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Friday, June 28, 2013

Bathing in mud at Volcán Totumo and hydrating in exotic South American fruit juices

After a quick stop at an ATM, I hopped into a cab near the harbor. The driver initially dropped me off at the wrong hostel, but he was only a block off so it wasn't long before he dropped me off at the right one. There, at Makako hostel, I was happily greeted by Vicenta and offered a refreshing cold cup of lemonade. The heat covering Cartagena was unbearable. Though it was ~91 degrees F, the combination of humidity (75%) and sun (UV index of "12 Extreme") made it felt like 111 degrees F. See below for proof.

Needless to say, I was regretting that I didn't have a room with AC. I quickly asked Vicenta to let me know if a bed in one of the AC rooms opened up. I was also feeling a bit under the weather. The captain and another crew member hadn't been feeling well when we first boarded the Stahlratte, so I assume I may had caught a little bit of what they had. But, it wasn't anything a couple Tylenol couldn't handle. Nevertheless, I decided to take it easy. I took a quick walk through the Walled City, grabbed a chicken sandwich for dinner, and went back to the hostel where a couple folks were watching the Big Bang Theory and Friends. 

Cartagena, named after the city of the same name in Spain, consists of the old colonial part of the city surrounded by miles of a 400 year old wall, and everything else outside of the wall. The former is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The environs between the two parts are quite different. Modern skyscrapers decorate the cityscape outside the wall, with big streets and plenty of traffic. Inside the wall lie centuries old colonial buildings, with overhanging balconies wrapped in overgrown vines. The narrow streets are visited by cars, but also by horse drawn carriages. Neither are necessary as this part of the city is easily traversed by foot, with the comfort of shade provided by the tightly packed two story buildings.

After a couple episodes of Big Bang, I headed to bed - in an AC room that Vicenta had vacant. I woke up an hour later with the feeling that I was still sleeping on the rocky Stahlratte. 

Not wanting to be stuck in the hostel all day, the next morning I found myself on a tour to Volcán Totumo. I would had gone without the aid of a guide, but given my feverish temperature, I was in no mood to get lost on another chicken bus. 

The guide picked me up from the hostel, leading me by foot to the AC minibus a couple blocks away. There, I sat waiting as she went to herd in more tourists. On the bus, I saw Sandro, a Swiss fellow who was on the Stahlratte with me. 

We drove and drove, passing by the Caribbean Sea on the left. In some sections of the road the lane closest to the sea was often splashed by the incoming waves, so it was avoided by bikers like the plague. Eventually, the view of the sea was replaced by a view of a row of hotels (Bocagrande, I think) - all tall white buildings covered in teal-tinted glass. 

About an hour later, the ~50 foot Totumo finally came into view. According to legend, the fire spitting volcano was anointed with holy water by a priest, causing the hot red lava to turn into cool gray mud.

At over 2000 feet deep into the ground and 12+ feet wide, Totumo looks more like a giant dirt mound than a volcano. Its sides had been outfitted with two wooden staircases, one for going up and one for going down. 

Once at the top, I was welcomed by a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Straight in front was the lagoon and behind me were mountains and forests. At my footsteps was the opening into Volcán Totumo. Like the parallel staircases, two ladders had been installed to ease bathers in and out of Totumo. It was packed inside. Counting the attendants who were giving massages to the bathers, there were at least 30 people crammed into a space slightly bigger than my former NYC kitchen. 

When it was my turn, I slowly lowered myself into the gray abyss. The mud was thick and cool to the touch. My body automatically floated near chest level without any effort on my part. One of the attendants maneuvered me so I was lying on my back. As he was massaging my legs, I could feel that the concrete colored mud wasn't completely smooth. It was lumpy and presumably pieces of hardened mud. What surprised me the most was the change in temperature of the mud from one spot to the next. In some areas it was warm as would be expected given it was being baked in the sun, but in others it was cool to the touch. 

After awhile I was kindly ushered up the slippery outgoing ladder. But, not before one of the attendants wrapped both hands around my arms, legs, and torso, squeezing away the excess gray mud covering me from head to toe.

Next, I walked down to the nearby lagoon to rinse off. Dipping my toes in, I was fully expecting the water to be cold. But, it felt more like a hot bath. Already in the lagoon were a couple women with buckets in hand all ready to wash and clean the mud covered tourists. I was pretty insistent that I didn't need their help, and had to walk away from them several times when they started pouring water on me. If they wanted to provide their service for free, that'd be fine with me, but I wasn't going to pay to be bathed. 

Ruta Ecologica, the tour company, had a small "lodge" back near the volcano where we could wash off. The shower there, however, was abysmal. Drops of water trickled down from the faucet. One of the attendants eventually filled a bucket with green tinted water (presumably from the lagoon) and handed us the cut off bottom portion of a 1 liter bottle.

After the haphazard shower, we drove for about 15 minutes to a beachfront restaurant, where I was served grilled chicken with delicious coconut rice, plantains, and a salad. As expected from a tour, we were quickly rushed back onto the bus after lunch, leaving us no time to explore the beach before us. 

Back in the colonial walled city, I indulged in a cone of guanábana (soursop) gelato and a deliciously refreshing concoction of limonada de coco (lime-monade with coconut cream) to quench the heat. After another walk through the city along the edge of the wall and pitstops at a museum (to be honest, I went in here for the AC) and a bookstore (where all the books were shrink wrapped so no freeloaders allowed), I encountered upon a family run restaurant where I had the opportunity to eat the blandest fried chicken and fried plantains I've ever had on my plate. 

Soon, I was in a taxi to the bus terminal, which was located on the edge of town 30 minutes away. For 16K pesos, the driver took me beyond the wall and into the "modern" part of Cartagena. At the bus station, a large building filled with places for food (I had the pollo con arroz, a slightly sweet mixture of chicken and rice), I bought a 30K peso ticket for Santa Marta, a coastal city ~4-5 hours north of Cartagena. 

The ride up to Santa Marta was largely uneventful, with the occasional stop to let on men and women carrying homemade goods and other products trying to sell to passengers who had nowhere to run off to. It was better than in El Salvador, where at one point in time there were over a dozen people cycling on and off the crammed bus. In Baranquilla, a guard came on the bus with a video camera videotaping every passenger's face. His shirt said private security so I'm unsure what the security measure was for.

I was lucky that I was awake when the bus stopped in Santa Marta as it was only a two minute stop with little announcement from the driver. I ended up sharing a cab with Louie, a fellow from the UK who was staying at the same hostel as me. 

After checking in to the family run hostel, I paid a visit to Expotur, the company I was using for the trek to the Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, to figure out what I needed to pack. 

Afterwards, it was another stop to try another exotic (to the US anyway) fruit juice. The first was lulo or naranjilla, an orange looking fruit whose insides resemble that of a green tomato. The juice had a lime flavor to it and was slightly sour even with added sugar. My preference was for the guanábana, the same fruit that I previously had in the form of a gelato. 

With the sun setting, I walked two blocks from the hostel to the beach, which happened to also be where ships docked. As a result, the water was quite dirty, but that didn't stop the locals from jumping in and having a good ole time. 


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