Volcanoes explode. They ooze and flame, fill the sky with black clouds of ash and bury entire civilisations. So it’s with apprehension that I decide to visit El Totumo, a volcano on the outskirts of Cartagena de Indias, the colourful city set in Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Breakfast jiggles uneasily in my stomach on the 40 minute drive through swampy shrubland, but when El Totumo finally looms upon the horizon, I have to laugh. A small isolated mound, it looks more like a school science project than an agent of the apocalypse. I breathe a sigh of relief, as in a few moments I will be lowering myself into its “crater”, filled with therapeutic hot mud.
Shrieks and a sulphuric stench fill the air as I climb the steps of the rickety wooden staircase. When I reach the top, I freeze. A bubbling pit filled with body parts lies before me. Limbs line up side by side, all coated in the thick grey gunk. Mud-masked faces grin out at me, teeth flashing.
I feel a nudge – my turn to take the plunge. I ease one foot in to the pit – hot heavy gloop closes around it, sucking me downwards. Before I can panic, a man chest-deep in mud pulls me in. Ignoring my kicks and squeals, he presses me back into the bubbling pit until I bob on the surface. I finally relax and let the sludge fold around me as he massages my cares away.
Time up, I tear myself away from his healing hands and clamber out of the pit. Painted from head to toe in crusting mud and bikini bottoms hanging heavy, I squelch back down to the bottom.
A group of matronly middle-aged women welcome me back with a cheer. They surge around and usher me giggling to a vast pond filled with lily pads where they wordlessly push me down into squatting position among the leaves. In a whirl of hands, my bikini is whipped off and my gasped protests gulped down with mouthfuls of pond water as my every inch and orifice are scrubbed squeaky clean.
Tourist trap or natural wonder? Who cares. This a spa treatment like no other.