Santa Rosa de Cabal is famous in Colombia for its hot springs, or termales. After helping give English-speaking hostel guests directions to the hot springs all week, Ellen and I decided to spend our day off exploring them for ourselves. There are three hot springs to choose from, and the most popular is the luxurious and most distant San Vicente resort, complete with adventure tours and massage packages to tempt just about anybody. At about $20 (US) per person to get in, it’s not an unreasonable price, although since it’s not on a public bus route, it costs independent travellers about twice that to hire a jeep to get out there. Since one hostel employee per day can get a ticket to accompany groups of our guests free of charge, Ellen and I decided to leave the San Vicente hot springs for another day.

Nice way to spend a day off

Nice way to spend a day off

The other two hot springs are on a public bus route, dropping the transportation cost from $15 to $40 per person to $1.50 round trip. Right next door to each other on opposite sides of a hill are Termales Hotel and Termales Balneario. Since Balneario is slightly cheaper and has more thermal pools, we decided to visit that one for our first hot springs experience in Colombia. Having given tourism advice all week, we knew that Balneario pumps its hot water into man-made pools, which reportedly weren’t as nice as the natural hot pools at the more posh San Vicente. Based on that description, I was expecting some kind of indoor or fenced-in area, like a combination of a spa and a public swimming pool.

When the bus dropped us off at Balneario, I was pleasantly surprised to see a stream meandering down the hillside as if it were descending stairs, with a natural pond on each level. Of course, the resort had landscaped extensively with flowering shrubs, cobblestone pathways, and little wooden bridges leading you toward the proper hot springs. The attractive stream was cold water, which tumbled down the mountain from a picturesque waterfall, which overlooked the resort proper and had a small swimming pond at its base where you could stand in a cave with the waterfall splashing around you. This was Ellen’s favourite part of the resort.

View of the waterfall as you enter the resort

View of the waterfall and stream as you enter the resort

The hot pools for swimming were, as advertised, man-made, of course. They were mostly kept at about 40 degrees Celsius, perfect for me and just slightly warmer than Ellen prefers. There were four of the pools around the resort, each with cold water splashing out of a pipe on one side, and hot water from a mushroom-like fountain in the centre, so you could inch your way closer to the steaming hot middle, and then retreat to the cooler edges when you got too hot. When you’re feeling brave, you can shake things up by dunking your head under the cold water pipe or taking a dip under the waterfall.

Cold water comes in on the left, hot water from the mushroom-like fountain in the centre

Cold water comes in from the pipe on the left, hot water from the mushroom-like fountain in the centre

Other than swimming, the hot springs didn’t have too much to offer, on a quiet Tuesday in January at least. Their publicity materials in the hostel mention expeditions, rappelling down the waterfall, and “canyoning”, but there was no sign of any such activities when we got there. We walked along a path up the hill for a bit, which offered a nice view but petered out after a couple of hundred meters. Another more tempting path into the forest had a no-entry sign across it. Clearly, when the hot springs are busier, there are more activities – there were three empty greenhouses full of shelves and a sign labelling them a craft market, plus several booths that might have served food or been starting points for expeditions. In the late afternoon, women wandered the poolsides offering massages and mud facials, as well.

View of the resort from the hillside

View of the resort from the hillside

I was surprised to find we spent eight hours at the hot springs and weren’t bored at all. We amused ourselves by watching people, like the cute couple singing along to tango music together, or the children leaping through the cold water shower into the hot water pool below. Employees wandered around checking the temperature of the pools and adjusting the flow of cold water, which resulted in a hilarious moment when the cold water suddenly turned on right onto the head of a man innocently standing near the pipe. Overall, we spent eight hours and $32 for an excellent day off. I don’t think I would want to spend all my days off exploring the hot springs and comparing the three resorts, but it was a very nice way to spend one day off.