There’s only one reason I wanted to come to Cappadocia, that otherworldly region in central Turkey – to ride a hot air balloon over the fairy chimneys at sunrise. Did I get to ride a hot air balloon over the fairy chimneys at sunrise? Nope. With only two mornings booked in the area, and considering the time of year (March), I knew there was a risk of bad weather putting a stop to the balloon rides. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love my time in Cappadocia anyway.
While the hot air balloons may be the big tourist draw, Cappadocia is just as fascinating from the ground. With a huge numbers of valleys, several underground cities and multiple towns in the region to explore, two days was never going to be enough to fully discover the wonders of Cappadocia. But I did my best.
After an unsuccessful attempt to hike alone through Pigeon Valley and back via a separate route on my first day, mainly due to lack of proper boots and an increasingly wet path, I spent most of my time wandering the streets of Göreme, checking out the ridiculous number of souvenir shops that all sell the same thing yet somehow managed to pull me inside each time, eating far too many rotis and gaping at the incredible rock formations between which the houses and hotels of the town have nestled over the years. And it only takes a five minute walk outside the town before you are surrounded by a landscape more suited to the Moon than Earth.
When my last morning was yet again balloon ride-free, I felt a slight frustration that I wasn’t seeing as much of Cappadocia as I would have liked. The idea of hiking alone was putting me a little on edge (for the first time ever, I’m still not sure why in this case), so I decided a horse trek through the valleys was the way to go. Booked through my hostel, I was expecting to be taken to one of the stables that line the roads just outside the town. But instead, I found myself outside a run down place in the opposite direction, with two skinny ponies being led towards me. I felt a growing dread inside.
Now, I’ve been riding horses ever since I was a child, so when I see bony hips and a saddle that looks like it might not survive the journey, I get very nervous. However, while internally I’m screaming ‘don’t do it!‘, do I actually have the balls to object? Nope, unfortunately. I’m really hoping that someday I am more courageous about speaking up when I see something not right.
However, I have to say, within a short time my fears were a little lessened. My guide, probably only about 18 years old, with no English, was so affectionate with his horse, you could tell he really cared about the animals. Turkey isn’t exactly the richest place in the world, and I’m now certain the horses weren’t in perfect condition because the family were poor, not because they were being mistreated. While I firmly believe that wild animals should be left wild and that tourists need to be responsible in choosing the wildlife encounters they support with their money, I also believe that fostering good relationships with domesticated animals is really important, especially in children, as it can encourage an understanding and empathy of all animals.
So my guide didn’t speak any English, and I was the only one on this trek… oh, except for the gorgeous German Shepherd that accompanied us the entire way.
While I would have liked at least a little bit of information about the valleys and the area, I have to admit that the sheer stillness and quiet of seeing it all on horseback was breathtaking. Cappadocia is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and probably will ever see in the future.
The trek continued all the way to a remote stone church high in the valleys, next to a cafe of sorts. Seems a strange life to spend your days sitting alone in a small cave waiting for hikers and trekkers to pass by and hope they purchase a tea or orange juice, but maybe it’s much busier during the summer. Who knows? It seems like a peaceful job, at any rate. I also finally got to see a cave church, which up to that point I had been unsuccessful in finding. These churches are little more than small rooms carved into the rock with an alcove for an alter and some old faded religious paintings still partially visible on the walls. The life these people led all those centuries ago is hard to imagine, but it’s fascinating to see what’s left behind.
So how did a massive underground civilisation form in a landscape like this? A few thousand years ago, due to its position between rival empires ranging from the Greeks to the Persians, the local populace needed hiding places, and the soft volcanic rock (also responsible for the otherworldly formations above ground) made tunneling underground easy. And when early Christians were fleeing from Roman persecution, the area became the perfect place for them to find refuge in the last place anyone would look. The large number of religious refugees led to the establishment of many monastic settlements, many of which still survive in some way today.
While I was hugely disappointed not to get my hot air balloon ride, the trek through the valleys made the journey from Istanbul worth it. There aren’t many places in the world as unique and intriguing as Cappadocia, and I’m so glad I was able to visit, especially in the quieter season.
Göreme is one of the most popular town for tourists to stay in while in Cappadocia, and there’s a huge selection of accommodation, tour operators and restaurants to choose from. I stayed at the Stay In Peace Hostel, just a two minute walk from the main street. It’s a really cute, small place with free breakfast, nice staff and cave dorms.
There are daily flights from Istanbul to Nevsehir, the most convenient airport to Göreme, or else to Keyseri. Flying with Turkish Airlines, I couldn’t believe how cheap the flights were – approximately €27 return! (March 2017)
Hot air balloon rides occur all year round, but outside of summer, there’s a good chance your flight may get cancelled due to bad weather. The balloons can’t fly in any kind of a wind, so no matter what time of year you’re there, definitely give yourself a few days at least in the area to increase your odds of flying. There’s a huge range of companies to choose from, but because I didn’t get to experience any of them, I unfortunately can’t recommend one.
The stables I rode with had no name as far as I can tell, I’m pretty sure they were friends of my hostel. But there are several companies offering treks, some of which you pass by on the walk out to the Open Air Museum. I paid €25 for a two-hour trek, but other companies may charge differently.
One of the main attractions of the area is the Open Air Museum, with tickets costing 30 Turkish Lira, or around €8. Other possible activities include quad bike tours, visiting other towns nearby, the famous Underground Cities and watching the sunset over Göreme from the viewpoint above the town.
If you have more than a couple of days in the area, you should definitely hike some of the valleys on foot. Be careful though, maps are notoriously inexact and if you are going alone, tell someone where you’re headed and when you expect to be back. While I was there, the valleys seemed really empty, and attacks on tourists have occurred (very rarely) in the past. Like everywhere in the world, just use your common sense.
Have you ever been to Cappadocia? Were you lucky enough to experience a hot air balloon ride while there? Tell me all about it! Or, if you haven’t, is it on your bucket list?
Want to visit Cappadocia for yourself? Keep this post to help you get there!
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.