Sometimes the things we love most in the world are the hardest to write about. In addition to being busy, I think my fear of being unable to do justice to the magical fairyland that is the Cappadocia region of Turkey is also to blame for my nearly two-month blog hiatus. But I’m going to give it my best shot.
Where and What is Cappadocia
Cappadocia is a region in central Turkey that is known for its beautiful rock formations. But it is much more than natural beauty. Centuries of culture and decades of tourism have created a perfect storm for accommodations, food, kindness and of course all that beauty that is unlike anywhere else in the world.
We arrived in Cappadocia by air, flying into one of the two large towns in the region, Kayseri. Our hotel had arranged airport transportation for us – the group shuttles are the primary way travellers get from Kayseri to the towns in the heart of Cappadocia. You can also go by taxi or private car, but they are much more expensive.
The downside of the shuttle is you wait around a bit for the bus to get full, which meant in our case that our arrival into Cappadocia was just after dark. That was ok because I’d given us four nights in the region.
I must say, I chose really well with our hotel, Elite Cave Suites. The famed accommodations in Cappadocia are cave hotels situated in the cliffs that criss-cross through the towns. This harkens back to the tradition of homes built into the cave walls that eventually, upon the region being “discovered,” were opened up B&B style to tourists. While our hotel had cave rooms available, we chose not to splurge for one (they’re the most desireable) and instead had a large stone room in the newer hotel addition. It had its own cave-like charm and a private terrace outside our door overlooking the town. In short, it was perfect, and the staff especially (with one English-speaker!) were all really kind.
The thing to do in Cappadocia is a hot air balloon ride over the rock formations. This has become big business in the area, with 150 balloons permitted to go up each morning, each carrying eight to 24 passengers (depending on the company). Here again we took the hotel up on the offer in advance to book our ride for us on the first morning. Booking for your first morning is important because occasionally the balloons are unable to fly due to weather conditions and this gives you maximum opportunity for getting a flight in.
The tour company picks you up EARLY for the ride – like barely 5 a.m. – and then you’re back in a white shuttle van, just like the one from the airport. After picking up their share of passengers, you get a little coffee and cookie to tide you over on the ride. Wear your warmest clothes (we were fine in jeans and our rain jackets) because it will still be a little dark when you go up – the idea is to catch the sunrise.
Admittedly, the balloon rides are pretty expensive (we paid 260 euros for both of us, which was negotiated by our hotel and included a cash discount), but they are entirely worth it. It was an incredible experience and I don’t have the words to describe it. Luckily, we took literally 200 photos that morning, so I’ll just leave the top 9 in the gallery here – click the thumbnail for full size.
One great thing about an early morning balloon ride is that you still have the whole rest of the day for other activities. The hotel breakfast is timed to still be in process when you return, so we were able to fuel up on a delicious Anatolian breakfast and then we took off on a hike through the Pigeon Valley to the nearby town of Uçhisar.
The hike was fantastic (though we got a bit lost once when we missed a small sign attached to a trailside cafe directing you to walk through it) and
Uçhisar, with its stone fortress towering over the entire region, was really cool. We’d thought we might have lunch in Uçhisar before hiking back but the hearty hotel breakfast had us covered, so we just bought some water and headed toward the Love Valley for the hike back.
If possible, the Love Valley hike was even better, with really unbelievable rock formations reminiscent of the fairy chimneys we saw in Bryce Canyon, Utah. That is the only place on the planet that I can think of that even comes close to Cappadocia, though I’d love to hear if there are others out there because I want to go to there. The hike was long and we definitely got tired by the end (well, mostly I did) and then it did involve a 30-minute hot walk along the highway, which wasn’t our favorite part of the experience (some people try to hitchhike, but I’m too chicken for that), but we arrived back in Goreme and found a fantastic bar called Mydonos Terrace Pub with a great view and cold beer and peanuts that we certainly earned.
Underground cities and the Ihlara Valley
The one downside to Cappadocia is that there is no public transit and it is pretty spread out (well, one of two downsides: the internet is pretty awful, because the whole place is UNESCO protected and so it is limited how wired it can be). There are plentiful tours to take you to the places you can’t walk to (and countless people trying to sell them to you) but we are not really fond of tours and so, again with the help of our hotel, the next day we rented a car.
Car rental in Cappadocia is not like Avis. I couldn’t tell you the name of the company we used, but a lady showed up with a car and paperwork and we paid cash plus insurance and we were good to go. One unexpected piece that the hotel helped us out with is that they required an additional cash deposit for damages, I think 500 lira, which is less than $100. I didn’t have quite enough cash for the rental and the deposit (which we got back) so the hotel was kind enough to loan the cash, and also the next day when the company was late picking up the car (and returning the deposit) the hotel staff took care of that too so we could go forth on our third day of hiking.
But back to our Day 2 of sightseeing. We followed primarily what is known as the “green tour” and visited the Ihlara Valley for a beautiful walk along a stream and little offshoots into cave churches where early Christians worshiped in secret, hiding from the Ottoman Empire. Then we drove to one of the most recommended underground cities, Derinkuyu.
Derinkuyu was incredibly cool and definitely a highlight of our trip. At times it held thousands of people, hiding first from the Romans and later the Ottomans. They were fully functioning cities with food storage, stables and winemaking. I can’t imagine living underground for months at a time, knowing the enemy is outside trying to wait you out. But exploring the tunnels and rooms was incredibly cool.
Other Cappadocia Highlights
You really want to get up with the sun every day in Cappadocia, because even when you’re not on a balloon ride, you get to enjoy the beautiful spectacle of 150 balloons in the sky. Our hotel was in a perfect location to enjoy this from our balcony, and also a short walk to sunset point, which has an even better view.
On our 3rd morning, we still had the car for another hour or so, so we drove out to Devrent Valley and Pasabag Valley. Both were awesome. We had Devrent (also called Imagination Valley because many of the rock formations resemble animal shapes) all to ourselves and there were still several balloons in the air to appear in our photos. Pasabag was full of brides doing photoshoots in their gowns with their grooms and was a very photogenic spot. Chad took his favorite picture here, which he calls “Call of Freedom.”
We spent the rest of the day walking first to the Goreme Open Air museum, which was incredibly crowded and not very informative but we did get to see some truly beautiful cave church frescos. Then, we found one more hike to enjoy our time in nature. Having come to Cappadocia from Istanbul where we struggled to find parks and greenspace to enjoy, it was just nice to be out hiking.
The other important thing to know about Cappadocia is that the food is incredible and restaurants are quite affordable. We went to nice restaurants on all three of our full evenings there (on our arrival night we were tired and actually still full from our last breakfast out in Istanbul) and enjoyed great service, delicious Anatolian food and desserts, and great Turkish wine. This made Cappadocia feel like paradise made for me, designed with all my favorite things: awesome natural beauty, ample hiking, kind people, comfortable unique accommodations, great food and good wine. I think it is a must-visit place for any world traveller and I really can’t recommend it enough. It is hands down my favorite place.