Exploring Pamukkale Part 1: The white terraces

Enjoying the pools at the top with the ruins in the background

There are really two parts to Pamukkale, Turkey–the natural part and the historic part. The natural part includes the famous natural terraces that so many tourists come to visit, but the ancient ruins of Hierapolis are impressive as well.

The word “Pamukkale” translates to “cotton castle” in Turkish, and that’s really what it looks like from a distance. The pools of Pamukkale have been in use since the second century B.C. since the thermal springs brought in tourists from the ancient world. The pools are formed by sedimentary rock called travertine which is deposited by the calcium-rich hot springs in crystallized form. While most tourists just visit the tepid pools along the walking path, there are also separate hot springs available for those who want a little more warmth (they cost extra).

Pamukkale in the distance from a touristy lake near the main road

We were staying at an Airbnb in Izmir so we made plans to drive to Pamukkale to visit the white cliffs and water pools. Originally we planned it as a day trip but at over 3 hours each way and so much to see we decided to book a separate hotel and stay overnight in the town to maximize our time there.

So it was an early rise for us and then off in our rental car. For most of the the drive to Pamukkale things were smooth and uneventful. The major highways in western Turkey are in excellent shape and along with the trusty GPS there are plenty of signs to help as a guide. The only things to be careful of are a lot of really fast and aggressive drivers and many speed cameras along the way. The highways actually go right through small towns in Turkey (no off-ramp exits to smaller roads) so cars have to go from 100km/h down to 50 in a hurry when a town appears, and in each town (and randomly on the highway) there are speed cameras present.

But all went well until the lat 45 minutes of the drive. Near the town of Saraykoy the GPS told us to take a left off the highway and we followed it. It turns out the route was slightly shorter but took us well off the paved route through some tiny towns with a lot of narrow, one-way dirt roads. We had to watch out for cars coming the other way as well as rocks and potholes around every bend. There was a lot of white-knuckle driving before we finally got to Pamukkale. The detour did have one benefit though; we found out about some ancient Roman ruins off the beaten path that few people visited. On the way back to Izmir a few days later we checked them out, something I’ll post about in future.

After reaching the town of Pamukkale and checking into the hotel we quickly drove over to the main entrance at the other end of the town. Upon arriving it looked like we were going to climb a ski hill, except it was warm out and all that white stuff was definitely not snow.

Almost to the beginning of the formations. Still wearing shoes at this point
And the shoes come off

Once we got off the gravel trail we had to take off our shoes to protect the surface of the formations. I regretted not bringing a backpack along to stow them. Due to the moving water, smooth surfaces and well worn paths it was sometimes slippery as we moved up the hill. On the other hand, some parts of the trail were rough and sharp–not too painful, but uncomfortable. You had to be careful going up and down the slope.

Into the the first pool on the trail
Crossing the stream
Generally it was dry or just a bit wet, but sometimes the water was flowing down the trail

We walked on the main trail and went through the pools along the way. The water was very refreshing, although temperatures were getting cooler as it was the second week of November.

On the edge of one of the pools. Most people just walked through them but a few people swam in them
It really did look like a wall of snow
Holding onto the shoes!
A view of the lake and town behind me
More people near the top

It was much busier at the top because the tour buses drive up to there using a back road and begin from there. Many of the tourists don’t go far town the trail and simply hang around the pools and ruins near the top.

Looks like that conga line of people doing Mt. Everest
Nice view from this angle, but there’s a reason nobody’s there

Unfortunately, the pools used to be in much better shape but a combination of construction, pollution and erosion from all of the tourists have caused the local government to close off many pools and limit the amount of water sent to the pools.

This is an advertising photo from the past when all of the pools were all full and people could go anywhere. This has not been allowed for a number of years now, and only the pools along the trail have water in them. These types of photos are still used to attract tourists.
The same pools when we visited. All dry now and they are off limits to tourists

At the top there are many more empty pools, which takes away from a lot of the beauty of the place but still gives it a bit of a dramatic moonscape appearance. Things were much drier and quieter at the top, none of the pools were filled and you couldn’t walk on them at all.

So many dry pools
There was a boardwalk close to some of the pools but this was as close as we could get
These dry grey pools look more like the surface of the moon

After we explored the ruins for the rest of the afternoon (part 2 is coming on Thursday) we climbed back down the way we came as the sun began to set. Because it was closing time there were far fewer tourists around and the descent was a quieter but enjoyable experience in a different way. Floodlights kept the trail lit at night. It was a unique sight to see, and that doesn’t include the ruins that I will include in the next post.

With the moon coming up from behind
Evening in Pamukkale
One last shot

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