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El Totumo Volcano (Santa Catalina, Colombia)

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Mud volcano situated in Santa Catalina, Colombia

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      05.08.2011 12:53
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      Bathe in a mud volcano on the Caribbean coast of Colombia

      We're spending a week on Colombia's Caribbean coast and though there's nothing we like more than swimming and reading and sunning ourselves, we thought we should make the effort to do one excursion, since we're unlikely to be back here any time soon. The main choices are a boat trip to nearby islands to laze on their beaches, or a dip in the local mud volcano, so there was really no contest, and with the mud still fresh in my mind (and in my ears, belly button and who knows where else) it's time to tell you about it.

      Located about an hour from Cartagena, up the coast road towards Barranquilla, the Volcán de Lodo el Totumo is a volcano in name only, as in size it resembles a large termite mound, and inside its contents are not lava but mud. Your choices are to take a tour, or to brave public transport which consists of a bus that will drop you at the side of the road, from where you need to walk about 3.5km along unsigned paths in the blazing sun. Then you would have to negotiate the entrance fee as none is advertised...and I am certain that an individual entrance would not simply be 1/25th of the group entrance we paid. Once you've paid you need to work out how it works and who and what to pay for the extras which aren't straightforward either. It doesn't take a genius to work out which way we would recommend doing the trip. Though several places sell tours, during out stay there was only one other company's bus on site, and I think whether you book with your hotel or whoever, they all pool together and the number of providers who deliver the tours is limited.

      Our day started with pick up from the tour office, and then the obligatory tour round to hotels to collect people. In the air conditioned bus (with seatbelts!) this was pleasant and allowed us to see parts of the resort we'd not come across yet (important things, like where McDonalds, Crepes and Waffles and Carulla supermarket are...) We were told the tour would be from 8.30am until 2.30pm so assumed - correctly - that this had factored in the time needed for the drive round. It was more like 9.45am when we set off up the main road, with our guide at the front explaining in Spanish and English (for the benefit of the mostly French guests on board) what our day would consist of. She was very good and included all the details you would need to know, from where to leave your towel to how much to pay for extras and so on. The trip went quickly and soon we were pulling off the main road and winding down towards the Volcano.


      Let's Get Dirrrrty

      Even though she had told us the dimensions while on the bus, it was hard to picture exactly what it would look like but yep, there in front of us was what looked like a large termite mound as we rounded the corner. Our bus parked, we were shown which cafe was 'ours' where we could leave bags and stuff, we found the loos and then it was time to get dirty.

      The volcano has to be climbed up into, and you leave your flip flops or sandals at the bottom so we gingerly climbed up the pebbly steps holding onto the rickety would-never-pass-a-UK-safety-inspection ladder. At about 15m tall you have a decent view from the top and can see you're surrounded by forests and lake on most sides. The volcano is only about 3 meters square and can hold up to I would say 20 to 30 people who like each other very much. Or 20 to 30 people who have come on the same tour and are on the same semi-strict timetable... Entrance is limited not by the overall space left, but by the availability of a masseur. Oh yes - here you not only bathe in the mud, you get massaged in it too.


      ...Nothing Quite Like It For Cooling The Blood

      Again, it is all very organised. I have to stress this because anyone who has travelled in places such as Latin America will know this is not always the case. But here they knew what they were doing. There were 4 or 5 men on the side taking photos, and I gave my camera to one of them. He was excellent and easily remembered who belonged to which camera (he must have been holding half a dozen), getting pics of us from the moment we entered to the moment we staggered out. As we got in we were offered a 'shampoo' by the first guy who clearly saw himself as the maitre d' of the mud pit. This entailed him tipping our heads back to cover us with mud, and dotting patterns on faces and bellies, in whatever artistic pattern he fancied. He then pushed us backwards into the hands of the next available masseur for our mud massage. This was optional but most people went for it, and while it was more of a rub-and-grope than a nice deep tissue affair, it was all part of the experience.


      Stuck In The Mud

      The mud had the oddest feeling to it. It was lukewarm but not as smooth as I had expected, because just like Orange Juice with pulp it was full of gunky bits. These seemed to be a mixture of dried mud pieces that felt like rocks, and what I imagine was other people's hair. But it was more pleasant than it sounds, and you soon got used to it. What took longer to get used to was the incredible buoyancy of it. We were massaged just floating there, not on a ledge or even holding on to anything, as the mud kept you in place. Later it was hard to keep your legs down though we had to try as the only way to fit so many people in was to keep them upright as there was a lot more unused space below the surface than there was above it, what with the volcano being 2500m deep. I found being a pencil (like in a primary school PE class game of Star-Pencil-Ball) was the easiest, but it was the strangest feeling, as if you were floating in space or almost walking on water. You don't need to be able to swim to get in - in fact swimming was pretty much impossible given the way you bobbed around - and there were no signs up talking about children. We had a 9 year old in our group who seemed to have fun, but everyone else was old enough to drink a cold beer afterwards.

      While we floated, lots of people continued to massage each other, or, in some cases, were getting a little amorous in the murk. Sure the mud was thick and you couldn't see what was going on underneath but my face including my lips were caked in liquid mud and I wouldn't have wanted anyone else's anywhere near me.

      As we got out the see-er off-er wiped us down with his hands to pull off the excess mud (which went back into the pit - yummy!) then we padded down the other set of stairs to the base, at which point I realised my bikini bottoms were sagging like a 3 day old nappy. This aside, the mud look was growing on me, as it's quite flattering to be covered up so only extreme lady lumps are visible, and everything else is smoothed down. We collected our flip flops and walked down to the lake where ladies were waiting to wash us off. Sitting in the shallow waters on a smooth, sandy sea floor, we were unceremoniously stripped of our swimsuits which were rinsed while they threw water over our heads and cleaned off our hair and ears and faces and bodies. As we re-dressed and got out of the water to dry off, we collected our cleaned footwear (which had got muddy during the 50 walk to the lake) courtesy of an entrepreneurial child and headed back up to the cafe. Pretty soon the men came down from the volcano and the women came out of the lake, and once we'd paid them all it was time to get on the bus to head off.

      As is typical on these tours, we stopped for lunch at a beach- Manzanilla del Mar- and had a swim in the warm water before receiving plates of chicken or fish or...vegetarian! I was mightily impressed that they had a non-flesh option, and like the meaty ones it came with rice and patacones, a sort of banana fritter thing.

      We spent about an hour on the volcano site including the rinsing and drying off. It is a good length of time as though you enjoy being in the mud, once you're in, you're in and nothing changes. You can't move much because it's crowded so it's all about the sensation of being there and the view from whatever side you're nearest too. The volcano site doesn't have much - some beer-and-water bars and loos were the only facilities - so it was nice to have the chance to see the beach too. All the local staff were very friendly and though they didn't speak much English, they could clearly communicate the essentials that they need day in day out. They seemed to enjoy their jobs and though they would make a decent amount of money by local standards, it didn't feel at all commercialised or over-priced. We didn't learn much about the history of the volcano but then a lot of it is not confirmed fact anyway - one guide book told me it used to be a lava volcano in which the devil lived, until a priest came along and threw holy water into it, turning the lava to mud and drowning the devil in the process. Others simply say it's a big mud bath and never contained any firey stuff.


      Dirty Money

      We paid $35,000 pesos each for the trip which included the air conditioned luxury bus, the volcano entrance and lunch at the beach. The extras were $3000 pesos per person for a massage, the same for photographs on your own camera (but priced per camera, not per person or her picture, which makes it great value for groups) and the same for the ladies who wash you. I also gave the child who cleaned our sandals a couple of thousand, and converted back to pounds we got change from £15 per person which seems extremely good value given how much it would cost for this sort of experience in Europe. It was sold as a half day tour but not getting back until 2.30pm, and having had lunch as well, made it seem longer. We came back to the hotel for a proper shower and a rest, and then it was time to wander out and find dinner. Afternoon tours excluding lunch are also available, but you need to shop around. Our hotel quoted us $50,000 per person including lunch but by buying from a smaller office on the street we managed to pay less than that and could pay for the extras with the difference and still have stuff left over.

      Cartagena is a beautiful city that is becoming more popular with tourists, but in some ways it can just be like a standard Med beach resort meets Chester or York (like the latter, this is a walled city). This tour gave us the chance to see a bit more of the area and do something fun to boot. Highly recommended.

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