When Kim and I began digging deeper into Colombia, it became obvious that tourism had yet to really percolate outside of Cartagena. Websites were thin on content and logistics. How to physically get to the dunes of La Guajira was vague and not entirely enticing. Descriptions varied, but all seemed to involve a solid two days bumping across a wind-whipped desert and sleeping in hammocks. Yeah, we don’t sleep in hammocks—even for $8 a night. I can handle a few chapters in one, but not a night’s sleep.
We opted to skip the desert, our memories of Egypt’s Siwa Oasis and the love affair we had with the White Desert can’t be matched, I know. Instead, we plotted out a route along Colombia’s coast that would be heavy on birds, a few nights in Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park) and a volcanic mud massage at Volcan de Lodo El Tutomo in Santa Cantalina, 50km outside Cartagena.
Years ago (2008!) I had seen an episode of Word Travels on Colombia, but it wasn’t until Kim pulled up a few photos online of an ant hill volcano that the memory was triggered. I told her about travel writers and TV hosts Julia Dimon and Robin Esrock (whose Great Canadian Bucket List book launch we had attended last spring) going to that very volcano. I was certain.
The ‘attraction’ looked very homemade with a rickety staircase (that would fail any North American standards) to the crater, not so very far away at 49 feet.
Finding transit to the volcano was trying. Local buses stopped at a nearby gas station and then involved a 3km walk to the site. But you had to get to the local bus station, not so locally located on the outskirts of Cartagena. We opted to save hours and spend more by hiring a private cab who could also take us directly to the Convento de Popa, the only other site of interest to us in the city.
The convent can’t be reached by public transit either, and the walk up the zig zag road with cabs ripping up and down blind switchbacks was not advised. We understood immediately. The convent was lacking in wow factor but, the location at 150m did allow for a cool (and expensive) aerial of Cartagena and Bocagrande.
For $210,000 ($105US—total rip-off but total convenience for our party of 2) our cabbie waited for us to poke around the convent (15 minutes—not including 15 minutes drinking a beer and looking for our cabbie who probably assumed we’d be a pokey hour). There was no small talk with him due to him speaking 100% Spanish and us, 100% English. Instead he turned up his Latino rockabilly muzak and the air con to Canadian winter levels. Great.
As soon as we came to a stop (the mighty volcano in full view), fixers latched themselves to us. Two lanky Colombian boys, probably just shy of 20, introduced themselves and said they would help us. I’m not sure how or why we needed help because it was all so self-explanatory. Pay here ($10,000 for two/$5.00US), climb stairs and, get in to the mud!
What can you do for $5.00 nowadays? It was going to be a scream. Kim and I did quick changes into sports bras and underwear (I know, so classy! But I didn’t want to sacrifice my bikini) that we knew would be disposable after the mud dunk. We had read in Lonely Planet that folklore surrounding the mud volcano involved a priest who saw the fiery hole as the work of the devil. Apparently, it used to be a bubbling brew of molten lava and angry (tiny) eruptions. A few sprinkles of holy water and the priest turned the cranky volcano into mud to drown the devil. And, to provide a lark of an attraction for future tourists boasting mineral content and healing properties.
Our fixers also became our chief photographers (with the Fuji in hand, they snapped over 100 pics in less than half an hour—and even took video footage). They clung to us like mud as we climbed the ladder and queued up to enter the pit. Looking back at the Word Travels site now—I am shocked at the change. The mud bath is now about 10 feet lower than it was in the pictures on Robin and Julia’s 2008 visit. Now we had to climb a ladder down into the drowned devil pit–seven years ago it the mud was flush with the crater’s surface. Climate change?
I tell you. There’s nothing quite like sharing a mud bath with twenty of your closest non-friends with elbows and feet in your ribs and face. It was like a frosh week hot tub. But, not hot. The mud was like lukewarm pudding and so buoyant it was impossible to stand. I have no idea how deep the pit was or whether the devil’s skeleton was just a toe-tip away, but, it was like being in outerspace. Gravity bounced me to the surface with a local urging me to lie back, relax. “Put head down.” I didn’t really want to muck up my hair, but, with his hand not so gently pushing my forehead down, I had to cave. Kim entered next, as bewildered as me. “Okay, how many of our friends and family would say this would be their biggest nightmare?” All of them, except maybe my sister and our pal Michelle Bluhm who does zany things like eat walrus and polar bear and sleep in treehouses and spend years living in human-unfriendly places like Nunavut.
I thought of our friends Heidi, Kay—my mother. All of them would require sedation or millions to enter the mud volcano. Because, better yet—you get a massage too! But, it isn’t included in the admission price. No, it’s another $2.50 each for a muddy groping. The mud massagers began rubbing Kim and I up and down within a minute. They turned us like we were on a rotisserie spit and came only so close to our nether regions. I was surprised, in the dark and depth of the mud, those wandering hands could go anywhere, sight unseen.
It was brisk, weird and hilarious. Our fixers continually called to us for in-action photos from above. We were spun around a few times and well-slathered, heads half-dunked in the devil’s remains. It smelled mineral-ish, like pennies and clay. Like Plastercine actually. After maybe 20 minutes we were whistled at to get out. We were dragged to the second ladder where a mud-whiskerer whisked off the mud from our bodies as we mounted the rungs. Still slick with the healing pudding, we exited the crater and were instructed to walk down the other side of the volcano, gripping the mud-caked hand rails as we skidded down the ‘steps.’
Our fixers met us and ushered us to a lagoon 50m away. It was like the walk of shame down a road lined with makeshift restaurants selling beer, arepas, gasoline, fried fish and candy bars.
At the lagoon, Kim and I were still laughing about our five dollar experience. Little did we know what was in store next. Two women led us into deeper waters and pushed us down rather aggressively into a seated position. The murky water was up to my collarbones. The last thing I saw was Kim get doused with a bucket of water over her head. And then it was my turn. The buckets kept coming—I couldn’t breathe. I could hear Kim say, “Jesus!” And then I knew why. My bucket-dumper was tugging at my bra and trying to pull it over my head. Next she was giving me a wedgie. Her index fingers were deep in my ears and her thumbs in my eyes. Holy! Still sputtering, she threw more water over my head. We were being drowned! It was like having a fire hose at point blank! What’s that expression? Baptism by fire?
We choked and burped up lagoon water. Finally, there was a reprieve from the prodding fingers and wedgies.
Kim and I said a weak thank you to the women. We swam further into the lagoon for safety. “That was like being INSIDE a washing machine!” We still had traces of mud, surprisingly.
Exhausted from the roughhousing and attempted drowning, we found our fixers and camera. Of course, such fun would cost more than the admission. The fixers wanted $10,000 each ($5), and the massage guys were waiting for us too. They wanted $5,000 each. And of course the women who tried to smother us—they sneered and gave us a Spanish cussing when we gave them $2,000 each.
Once we paid off the hoser girls and refused to give everyone more money, a small van packed with pasty Germans piled out. Our fixers were gone in a flash and everyone resumed their positions.
We stripped in a tiny closet-sized change house and headed back to Cartagena for a serious shower. My hair was scarecrow-like, our skin grey with mud streaks and seaweed.
It was obvious. This was the very best thing to do in Cartagena.