Dipping Into the World’s Most Stunning Hot Springs

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Some hot springs are like palaces and others look like holes. Some feel like parties and others like prayer. Hot baths can be found in cities, on remote island, in dense forests, or even in the desert. Thermal water is available in green, orange or blue. It can look milky or opaque, sludgey with sediment, or as clear as municipal pools. Sometimes it’s barely lukewarm; other times it’s so hot it hurts.

I started my journey to learn about thermal water around the globe several years ago. I wanted to write a book and wanted to document the different ways people use it. I visited 23 locations in 12 different countries and spoke to workers, stewards, experts and others who shared their knowledge about the history and personality of these places. Many people told me how they manage water and land as a group. They explained how bathing places affect bodies, cultures and communities.

I met visitors who were enthralled by the way hot water soothed their muscles and minds. Some, like myself (and perhaps you), were enthusiasts who had a certain devotion to warm water, enthralled by the way it reminded of them being citizens of nature.

The following are eight highlights taken from my book “Hot Springs” — from an onsen in Aomori Prefecture, Japan, to a set of high-altitude pools near Mount Sajama, in Bolivia.


My parents, who were both teachers, accepted jobs as teachers on a United States Air Force Base in Misawa, Japan, when I was 14. I attended the high school on-base, and we lived in an apartment between a rice field and potato field. The few local onsen, or public hot baths, were so different from the hot springs I’d been to back home in Idaho, places that were outdoorsy and sometimes a little rowdy.

In Japan, the hotsprings are ritualized. In an onsen you can feel a sense of reverence toward your own body, other people and the water.

I learned how to use the onsen correctly: to pull up a stool and a bowl into the shared shower area; to scrub my entire body; to shampoo and condition hair; to clean between my fingers and toes, and to rinse the area that I occupied.

You soak once you’ve cleaned. You soak until you feel warm. Inside, you will feel purified.


Ponta da Ferraria is set on the westernmost point of São Miguel Island, in the Azores, where volcanic hills slope sharply toward the ocean. A thermal cove, it can be reached only at low tide, when the waves aren’t too wild and the hot water isn’t diluted by the rising sea.

Heat fluctuates with each set. Swimmers hold tight to ropes that hover at the water’s surface, providing stability as the waves move bodies like strands of kelp. People cheer and gasp as each wave approaches. Being at the edge of nature is both intimidating and electrifying.

When the tide rises people climb a small ladder over a ledge of black rocks, the sea still rushing below them. They are shivering, wrapping themselves up in towels and wringing out the water from their hair. They are animated by adrenaline — wild-eyed and addled by wonder.


Mahant Shiv Giri, a priest from the northern Indian state Himachal Pradesh, performs puja (a set of religious rituals) in a small temple near the Gaj River.

First, he washes his face and body in thermal water, then bathes himself first in the hot springs. “The significance of bathing is to purify yourself,”He said. “It is a way to mark your attendance in the house of God.”

Other hot springs are also found in and around temples in Himachal Pradesh. In the larger city of Manikaran Sikh and Hindu Temples are nestled together on the banks the Parvati River. They share the same powerful thermal source.


The stone-dammed pools at Uunartoq are ruinous, and were most likely built by Norse colonists a thousand years before. It is possible that generations of Greenlanders were the only ones who could submerge themselves in warm water. Since millennia, people have found warmth in the cold by resting their bodies in this same place.

Uunartoq falls under historical, cultural and natural heritage preservation. Greenland as a whole is managed in a unique way: no one can own land. All land must be borrowed and the terms of its usage agreed on cooperatively.

Naja Carina Stenholdt, Arctic social scientist, explains that land use in Greenland is “rooted in very traditional, very Indigenous views of our nature.”

And Dr. Steenholdt emphasized that Greenland’s approach can be a part of a modern life. Greenlandic society is based, she said on the principle of sharing: land, food and time.


Mount Sajama, an extinct volcano and Bolivia’s tallest mountain at over 21,000 feet, rises from a windswept, high-altitude valley dotted with simple homes, llama herds, a central village and a few geothermal hot spots.

Micaela Billcap is the owner of a parcel with a thermal water spring. However, the land is managed and operated collectively by the community. The community shares in the profits.

“Sajama is a doctor,”Marcelo Nina Osnayo grew up in this area. The hot springs, too, are considered medicinal — a balm for the hard-working people of the area.

The weather in such high altitudes can be harsh, and daily work can be exhausting. Marcelo told that his wife had developed arthritis while working in the kitchen with only cold tap water. “When we used to go to the water springs, it moved in her bones,”He said. “They contain many minerals, like sulfur, arsenic, potassium and salt. It is a mixture of medicines.”

Nevada is home of more than 300 geothermal springs. About 40 of these are accessible to soak in. There’s a hot spring shaped like a heart, a hot spring in a repurposed cattle trough, a languid thermal river and a deep tub that looks out over Joshua trees and jack rabbits. Each one requires a sense of adventure, a little research and a dash of luck.

(The hot springs I visited in Nevada are the only purely wild hot springs in the book — the only bathing places without someone granting admission or monitoring the flow of visitors. To avoid overuse, i decided to not share the specific names of these pools.

The springs could be in good condition or in bad shape due to careless visitors and roaming livestock. The climate in summer can be too hot or too cold. But if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to enjoy the sagebrush-scented air and the pure silence.


During South African Apartheid between 1973 and 1974 the Black residents of Riemvasmaak in northwest South Africa were forced to leave their homes for the government to build a new military site. Henry Basson, his family and other residents were among those who were displaced. Forced relocation to northern Namibia.

For decades the community’s land was occupied by the armed forces, to train infantry and practice bombing. In the 1990s, when Namibia gained independence and Nelson Mandela was elected in South Africa, Riemvasmaak became one of South Africa’s first repatriated lands.

“It was a very emotional experience to return,”Mr. Basson “because of that sense of belonging.”

Now the manager of the area’s hot springs, Mr. Basson always takes a soak whenever it’s cleaning time, lowering himself into the small pools that sit beneath imposing cliffs. “We give ourselves a chance to be in the water and feel it,”He said.

This is his true home, where he continues his ancestors’ story. But he told me that anyone could have this connection to the land. “When you are visiting a hot spring, or any place, don’t just come for a jolly thing,”He said. “Try to make that connection.”

“In a hot spring, you get yourself disconnected from the things that rush you, and connect again to nature itself,”He added.


The baths in the 7132 Hotel at Vals are a Brutalist, austere shrine to hot springs. The complex was designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and constructed from 60,000 slabs sourced locally. The stone is warm and absorbs sounds, making everything muffled, reverent and church-like.

Bathing in hotsprings can involve complex rituals. But the baths in Vals remind us that it’s really the bathing itself that constitutes the ritual. Perhaps there’s no need for ceremony when soaking is enough.

The staff gave me permission to photograph the area being cleaned. The cleaners are experts, using specific sprays and cloths for each surface. They explained that they had to experiment and learn their techniques over time.

I thought of how our sacred places require maintenance and work, and the ongoing negotiation between personality, politics and location. That’s part of the ritual, too.


Greta RybusPhotojournalist near Portland, Maine. Her book “Hot Springs: Photos and Stories of How the World Soaks, Swims and Slows Down,”Ten Speed Press, which will publish this photo essay on March 19, will be publishing the original article from which it is adapted.


‘ Credit:
Original content by www.nytimes.com – “Dipping Into the World’s Most Stunning Hot Springs”

Read the complete article at https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/09/travel/hot-springs.html

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