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Treating Myself Like Royalty

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Crossing the footbridge

When Francisco Pizzaro and his small band of conquistadors arrived in the northern Andean city of Cajamarca in November of 1532, the ruling Inca Atahualpa and 5,000 of his troops were passing the days at the nearby volcanic hot springs. Located just four miles outside of Cajamarca, these hot springs, or baths, were in regular use by the Inca for purposes such as cooking and bathing. Volcanic activity had created a natural source of hot water, rich in minerals and easily implemented into the everyday lives of the Inca. While cooking, the Inca used perolitos (small pots), which they filled with water and stirred in corn, barley, beans, grains, and sometimes meat. Using the springs for bathing required that the Inca set aside some boiling water to cool and then mix it with more boiling water to create a comfortable temperature for bathing.

The entire complex consists of a series of large pools where the water emerges naturally boiling. The Inca built a series of walkways that divided what would have originally been one large, naturally formed pool. These pools are very shallow and their bottoms look like red coral, or volcanic rock that actively cooks the water. At that time, the Baños (baths) were surrounded by grass, plants, trees, and mountains. It must have been a truly delightful place to bathe, relax, and socialize. With an atmosphere so peaceful, it's no wonder that Atahualpa was not concerned about the Spaniards occupation of Cajamarca, just a short distance away.

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Chillin' alongside the bath

The Baños del Inca continue to function in a way that is similar to the way the Incas used them. The baths are now run by the Municipality of Cajamarca and serve as both a popular tourist attraction and a relaxing hangout for locals. There is a small charge for visiting and the profits are split equally between the city of Cajamarca and the maintenance of the baths themselves. They have been operating in this fashion since fifty small pools were constructed for paid public usage over fifty years ago. The pools are housed inside two long buildings so that people can enjoy them in all types of weather and with greater privacy. The water comes from the same ground source that the water the Incas used came from hundreds of years ago. However, today the temperature is regulated using modern reservoirs and faucets so visitors can adjust the temperature of the water. Most of these pools are small and can hold one to four people at a time. In addition, nearly all of the homes in the neighboring village have hot water since they are fortunate enough to live near these hot springs. Next to the baths is a small well where villagers can fill their buckets with the hot water.

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The stonework surrounding the ancient pools
About twenty-five years ago, a new building, with an additional fifty pools, was constructed to accommodate the rise in tourism. This building has been designated specifically for tourists and the old complex remains in use for the locals only, a common division I've noticed here in Peru and one that the locals are probably grateful for. Because I am not a local, I bathed in the newer building whose walls are adorned with images of Inca life and a painting of the fateful encounter between Atahualpa and Pizzaro. My small bathtub didn't look like much at first but it sure felt wonderful. The water was just the perfect temperature and the room was so quiet that I heard only the splashing of water around me. I spent nearly an hour with my eyes closed. I was completely submerged under water and I thought only of the many people throughout the centuries that have enjoyed these same Baños.

The walkways were recently covered over with cement, but it was still possible to see the original stonework that the Inca built underneath the modern construction. As I strolled along the pathways, steam was rising from the pools of boiling water. After crossing a small footbridge, I came upon the most famous part of the Baños, the Poso del Inca (Inca pool), which was used by Royal Incas like Atahualpa. It is a medium-sized pool within a closed off stone building and there is a small series of steps descending into the pool. The channel of water emptying into the pool is divided into three channels so as to fill the pool quickly and regulate the temperature of the water. During his brief reign, Atahualpa was the only man who used this poso. However, he was never really alone. He always bathed with ten or so beautiful concubines who catered to his every need. I, on the other hand, was bathing completely alone.

In addition to relaxing, many people come to the baths in order to treat certain medical conditions. The water itself is rich with healing properties and minerals such as sulfur, phosphorous, and calcium. The water helps cure problems like arthritis, hepatitis, and skin conditions like acne. Of course if you suffer from high blood pressure, for example, you shouldn't stay in the hot water for more than fifteen minutes. Even so, if you were to come to the baths every day for fifteen minutes, it would be well worth the trip. After all, enjoying the baths the way the royal Inca enjoyed them is a marvelous way to relieve stress and cleanse yourself.


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