Mud volcano: How to get dirty in Colombia

Story highlights

  • A mud volcano outside Cartagena draws travelers for messy soak
  • The spot is filled with mineral-rich mud and a bare-bones infrastructure

(CNN)Our guide had been clear.

"Don't take anything into the volcano," she said. "Anything you bring will be destroyed."
Below me loomed the Cartagena Mud Volcano -- or Volcán de Lodo El Totumo in Spanish -- a 50-foot-tall mud bath renowned for its therapeutic qualities.
Local legend says the site, about 45 minutes outside Cartagena, was once a real, active volcano until a quick-thinking priest intervened.
Armed with holy water, the cleric tamed the fiery mount and transformed the molten lava into a soupy concoction of body-benefiting minerals.
Today, a sign at the base of the volcano prominently lists the mud's all-natural ingredients: calcium, magnesium and aluminum, among others.
The implication is clear -- this isn't just regular dirt; this stuff is good for you.

Floating in mud

As I sized up the crater before me, a man stained slate gray from his volcano attendant duties motioned for me to join him in the murky pool.
I initially thought the mud would be thick and dense.
Instead of being sucked into a vat of thick slop, however, I was surprised to find myself floating effortlessly, somehow buoyed by the thin, silk-like sediment.
Once inside the volcano, the attendants slathered mud on every inch of our bodies.
Cautiously leaning me back, a guide dipped my head into the mud as if baptizing me into some clay-worshipping cult.
This was followed with a quick "massage" -- a one-minute or so prodding that was generally relaxing despite its inelegant execution.
As more people entered the pool, the attendants repositioned our floating bodies, arranging us like competing oil tankers waiting to pass through a canal.
At about 15 feet in diameter, however, the volcano soon reached capacity.
As I moved to climb the slippery ladder leading out of the pit, a girl let out a massive scream and frantically paddled away from my direction.
The author looks up from the mineral-rich mud. Somewhere, a frog is lurking nearby.
"Frog!" she yelled, waving her arms as if dodging a cobra.
The crowd followed her panicked lead, pushing toward the corner farthest from the amphibian.

Watch your shorts!

Outside the volcano, the guide told us that we'd rinse off in the nearby river and, if needed, a group of local women would be there to help.
Walking with two female travelers I'd met on the morning bus ride, I made my way down the path to the river.
At the end of the trail, a trio of women greeted us and guided the group into the water.
After a few minutes of furious scrubbing, the woman paused and looked down at me.
"Take off your shorts," she said to me in practiced English.
"What?" I asked.
"Shorts. Take them off."
Conscious of my newfound neighbors and the few feet of clear water that separated us, I politely refused, shaking my bottom half in the water to somehow convey that I was as clean as could be.
Confident in my physical communication skills, I stood and thanked the woman.
As I began to step away though, she grabbed the top of my swim trunks and pulled them out and down.
I stood frozen as the woman smiled and dished water onto my nether regions.
Luckily, I was facing toward the riverbank and away from the two bathers I'd met an hour or so earlier.
After seeing for herself that no mud remained, the woman released my shorts, and the elastic band snapped back into place.
Thankfully, I didn't lose anything in the volcano, as the guide had initially warned.
The river was another story.
There, on a sandy beach in northern Colombia, a little bit of my modesty disappeared into the currents of the crystal clear water.

If you go ...

El Totumo is a relatively quick 45-minute bus ride from Cartagena's Old City.
The entrance fee and transportation to/from should run around $20 per person.
Your best bet is to arrange your visit through a local hotel or hostel such as El Viajero Hostel.
You don't need to be a guest to take advantage of its budget-friendly prices.
Expect to tip the locals $1 each for their services while visiting the volcano.

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, Cartagena Colombia;