I have seen beautiful places in the world…and then I have seen Pamukkale. I separate those two because Pamukkale, with its stark white travertines and milky blue water, needs to be put in a category all its own. It’s downright otherworldly, one of those places whose beauty is so off-the-wall and unexpected that you think Mother Nature must have been a little tipsy when she dreamed it up.
Make no mistake about it; Pamukkale was a place that had been on my bucket list since the day I put it down on paper, and it was one of the things that put Turkey above a few other places for my summer vacation destination of choice. Even though a few months have passed, the views I took in there remain unbelievably beautiful in my mind, undimmed and undiluted.
Pamukkale is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Turkey, and it’s not hard to see why. In English, its name translates to “cotton castle,” which comes from the puffy-looking rock formations that have formed over the centuries as the calcium carbonate-laden water has flown over the landscape from its hot spring source. The result of that? Ice blue, thermally heated water that has formed terrace-like basins of shining white rock.
I feel like if Pamukkale were in America, there would be fences, boundaries, and guardrails galore. Your grimy, gross feet wouldn’t stand a chance of getting near that UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Turkey, though? Nada. There are a few small signs marking the off-limits areas, and park officers are positioned here and there to blow whistles on any visitors that go gallivanting off the kosher path, but for the most part, you rely on your own common sense.
Sure, there are parts of the travertines that are off-limits to visitors, but the largest part of Pamukkale’s calcium carbonate formation is the hillside itself, and you’re allowed to traipse up those cascades on your own two feet, getting as close as you dare to the steep drop over the edge of the hillside. You can also visit Pamukkale at night, when giant floodlights illuminate the cascades…but to me, that just sounds like a good way to break an ankle (or at least epically stub a toe) on the uneven ridges.
From a distance, the white cascades look striking, but it’s not until you’re walking up them, with their roughshod surface beneath your bare feet – no shoes allowed – and the water rushing between your toes, that you realize the full beauty of Pamukkale. Near the top of the hill, a series of basins collect the water, making natural bathtubs that, unfortunately, are off-limits to visitors. In years past, tourists have been able to lounge in those, but as they’re arguably the most pristine of the park, preserving them takes top priority.
Pamukkale’s wintry palette is gorgeous by day, but at sunset, it practically sings with color. I struggle to name a sunset comparable to the one I saw at Pamukkale. You could list every synonym for “beautiful” to describe it, and it would still not do it justice.
To preserve the travertines, water is diverted to certain sections during certain parts of the day. This means that some of the cascades are bone dry during the day, while other sections are filled with water. Shortly before sunset, the park staff inserts shunts made of aluminum and wood into the trench that rims the travertines to redirect the water off to different sections of the cascades. This translated into us scrambling to find a good spot to park ourselves for the sunset. I was dead set on watching the sunset over the cascades, where the water would reflect the dying light like a natural mirror.
Just as the sun was hovering over the horizon and turning the sky vermillion and orange, we settled ourselves in near the travertines. I feel pretty confident in saying that we got the best seats in the house. Then again, at sunset at Pamukkale, I don’t really think there are any bad seats.
Depending on the angle and how savvy you are with your camera, you get totally different spectrums of light. Sometimes the travertines look like ice, all glacial blue, soft yellow, and pastel orange. But as the sun starts to dip ever lower, that light darkens from ice to fire, to burnished copper and fiery fulvous.
A Pamukkale sunset is a dream to photograph, even if pictures can’t fully contain it. I clicked away with abandon, determined to capture as much of that sunset with my camera as possible. After a few minutes, though, I forced myself to lower my Canon and take in the last few moments of light with my naked eyes.
I felt drunk on that sunset; it was one of those moments that felt surreal, like its beauty was too bright and too flamboyant to be genuine. And honestly, it wasn’t until I woke up the next morning and started scrolling through my camera, a grin ever widening on my face, that I was fully convinced that it was just as beautiful as I’d thought.