Some hot springs look like palaces, others like holes in the ground. Some feel like parties, others like prayers. There are hot baths in cities, on remote islands, in the desert, in dense forests. Thermal water can be green, orange, blue, yellow or turquoise. It can be milky and opaque, silt with sediment, or as clear as a municipal swimming pool. Sometimes it’s just lukewarm; other times it’s so hot it hurts.
Several years ago, with the dream of making a book, I set out to learn and document how people around the world use thermal waters. In 23 locations in 12 countries, I spoke with workers, airmen and experts, who taught me about the local history and personality of each place. Many told me about the ways they manage land and water as a collective. They explained how the presence of swimming spaces can affect bodies, communities and cultures.
I met visitors who enjoyed the way the warm water softened their minds and muscles. Some, like me (and maybe you), were enthusiastic with a certain devotion to hot water, excited by the way it reminded them of being citizens of nature.
Below are eight highlights adapted from my book Hot Springs — from an onsen in Japan’s Aomori Prefecture to a set of high-altitude pools near Mount Sajama in Bolivia.
When I was 14, my parents, both teachers, taught at a United States Air Force base in Misawa, Japan. I went to base high school and we lived in a small house between a potato field and a rice paddy. 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 outdoors and sometimes a little noisy.
In Japan, hot springs are ritualistic and structured. In an onsen, there is a palpable sense of reverence for your body, for others, and for the water.
I learned how to use the onsen properly: pull up a small stool and bowl in the communal shower area, scrub every inch of the body, wash and condition my hair, clean between my toes and under my nails me, to wash my body and the area I possessed.
Once cleaned, soak. Soak until your body is flushed with warmth. And inside you also feel purified.
Ponta da Ferraria, Azores
Ponta da Ferraria is located at the westernmost point of the island of São Miguel, in the Azores, where the volcanic hills slope steeply towards the ocean. A thermal bay, it is only accessible at low tide, when the waves are not too wild and the warm water is not diluted by the rising sea.
Heat ebbs and flows with each set of waves. Swimmers hold tight to ropes suspended on the surface of the water, providing stability as the waves move bodies like strands of seaweed. People gasp and cheer as each wave approaches. You feel scary and electrified when you are on the edge of nature like this.
When the tide rises, people climb a small ladder over the ledge of black rock, the sea still churning beneath them, shivering in the wind, wrapping themselves in towels and wringing water from their hair. They are animated by adrenaline — wild-eyed and confused with wonder.
Himachal Pradesh, India
Every day at 7 am and 7 p.m., a priest named Mahant Shiv Giri performs a puja, a set of religious ceremonies, at a small temple at the hot springs near the Gaj River in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
First, he bathes in the hot springs, washing his body and face with thermal water. “The meaning of bathing is to purify yourself,” he said. “It’s a way to mark your presence in God’s house.”
Many of the other hot springs in Himachal Pradesh are located in and around the temple structures, too. In the larger town of Manikaran, Sikh and Hindu temples sit tightly opposite each other on the banks of the Parvati River, sharing the same powerful thermal spring.
Uunartoq Hot Spring, Greenland
The stone pool at Uunartoq Hot Spring is a ruin, probably built by Norse settlers a thousand years ago. It may have been the only place submerged in warm water for generations of Greenlanders. For a millennium, people rested their bodies in the same place, finding warmth in the cold just as people do today.
Uunartoq is registered as a monument of historical, natural and cultural heritage. But all of Greenland is governed in a unique way: No one can own land there. All land can only be borrowed, the terms of its use having been mutually agreed upon.
Land use in Greenland, explained Arctic social scientist Naja Carina Steenholdt, “is rooted in very traditional, very indigenous views of our nature.”
And Dr Steenholdt stressed that the Greenland approach can be part of modern life. Greenlandic society, he said, operates on the principles of sharing everything: land, food, time, care.
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 houses, herds of llamas, a central village and a few geothermal hot spots.
Micaela Billcap owns a plot of land with a hot spring, but it is collectively managed and managed by the community, which shares in the profits.
“Sajama is a doctor,” said Marcelo Nina Osnayo, who grew up in the area. The hot springs are also considered medicinal — a balm for the hard-working people of the region.
The weather at such high altitudes is harsh and the daily work relentless. Marcelo told me that his wife developed arthritis after working in a kitchen with only cold water. “When we went to the water sources, it moved her bones,” he said. “They contain many minerals, such as sulphur, arsenic, potassium and salt. It’s a mixture of drugs.”
Nevada is home to more than 300 natural geothermal springs. But only about 40 of them are safe and accessible for soaking. There’s a heart-shaped hot spring, a hot spring in an altered cattle trough, a languid thermal river, and a deep soaking tub that looks out over Joshua trees and jack rabbits. Each one requires a spirit of adventure, a bit of research and a bit of luck.
(The hot springs I visited in Nevada are the only purely wild hot springs in the book — the only bathing places without anyone allowing entry or monitoring the flow of visitors. Because of this, to prevent overuse, I decided not to share specific names the pools there.)
Springs can be well maintained or discarded by careless visitors or stray animals. the roads may be too bumpy to pass. the climate too hot in summer or too cold in winter. But when you time it right, the air smells of sage, and the silence is so clear you can hear your ears drumming.
Riemvasmaak, South Africa
In 1973 and 1974, during South African apartheid, black residents of Riemvasmaak, a settlement in northwestern South Africa, were evicted from their homes so the government could build a military site. Among these residents was Henry Basson and his family, who were forcibly relocated to northern Namibia.
For decades the community’s land was occupied by the armed forces, for infantry training and bombing practice. In the 1990s, when Namibia gained independence and Nelson Mandela was elected in South Africa, Riemwasmaak became one of the first territories to be repatriated to South Africa.
“It was a very emotional experience to come back,” Mr. Basson said, “because of that sense of belonging.”
Now, the manager of the area’s hot springs, Mr. Basson, always soaks himself whenever it’s cleaning time, lowering himself into the small pools beneath the imposing cliffs. “We give ourselves a chance to get in the water and feel it,” he said.
This is his true home, where he continues the story of his ancestors. But it tells me that this kind of connection to the earth is available to anyone. “When you visit a spa, or any place, don’t just come for something pleasant,” he said. “Try to make this connection.”
“In a hot spring, you disconnect from the things that rush you and reconnect with nature itself,” he added.
7132 Thermal Baths, Switzerland
The baths at Hotel 7132 in Vals, Switzerland are an austere, brutalist shrine to hot water. Designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the complex was constructed from 60,000 locally sourced quartzite slabs. The stone is warm to the touch, absorbs sounds so that everything is muffled, reverent, church-like.
Bathing in hot springs can involve complex practices. But the baths at Vals remind us that it is really the bath itself that constitutes the ritual. Perhaps no ceremony is needed when the soaking is sufficient.
Neither cell phones nor cameras are allowed in the baths, but I got permission from the staff to photograph the area while it was being cleaned. Cleaners are specialist, using specific cloths and sprays for each surface. They explained their careful techniques and how it took trial and error over time to figure them out.
I thought about how our sacred, special places require work and maintenance, the constant negotiation of personhood, politics and place. This is also part of the ritual.
Greta Rambus is a photojournalist based near Portland, Maine. Her book “Hot Springs: Photos and Stories of How the World Soaks, Swims and Slows Down,” from which this photo essay is adapted, will be published by Ten Speed Press on March 19.