanwhile, I flinch whenever someone splashes mud close enough to land near my eyes and mouth (I’m SURE this mud is poisonous).
Next to me, an old woman who is lying face down in the mud getting a massage sputters and calls out for help – she’s gotten the mud in her eyes and it’s burning. See. Poisonous. She calls for help unanswered for so long that others in the mud puddle start to call for help for her. There is an entire chorus of mud-covered creatures all yelling out for help, like a scene out of a horror movie: Attack of the Killer Mud Bath. Finally one of the mud volcano workers brings over a small bottle of water and dumps it on the old woman’s face.
Someone asks me and Jeremy to pose for a picture. I try to manage a smile.
Attack of the Killer Volcanic Mud Bath 2: Revenge of the Abuelas
After a few minutes of bobbing in the mud and pushing oil away from me, I inform Jeremy that I feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth. We pull ourselves out of the mud up another rickety ladder. Someone starts rubbing me everywhere to help me get the mud off. It is entirely too much hands-on activity for me.
Still covered in slick mud, we make our way down another tall staircase, hobble across hot gravel with no shoes, and walk down to where we were told there’s a lagoon to jump in to wash off the mud in. Only, there is no lagoon. There is only a muddy puddle of water, a swamp, and some old abuelas sitting next to giant tanks of dirty, muddy water pulled from either the puddle or the swamp.
They instruct us to sit and begin vigorously sponge bathing us from head to toe with the dirty water. Hands reach into my bathing suit to shake out mud. There is so much touching. But for some reason this is not optional – you have to let the abuelas wash you, and then you have to pay them for it.
The abuelas are aggressive and don’t do a particularly good job. Jeremy and I emerge from our sponge baths still dirty and feeling a little violated. I just want to not have mud on me anymore, so I make my way back to the tiny dirty urinal and change again. I still feel gross and still want to wash my hands.
After waiting a little while, we all climb back on the bus – still fairly muddy, still mostly not wearing clothing, still with Brazilian Dadbutt hanging out all over the place. We drive 45 minutes to the tiny fishing town of La Boquilla where we are supposed to get lunch. Lunch is actually very good, despite being seated across from Brazilian Dadbutt, who found a way to put his hairy butt in my face at every opportunity (like everywhere I looked, his butt was somehow there first. How?!). After the meal, we all go out to the beach and jump in the warm Caribbean water. Finally, something enjoyable. I swim with all of my clothes on, just relishing not having mud on me. That was by far the best part of the day. Although to be fair, we’d done the same thing the day before without paying to be covered in mud first.
We get back on the bus still soaking wet (and without Brazilian Dadbutt putting on any more clothing) and drive back to Cartagena. We drive for another 2 hours dropping off absolutely everyone (Brazilian Dadbutt literally waltzes into his hotel wearing only tighty whities) and we’re finally told to get out of the bus a 15 minute walk away from our hostel. I guess the drop-off service isn’t included for everyone. So nice to be informed. We walk back through the city to our hostel, soaking wet. I immediately take a shower.
My honest opinion of Volcan Totumo
Volcan Totumo was the most ridiculous tour I’ve ever done. It’s certainly the most ridiculous tour in Cartagena, Colombia. But it’s also one of the most unique things to do in Cartagena. If you’re up for a weird experience and a funny anecdote, and you don’t mind being dirty and covered in oily mud while swarming around other bodies in a tiny volcano, then this is the tour for you!
What’s the most ridiculous day trip or tour you’ve ever been on? Leave us a comment!
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