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With its healing thermal springs, white crusted hillsides and bird-bath sized pools terraced down the slopes, the ancient spa town of Pamukkale and the ruins of Hierapolis is one of the most unique destinations in Turkey to visit. Here’s what you need to know.
An ancient healing town
The Pamukkale hot springs are legendary, dating back to the 2nd century BC, and the town has been a destination for healing for centuries.
Other than the noxious spring in Pluto’s Cave, now wisely out of bounds to tourists, the Pamukkale thermal waters are bursting with healthy minerals and are said to be good for circulation issues, skin ailments, heart conditions and rheumatism.
One of Turkey’s most stunning towns
Even more impressive than the Pamukkale hot springs is the scenery.
Warm water flows down the hillside above the town, leaving white calcium deposits called travertines that coat the hill like a frozen marshmallow curtain. Small pools, terraces and stalactites add lacework to the blanket of white, and I had to blink a few times when I first saw it.
At my hotel I signed up for a local day tour of Pamukkale and the surrounding area. It seemed like a good way to get to know the area, meet other travellers and ensure that my tourist dollars stayed in the local economy.
Our driver’s name was Mohammed, but other than that it was an all-female foray made up of Renee from California, Tai-ko from Tokyo, me and our young Turkish guide who I called Ursie because I couldn’t pronounce her real name.
The Red Spring of Karahayit
Surprisingly, the Pamukkale hot springs that paint the hills white aren’t the only springs in the region. Our first destination was about 5 kilometres away, a natural hot spring pool in the village of Karahayit.
In contrast to Pamukkale’s white hills, the ground around this small iron-rich spring was stained red, while in the distance, dry barren hills were sporadically dotted with pine.
Enjoying the thermal pools in Turkey
Ursie kicked off her sandals and waded into the water which had pooled around the spring. The water was burning hot and I gingerly high-stepped it after her to the far edge of the shallow pool where a stout woman in a headscarf was slapping clay onto her legs.
“For veins,” she told Ursie in Turkish.
Vein therapy? Count me in. I hiked up my pant legs and started scooping up clay.
The woman shouted at me in Turkish, something that sounded like, “Ovmak! Ovmak!”
“She says rub it in,” Ursie translated.
Pamukkale and the ancient town of Hierapolis
After my impromptu spa treatment, we drove to the ancient ruins of Hierapolis situated high on a plateau above Pamukkale town. Because of the abundance of healing thermal water in the area, in ancient times Hierapolis became something of a retirement destination for the elderly and a healing resort for the ill.
It was likely because so many people spent their last days here that the Necropolis of Hierapolis is so expansive and impressive – making it a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.
The Temple of Apollo
While touring the Necropolis of Hierpolis (which I like saying because it rhymes), we stopped at the Roman theatre, which was built by the Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD.
Even more interesting is the Temple of Apollo. Apollo was one of the most revered gods in ancient Hierapolis, but at the back of temple compound is where the strange and mysterious Plutonium, also known as Pluto’s Cave, is located. When we were there the grounds had been fenced off by archeologists but someone forgot to latch the gate. Ursie fiddled with it and ushered us through.
“I hope we don’t get arrested,” Renee said.
“No problem.” Ursie smiled. “My father is the police.”
Pluto’s Cave was dedicated to the god Pluto, also known as Hades, the god of the underworld. It was discovered by Italian architects in 1965 but it’s probably as old as Hierapolis itself, which dates back to 190 BC.
We walked over the old foundations of the temple to the stone structure built around the cave. Tucked around a corner a small weathered arch marks the entrance to a poisonous spring. It was my first realization that not all hot springs are good for you. In fact, if you breathe in the fumes, which are high concentrates of carbon dioxide, it can kill you.
Deadly as this dark grotto is, it served to establish Pamukkale’s reputation as a sacred site. Priests, trained to hold their breath, would go in with an assortment of small animals, which would keel over beside them. These deadly displays contrasted with the priests’ miraculous invincibility proved that Hierapolis was a place of the gods.
The Pamukkale hot springs
Our history lesson on Pamukkale and Hierapolis complete, it was time for a dip in a nearby calcium pool. And unlike Pluto’s Spring, this water is mineral rich and healthy.
Swimming is forbidden in most of the travertine pools to protect the delicate environment today, but Ursie knew of one off-the-beaten-path spot where it was allowed. High on the hill, we stripped to our bathing suits.
“You have to rub the lime from the pools onto your body,” Ursie said.
“For veins again?” I asked.
This Pamukkale day tour was rapidly turning into a DIY spa tour – and I couldn’t think of a better way to sightsee. Stepping into a small natural pool on the hillside, I started slathering soft white muck on my body.
After I’d rubbed, rinsed and repeated, I sat on the calcified curves of the hill and looked down over the throngs of tourists below, strung in a row along the travertines like a brightly-coloured thread as they walked down the white hillside. There were a lot of them.
Day tourists flock to Pamukkale, so stay overnight for the real experience
Be forewarned. Bus tours arrive in Pamukkale in formidable numbers during the day en route to bigger draws like Ephesus, 215 km west. Then once the sun sets the buses move on and Pamukkale returns to its sleepy self.
Can you visit Pamukkale on a day trip from Istanbul? Only if you fly. It’s a good seven hours or more by car or bus. Getting to Pamukkale from Cappadocia takes at least eight hours.
But right now the crowds were at their thickest and for our last stop we couldn’t avoid them. Cleopatra’s Pool, also called the Sacred Pool or the Antique Pool (you can never have too many names!) is one of the area’s biggest attractions. Fed by Pamukkale’s thermal water, and known for its curative properties, the Sacred Pool has been hosting bathers for centuries.
In fact, the water is the foundation around which the healing town was based, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an atmospheric pool with brilliant green water and fluted columns that lie in the water like fallen trees.
Pamukkale hot springs and the Sacred Pool
I waded into the water and started breast stroking over ruins untouched since they’d toppled into the water after an earthquake – it was like swimming over history.
The sheen of algae covering much of the sunken marble in the Pamukkale Sacred Pool was disconcerting, but the thought of Cleopatra swimming here before me propelled me on. If this was her beauty secret I didn’t plan on missing out. When I questioned Ursie about whether Cleopatra was actually here, or rumoured to have been here, she admitted there was no documentary evidence Cleopatra actually swam in the Pamukkale hot springs.
“But she was in the area at the time,” she said brightly, “so it’s possible.”
And it was equally possible that right this minute Pluto was splashing around in his own dark spring up the road. But the beauty of myths is that they’re hard to prove wrong. As I perched on a stump of a column, half submerged, small bubbles from the effervescent hot springs coated my body like a champagne bath.
Truly, I thought, Pamukkale is a place of the gods.
Turkey, Pamukkale hot springs travel tips
For more information on Turkey visit www.tourismturkey.org.
How to get to Pamukkale from Istanbul:
In Istanbul you can go to just about any travel agent and buy an overnight bus ticket to Denizli. I was alone but I felt perfectly safe and the long drive wasn’t as bad as I thought. (Though coming back the bus was much more crowded and uncomfortable. Just my luck, I guess.) If you’ve booked a hotel, ask for a pick up from Denizli. From Denizli you can take a taxi.
If you’re on a package tour, Pamukkale is a popular day stop, especially for those en route to Ephesus.
I highly recommend staying in Pamukkale overnight as once the crowds leave it’s quite magical.
Things to do in Pamukkale
The Pamukkale Hierapolis ticket price is about $10 and there are 3 entrances – yes, it’s that big: Pamukkale Town Entrance, South Entrance and North Entrance. The cost is about $10.
Swim in the Antique Pool
For me swimming in the warm thermal springs was a highlight. The pool might float over ruins but around the pool is a modern resort complex with loungers, grass and snack bars. The pool is seasonal, open from April to October and will cost you about $9 to enter.
Visit the red springs of Karahayit
My visit was to a small shallow pool, more like a fountain, and there was no fee to enter. Karahayit is about 5 minutes drive from Pamukkale and there are a few spa hotels here and a wellness park.
Day trip to Aphrodisius
It’s easy to find day tours to Aphrodisius, a ruined city with a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It’s a very evocative site and worth a visit. You’ll want about 3 hours there. You can also take a dolmush, which is like a shared minibus. Ask at your hotel for times.
Where to stay in Pamukkale.
Here is a list of hotels on Booking.com (I’m an affiliate) where you can check prices and availability.