The editor seemed to think the assignment easy. “Go find that volcano near Cartagena and bring back some decent images of Columbia,” he noted in an email. The annoying and unforgivable error of replacing the fifteenth letter of the alphabet with a ‘u’ in the name of Colombia showed the editor’s blatant ignorance as to not only where I was living but his interest (or absence of ) an entire country.

But a volcano near Cartagena? Surely, this editor has lost his bearings.

Colombia has its share of seismic activity from snow-capped volcanoes. In the south of the country, Galeras, looms over Pasto and regularly turns up the heat and steam forcing the mayoralty to consider mass evacuations. The Nevado del Ruíz in the center of the country has also begun to stir after decades of being relatively dormant and earlier this year, managed to blanket some of the coffee zone and capital of Caldas, Manizales, in ash.

Volcano El Totumo

Locals claim that the mud from the “El Totumo” volcano can cure a variety of ailments. The only guarantee, however, is that it’s Cartagena’s messiest attraction.

The Colombian Caribbean coastline extends from the rainforests and foothills of the Darien Gap to the vast expanse of desert in the Guajira peninsula. With the grandness of the Tayrona National Park nestled inside the world’s highest coastal mountain ranges – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – there are plenty of coral reefs, archipelagos, and secluded coves to choose from. But no volcanoes (I thought to myself), especially not one within an hour’s drive from Cartagena.

The Volcán del Totumo along the Cartagena to Barranquilla coastal highway is hardly a lava-spewing spectacle. From the ramparts of the Old City we head east through swamps and mangroves where the expansion of Miami Beach style resorts and gated communities keep slowing us down as golf carts and construction trucks try to compete with oncoming traffic.

Having gotten an early start to avoid the midday heat of the costa, we finally swerve off the main road and arrive into the parking lot of geological curiosity. The tranquility of the morning erupts into enthusiasm when a fleet of tour buses from Barranquilla also time their arrival with us and before we know it, it’s us, José, Maria, Martin and some Manchester lads at the foot of the volcano. The only thing missing on our volcano excursion is a patch of blue sky over the departments of Atlántico and Bolivar.

Mud worth remembering

With the admission price of $5,000 pesos per person, we challenge the slippery steps of “El Totumo” and try not to lose our footing at the 12 meter-high pool of Cadbury-thick mud. Inside the pit, bodies are twisting and turning while “Tonio” – one of the volcano’s official rangers and a local who earns his living from this natural wonder, offers to be the unofficial photographer of all things slimy.

The view from the volcano is impressive. The nearby lagoon, Cienaga del Totumo, shimmers as dark storm clouds drift towards the blue waters of the coast. In the distance, the rumble of the Autopista 90 can also be heard with its steady flow of traffic. Meanwhile bodies of all shapes and sizes are marinating themselves in the grey mud mixed with methane and minerals. According to the locals, the mud has curative powers; hence bottles of the stuff can be brought in the many makeshift shacks which also serve fried fish platters.

Surprisingly, the heavy metals from the bottomless pit of the volcano weren’t being pushed as an aphrodisiac as most things are in costeño culture.

After lots of Minolta and Fuji moments, the muddy parties wash-off in a nearby lagoon, get dressed and board their tour buses. After multiple frames of caked faces and black bodies descending the steps of the volcano as if they were the last survivors of a natural disaster, it was time for us to return to Cartagena and enjoy what precious time we had left on the coast.

With the cooling effect of the mud on my skin,I had found a volcano within striking distance of a beach. And it was a harmless one. All in a morning’s fun. The challenge now would be to explain to the smug editor in London why I didn’t capture in Colombia, the dramatic images worthy of Discovery Channel.