Colombia is full of beautiful people- some of it’s natural, some of it’s silicone. Cameron tells a story about reading the “Things to do in this city” bulletin board of a hostel he stayed at in Medellin. Smack dab in the middle, between the coolest salsa clubs and the local hiking was a “Buy two plastic surgeries and get the third FREE” deal. If you need a cheap manicure, a massage, a bikini wax…Colombia is the place to be. Unfortunately for me, so near to the end of the trip, funds are running a bit low. So I’m in the business of low-cost beauty treatments, which mostly consist of layering new toe nail polish on top of the old, trying to get one last week out of my 6 month old razor, and attempting to con Cameron into a 5 minute shoulder massage. So far, so good.
So when we started hearing about the medicinal mineral properties of the natural mud volcanoes that dot the Northern coast of Colombia, I was very interested. Sounds like a spa treatment…Don’t people pay big bucks for full body mud masks in New York?
There is a “Mud Volcano” just a short
ride outside of tourist town and colonial city, Cartagena, but we decided that since we had the time we’d head out to Tolu- a beach town that although packed with Colombians on weekends, is otherwise pretty quiet, at least with the Gringo crowd. Full of beachside hotels, there is exactly one “backpacker joint”. What makes for a backpacker friendly hostel? Why do we all tend to gravitate to the same few guesthouses? It’s not just the Lonely Planet or hostelbookers.com effect, although I’m sure that also has a huge impact. We backpackers look for certain characteristics.
- A Well Stocked Kitchen is a must. Bonus points if there are stock spices.
- Free breakfast or at least coffee. Although every backpacker knows that free breakfast is usually just stale bread, we still look for this service for some reason.
- Community space. Whether it’s a movie room, or just nice tables for hanging out and meeting people. In tropical climates, hammocks give major bonus points.
- BYOB allowed. If a hostel tells you that you can’t bring in your own booze for an evening drink, they better offer a darn good happy hour.
- Lockers. Believe it or not we have been to numerous hostels that didn’t offer a place to lock up our valuables. This matters when you share a room with 8 strangers in bunk beds.
- A good book exchange. A good novel is like gold.
- Other choices come down to personal preference. Some prefer the party all night, free shots, don’t even think about going to bed before 4 am kind of hostels. Other prefer the quiet hours at midnight and lets share a community dinner kind of hostel. Some need private rooms, some only sleep in dorms. You learn to pick your hostel carefully…
Anyway, the one backpacker place we found in Tolu (being off the Gringo Trail, it has been fairly empty during our stay, but that’s true of the whole town right now. Apparently during local holiays it fills to overflowing, which is hard to imagine with the sheer number of hotels and cabanas lining the beach!) exceeds our expectations. We got a private room (with our own bathroom!), hammocks galore, a beautiful kitchen- with a blender!, and a gorgous rooftop deck to watch the sunset. Villa Babilla is an absolute gem.
Which brings me to Tolu itself. Tolu is a town built on Colombian tourism. On the weekends (especially holiday weekends) the beach sidewalks are packed with plastic tables and Colombian families. Dozens of kids run in the amazingly shallow and bathtub warm waves. The women wander around in their florescent bikinis with matching florescent mesh cover-ups, decked out in their new beachside jewelry purchases. The men continue to decorate their plastic tables with beer bottles (never try to clear the table- it’s a game of some kind to see how big the pile can be at the end of the day), all sporting their cowboy style woven beach hats. Meanwhile, the local taxis cruise the street. By taxis I mean bicycles equipped with not only a cart for passengers but also a battery operated sound system designed to outdo all the other bici-taxis. So goes the beach scene on the weekends.
On the weekdays, Cameron and I and a couple random local kids out for an evening swim, were able to enjoy our own private beach sunset in silence. We learned the ins and outs of the street food in Tolu. We got to know the old women who spend every day sitting in a rocking chair in front of their house. We
discovered the local beaches in Covenas where we has all the thatched roof palapas and all the white sand to ourselves for the entire day- no other Gringos and no vendors trying to sell us anything. Just us, our books, and the ocean breeze. As beautiful as Tayrona Park and Taganga were, it felt really good to find a town that;s not yet listed in our guidebook. A town where we could ditch the Gringo Trail for a few days.
But back to the Mud Volcano. After a debacle of buses and a dusty dirt road we found ourselves at the Volcan de Lodo near San Antero, Colombia. About 3 hours from here is the biggest Mud Volcano in the country, but we decided to go for the closer one so we could still have a half day on our private beach. We were both very unsure of what to expect and as we approached, it became clear that on this beautiful and very hot Thursday morning we would have the Volcano to ourselves. We paid our $1.00 entrance fee and marched confidently in the direction pointed out to us. About 20 steps later we found ourselves at the end of a hole in the ground. I guess volcano was a bit of an overstatment…what we had in front of us was a completely nauseating put of gurgling slimy mud.
I was just about ready to go back and demand my $1.00 refund. Yes, at first glance $1.00 seemed like highway robbery. But we’d come a long way and there was the attendant urging us in and reassuring us that the mud kept everyone at the surface so there was no way to drown. What?!?
I went first. The first few steps took me down to the edge of the mud. Holding onto the rope rail with one hand I took my third step…and in I went, up to the thighs. There was no going back now. I cringed and yelped as my legs disappered into the thick slimy mess….but it wasn’t so bad. It didn’t smell bad like I expected. And although the top layer was warm from the sun, underneath was actually cool- a needed respite from the Colombian sun. So I sat down, expecting to sink in. But no, instead I found myself sitting on the surface. It tooks quite a bit of hip wiggling and manourvering to get my body deeper into the silky smooth and extremely thick chest deep pool. After trying to move a couple feet toward the center of the pool I realized that the effort of trying to move inside the mud was worthless- it was like trying to swim through a solid pool of jello…I was going no where fast. That was when I heard the familiar sound of children’s voices. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, 40 school children in their pristine white school uniforms emerged, headed straight for the mud pit. It was took late to move anywhere (as if I could move anyway)
so as Cameron stood by snickering, I sat, covered head to toe in mud, while the school children gathered around to learn about the Mud Volcano and to watch me squirm. “And that, class, is how the mud volcano is formed. Interestingly enough, Gringos come here and actually pay to climb inside! In front of you, you can observe a Gringa in her natural habitat, frolicking in the gurgling slimy mud.” I smiled and waved and felt extremely uncomfortable. Luckily for me, Cameron came to the rescue with a nice big leap into the mud with me. And next to him, with his beard and hair suddenly taking of new shapes and colors, I looked relatively normal again.
I’ll spare you the details of the mud removal…Medicinal? Healing? Spa-like? That might be giving the mud too much credit. But trying to move our bodies through that oozing grey pit of fun was just that…a lot of fun. If you ever have the chance to hop into a mud volcano, I’d highly recommend it.