For ages, people have travelled far and wide in search of a good bath. In fact, journeying to natural pools and hot springs with healing properties has always been ‘medical tourism’ in its simplest form. Nowadays, though, a healthy soak in the mineral-rich waters of thermal springs is more than just doctor’s orders; finding the natural hot spots for a relaxing steep is a way to appreciate the unique geographical qualities of a place while simultaneously indulging in some healing.
We’ve searched our worldwide network for destinations with the top five natural baths and hot springs that are well worth the journey. Some of these pools have attracted powerful patrons, from ancient royalty to modern celebrities, but all of them are unique natural phenomena caused by geothermal activity just beneath the surface of the earth or natural endowments of salt and minerals.
Mud Baths of Dalyan, Turkey
On the Mediterranean coast of western Turkey, the quiet town of Dalyan is set in an environmentally protected area of great natural beauty. Myth has it that Cleopatra herself would travel to Dalyan, and in more recent times the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Sting, Jack Nicholson, David Bowie and Prince Felipe de Carlos of Spain have made a point to stop here. What attracts them to this small town? It must be the glorious natural mud baths of Dalyan.
Visitors will smell the mud and pools before they see them as they contain sodium chloride, hydrogen, sulfur, bromide and fluoride; they are also naturally radioactive. The mud may smell and feel strange at first. Under the Mediterranean sun, it dries on your skin and you can feel it cracking if you move or smile. But once you rinse off, your skin is left feeling fresh, tight and exfoliated.
The mud bath is complemented by pools attached to two clear hot springs in which the temperature of the water fluctuates between 30°C and 38°C, and the pH is about 6.5. Two of the pools are located indoors in a traditional dome-topped building used alternately by men and women. The largest pool is outdoors, where men and women can bathe at the same time.
Sonja Grau, a travel professional in Dalyan, loves the mud baths. “I’ve been going there for over 10 years. I actually go to the hot springs to treat my rheumatic pains. It really helps. After two weeks I feel so much better and the best part is I can take that feeling with me back home and it last for about two more months.”
Healing Salt Waters of Safaga, Egypt
Sometimes all the natural elements conspire to create an environment that is perfect for the rejuvenation of human health. This ideal combination of sun, sea and sand has come together in Safaga, Egypt, to boost the immune system; reduce conditions like rheumatism, muscle tension and psoriasis; and relieve fatigue and stress.
The healing waters of Safaga have a salt concentration that is 35% higher than that of most other seas due to the extraordinary number of corals native to the area. Bathing in this added salinity helps blood circulation, and the chemical composition of the water is therapeutic in many ways, so much so that the area is locally referred to as the “healing zone.”
The type of therapy enjoyed in Safaga is called climatotherapy and many local spas and resorts in the area have capitalised on the unique blend of rich minerals and healing waters. Spas offer other forms of treatments too, like pearl baths, hydrotherapy, underwater massage and water treatments, while specific remedies are geared to the alleviation of common ailments. In addition to the skin-soothing sea, the local black sand contains the added uranium, thorium and potassium 40 that is said to originate from volcanic craters under the Red Sea and help with therapeutic care for arthritis, skin inflammations and joint edema.
This pollution-free port city is an easy trip outside of Cairo and a popular weekend vacation destination for local Egyptians and foreigners alike.
Volcanic Hot Springs of Santorini, Greece
A volcano gave birth to the picturesque Santorini archipelago off the coast of mainland Greece in the area that, as legend has it, was the location of lost Atlantis. Here the surface waters have curative properties and, since the volcano hasn’t seen any real action since 1950, swimmers can relax and indulge directly in the warm waters heated by its core or roll around in a pleasant mud bath.
Geologists believe that the water around the islands has more highly concentrated levels of iron and manganese, and that the waters closer to the active core have high levels of sulphur dioxide; all these lovely minerals are known to do wonders for the skin and help with rheumatism, arthritis and other aches. The mud under the water is especially laced with sulphur, so lather up to get a treatment you would pay top dollar for in a spa.
The uninhabited islands of Nea Kameni and Palaia Kameni are the most popular among hot-spring bathers. There are easily organised Santorini springs tours that cart visitors around the islands and, in some areas where the water is shallow, encourage guests to dive right off the traditional Greek boat and swim out to the springs. After a sweat-drenching hike to the volcano’s summit for a view of the complete rim, a refreshing dip in these therapeutic springs and a breathtaking Santorini sunset is the perfect way to close the day!
High Altitude Hot Springs of Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
A visit to the surreal landscapes of the Salar de Uyuni is part of even the most basic Bolivia itineraries. Multi-day tours meander from a train graveyard to the endless white expanses of the great salt flats, then to lagunas full of pink flamingos, and finally a geyser basin full of hot springs.
The hot springs are best enjoyed in the early morning, when the sharp cold of the high-altitude nights hasn’t released its grip. At Salar de Chalviri, the Laguna Polques hot springs are one favourite. Don’t forget your swimsuit and several layers of clothes for afterward; Uyuni is basically a high-desert climate where temperatures reach extremes.
The geothermal activity under the surface of Uyuni creates all sorts of wonders for travellers to explore. Sol de Manana is a cluster of boiling mud pools where geyser pressures spurt up to three metres. Extinct volcanoes, such as the Nevado Sajama and the Licancabur Volcano, rise along the horizon. At the foot of the Licancabur Volcano is Laguna Verde, a green lake coloured by arsenic, lead, copper and other heavy metals.
Thermal Baths of Antsirabe, Madagascar
After venturing out to observe lost lemur species and Madagascar’s outstanding biological diversity, head to the central city of Antsirabe to relax in one of its many medicinal hot springs. There are a handful of springs in and around Antsirabe. One can even buy ‘Visy gasy’, bottled therapeutic water.
Some of the recommended thermal pools are found next to Lac (lake) Ranomafana (hot water) in the Ranomafana National Park; the pools are the perfect temperature and one can also get a massage or go for night swims in the complex.
Within Antsirabe, guests staying in the Hotel de Thermes can take advantage of an on-site thermal bath that comes out at a toasty 52°C at a depth of 22 metres, but reaches just the right temperature at the surface. There is also a naturally heated indoor swimming pool. Many of these springs have been in use since the 19th century, when Norwegian missionaries came and named Antsirabe, which means “the place of much salt”.