I was hesitant to say the least. It didn’t seem like a sensible thing to do, not on the crater lip of a volcano anyway. I was being egged on my a gang of Colombians and a Venezuelan. And so I jumped into the crater feet first, not entirely sure what to expect, but knowing that it was going to be something I hadn’t expected.
We’d started the day in a relaxed mood. A nice breakfast, then up onto the terrace to laze around in the infinity pool, the sights and sounds of the Old City all around. A few hours earlier, in Plaza Santa Domingo, which was quiet in the fierce midday heat, Vero and I met Laura, a Colombian girl from Cartagena who I used to teach in Singapore. She wanted to show us a place we hadn’t been yet, and had brought her sister and two cousins – typically friendly energetic Colombian chaps – along too. Hawkers popped under our umbrella at our dining table periodically, peddling all kinds of wares. Vero and I bought a couple of ‘sketchings’ of Cartagena’s Old City, the others were waved away with Laura’s hand and soft sing-song voice of the Colombians from these parts. After a languid lunch of chicken salad washed down with a couple of Aguilas, we were ready to go to where Laura wanted to take us – Volcan De Lodo Totumo, 50km northeast of Cartagena. After a quick stop to buy some beers for the journey we jumped in an SUV driven by one of the cousin’s and set off, first through the sun-drenched cobbled street of the Old City, then on the highway and out of the ancient charm, drinking beers and listening to Colombian music, windows down, ocean to the left, highway ahead, me, my Venezuelan girlfriend and 4 Colombians. This was living.
We arrived at the volcano, which, appeared to be just a 15m high termite mound. Laura told us all to change into our swimwear, and as we began climbing the mound, it was evident why. People, covered head to foot in gooey mud, were running around screaming and shouting excitedly, and when we came to the crater rim, we saw that, instead of a steaming cauldron of fire or instead of a mineral-rich lake, it was filled instead with thick dark brown mud and people sitting in it, or lying in it, or trying unsuccessfully to swim in it. It’s so thick you can’t sink, no-matter how hard you try. The Colombians were the first to get in, then Vero, then it was my turn.
I took a breath and jumped in, my body sliding into the luke-warm goo, but only up to my chest. It was a weird, slightly horrible but very interesting experience. The mud contains minerals with therapeutic properties, and, as a result, a gang of local massage men were lying in wait in the goo, and they began giving all of us a massage with the thick mud, which has the consistency of cream. It felt oddly satisfying, being massaged by this warm goo, and we were all laughing as we tried our best to sink further than our buoyancy would allow. The mud bubbled in places, and belched in others, and we spent the time trying to swim front-crawl, back-crawl and doggy-style, and getting nowhere fast. It was really good fun, and gorgeous setting surrounded by hills, jungle and a lagoon, with the sun going down. After 30 minutes we’d had enough of the mud, and got out, running down to the lagoon to wash the goo off, with the help of local women who were stationed here to help in the hope of a few pesos. After this, we paid the massage men and photographers, an amount that was about a quarter of what I would have paid; but then, I was with locals and they dealt in local rates, not gringo ones. We jumped back in the SUV and headed to the coast once more.
Laura wanted to show us where she lived, so she took us to a new-looking Condominium with a big swimming pool, lining the Caribbean sea, a wonderful place in a beautiful setting. The apartment was spacious with a great balcony on which to enjoy Micheladas, which the cousins were now making. They were like a little gang these four, Laura and her sister were well-looked after by their cousins, and they did everything together, they were really close and happy, and I was touched by their friendliness and openness. People from South America have this amazing ability to make you feel like you’re part of their inner circle after only 30 minutes in their company, a welcoming nature that doesn’t ever seem forced, and a patience with people that would put a kindergarten teacher to shame. And so we drank and talked in the cool evening air, discussing all you would expect – football, politics, life in Cartagena, dreams of escape – for paradise to us isn’t everything a local dreams of – and love. A few hours later, they drove Vero and I back to the Old City, where we had a few quiet drinks and wandered around the dimly-lit streets of the Old City, lost in the midnight magic for the last time. Tomorrow we had to leave, but today will live long in the memory.