Whether to climb up a tiny volcano, climb in, and float around in a pool of warm mud isn’t a decision I ever imagined I would be faced with. So, when Katy asked if I thought we should do it, I said sure.
El Totumo is about an hour drive from Cartagena. You can make your own way there from Cartagena by bus or even taxi, but we opted for the more convenient tour option. The only downside of this was the added time while our bus picked up guests at other hotels.
On the other hand, opting for the tour meant that when we arrived, there was a process for handing our phone to someone who could take pictures (and wasn’t covered in mud), a place for us to store our bags, and access to a shower for some rinsing.
After stowing our stuff and getting stripped down to our bathing suits, it was time to climb the volcano and get in line. The process of moving people through a mud bath turns out to be a slow one. (Pro tip: sunscreen.) Eventually though, we made it to the front of the line and climbed down into the mud.
The sensation is hard to explain. I mean it’s mud, so that’s not a foreign experience, but it’s a very pleasant temperature and the quantity was certainly unusual. As you lower yourself into the mud the really strange part is how buoyant you are. They guys helping in the mud have to tell everyone to just lie down so they can float you around, as swimming is almost impossible. Once you’re in, you have the “option” of a quick mud massage, which Katy and I, as much as we tried, couldn’t seem to decline. Instead, we just embraced it as part of the full experience. After that you get some time to just float around. I found that, with a little effort, I could get myself in a standing position while floating which was fun and odd.
When the novelty was starting to wear off, we climbed carefully up the ladder (mud is slipperier than you think) and made our way down to the lagoon to rinse off. Perhaps the most unexpected part, given the blazing sun and high temperatures, was how cool it felt standing covered in mud.
Once in the lagoon, we were able to rinse off the mud, at least most of it. There were women there with buckets offering to help you rinse off. Though we declined, they were very insistent, particularly for Ella, which she didn’t appreciate at all. I think their intentions were good (helping Ella, not just the tip) but she just didn’t care for strangers swarming us and pouring buckets of water on her head. I can’t say I blame her.
When we were fully rinsed off and had our clothes back on, we made our way to the bus for the trip back to our hotel. Everyone else in our group had opted for lunch afterward which worked out well for us. After we dropped them off at the lunch location we had a direct ride back without all of the other hotel stops.
After the requisite afternoon visit to the pool, and a proper shower to get the rest of the mud out of our… ears, we hoped in a taxi and made our way to Getsemaní. There we met up with Catalina of Cartagena Connections for a walking tour of the neighbourhood.
As the timing didn’t work for us to join the group tour earlier in the afternoon, Catalina was kind enough to agree to take us on a slightly abbreviated private tour in the early evening.
The tour was part street art tour, part history of the neighbourhood. Though I almost feel guilty saying it, Getsemaní quickly became our favourite part of the city.
Guilty because Getsemaní is an example of a trend that can be seen in cities the world over: an interesting and creative community whose residents are being pushed out through gentrification. I love the graffiti covered walls and restaurants, but you can’t help but feel for the people being pushed out of houses that their families have lived in for, in some cases, 400 years.
The political discourse inherent in the tour also gave us the first comfortable opportunity to bring up potentially sensitive subjects like, the impact of the cartels, religion and rebels on Cartagena, and Colombia as a whole. This had been conspicuously absent from all conversations to this point and I was dying to get some insight from a local perspective. A few things stood out to me from our conversation:
- The impact of the cartel and rebels is primarily felt in the mountains and cities like Cali and Medellin.
- Though there has been some progress, it’s not necessarily as positive as the press makes it feel (at least to me) internationally. This was highlighted by the fact that earlier that day a police station bombing by rebels had killed five and injured dozens in Barranquilla, a city about 2 hours from Cartagena. (We were halfway there at El Totumo).
- The church still plays a big role in society and their reach is not limited to the mountains. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your perspective. I’ll just say that our guide and I agreed.
We finished the tour with a drink in Plaza San Pedro Claver with Catalina where she gave us some recommendations on things to do with our last couple of days in Cartagena and, just as importantly, where to eat.