‘Bathe in the healing properties of natural, mineral-rich volcanic mud‘ said the leaflet, showing pictures of happy, bikini-clad tourists caked head to foot in mud and smiling from ear to ear.
Oooooooo, that sounds good, we’ll try that, I said to my husband enthusiastically. So I booked the trip to El Totumo Mud Volcano via our hostel, Mammallena, in Cartegena, Colombia.
We were picked up in the morning, along with other tourists from our hotel, and driven an hour to the volcano. On the way, we passed beautiful tropical scenery of lush green bush and towering palm trees.
Having missed the in-car explanation of what would happen when we reached the volcano because, these days, I can’t stay awake in a moving vehicle for longer than ten minutes, I had no idea what was about to happen.
Once there, we were taken into a little building with outside toilets and showers and some tables and chairs and told, very matter-of-factly, to take our clothes off (apart from our bikinis, of course) and put all our valuables in a plastic bag to be locked away. For 4,000 COP (£1) we could give our cameras to a man who would take our pictures while we were in the mud bath.
Outside I searched for the volcano. What I found were two fairly steep wooden stairs leading to a little peak. I’ve climbed volcanos and this didn’t really look like one, more like a reasonably large mound.
When instructed to we climbed the stairs to the peak.
When I saw the roughly four metres squared mud filled crater of the volcano and the many tourists rammed into it, one a big hairy man being scrubbed and massaged by a local guy (for an extra fee), I began to think this wasn’t going to be the relaxing beautify experience I thought it would be.
As one tourist came out another was ushered in. When it was my turn I slid down into the mud, which felt like a grainy, watery syrup. A local man was there waiting for me. Lie back he demanded.
‘Err ok,’ I said duly compiling because I wasn’t sure what else to do.
He began massaging the back of my thighs with one hand and the back of my neck with another.
‘Put your head right back’
‘No, I don’t want to get my hair muddy’
‘No, I don’t want a massage,’ I said as politely as possible.
Displeased, he pushed me with force into the other tourists at the other end of the crater.
I was quickly pushed back by the tourists. As I tried to gain my balance in the gloppy mud while bumping into people I grimaced inside thinking this perhaps isn’t the most hygienic situation.
More people entered but I was still trying to balance myself. For some unknown reason I couldn’t keep legs down, like in a normal pool, to gently paddle. Every time I pushed my legs down into the mud something beyond my control pushed them back up and I’d go bashing into someone.
Apparently, I was the only one having this problem. My husband tried to force my legs down as I clung onto him for dear life but they just sprang right back up again.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ He questioned me, puzzled.
‘I don’t know’ I said, at this point feeling like Karl Pilkington from An Idiot Abroad.
I resolved to just float, making myself as small as possible.
Then a British girl shouted ‘Ewww!’ and flicked a used plaster onto my finger.
Get me out of here, quickly! I thought.
Fortunately, we were only allowed a mere five minutes in the mud bath before we were ushered out to make room for the now long line of tourists waiting to get in.
Once out the mud bath, a man wiped off the excess mud from my legs, stomach and arms and I followed the others to a nearby a swampy lake area where women were washing the mud off the tourists with brownish water scooped from big blue plastic barrels.
I sat waiting on a plastic crate for my turn to be washed, effectively, like a grown toddler.
With vigour and efficiency, a skinny, old woman threw water at me, down my bikini top, which she jiggled about ferociously, and over my face, which she scrubbed with her bare hands.
She scrubbed my arms, stomach and neck. Her hands worked so quickly I didn’t have time to object as she pulled my bikini top from side to side sloshing water down my cleavage and nearly exposing my breasts to the world.
She ushered me to stand up and started scrubbing my legs and throwing water down bikini bottoms, yanking then from all angles as the water kept coming.
At one point she slid her skinny fingers into my pants to pull down the crotch in order to let the water she threw down the top pass through.
Once finished she tied a ribbon saying ‘Maria’ around my wrist, which I assumed was her name.
‘Gracias Maria, I think…’
She smiled at me in a motherly way and ushered me back up the way I came with a gentle push to the small of my back. I assume the wristband was so I’d remember to pay her the 4,000 COP (£1) for her motherly scrub down.
After my husband had the same treatment we walked together back up to the building in order to reclaim our belongings and our dignity.
‘Well, at least it helps the local community, I suppose’ he said.
Yes, that’s one positive…
So, after being touched rather intimately by several Colombians and splashing about in a most likely germ-ridden mud bath for five minutes like a clumsy buffoon, it was time to head back to Cartagena.
The only good thing about the trip was meeting other travellers who we went out with that night.
Notes for fellow travellers: save the 45,000 COP (about £12) the trip costs and buy yourself several beers instead.
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