Wednesday, October 22, 2014



When planning a trip to the Andalusian city of Granada, visiting the hot springs south of the town of the nearby town of Santa Fe were of highest priority. Or was it the other way round?

From internet research I had discovered what seems to an idyllic located hot springs, free to public use and enjoyment. 
But as this is Europe, when it comes to hot springs, idyllism is something that can't be expected. There had to be a hitch.
The information I had gathered prior was mostly from blogs from long-term travellers or from Spanish websites for motorvans. All very positive about the experience, but no word why it wasn't a commercial entity. Or more regulated. 

Or possibly I had to delve deeper ...

And though it seemed that many made it here, I still supposed that the possible hitch was that it lay partly in the access to the soak. There didn't seem to be any road heading there, but thanks to this Spanish website, GPS coordinates were on hand. Even better my GPS navigator (used to taking commands to polite addresses on existent roads) had no doubts. It confirmed the place and added the fact that there were non-paved roads to be crossed. Fine!

So while Santa Fe is 15 km due west of Granada, the hot springs are still some way from Santa Fe itself. From Santa Fe, the GPS navigator took me in the direction of Granada's airport, then a left and a right and that was the end of the asphalt. We took another left passed a farmhouse and were now well and truly between the olive groves.

Another right left us with a meandering of tracks to follow, some rutted, others not so. They all went uphill, so uphill we went. We passed a mountain of trash bags and then came by a number of travellers vehicles: trucks, buses, motor homes. All old and seemingly having stayed here already for quite some time.

The track I had taken became impassable so I parked the car. It couldn't be far, after all the travellers wouldn't park so far away. To confirm this a young lady left the last van we had passed with a baby in her hands and a young buy jumping up and down and singing. They walked over what was the last hillock, we went around it. We met again at the hot spring pool itself, exactly as had been expected: a half meter deep pool, with a size of 10 by 5 meters. Two pipes were pumping water in. As always I checked the temperature straight away: that's soakable!

Where's everybody?
What did surprise me, was the fact that there were more cars parked nearby, apparently the tracks to the west are better. But there also seemed to be a disconnect between the number of soakers and the number of cars. All I could see were two naked gents minding their own business. Anyway, as there was a cement wall on the far side we walked around the source: this would mean not having to put our things on the dirt. The young boy, now starkers, commented in German to his mother that they (meaning us) are not going for a dip; they're not naked. My wife's German is very good and quipped straight away just you wait and see (in German).

We walked around and briefly looked at other pools in the forested gully which lies just off the main pond: no one there. We proceeded to undress and took the waters. Wow this was bliss. As said the pond was sufficiently deep and in the middle was a former wall where you could lie down with your above half sunning in the now not so sun, your bottom half in the warm water. The water from the pipes proved to be excellent massage showers and we spent a half hour lazing in this pool. 

During this time one gent left, a couple arrived and the German boy had his fill of playing in the water, the baby was relaxed and was been fed by it's mother. A cyclist came and came prepared: his swimsuit already on, so no changing qualms. But still no sign of the other occupants of the car.

We then moved on to one of the pools in the adjacent gully. There, there were two pools that we could find, under each other but fed separately. They both were the over-ultra of relaxing. Surrounded and covered by greenery, there was only the gushing of water from a pipe into the 50 cm deep pool. Simply bliss.

The lower pool of the hillside pools.

But even this has to end. We reluctantly step out and head back to our things near the pond. Not much change there. 
But then off to the right we see behind another cement wall what appears to be 3 gents probably soaking in another pool. Without wanting to invade their privacy to complete the analysis of the soaking situation here, we dress up and reluctantly leave. 

We leave behind what appears to be one of Europe's best soaks. I can only hope it stays so.

Seeking oil
And though access was far from optimal, I'm still at odds as to why this place has failed to capture the imagination of the capitalists funders with administrative backing. Not that I'm advocating this, but there doesn't seem much to be standing in their way.
So why the lack of development?
Apparently the site has been this way for some years. Backpackers in Granada host tours to these hot springs. Concerning the origin of the spring(s), their website notes:
'The only natural hot springs left that are free are just outside the city in the middle of some olive groves. The government began looking for oil about 40 years ago, instead they found hot sulphuric water instead.
There are 4 differnt hot springs on the site to choose from, all with different degrees of heat. A popular place for all ages and the alternative crowd'.
I also noticed the following concerning the development of the hot springs of Santa Fe. In an opinionated piece for the Ideal (16 July 2008) the writer notes how the bankruptcy of the  Martinsa-Fadesa construction and real estate conglomerate has knock-on effects especially in the building of Aguas Calientes project a multi million project designed around the hot springs. The author sees the silver lining: it will also save the local government from bankruptcy which had committed itself to quite some investment in public services provision. As the crisis continues in real estate in Spain, no new news here ...

Other info gathered on Santa Fe. This Italian website notes (and here comes the google translate):
'Why keep hidden from most of the existence of this earthly paradise? Simple. It is a private land. Apparently the owner is a nice old man, a sworn enemy of those who would buy his land to build a thermal plant, but willing to maintain public access to the spa. Provided that there is total respect for nature. In a nutshell a hippie type rather generous. Why, in these areas, there is often rave'.
The biggest of these raves is the Dragon festival. Whether or not this is so positive to the springs remains to be seen ... A report from March 2013 speaks of more than a thousand ravers which passed off with no incidents. 
Not everybody seems to take a shine from the relocation of this Dragon festival from Orgivia to the hot springs of Santa Fe: 
'The next day begins with a stroll up to Santa Fe’s very own hot springs. It’s nice, but the plethora of unshorn genitalia on show is slightly distracting'. 
So not so hippiesque after all?
The Italian article continues with more information such as the amount of sulphate in the water, the temperature (38ºC) and that the use of mud is highly agreeable. He / she includes a lot of photo's. 

There are also quite a few personal experiences, I can't include all. Many though focus on the lack of hygiene at and mostly around the hot springs. Though that's self-evident especially in the case of this being a celebration site (there are after all no facilities) it's something that I didn't experience. However I might have come on a good day ...

The above mentioned website with GPS coordinates details a several years long discussion and it's conclusions are that human misuse is going to be it's downfall.

The dodman has some disheartening experience to share from an expedition he tried in December 2010. He describes how the lack of a GPS navigator will send you round in circles; there's nobody to ask. Then in winter all roads are mud, so it becomes very tricky. He adds there are many travellers encamped with little regard to hygiene. In a recent response to his sharing, Stefanie describes how it was 6 weeks before my visit: again not so appealing. 

With this hot spring site open to all, it's also open to abuse, witness the classic case of tragedy of the commons. It's a pity that there seems no self-regulation and thus abuse will continue until authorities decide otherwise. I wonder if any voluntary management could be installed as an antidote? 
Ondrejt possibly unwittingly photographs the possible end of a then trashed Santa Fe hot spring site. But this was 2007 ...

Gregory of Europebybus describes his sojourn at Santa Fé:
'These are the main thermals which were full of young people and noise, I opted for the quieter one round the corner that was smaller and populated by a collection of old men and two beautiful people from Gibralta. It's a favourite spot for homeless, jobless and local farmers to come and bathe, who it would transpire in the town of Santa Fe are mainly old men.
One of the naked old men, a local farmer, told me that certain areas of Spain have been struggling with poverty for so long that there was no work and no food so people just upped and left, leaving whole villages to fall apart. It's bizarre to see so much desolation in what is essentially a first world country'.
With over a third of the population unemployed one can understand why those who probably won't get back in the job market will prefer the hot springs. 

Other mentionable finds: There's a band called Lori Meyers which have a PR photo of them (fully clothed!) in the springs (source). 

There are youtube video's on how to get here, part 1 and part 2

There's even a website dedicated to the hot springs, but not so many postings and the few seem to appeal to party goers ...
Bathing culture
The city of Granada was for a century or two the capital of Moorish Spain. As such it's pretty commonplace to find so-called Arab bath houses in many of the towns in Granada province, as well as in other towns / cities in Andalusia and Spain. 

What distinguishes an Arab bath from other bath houses is unclear to me. Other than the users obviously. It also seems that Arab baths only existed in Spain, so maybe it's got more to do with how they are named rather than what they stand for.
In the old part of the city of Granada there are still ruins of what were once heavily used Arab baths, the Bañuelo. There are a couple of significant features: the roofs with stars, the small bathing areas, etc. Up in the former palaces of Alhambra you can witness more of the same.

Granada city, now heavily part of the international tourist trail, of course offers you the opportunity to savour a real Arab bath experience. 
Well, it may not be my cup of (mint) tea exactly, but you never know what the experience will be until you've taken it. 

We choose the Baños de Elvira. It wasn't very elaborate at all and only opens after 5 pm. Entrance was a hefty 20€, cheaper though than the other more upmarket places. 

It was also non-suits night, at least until 8:30, so the 20€ gave us only a two hour time frame. In this time we could use the main bath, a cold dip pool, the Turkish steam bath and enjoy some refreshments (juice, mint tea (Moroccan style), fruit and chocolate).  

Though I can't say that the other soakers there were tourists, it did seem to be tourist driven. For the amount of visitors, the facilities were small (even though there were only 8 of us) and prices hardly compared to what we are used to more to the north: back home it's 13,50€ for unlimited use of three different sauna's, a steam bath, a dip pool and a small swimming pool. And more spacious. But not in Granada.

Tripadvisor gives it 4 stars which shows that at least the international visitors are well satisfied.

Aside of the termas of Santa Fe, other thermal possibilities close by are the baths of Sierra Elvira in Atarfe. These are a commercial operation about 15 km north of Santa Fe town. It looks nice, but not a soak as such. 

Southwards towards the Mediterranean coast, between the mountains, lie the springs of Durcal. At nearly 25ºC, it's difficult to characterise these as hot, but nonetheless not cold ... (source).  Located in the forests they are certainly a nice place to visit.

The province of Granada has more to do, in terms of outdoors. Of course are the many beautiful hikes up the Sierra Nevada mountains. 
We had a pleasant walk along the Cahorras of Monachil and through the uplands. Half way through there's a good opportunity for an icy skinny dip. No better way to enjoy nature!

View from Santa Fe towards Sierra Nevada.

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