Pamukkale is one of those places of which you see a photo and never quite forget. And it is one of those places that I never thought I’d actually get to see just because it seems so other worldly – I may as well plan a trip to Mars! But when I realized that the travertines were only an overnight bus away from Cappadocia… Let’s just say facing a funky-smelling squat toilet at 3am in the middle of nowhere Turkey was no big deal as all I cared about was that I was on my way to see TRAVERTINES!!
I, and about 15 other young backpacking tourists, was dumped at the side of a highway about 6am – despite being told by the bus company that this was a direct trip to Pamukkale Town. We all blearily clambered onto a sketchy minibus that really holds only 10 people safely. I had seen the minibus from my window on the big bus and had a feeling that they would squish us on there – so I made sure to be one of the first ones to grab my bag from the big bus, toss it onto the small bus, and be practically first in line to get inside. As such, I didn’t have to be one of the poor people who had to stand up for the drive! Moral of the story: Pay attention!
Once in town at the bus office, they separated the wheat from the chaff – as in those who made plans ahead of time and those who didn’t. After waiting about 15 minutes, I was chauffeured to the pension I had booked – this was about 7 o’clock in the morning. Once my room was ready, I dropped my stuff and quickly made an executive decision: crankily explore Pamukkale which apparently wasn’t much to look at or nap and go out at lunch for the afternoon which would allow me to see the travertines at sunset. I chose the latter.
Pamukkale, meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish, is a natural site near Denizli in southwestern Turkey. The two main reasons people come here are the travertines and Hierapolis – both parts making up the World Heritage Site. In the pre-1990s, it was highly popular with backpackers* and there were little restrictions on the site so of course, things started getting damaged and dirty. By the 1990s, the Turkish government realized they had a money-maker on their hands and so a development campaign was implemented to increase tourism to the site. It had the opposite effect because giant car parks and giant hotels don’t exactly look aesthetically pleasing in a place that was all about natural beauty.
Today, things have improved. While I’m sure those who have been to Pamukkale pre-1990s will say it was better back then, the area is still worth a day or two. The travertines are gleaming white once again and the hotels and car park are not obnoxiously practically on top of the ancient city anymore. There are several restaurants and hotel-restaurants at the base of the site so fuel up before heading up: while there is a café up there, it’s the usual “captive audience” pricing.
Visiting the travertines and Hierapolis took some strategic planning on my part. I left my pension about 2pm and found a restaurant at the base of the travertines for lunch. I had the place practically to myself except for a couple locals. My entertainment during the meal was ogling the tour buses coming and going – generally going as most tour companies bring their fares for the morning. Another reason not to visit the travertines at that time. It was about 3pm when I finally bought my ticket and started the climb up to the top. Note that you’re not allowed to wear your shoes when walking on the travertines…and walking is the only way to get to the top! You’ll need to carry your shoes with you and you’ll also need sun glasses as the sun bouncing off bright white calcium deposits can positively blind a person. A hat and a big bottle of water would be smart as well if it is a hot day. The walk up is pretty awesome but if you have sensitive feet, watch out for the sharp edges and pebbles. However, you can then soothe your feet in the warm mineralized flowing water and in the semi-circular pools! Pretend you’re an ancient Roman while you do so though the tourists in various stage of dress around you may be distracting…mostly in bad ways…
At the top of the travertines, it is here where Hierapolis lies. It is a Greco-Roman city whose primary purpose was thermal baths that provided healing to the Anatolians, Greco-Macedonians, Romans, and Jews of the time. The site holds various ruins including a theatre, a museum that is not always open, the temple of Apollo, the church of St. Philip (apparently crucified upside down here about year 87), and the necropolis. Give yourself about 3 hours to properly wander around the grounds, more if you are a history or photography buff. My favorite part was the necropolis – I had it practically to myself late in the afternoon, all 2km of it. The afternoon light against all the stone and the white travertines is absolutely gorgeous and the setting sun is just as lovely.
Tip I: Stay at Melrose House Hotel – really reasonable price with generous sized rooms, friendly staff, good food, and an easy 5 minute walk to the travertines.
Tip II: Visit on your own, not with a tour group! There is just too much in which to wander at Hieropolis to be tied down by a group. Also, most groups go in the morning so it will be extra crowded and you’ll miss the sunset.
Tip III: Day trips to Aphrodisias (ancient city of Aphrodite) can start from Pamukkale – book this for your last day as you can arrange to be dropped off at the bus station in Denizli on the way back into Pamukkale.