Northern Colombia: From Cartagena to the forests of Tayrona and El Totumo Mud Volcano

Northern Colombia: Cartagena, Mud Bathing at El Totumo Volcano the forests of Tayrona

Cartagena de Indias is an artsy town, full of vibrant color. From the oil paintings and watercolors displayed on the sidewalks of every street corner to the brilliantly-clad palenqueras (fruit sellers). But there's also the pleasures of mud bathing at El Totumo Volcano and the forests of Tayrona making a trip to Northern Colombia a must-see and must-do destination. patrolling the plazas.

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Cartagena, the Walled Island City

I prop my rented bicycle on the bastion’s ruddy-colored bricks. Nearby, a bride and groom, in full wedding day regalia, are posing for pictures against the backdrop of quaint window boxes, overflowing with bougainvillea, and brightly-painted apartment houses. Like a bustling beehive, the historic district is a hubbub of sights and sounds at the onset of nightfall. Spirited conversations over chicha cocktails from the plentiful outdoor cafes waft across the fortress walls, along with the aromas of coconut milk rice and fried fish. All are mingling with the honking of automobiles and the braying of trinket vendors hawking their wares inside the castle gates.

Dusk slowly descends upon the island city. The ebbing rays of sunshine play across the stone blocks, reportedly stained with the blood of slaves. Dancing from turret to turret...washing over the fortress ramparts with pale pinkish light…bathing the cathedral spires of Iglesia San Pedro de Claver and El Torre de Reloj (Clock Tower) with a solemn hush, stars begin to dapple the sky and I half-expect the twin Pegasus statues that we strolled by along the pier to take flight and join their constellation in the heavens.

In the morning, we had out to explore mud bathing and more.

Mud Bathing at El Totumo Volcano

An hour outside of Cartagena, we see the small highway sign, ‘el Totumo’, ushering us toward the now-extinct volcano that resembles an oversized ant hill. As we approach, I envision a pair of prodigious anteaters delving their sticky tongues down into the clay pit. We squeeze into the makeshift parking space next to the small restaurant/snack bar. Arepas, a staple of the Colombian diet, sizzle in the deep fat fryer. Stuffed with cheese or shredded meats, these corn fritters are ooey-gooey delicious. We enter, anxious to see if the local rumors are true—that the soothing sludge has mineral properties with therapeutic healing qualities.

I begin the downward journey along the mud-caked ladder. I miss the last rung—since it has disappeared into the loam—and I splat rather unceremoniously into the ooze, next to Gustavo. “Sorry,” I apologize to him, and everyone else, as thick globs of goo splutter into the air. Surprisingly, I don’t sink past my neck. Instead, I am buoyant, wobbling like a fisherman’s bobber inside the muddy pit. Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, its official moniker. A boggy version of the Dead Sea.

The three of us wallow like pigs in the glutinous barro. After about twenty minutes we meander down the rocky hill—human mud pies, all of us—toward la laguna. “Ooh, ooh, ouch, ouch!” I complain, tender-footed. I prefer to brave the pebbled path barefoot rather than sully my waiting sandals. A trio of ladies douses our heads and bodies with the cool lagoon water. Dirty puddles pool around our ankles.

Finca Barlovento

One day and about 125 miles later, once more squeaky-clean and devoid of any tell-tale traces of Totumo’s muck, I find myself lounging in a comfy wooden chair out the ‘back door’ of our bird’s-nest accommodations at Finca Barlovento. The view out the front is of the ferocious Caribbean Sea and out the back a river with a mist over the rainforest canopy that made me think I was just steps away from the Amazon.

Relaxing. Expunging all the stress from my body. Staring across the deceptively-tranquil waters of Rio Piedras, which abut the narrow strip of shoreline that separates it from the sea. A company of buzzards hover on an upturned log, staring hungrily into the dense green underbrush.

Twilight settles early upon our bed-and-breakfast here along the northern Colombian coast, a good 45 minutes from the nearest city of any consequence -- Santa Marta. The trill of insects, the chant of locusts, and the essence of flowers mixed with rotting leaves—all the ingredients of the jungle—overwhelm our senses, and I watch as the thick mist glazes the rainforest trees with nighttime dew.

We are nestled atop a giant boulder and coddled gently by the rhythms of the deep. Cozy in our beds, we inhale the invigorating breezes of ocean air, blowing in from the West Indies. We are rocked to sleep by the hypnotic lullaby of white-capping swells rolling under our rocky perch.

Hiking Tayrona

In the morning, we eat our communal-styled breakfast in the al fresco dining room, then retreat to hammocks to let the food digest before our impending hike to Tayrona National Natural Park. A 12,000-acre preserve, just around the corner, literally in the backyard of our hotel. Chock full of gallivanting capuchin and howler monkeys, bats, deer, an occasional puma, and sanctuary to hundreds of species of birds. We follow the well-manicured trails, through cloud forest and dry forest, over scorching sand alternating with soft, velveteen earth, past prickly cacti and thorny scrub, alongside thunderous surf near Arrecifes Beach. The ocean views are staggering; soon, their photographic imprint will grace my living room walls. Meantime, now and then, sharp brambles scrape across my shin.

Reeling from six months of extremely little rain, the woodlands of Tayrona are not their usual proliferation of green. The colombiano park rangers are already noticing the ‘real-life’ repercussions of global warming. Shrinking animal populations and diminishing timberland. In spite of the day’s heat, the trek to La Piscina (The Pool) ends with a welcome relief—an exhilarating dip in a gorgeous ocean inlet of crystal-clear, aquamarine waters. Just like in the film, we discover our own priceless ‘emerald treasure’--the emerald-hued billows of el Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea). Muy refrescante. Ever so refreshing.

We return to our parked car at Canaveral entrance late in the afternoon, bone-weary and drenched from the humidity. Languishing for a few prolonged minutes in the sumptuous air-conditioning of our rental. As our week in Northern Colombia draws to a close, so does another chapter in our globe-trotting quest. Back home, when I put the finishing touches on this year’s scrapbook of memories and video clips, the three of us will get top billing in our own romantic comedy adventure—Vickie Lillo, avid travel writer, and her soldier-of-fortune husband, Gustavo. And don’t sell short Nicolas, their teenage boy, in the role of wanderer extraordinaire.

If You Go

El Totumo Mud Volcano – enroute to Barranquilla – If you have a rental car, just go on your own. Only a couple of bucks to get in. Do remember to have LOTS of small bills for tips and parking.

Finca Barlovento, Los Naranjos Beach -- next to Tayrona National Park, Santa Marta, Colombia; e-mail:; website: BarloventoTayrona or Finca Barlovento - Santa Marta Both English and Spanish spoken.

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Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based travel writer, multi-lingual, and an avid adventure traveler who appreciates meeting new people and experiencing new cultures from around the world. She is proud to say that she has already given the gift of the love for travel to her 13-year old son.

Photo by their mud volcano guide.

Published: March 24th, 2015

© 2015