Naftalan: The Resort in Azerbaijan where Guests Take Baths in Crude Oil

Naftalan: The Resort in Azerbaijan where Guests Take Baths in Crude Oil

Azerbaijan has been making the most of its abundant reserves of “black gold” ever since the world’s first oil well was drilled here in 1847.

Azeri Light crude oil remains the nation’s most lucrative resource more than 170 years later.

However, a peculiar local oil also known as Naftalan has been luring the travel crowd to the small hamlet of Naftalan, located 320 kilometers west of Baku in the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, for hundreds of years.

This crude oil is too thick to be used commercially, and burning it won’t do it much good. However, because of its purported health benefits, people have been taking baths in it since ancient times.

Recently, treatments involving being submerged in the dark gloop have had a resurgence.

‘Thick blood of the Earth’

The nine-hotel Naftalan resort was founded in 1926, at the dawn of Azerbaijan’s Soviet era when physical fitness was a popular passion.

The busiest times of year these days are spring and fall, when travelers from all over the world fill the hotels to capacity.

The health resort’s flowers are in full bloom, and butterflies flit through the open windows as they breathe in the clean mountain air, so it is understandable why.

Around 15,000 people a year come here to sit in baths of warm oil, soaking up what locals call “the thick blood of the Earth.”

Naftalan oil is reputed to ease more than 70 skin, joint and bone diseases. It’s used as a disinfectant, an anti-inflammatory and even as an anesthetic.

Around 15,000 people a year travel to the Azerbaijani town of Naftalan to bathe in the local oil, reputed to have unique medicinal properties.

“It is proven to be an effective treatment of the diseases of musculoskeletal system, skin diseases, gynecological and urological diseases and especially good results reached in treatment of rheumatism,” Azer Vagifov, the main medical practitioner of Qarabagh Spa-Hotel, tells CNN Travel.

Local legend

Locals have long known of the therapeutic benefits of Naftalan oil.

The earliest record is in the 12th century, when Azerbaijani poet Nizami Ganjavi wrote of it being exported to neighboring countries through traders’ caravans.

According to legend, the first time its healing abilities were found, a sick camel that was left behind during a journey.

After rolling into an oil puddle, the camel was totally recovered when the caravan arrived back at its destination weeks later.

In the 13th century, Italian explorer Marco Polo wrote in “The Travels” of the oil used for “anointing the camels in maladies of the skin, and for other purposes; for which reason people come from a great distance for it.”

The science bit

So what makes this oil so special?

Its exceptionally high quantity of naphthalene (around 50%), an active component of coal tar soaps frequently used to treat skin problems like psoriasis and dermatitis but also frequently employed as a moth repellant, is largely responsible for its effectiveness.

At Naftalan Resort, treatments are preceded by a full medical checkup. The procedure isn’t advisable for those with heart conditions or diseases of the nervous system, or undergoing cancer treatment.

After the initial blood test, ultrasound and inhalation tests are carried out. If no restrictions are detected, the patient is then directed to their first oil bath.

Depending on the state of the patient and the doctor’s recommendations, the oil treatment may be applied externally or internally.

Although the procedure is safe for youngsters as young as six, the average patient age is around 40.

While no link has been found between oil bath treatments and cancer, EU and US regulations have both deemed naphthalene a potential carcinogen for humans, as does the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Naftalan Resort says that the treatment is harmless and has been scientifically proven, citing that there are around 1,500 scientific research projects and 270 dissertations on the subject.

Hot and fragrant

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to sit in a bathtub full of crude oil, the sensation’s probably not too dissimilar to being in hot chocolate, given that the oil in the tub is a piping 39 C (102 F).

Undoubtedly, heated crude has a stench, but despite some people’s complaints, it’s not that strong.

One guest who traveled here from St Petersburg with her son told CNN Travel that she was willing to endure the sulfuric odor because “you come here with psoriasis but leave with beauty.”

Courses of treatment can last anywhere from three days to three weeks, with each soak lasting 10 minutes.

You may take your bath half full, or it could be filled up to your neck it all depends on the prescription of your physician.

There is equipment for administering the treatment locally on the arms and legs if a full body wash is not advised.

Moving around in a big puddle of oil is naturally quite slippy, so trying to do anything yourself is completely forbidden and frankly impossible.

After the operation is finished, a helper will bring you to the shower area after using a scraping brush to help remove the oily film. The aroma lingers and the oil requires quite a bit of washing and scrubbing to remove.

Whether it’s a reaction to the 39 C heat or the oil itself, the immediate sensation after the procedure is fatigue and and patients are advised to rest for at least 40 minutes.

Complex treatment

There’s a lot more to the Naftalan Resort than oil baths.

Visitors may choose to extend their stay with physiotherapy, hydro-massages, paraffin treatments, or aromatherapy hydrobaths, depending on the treatment plan.

The cedar barrel sauna is another option, which is claimed to enhance the oil bath treatment’s already metabolism-boosting effects.

There’s also an on-site gym, yoga and Pilates studios, an outdoor pool, outdoor massage areas a vitamin bar and a tearoom.

Although the long-term effects of the operations are supposed to be obvious in a month, several patients claim to have noticed benefits after just three washes.

One guest who had been suffering from back pain and joint pain in his legs said he was so motivated by his improved health conditions, he walked about a kilometer to the Naftalan river to fish with his friends.

A woman, Alena, said it was her fourth visit in two years and that the baths gave her a chance to live life fully, without pain.

And if you’ve been wondering what happens to the oil after someone’s bathed in it it’s recycled. It all goes back to a communal tank for future bathers.

“Black gold” is a precious commodity, after all.