Wellness Vacationing in Northern Colombia: Biking, Hiking, Spirit Rejuvenation and Mother Earth’s Own Mud Detox  

by Vickie Lillo

Tranquil sunsets listening to the trill of insects, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Magical moments strolling the beach.  Followed by nights lulled to sleep by the pounding of surf against boulders nestled below your beachfront B&B.  There are few spa hotels here in Northern Colombia.  No yoga or Pilate’s instructors, nor Zumba dance routines. No ‘sweating to the oldies’…no aerobics teachers braying, ‘Can you feel the burn?’ after a round of squats.  

Welcome, instead, to a ‘real-life’ wellness/good health regimen, orchestrated to the pulsating rhythms of salsa, at the crossroads of Latin America.   From the island city of Cartagena on the western coast to Santa Marta and Tayrona farther east, you’ll encounter a plethora of eco-hotels, secluded beaches and jungle trails to pamper your senses and discover your personal Zen.

In Cartagena, secure a hotel in Bocagrande for a great cardio work-out.  Get el corazón (the heart) pumping with a brisk two-mile walk to the historic city center.  Inhale fresh Caribbean breezes enroute.  At dusk, explore the walled fortress of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas via pedal power.  On a rented bike, cruise the sidewalks alongside horse-drawn surreys clattering lustily down the cobbled streets.  Six good reasons to book a cycling trip.

Castillo de San Felipe courtesy of Vickie Lillo

Get your toes tapping, as lively cumbia music blares from the city’s open windows.  Party-goers clamber onto the white-washed balconies of their colorful houses, swaying to the beat.  Bougainvillea blossoms overflow from window boxes, wafting their perfume across the citadel walls.  Purchase fresh pineapples from brightly-costumed palenqueras hawking their wares on the bastion’s stone steps – supposedly stained with the blood of slaves.          

An hour from Cartagena, towards Barranquilla, consider a full-body mud bath at Volcán de Lodo el Totumo.  Entry fee is just $2 per person!  You’ll summit the anthill-shaped cone by way of a rustic staircase and descend into the muck on a scanty, mud-caked ladder.  Even if you miss the last rung, you won’t sink.  You’ll simply bob like a cork in the slightly-tepid sludge.  

Mud bath at Volcán de Lodo el Totumo photo courtesy of tour guide

Begin with 20-30 minutes of ‘bathing’: one of the local Colombianos will happily slather barro (Spanish for “mud”) over your arms and legs.  Afterwards, you’ll parade to the river – a human mud pie, covered in dried volcanic clay.  The natural pumice of river rocks delivers an unexpected pedicure, buffing heel callouses and massaging the inner foot soles as you walk.    Nine things to know about mud baths

Next up:  an all-over exfoliation from ladies in traditional dress, repeatedly dousing you with buckets of water, to scrape away any vestiges of encrusted loam.  Ladies wielding homemade loofah sponges like weapons.  Your skin may tingle, somewhat raw from the scouring, but it will soon be soft as a baby’s bottom.  Your hair, too, once absolved of its sloppy conditioner.  Remind yourself that celebrities and the uber-rich pay ‘a pretty penny’ for such detoxifying treatments. Thirsty?  Hydrate with a glass of fresh-squeezed maracuyá (passion fruit) or a cup of just-brewed Arabica espresso, Colombia’s world-famous java.  

About four hours from Santa Catalina in the high-elevation town of Minca, a goat-path of a road leads to the tourist hotel MincaEcoHabs. Here, environmentally-conscious huts, built unobtrusively into the ridge, take you away from the coffee-bean fields and city high-rises.  

Chef Jorge, a veritable nutritionist, will tempt your taste-buds with mouth-watering fare, like chicken in starfruit glaze. Plus, his fresh-fruit concoctions may even insure a thorough intestinal cleansing.  All is served alfresco, at an intimate table, overlooking the sparkling lights of distant Santa Marta.  Surrounded by nature, you’ll soon discover that no sound machine needed to lull you to sleep.  A bush-cricket sonata and the mountains’ peaceful solitude will send you off to dreamland.

Up the road, at Finca Barlovento, you can lapse into meditation, astride rocking chairs that face Río Piedras and the jungle.   Except for the crocodile signposts warning houseguests to beware the resident caiman, this could be a film clip for “Tarzan”.  Only a few hundred meters away, at Los Naranjos, cabañas fashioned after a shipwrecked clipper straddle a humongous boulder jutting out over the sea.  At bedtime, cool-air zephyrs roll in from the West Indies, while white-capping swells and the tide thundering beneath your berth propel you to delightful repose.

Come morning, hit the trails at nearby Tayrona National Natural Park.

trails Tayrona National Natural Park
Trails at Tayrona National Natural Park photo courtesy of Nicolas Lillo

Better than a treadmill, the well-manicured boardwalks and sandy paths offer a great alternative to mindless walking on a rapidly-turning track.  And a healthy dose of Vitamin A from the tropical rays. Several miles from the trailhead at Cañaveral, you’ll run into Colombia’s version of a lap pool, at La Piscina.  It’s an aquamarine cove of crystal-clear waters where sun worshippers loll on flashy towels and faithful exercise enthusiasts practice their yoga discipline in bikinis on the beach. 

By week’s end, you’ll be re-invigorated, ready to return to your job with an improved attitude.  So, leave your exercise balls, your resistance toning bands and your free weights back at the house.  You won’t need them in Northern Colombia.  This vibrant heartbeat of Latin America – this Shangri-La – will whip you right into shape. More info on Columbia

About the author: Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based travel, birding and reptile writer, plus writes a travel column for her local newspaper.  With her husband, she enjoys globetrotting to new places around the world.  She is proud to say that she’s given the gift of “the love of travel” to their son.