My first full day in Cartagena, I started off early having gone to bed around 8 PM the night before. After scoring a map at the Tourism Office near the Puerto de Reloj, I just started walking around until I saw the famous wall that surrounds the old city and just walked right on up. The views from on top were just incredible — the beautiful, colorful colonial architecture of the town on one side of the wall and a huge stretch of deserted beach and water on the other. I just wandered along the top of the wall for maybe an hour until I reached the end, but when I went down to street level I was in a very unfamiliar area. There were almost no tourists there and it definitely seemed seedier, so I just turned around and went back up along the wall. In retrospect I’m sure it was completely safe and I wish I had stayed and explored more, but this was my first day of traveling alone so I was understandably a bit nervous and didn’t want to stray too far from familiar territory! If I return to Cartagena (and I certainly hope to), I’ll be sure to go back and investigate the area more.
In any case, I headed back the way I came, doing a little hop-on/hop-off of the wall, spending some time walking along the shady side of the street because by this point I had realized that I neglected to put on sunscreen in the morning and was already completely sunburnt! I’m talking full-on lobster — that equatorial sun is HOT. The worst part was that I had been wearing sunglasses the whole time, so I had mortifying tanlines (burnlines?) all over my face. I looked like Guy Fieri. (Sidenote: I never understood how he has that awful glasses tan on his face since his shades are always on the back of his head. Anyone?)
I found the cure a few days later, though. About an hour outside of Cartagena is el Volcan del Totumo, a site resembling nothing so much as an oversized anthill, where you can climb to the top on some rickety old steps and soak your travel-weary body in a warm, soothing pit of mud. The mud apparently contains lots of minerals that have great healing properties for the skin. Mostly I just wanted to have a fun, unusual experience and see what all the fuss was about.
It’s totally possible to get a taxi to El Totumo and that’s probably the way to go if you have a group to split the cost, but since I was on my own I booked a tour through Mamallena Hostel on the advice of some travelers I had met the day before. You can book tours with them at the front desk even if you’re not staying there. I wasn’t.
It ended up being a really fun experience! The unfortunate thing about going with a tour is that they all come around the same time so it can get very crowded, and the mouth of the volcano isn’t all that big so you will have to wait in line for a while. Then even once you’re inside the mud pit, they’ll try to cram as many other people in around you as possible, so get cozy with your new friends. If you take a taxi on your own, you can try to time it for a less busy hour. I’ve heard midday is a good bet.
Once they’ve cleared out some bodies in the pit and it’s your turn, you climb down a little ladder to get in and the guy waiting there pushes you towards one of the masseuses. The mud is dense and viscous, so when you lie down you float on top of it — but it’s not at all like floating on water, it almost feels like you’re lying on a solid floor. So the guy just makes you lie back and then pushes your feet and you just slide across the pit. Then when the massage is over, the masseuse shoves you across to the other side. So the guys that work there are just constantly sliding people back and forth as if they’re dominoes on a table or something. I found it hilarious! I got such a bad fit of the giggles that I ended up with some mud in my mouth. Ew.
When we were encouraged to get out and make some room for others, we climbed down another set of stairs and walked a short ways to the river where the local women washed all the mud off of us. I’m glad I had been warned about this ahead of time, because they can definitely be a tad overzealous. One of the women grabbed me, immediately stripped me down (“hey wait! where did my bathing suit go?”), poured buckets of water over my head, and scrubbed me rather vigorously. My violation complete, my bikini was returned to me and I was left to soak in the surprisingly clear water for a few minutes. I actually hadn’t felt so clean since leaving New York.
The best part? The next day, my horrible sunburn started peeling off in sheets and not 2 days later my skin looked normal again. I guess those minerals did something after all.