The mud volcano of Totumo
Near Cartagena The group consisted of the usual backpacker nationalities, some Brits, Canadians, Australians, and two Dutch girls. The agent seemed surprised at our number, thirteen in all, but was confident that we could all fit in to his four-wheel-drive vehicle. In any number of other countries another jeep would have been summoned, but we were in the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where squeezing the tourist for every last peso is an art form. We did manage to get in, but myself and the other Aussie had to stand at the rear clinging onto the frame of the jeep's covering tarpaulin, the wind whistling through our ears.

The jeep sped at high speed through the streets of Cartagena, and soon we were in open country. After about 45 minutes we turned off the main rod and headed up an unsealed track. Here a moment's inattention nearly cost me my head when the jeep cut through some low-hanging boughs. After a short while, we crested a hill and a strange vista came into view. At the foot of the track, about two kilometers ahead, was a large body of water, a freshwater lagoon of some sort. Directly in front of it was a steep, nical mound of earth, a bit like a giant ant-hill. As we drew closer, the ant-hill took on surreal appearance, like something out of a Indiana Jones movie. It had a rickety wooden aircase leading to its summit, which was about 20 meters high. Its profile was incredibly eep. Just below the summit you could see where planks had been placed over a rupture the side of the cone. The fresher mud that had bubbled out was a darker colour, and rivulets they formed similarly to wax dripping from a candle.

People had set up small restaurants and drink stands, called kioskos. After we bought our ticket at the wooden box-office, and changed into our bathing costumes, our intrepid and now intrigued group began the ascent; the whole aim of the excursion was to "bathe" in the volcano.

Peering down into the "crater" of the cone was like looking into a cauldron of boiling grey goo. Every now and again, bubbles would surface, slowly, because the mud was very viscous. So viscous in fact that when you descended the ladder on the inside edge of the crater, it was impossible to fully submerge yourself unless someone pushed you under. An attendant minded our bags and cameras on the rim of the crater, while another in the actual mud assisted us in to the morass. The initial sensation was one of floating in a thick, squishy warm bath. Every few minutes a bubble would surface, ever so slowly, and burst as it came to the surface, with an evil burping sound.

There is no fathomable bottom in the crater, but it was impossible to drown in this 'bath', as the specific gravity of the mud was much heavier than water, so if you stood in the water you floated only half submerged, from about your belly-button down. The attendant recommended that we cover our faces and hair with the goo; it is said to be good for one's skin. Care must be exercised not to get the mud in your ears or eyes, however.

Soon everyone looked like they were members of some long-lost New Guinean tribe, and in this guise males and females were indistinguishable, and all races looked alike. The attendant on the rim snapped photos for us. 'Swimming' in the mud is tiring, because of the resistance the mud offers your struggling limbs, and since treading water is not necessary because it is impossible to sink, it is best just to lie on your back and float. As the mud dried in the sun, it changed from a dark colour to the hue of light grey cement, and flaked off your body in chunks. One clowning Canadian in our group dripped mud on his head, christening himself 'the blob' while an Israeli built up horns of mud and would not have astray in a Vincent Price film.

A Colombian family arrived after we had been in a while, their infant was terrified of entering the mud, screaming "No! No quiero!", but once he was in the water he too was soon placated and as happy as the proverbial pig in mud. Although there is room enough for twenty people in the crater, we took it as our cue to leave. All mud was scraped off us by the attendant before we left the crater, so as not to deplete its reserve, but we still had a lot in our hair and under our costumes. The guide then asked us to follow him down to the lagoon, where some young children were waiting to wash us, gesturing to us to remove our costumes when in the water (females were attended to by girls on the left, men by boys 20 meters to the right). You could wash yourself if you wanted to, but for most of us it added another hilarious episode to the day's events. I have never heard so many people laughing while being scrubbed at one time. They may have been young, but the children were experienced washers, and had us clean in a jiffy.

There were storm clouds gathering, and before we could make it back to the jeep we were caught in a tropical downpour. It wasn't unpleasant however, as it was a warm rain. Our guide told us that the mud is produced from rotting vegetation that originated under the lagoon and is forced up through a fissure in the earth by volcanic heat miles underground. In 1999 a nearby 'volcano' unexpectedly erupted and spew forth a river of mud that destroyed a village and killed one man. There are several mud volcanoes in the Cartagena area. The ones near Turbaco were first described by Alexander von Humboldt in 1801; they still exist though they are more pools of mud than raised cones like the dramatic one at Totumo.

The trip back was not uneventful. Our jeep, lacking a functioning windscreen-wiper on the driver's side, wove its way back to Cartagena in pelting rain in a manner that indicated the driver either had divine help or some sort of radar......None of we paassengers could see anything at all through the front screen, yet the driver did not go easy on the accelerator.

The tour ended at La Boquilla. After a short but heated argument among different beach-side restaurant owners over who should get our custom, we sat down under paraguas and tucked into sea-food dishes. We were dropped back in our Cartagena hotels by 4pm. The cost? A mere US$12, not including lunch.

- written by Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' is available from Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short