10 Tips To Survive the El Totumo Mud Volcano in Colombia
The El Totumo Mud Volcano (Volcan de Lodo El Totumo) is surprisingly one of the most popular tourist attractions around Cartagena, Colombia. There are dozens of tour companies that take groups there for the famous mud bath. Just a one hour drive from Old Town Cartagena, the attraction is a thick pool of mud inside a man-made volcano in the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone want to take off their clothes and lounge in a 50 feet mud bath while being groped by random men? Well, that’s precisely what I did on my trip to Cartagena, afraid of missing out on a ‘unique’ experience. Visiting this volcano is among the top five dumbest decisions I’ve ever made. It almost cost me my life! I’m writing this post to warn anyone thinking about visiting El Totumo Mud Volcano about the risks. I also want to break down what to expect and how to stay safe if you still decide to go. Here are 10 things to know before you visit the El Totumo Mud Volcano.
Don’t do it for the gram or because it’s popular
The El Totumo Mud Volcano tour was organized by the travel group I visited Colombia with, Global Jet Black. When I saw this activity on the itinerary, my first instinct was to skip it. I’m a girly girl who would never go near mud in a million years! But all 15 or so people on the trip were going so I didn’t want to be the odd one out. The fear of missing out got the best of me. Before you know it, I started to justify going into a slimy mud bath in my underwear:
- This is a once in a lifetime experience
- Wouldn’t it be cool to say I went inside a mud volcano in Colombia?
- I’ll be in and out of there in 10 minutes so it’s no big deal
- I can get some epic photos to share on Instagram
- Everyone else is doing it so I don’t need to be scared
- The photos on the internet look like so much fun
If you’re even remotely hesitant about going for a mud bath, please don’t do it. Don’t try to justify it. It’s not worth the risk, and I’ll explain exactly why in the next section.
Potentially fatal health complications can and do happen
I fainted inside the El Totumo Mud Volcano!
Yes, I passed out while inside the mud bath. This is what happened: our van arrived at the volcano about an hour after we departed from Cartagena. Then we were given a couple of minutes to use the bathroom and get ready. Next, we lined up and began to climb a steep set of stairs to the top of the volcano. I’d say it took at least 10 minutes to climb up to the entrance, with the scorching sun blasting every inch of my body. The whole time my heart was beating rapidly. I was scared out of my mind but just tried to go with the flow.
Finally, I got to the top, stripped down to my bikini, and climbed down the ladder. I stopped for 5 seconds to get my Instagram shot and then climbed down the rest of the way into the volcano. Upon entering the cool mud, one of the workers came over and assisted me to find my footing. Then he started massaging my back. I was so nervous I wasn’t even bothered by that.
The freak accident
I was in the volcano for about 15 minutes getting massaged and chatting with the others in the group. Then suddenly I lost my balance and tilted forward. The man massaging me grabbed me and asked if I was alright. That’s the last thing I remember.
When I opened my eyes, I was seated on a red chair by the ladder, surrounded by at least a dozen people. I had no clue what was going on. I just remember asking the photographer to take me a picture. That’s the picture right below.
The others told me I had fainted from dehydration inside the volcano. Yikes! After letting me relax for a bit, the workers escorted me down to the base and sat me down again. Then they painstakingly washed the mud from my body. As they cleaned me up, I started to vomit all the mud I had unknowingly swallowed. It was disgusting.
Once I was somewhat clean and dry, I put my clothes back on and took a taxi back to the villa in Cartagena. As I drove home, I observed that my braids were still filled with mud. The smell was strong so I opened the window. Once I arrived at the villa, I napped for a good 6 hours. When I woke up, I had a sore throat and felt congested. It took another 48 hours for me to feel normal again.
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Unfortunate events have happened to others at El Totumo Volcano
I did some research to see if others had experienced life-threatening incidents at the volcano. I should have probably done this before I went. On Tripadvisor, I came across several people who had equally terrible or worse experiences.
- One American woman contracted a parasite and suffered severe illness, including diarrhea. The US Department of Health got in contact with her after she returned home.
- An Irishman also got severally ill after spending time in the volcano. He was also sick of people harassing him for tips. Luckily, I didn’t experience that, but it happens quite a lot.
- A Japanese woman had a panic attack, presumably due to claustrophobia. The space is quite small (10 square feet) so keep that in mind.
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Be prepared for the unbearable heat
I visited the El Totumo Mud Volcano in the early days of February 2018. Still, it was at least 100 degrees in the area, known as Santa Catalina. When you step out of the car, the heat will immediately assault your senses. I’m from Africa, and I’ve never experienced heat like that! It feels like the sun is shining on you with laser precision, and that’s probably an understatement.
You will have to stand in line to go up the stairs. Then once you get up there you have to wait some more for those inside to get out so the workers can help you in. That’s all while standing in the scorching heat. Please drink lots of water. It’s probably best to drink several bottles of water on your way to the volcano. Then before you go in, drink another bottle of water. I drank water but still fainted because it wasn’t enough. Drink as much water as your stomach can handle.
The stairs to get climb up and down the volcano are dangerously unstable
Someone on Tripadvisor hit the nail on the head when she referred to the stairs as the ‘stairs of death.’ These stairs were so steep, they made me seriously question whether I should continue all the way to the top. I would estimate that the stairs had a 60-70 degree slant.
Not only that, but the foundation and rails were made of wood – flimsy wood that looks like it would snap in no time. Climbing never-ending, steep stairs made of wood is not for the faint of heart, and that’s just the beginning of this ‘adventure.’ Once you get to the top, you have to use a rickety ladder to go into the 3 square meter, dilapidated structure. Some people have actually fallen off the ladder because it was so shaky.
Get ready for some major groping
Oh yes. Once you get into the volcano, you’ll be offered a massage. Actually, someone comes up and starts massaging you. By massage, I mean a full body groping, You’ll lie flat on your back while they rub your shoulders, back, legs, butt, feet, and everything in between with mud.
If you don’t like being touched by strangers, you won’t enjoy this ‘massage’ one bit. In fact, you may feel violated by the experience. The all-male workers were having a bit too much fun giving these ‘massages.’ This lady summed it up well.
The smell will make you want to vomit
The mud has an interesting smell that’s somewhat hard to describe. There is a hint of sulfur, but it mainly smells like a mixture of clay and cow dung. The bottom line is that the smell isn’t pleasant. As I was writing this, I started to recall the smell and had to put down the salad I was eating. If you have a sensitive nose, stay as far away as possible. I should also mention that the texture of the mud is thick and slimy. Once you get in, it’s difficult to move around so you’ll be stuck in a sitting position with your legs hanging. It’s not comfortable at all.
Bacteria and germs can easily enter your body
When you’re deep in the mud wearing nothing but your undies, you expose your whole body to whatever is lurking in there. This includes all sorts of bacteria, germs, and who knows what else. There’s nothing you can do about it other than going in fully clothed, which wouldn’t make sense. Also, note that there are no proper showers to wash the mud off later. You have to go down to the dirty river and have buckets of water dowsed on you. That water, too, can cause infection.
It may take some time to fully wash off all the mud
Even 5 days after I got home from Colombia, I was still washing little pieces of mud out of my ears my ears. The mud never came out of my braids so I had to simply take them out. Luckily, my natural hair was somewhat protected. If you decide to go, make sure you wear your hair in a protective style. Maybe even wear a silk bonnet. It might look silly, but it will save you from the hassle of getting the mud out.
The volcano tour price isn’t cheap, either
The cost to tour the volcano isn’t exactly cheap. A private tour can cost as much as $120/person! Prices start at $35/person. To put things in perspective, you can buy a three-course meal with drinks in Cartagena for $7. That means you pay for five feasts for the cost of spending 30 minutes in some mud with 20 other people. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather eat.
There are no medicinal properties in the mud
On the way to the volcano, I asked the tour guide if there were any healing properties in the mud. The answer was no. It’s just mud. Upon reading some of the reviews on Tripadvisor, I learned that some tour companies sell this volcano tour by touting the healing properties in the mud. Don’t be misled. There are no healing properties in the mud whatsoever. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
The final verdict
Weigh the pros and cons and decide if you still want to visit the El Totumo Mud Volcano. If you ask me, I’d say skip it. It wasn’t fun, and the health risks are just not worth it. You’ll notice that the only Colombians there are the workers. That’s because this is a badly-run tourist trap. The locals have enough sense to stay away. Also, there are plenty of more enjoyable and safer ways to spend your time in Cartagena. The Old Town alone is packed with enough activities to keep you entertained for days. You can also visit other Colombian cities and towns, like Cali, Medellin, and the incredibly stunning Guatapé. If you’re looking for a relaxing mud bath with health benefits, the El Totumo Mud Volcano is most certainly not it.
If you still decide to visit despite my warning, at least be prepared. Below is a list of what to pack for your visit.
Items To Pack
- An old bikini, preferably two-piece – you’ll have to throw out what you wear into the mud so don’t wear your favorite bikini. Go for something old and disposable.
- A pair of flip-flops or rubber sandals – there will be mud splattered on the steps so the studier your shoes are the better.
- A towel – pack a large beach towel to dry off after you wash off the mud. A change of clothes is also a good idea.
- Several bottles of water – stay hydrated, my friends. This is really important if you want to make it out alive.
- Snacks – first make sure you eat a healthy breakfast. Then take some snacks with you to munch on along the way. You want to be hydrated and have lots of energy before taking part in this volcano tour.
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