Pamukkale: Beauty Matched only by Excessive Tourism

September 26, 2015

When my travel plans fell apart and I thought it would be better to make my way to Athens and southwest Turkey before flying to Istanbul, I asked a few friends for recommendations. Cappadocia was out, as I had no intention of going on a romantic hot air balloon ride solo or staying in a cave suite by myself. But Turkey is full of natural treasures, and someone alerted me to Pamukkale, a series of pools on the side of a mountain adjacent to the ruin of Hierapolis.

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To go into the geology of the site, known as “cotton castle” in Turkish, the hot springs have been bubbling up travertine, a sedimentary rock, for some time. Over the years, this has allowed quite the formation of pools and layers of rock on the side of the mountain; no doubt it looked different 2000 years ago when the area was occupied by the Greeks.

Anyone who has spent any time in Turkey has probably seen the red and white “PAMUKKALE” signs for one of the bus companies. Ironically, they don’t provide any service to the town, just nearby Denizli. I will say I wasn’t sure what to expect for bus travel here. In the US, there are only so many companies: Greyhound being the largest, but Megabus and Bolt Bus doing well on the east and west coasts. You can book them online and are required to provide your personal information. In Korea and Japan, you simply walk up to the ticket counter, pay cash, and hop on board (I believe they do take reservations, but it’s seldom necessary).

Turkey’s system is simple and straightforward. Although you can make your own way out of town to the nearest bus terminal, it’s just as easy to find a company office like Pamukkale, pay for your ticket, and have them bring you to the terminal with a free shuttle. Most of the long-distance buses include an entertainment system comparable to those on international flights (but little-to-no English language options), free ice cream, and tea. For such a short trip, this was a welcome surprise.

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From Izmir, I had no problems booking a cheap pension (75 TL/night) and getting a seat reservation. Whenever these situations come up in a new country – needing to be somewhere on a certain day, at a certain time, etc – I’m a little stressed that something could go wrong. In the Philippines and Thailand, it’s not always easy to navigate your way around the bus system. In Turkey, my concern was a possible failing infrastructure. I needn’t have worried; around the west coast, things are orderly.

So, from Izmir, it’s about three hours to Denizli, famous for its fat roosters. Old women will attempt to sell you rooster-sounding whistles in additional to rooster stuffed animals and figurines. I don’t know if there’s anything else to do in the city besides that, but it’s only a 30-minute, 3.5-TL minibus ride to Pamukkale. Once you’re dropped off at the center of town, or even at the pools themselves, it’s a short walk to all pensions and hotels.

When I was in Nazca, Peru, I made the mistake of booking a guesthouse for four nights instead of continuing north to Ica and seeing more of the area. Other than seeing the lines and taking a look around the desert, there’s little to do; it’s a tourist town that you can walk from end-to-end in 20 minutes.

The same is true of Pamukkale, and I booked two nights there. Even that was excessive. In truth, you just need a few hours, 4-5 tops, to walk around Hierapolis and soak in the pools. I arrived around sunset and enjoyed a beer in the park at the foot of the pools in time to see the white face of the hill radiating a calming gold. This is the time of day an unusual number of couples choose to have their wedding pictures taken, and it is worth seeing. So I would recommend, if you need to stay in the area and want to see everything, arrive in the late afternoon, check into your hotel, and watch the sunset with some Efes or tea. You can even go for a late soak in the pools, as they don’t close until 9:00 PM.

Most simply arrive around 8:00 AM and get an early start on walking. This was my plan. 25 TL to enter the city, 32 TL to enter the city and indulge in the covered pools (you can’t go out and come back in for a later soak, unfortunately).

When there aren’t many people, it can be a relaxing walk up the white face with the sun on your back. You have to take off your shoes to minimize the damage to the rock… not to mention it’s easier to wiggle your toes as you wade through the water. Take your time going up; if you haven’t paid for the covered pools this is your only chance to jump in and let your body absorb the minerals. However, I would recommend making a quick ascent and walking around Hierapolis first, then coming back for a well-deserved swim.

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The city is in rough shape, having been hit by two earthquakes under Greek and Roman rule. Almost everything you can see, from the theater to the baths, has been reconstructed for tourists. In fact, almost every part of the ruins west of the main road is full of tombs; it’s hard to imagine this city was once considered the center of art and culture. I would suggest taking the 2-TL shuttle to the other gate and walking back; most tourists (when I was there, anyway) seemed too lazy to make the trek over, so you can take some time to yourself to inspect the tombs and learn the history of the city.

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There are very few places on Earth that justify the number of tourists visiting. I should develop a formula… something along the lines of:

SYSI (should you see it) = (how beautiful/historical it is divided by can you get just as good a sense of it from a picture online) minus # tourists that visit each day minus the cost of traveling there

Though that may not make much sense mathematically, it’s something I’m considering more often these days. I hate to tout “off the beaten path” as my travel mantra, but it’s true. The Acropolis was definitely worth seeing, but if the top had been inundated with cruise ship passengers when I was there… maybe not. So far, Paris is one of the few places I’ve visited that has a disproportionately large number of SYSI attractions; the city is so amazingly beautiful and accessible I feel the number of tourists and costs are justified.

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As far as Pamukkale is concerned… maybe. Again, I arrived in the early morning, but was starting to see the trail filling up when I walked down at noon. When you trek up to the theater, expecting to find an impressive Roman ruin with columns and statues, your gateway is a fully-functional cafe with Coca Cola bottles in a refrigerator against the entrance. At the top of the white face, where you can catch shuttles to the other end of Heirapolis and sit in the shade at your two choice of two cafes, really takes away from the entire experience.

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I know, I set myself up for all of this by expecting AD 400 and getting 2015. I’ll probably do it again, too. I can’t blame the town of Pamukkale for capitalizing on a clear attraction for foreign tourists, but it was a little unsettling for me to walk up and down the street watching restaurant owners try and entice tourists into buying drinks and meals by guessing their nationality and uttering the 2-3 words they knew of their language. As it was seeing old women calling me with rooster whistles.

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Side note: I noticed Turkish people’s perception of my heritage was pretty ambiguous; a few correctly guessed I was American, but just as many assumed German, Russian, or even Turkish (I don’t know why, but it happened).

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