A local teenager in a town just north of National Park Atop Active Volcano told us about a swimming spot that was popular with her friends. “It’s got warm spots because it’s where Boiling River comes in.”
“We need to go there,” I said right away. After looking at all the geysers and hot springs and gorgeous pools of steaming water, I was eager to bathe in one. My husband pulled out the map, and she showed us where to go.
“The best time to go is in the evening,” she said. “Just be careful after 9 pm. That’s when the cops come and throw you out.”
“It sounds like you are speaking from experience,” I said. She blushed.
That evening we followed her directions carefully, parking by the side of the road and walking along a river that came winding down between hills covered in golden grasses. Half a mile upstream, we saw about a dozen people sitting in the river. Puffs of steam rose from the river bank where a boiling hot stream went tumbling into the cold river. Just below that convergence, the bathers were lined up, in the warm spots that could be found along that current.
I watched the local folks to see how they negotiated the stream of boiling water. They stepped around it carefully, entering the cold part of the river and walking over the stones until they found a warm spot, then lowering their bodies into the water. Then they mostly lolled about, bodies stretched out in the warmth, talking maybe, or just sitting with their eyes closed, not moving out of their chosen spots. Three teenage girls, lying in the water, were searching for little rocks in the streambed and building cairns on a flat boulder, all the while giggling and whispering to each other. The teenage boy sitting in the water near them was trying hard to ignore them.
I stripped off my outer clothes, piling them on top of the ridiculously white hotel towels that marked us as tourists. (Yes, I wore a bathing suit -- I didn't want to horrify the local teenagers.) The river was shallow, not even up to my waist, but wading through was the craziest sensation. If I stepped towards the far bank, my feet were cold. If I moved toward the near bank, the water was scalding hot. When finally the water temperature felt just right, I sat down in the water. Another bather looked over at me. “You can move the rocks around,” he said. “That’s what everyone does.”
The bottom of the stream was made of rocks that were roughly the size of a 5-pound bag of sugar. I noticed other bathers shifting the rocks, which changed the currents and made comfortable sitting spots. Two kids had even created something shaped like a hot tub, an oval of stones. My husband and I began shoving the rocks around us into position until we were both comfortable. He leaned back until his head could rest against me.
I looked up at the smooth golden hills and at the river which flowed on and around and past me. To my left, I could see low cliffs, edged with puffs of steam from the hot water that came tumbling over the rock. If I reached my left hand out, my fingertips were almost burning. If I reached my right hand out, I could touch the flow of icy cold water moving by in the center of the river. As dusk fell, the air temperature grew a little cooler, and the warm water felt even better. The gurgling of the river covered the quiet conversations of the bathers.
We stayed the first stars began appearing in the sky.