What To Know Before Diving Into Colombia’s Mud Volcano
About 45 minutes north of Cartagena, Colombia, is a live, bubbling volcano in which you can take a swim. But instead of scalding lava, this volcano is filled with geothermal heated mud.
If you spend any time wandering through the streets of Cartagena, you will likely come across a tout or poster advertising the Totumo Mud Volcano (or Volcan El Totumo). And in case there is any ambiguity, it is indeed as the name implies: a giant cauldron of sulfurous, slimy mud. And you’re expected to dive in and slosh around with a bunch of strangers, all while being massaged by a couple of burly Colombian men. So what are two gringos to do except sign up for a tour?
That’s how Zena and I found ourselves in a van full of people heading out to Colombia’s most overrated—and yet so fun—attraction. Now that we’ve sacrificed ourselves to the mud gods and lived to tell the tale, here is what you need to know before diving into Colombia’s mud volcano.
It Takes a While to Get to the Volcano
While the journey from Cartagena to El Totumo mud volcano is about 45 minutes, it can potentially take much longer to get there. There’s only one tour company that offers daily tours out to the volcano: Ruta Ecologica. Since you can book a tour package at practically any hotel or hostel in Cartagena, the first hour or so of the outing is spent driving around to various locations to pick up other passengers.
Once the van is full of would be mud-bathers, then the uneventful trip out to El Totumo mud volcano begins. As you get outside of Cartagena, the Colombian countryside is pretty scrubby so there’s not much to see along the way. We ended up getting stuck in construction traffic so our 45-minute journey turned into over an hour. The van was air conditioned so it wasn’t terrible, just a bit boring.
Your Belongings Will Be Safe
Once you’ve arrived, your group will be led to an outlying building where you will be instructed to change into a bathing suit. All other belongings (including footwear) are to be left on shelves within the building, and valuable items are locked into a community locker for safe storage.
There are changing cubicles for those who need a bit of privacy, but they are only shielded from prying eyes by a flimsy shower curtain. It’s better to come prepared wearing your bathing suit rather than having to change.
The Volcano is Not Much to Look At
When you arrive at the Totumo volcano, don’t expect anything spectacular. Basically the volcano is a 90-foot (28-meter) high dirt cone with a pair of steps leading to the summit. At the top of the steps, surrounded by a ringed platform of dirt, is a 15-foot (4.5-meter) pit filled with lukewarm, soupy mud.
The mud is heated by geothermic activity deep in the earth’s crust and is said to contain therapeutic properties. According to our guide, the mud is over 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) deep. But don’t worry about sinking; the thick mud is way too buoyant. Tourists descend a ladder into the pit clean and shiny and emerge later looking like they’ve been dipped in gray chocolate.
You Won’t Be Alone
If you think you’ll be the only one crazy enough to experience a mud volcano, think again. Chances are you’ll be waiting in line for your turn in the delightful mud, and once you descend the wooden ladder and plunge into the muck, you’ll be sharing the space with at least a dozen strangers.
Don’t think you will have your own personal space inside the volcano, either. The thick, soupy mud makes it difficult to balance, so everyone inside seems to tipping and bobbing one way or the other. This means that arms and legs are flailing as people try to maintain an upright position. Others are spread out, lying flat on the mud. You’ll get up close and personal to everyone in the caldera, with countless strange body parts brushing up against you at all times.
As if it weren’t already crowded enough, there are several Colombian dudes inside the mud who are eager to massage every visitor (for a fee, of course). You can try to politely decline their services, but they don’t seem to take no for an answer so you might as well go with it. It’s just part of the experience, I guess.
After you are completely covered in mud, you’ll exit the crater but not before some Colombian dude scrapes the excess mud off you. While it may be weird to perch on the bottom rung of a ladder while some guy removes your mud with his bare hands, but it’s actually a good thing. The mud can be very heavy and I can’t imagine having to climb up that slippery wooden ladder with all that extra weight.
Afterwards you’ll descend the steps down to a path that leads to a nearby lake. We weren’t allowed to wear our footwear to the edge of the volcano, so the rocky path made the trek down to the lake rather precarious and cumbersome. At one point, I even cut my foot on a sharp stone.
At the edge of the lake are a bunch of Colombian women eager to help you remove the mud from your body. While this cleansing process is completely optional, the women can be quite persistent in “helping” you. We—along with most of the visitors around us—just gave up and allowed the women to sit us down in the water in order to pour buckets of water over our heads.
Once you are good and wet, they proceed to rub you down, even tugging at your bathing suit in an effort to wrestle it off your body. These ladies are surprisingly quick and forceful, and before we knew it we were completely naked in the water while the women washed the mud out of our suits.
After they are satisfied with your cleanliness (and the cleanliness of your bathing suit), they allow you to get dressed and rinse off in the water a bit more. Before you go, however, they’ll tie a ribbon around your wrist as a “souvenir.” Eventually you find out each ribbon is a distinct color, and allows the women to approach you later for their tip.
What to Bring (and What Not to Bring)
There’s no reason to bring a lot of stuff, just what you need. Obviously you’ll need a bathing suit, and preferably not your nicest one. Depending on the color of your suit, the mud might leave it a bit dingy. Be sure to have a towel on hand; once you wash off in the lake, it’s nice to have something with which to dry off.
Bring your own water. There are small shops around the volcano that sell water and snacks, but you will want to stay hydrated on the trip out to the volcano and back.
Make sure you’ve applied sunscreen before you go. There isn’t any shade at the top of the volcano and you may have to wait in the sun for a few minutes before it’s your turn to enter.
Be sure you have enough money for tips, preferably in “small” bills. Every person who offers you a service during your volcano experience will miraculously find you later to collect their tip.
Leave jewelry, smart watches, piles of cash, and other valuables at home. Sure you can lock them in the locker, but there’s really no need for them on an outing like this.
How Much Does it Cost?
Most of the costs for the trip were paid up front at the hotel from which we booked. The tour cost included transportation to and from the volcano, as well as a nice lunch (chicken, fish, or vegetarian meals) at the seaside town of Manzanilla del Mar on the way back. The only additional spending money needed was for tips or additional drinks/snacks.
|Tour (including lunch)||COP60,000 (US$21.00)|
|Photographer tip (optional)||COP4,000 (US$1.40)|
|Massage tip (optional)||COP4,000 (US$1.40)|
|River wash (optional)||COP4,000 (US$1.40)|
*prices at time of writing.
Is it Worth it?
The answer is unequivocally yes! Visiting El Totumo mud volcano is definitely worth it as long as you have the time to spare. It’s practically a rite of passage for visitors to Cartagena. Our tour group consisted of Brazilians, Chileans, Colombians, a person from Holland, a person from Russia, and a couple Americans (including us). We left feeling smooth from the mineral-laden mud bath, and had an interesting experience we won’t soon forget.