On the Caribbean coast of Colombia is one of the strangest tourists attractions you’ll ever find: an isolated clay pot, twenty metres high, bubbling inside with warm, scented mud. Visitors to Volcan de Totumo come to bathe in the mud, receive unctuous massages, and take hilarious selfies. I went to Totumo twice. The first time, at night on the 9th of January; the second, almost a month later, when it was actually open. Here’s an extract of what I wrote about my first time.
9th January 2016
20:18 and we were slithering up a narrow road in the fragrant, warm spice of another Colombian night. We arrived at Cartagena de Indias yesterday to meet some friends for a road trip. The meeting date meant that we had spent only a brief night in the fabulous Medellin before pelting to the coast; still, I didn’t regret our haste. Each sign that appeared on the road suggested a new world to explore: Taganga, Tayrona, Totumo. This last one jumped out of the dark, too quickly. Had we seen it, or only imagined? A U-turn later, we were retracing our drive. We approached a T-junction to our right, where a timid brown sign demurred the location: Volcan de Totumo, 1km.
Off the beaten road a winding track led us steeply upwards and then down, ending in a wide clearing of patted earth. The car’s headlights illuminated snack stands, Parking for 3000 pesos, an eco-hostel; meagre signs of civilization, for the entire attraction sat in civil isolation, distant from any major towns. Even within the landmark itself there was a space, a gap in the centre of the clearing. When we left the car, and the headlights dimmed, we emerged into a sepulchral silence. On one of the weather-beaten huts, wrung hands of tattered tarpaulin clapped threateningly in time to our heartbeats.
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw it. A monstrous, sleeping bulge of earth, brown, pitted and wrinkled; where the torchlight shone on it, a decrepit elephant hide. We climbed the haphazard stairs carefully, this spine up the creature’s back bristling with frozen mud. In the summit crater sat the mud pool. Above us, the stars revealed themselves in a tapestry of colours wilder than we could have imagined at the base.
Together we giggled nervously – schoolchildren caught in the act of trespassing. Surely no-one else was here, now? Still I felt watched; as I climbed down the slippery ladder I experienced the strangest tang of guilt, like sour milk. I dipped my feet into the pool and stirred cautiously at the fragrant stew whose recipe I was attempting for the first time. The mud was coolly warm, and released a fusty scent.
One by one, we stuck our feet in and retreated. For a moment we stood around the crater, feet clarted with earth; the experience had begun to resemble a ritual. Now we headed down towards the lake, joined by two slippery-friendly dogs (where had they come from?). We washed our feet in companionable silence. Hanging from the branches of a delightfully obliging acacia tree, I dipped my toes in a silvery substance that danced fluidly like liquid mercury.
Suddenly there was something in my head and underhand: the sense of the sublime. A feeling like honey flowed lazily through me. I tipped my head to the upper left, fixing my gaze on the sky as you would spin a globe and stop it with a finger at an exotic location. In this direction I could see the stars; there, far, Orion loftily holding forth as king in their midst; there, stars, strange and coloured lights like the green lights on the docks that Gatsby had loved. Here, the licking waves of quicksilver lavishing my heels, cleaning the chocolate mud off.
We returned to the car. Standing tall in the night, Totumo appeared a benevolent and dignified force; a mysterious warlock with his black cloak drawn tightly around him. He had just thrown up a handful of stardust and there it grew in the black soil above his wheezing head: cornflower, sienna, mint, in colour and stain incandescent, glowing and shining in the rich dark earth of the firmament and seemingly blossoming and putting out roots and buds endlessly until there we saw a thesaurus of stars across the sky. I imagined the infinitesimal distance the stellar sphere had turned since we had first stood here under it, and I carved out an infinitesimal piece to curate in my memory. The mud pool below, the skies above: we were all in the gutter, and looking at the stars.