The train ride from Selcuk/Ephesus was a relaxed 3 ½ hours to Denizli where I’d need to find the bus station to catch a “dolmas” (a shared mini-bus that is a staple of travel within Turkey) to Pamukkale, about 25 minutes away. I’d gotten my first glimpse of the white mountains of Pamukkale from the train as we pulled into the Denzili station and I was excited to get up there and explore.
The bus station was pretty easy to find using my time-proven solid strategy of just following the other tourist-looking people with luggage and since the dolmas leave every 15 minutes there was one waiting and we were off in just minutes.
For my brief stay in Pamukkale I chose the Venus Hotel based on its Trip Advisor reviews. There’s not much to the actual town of Pamukkale and it seemed to be the best choice in the area. Owned and operated by the Dormus family since 1991, this small bed and breakfast was centrally-located just a short walk away from both the bus stop and the exit to the travertines.
My room was adorable (code for tiny but well-decorated) but the best part about staying at the Venus is that the manager, Yusuf, was always available to give you a lift up to the south entrance to the travertines (way up at the top of the hill) and then you could leisurely work your way down the hill and walk back to the hotel whenever you were ready.
Yusef showed me a map of the site including the Heriopolis and explained where he would drop me, what there was to see and how to get back to the hotel from the exit. I’m really enjoying how helpful all of these small Turkish B&B’s have been so far, it’s like having a hotel, guide and driver all rolled into one. And again, this hotel was a bargain at around $60 a night.
Inside my room was another helpful information book about the site of Pamukkale and some basic visitor info. According to the book, the best time to go up to the terraces was late in the afternoon around 4-5pm and then to stay until sunset. It was almost 3:00pm by this time so I decided that was a good plan. I wasn’t planning to leave until the 1pm train the next day so I figured I’d still have the morning if I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to (though that would mean paying the entrance fee again).
By 4:00pm a heavy rainstorm had just passed through and it looked like there was more on the way but the sun was currently shining so it was time to get going. Rain or shine, I was going up on that mountain. When I came downstairs Yusuf looked at me appraisingly and asked if I had an umbrella. I didn’t, just a thin rain jacket stuffed in my bag. He rummaged around the office until he found one to loan me and then dropped me and a few other guests off at the top of the hill near the ticket booth. I bought my entrance ticket and began the walk through the enormous grounds toward the travertine terraces.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pamukkale Turkey
Though photos of Pamukkale Turkey often just show the iconic travertine terraces, the entire site also includes the ruins of the ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine city of Hierapolis, which was built on top of the “white castle.”
Though they have the appearance of salt, the scalloped terraces of Pamukkale are actually made of travertine, a sedimentary rock deposited by the thermal waters of 17 hot water springs. The temperature of the water ranges from 95 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Within the travertine area, the first thing I noticed was that some pools were dry while others were filled with water. The book in my room had explained that there were once five hotels up at the top of the travertine area that were taking water from the pools and during that time the walking path used today was a road with vehicle traffic. The hotels, the road and just too many people in the pools, caused a big environmental problem.
In 1997, UNESCO came in and took down the hotels and stopped people from going in all of the pools. Today, there is a channel system in place to keep some pools dry for several days while water flows to others. This changes frequently and since the system was put in place the site has been slowly recovering.
The world’s best pedicure
Wearing shoes in the pools is strictly prohibited and if you forget to take them off you’ll quickly earn the attention of a security guard and a screech of his whistle. Walking on the travertine was sandpaper-like abrasive but comfortable in most places, but there were other spots that felt like walking on coral. It was remarkably non-slippery which made for good footing – always a helpful thing while wading through ankle-deep waters on the side of a mountain.
For a while, the sun was out and weather was nice and I enjoyed walking from terrace to terrace, taking pictures and wading into the warm water up to my knees. It really was like being at a spa. There were lots of other people around – tour groups and locals, alike – but since the site is so large it never felt crowded.
After I’d been there almost 2 hours, storms clouds moved in and it looked like we were in for another torrential downpour like the one we’d had mid-afternoon. No problem, though, I was prepared. It was still only 5pm and I was hopeful that the storm would move through and there might still be a nice sunset to photograph so I’d brought my iPad in case I needed to kill a little time waiting for the light to change (and to wait out any possible thunderstorms).
There were two little outdoor cafes at the top of the mountain but neither provided any real shelter other than some shady trees. I picked the one with the most tree coverage, bought a beer and an ice cream (otherwise known as a perfectly balanced meal covering all the basic vacation food groups) and sat down to wait out whatever storm was about to begin.
No sooner had I taken that first sip of beer, than I felt the first raindrops. Again, no problem. Totally prepared thanks to Yusuf. I popped up my umbrella, pulled out my rain jacket for a little extra protection for the electronics and read my book while enjoying the beer and ice cream. Meanwhile, everyone else around me declared Armageddon and ran screaming for cover under the café’s lone tiny awning as the few rain drops quickly escalated into a major downpour complete with thunder and lightning. Amateurs.
The torrential rain lasted for about 45 minutes after which it was safe to resume normal activity again. The sun came back out briefly but there were still ominous clouds looming in the distance so it was pretty clear we were not yet done with the rain. Though I was beginning to give up hope on a real sunset, the contrast of the occasional rays of sunlight with the black sky in the distance made the perfect backdrop for striking photos of the blue and white travertines. I walked around taking photos for another hour or so and by this time it was nearly 7:30pm.
As the next storm moved closer, there were incredible lightning strikes off in the distance that would have made the most amazing photo if I could have captured one. I was on the opposite side of the main section of travertine terraces, farthest from the path leading down to the exit where most people were still playing and wading in the pools. This was the best angle for photos so I was determined to wait it out a little more. After all, when it did start raining again, I’d just pop up my umbrella and start heading down.
An ill-advised exit strategy
The rain came quickly, in sheets this time, blowing strongly across the side of the mountain. Those that were already along the path toward the exit decided they’d had enough and in minutes they’d all disappeared down the hill. I looked around and realized I was just about the only one left in the entire place. So I quickened my pace across the top of the travertines and over to the path that lead toward the exit at the bottom of the hill.
The rain continued to pound on my umbrella and the wind threatened to rip it right out of my hands but I kept my head down, my electronics bundled up tightly in my backpack and steadily moved forward down the path (which was way longer than it looked from the other side). I was still walking through pools on the travertine so I was also carrying my shoes, which was awkward since the umbrella currently required two hands to brace it against the wind.
Meanwhile, the lightning strikes that I’d thought were so cool a few minutes ago increased in frequency and proximity and were regularly complemented by roars of thunder. I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t seem super smart to be walking down the side of a mountain in ankle-deep water carrying a metal umbrella. But my options were limited at this point so I pressed on, the bottom of the hill in clear sight below.
Adding to my woes, the travertine down this side of the terraces was much rougher than at the top and was more reminiscent of walking on sharp coral in the sea. I stepped gingerly, focusing on not falling (which would have been a real problem at this point) and eventually I made it past the exit gates and onto the main road in town.
The rain was relentless and I was drenched from the waist down. Luckily, I was wearing a swimsuit and cover-up so I didn’t really care. But I was cold and I knew the walk back to the hotel would take about 15 more minutes. I was also hungry (beer and ice cream for lunch, not as filling as you might think) so I ducked into the first restaurant I saw and stopped for some dinner.
By the time I was finished with dinner, the rain had let up for the walk back to the hotel. Yusuf seemed relieved to see me and I thanked him profusely for the umbrella, without which I would have been completely sunk. I was still soaking wet except for the parts of me protected by the umbrella so the first order of business was a hot shower.
When I got out of the shower, I couldn’t believe how smooth and soft my feet were! I guess walking around for hours on travertine in the warm waters was a bit like walking on a pumice stone for hours. Certainly better results than I’d ever had from a pedicure and a little bonus to go along with your entry fee to Pamukkale!
Day 2 in Pamukkale
Since I’d gotten all of the pictures I wanted the day before, I decided to forgo heading back up to the site on Day 2. Instead, I slept in a bit and had some breakfast before making my way back to Denizli for a noon train to Izmir.
The train from Pamukkale (Denizli station) to Izmir was a genius way to cover the 4-hour distance to Izmir. While my bus ride from Bodrum to Selcuk had been pleasant enough, the roads were a little too bumpy to get any real work done on my laptop during the drive. The train, however, is a much smoother ride with more legroom and bigger tray tables for work space. And as a bonus, thanks to a tip on the Turkey Travel Planner site, I found the one row of seats in the end car with a power outlet…score!
Yes, I’m backtracking to get to Cappadocia by going back through Izmir but the travel options from Pamukkale to Cappadocia were surprisingly bleak (think 8-hour bus ride). Alternatively, the train ride was comfortable and inexpensive and I found a flight from Izmir to Kayseri (one of the closest airports to Cappadocia) for less than $50 on Turkish low-cost carrier Sun Express.
So after one brief night in Izmir; tomorrow, it’s on to Cappadocia!