Grace Bastidas, author, traveler, takes you on a photo visit to El Volcan Del Totumo, just 30 miles N.E. of Cartagena

March 27, 2007
DETOURS: Volcan mind meld

"Ma'am, I have you down for a 2pm mud bath? Right this way, please."/Grace Bastidas

Contributing writer Grace Bastidas takes on Colombia's Sierra Nevada range in this week's print cover story - today, she's commandeering the blog, offering up more from her recent visit to the country's coastal region. First up, an epic roll in the mud down near the city of Cartagena - after lunch, she'll be back with some tips for first-time visitors to one of South America's most intriguing destinations.

After you reach the windy summit of El Volcan Del Totumo wearing nothing more than a bikini or trunks, take a look around and try not to blurt out, "Is this it?!"

What you may have envisioned as a gigantic beast ready to erupt lava and ashes is actually a 50-feet high mound of mud — or "mud pimple," as my friend Dave describes it — that doubles as one of the world's most affordable spa destinations.

The geological structure has existed for over 5,000 years. It was formed by gases emitted by decaying organic matter left behind as the sea retreated. The buoyancy of the gases pushed the mud upwards, causing it to ooze over the edge and harden, and as a result grow in size, creating one of the largest mud volcanoes in the world.

It's been luring the curious ever since it became an operational tourist attraction 22 years ago. Just 30 miles northeast of Cartagena (kilometer marker 66, if you're being dropped off), it's definitely worth the trip if you're in the region.

How it all works/Grace Bastidas

The mud is said to have 51 minerals (i.e. sulfur, iodine, potassium, zinc, magnesium) with medicinal properties.

For $2 you can bathe inside the crater at the top, which resembles a messy, bottomless cauldron. Two attendants help you down a slippery ladder into the goopy hole. Reportedly between 3,000 and 6,000 feet deep, the thick gray mush restricts movement, eliminating messy fear of drowning.

Then they gently guide you into a horizontal position and spread the warm, creamy matter all over your face and body as they massage deeply, digging their thumbs into relaxed limbs.

As you gaze up at the sky, you get the sensation that this cleansing ritual not only gets rid of dead skin cells but bad energy as well. And just when you're a little too cozy, you're asked to descend the same rickety stairs from where you came from and follow several children to the nearby Cienaga lagoon.

There, a group of older women, wearing aprons and armed with buckets, greet you just like mom used to when you dirtied up a pair of brand new pants, which is to say, you're getting scrubbed down. From head to toe, like a big baby, and yes, at some point, those swimsuits will be coming off. (Don't fight it. It only makes it worse.)

A visitor learns all about the good touch/Grace Bastidas

When it's all over, remember to tip everyone — 50 cents will do — otherwise they'll chase you down chanting "la propina" (the tip!) with the same urgency of someone yelling "fire." This is the closest you'll ever get to an eruption around here.

-- Grace Bastidas

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