By Land and By Air: Exploring Turkey’s Most Mystical Landscape
As you weave through the bizarre rock kingdoms in Cappadocia, a region in Turkey’s Central Anatolia, magic hangs in the air. Among the immense fairy chimneys and clusters of cave dwellings, one half expects a unicorn to wander past. Or a dragon to fly overhead. “Oh, hello there! Given anyone a good scorching today?”
This could be a fantasy novel setting, but it’s a real-life city, and it goes by the name of Göreme. One of the most popular destinations in Cappadocia, Göreme boasts silver screen–worthy scenery and oozes with charm, but above all offers some of Turkey’s best adventure activities. From hot air ballooning to ATVing, Göreme’s got it—and with jaw-dropping photo ops to boot.
Area archaeologists recently discovered that a sprawling subterranean city in Cappadocia that had been previously unearthed during construction work might be the most extensive in the world. Stretching five million square feet, the underground spectacle, once cleared of its rubble and opened to the public, is bound to change tourism to Cappadocia forever.
But before it does, sneak in a visit and experience Göreme’s soon-to-be-overshadowed aboveground attractions. Below the surface, Cappadocia impresses, to be sure. But above, Cappadocia is at its most enchanting. Visitors could easily spend an entire week here, but for those short on time, just one day will do. Here’s how to spend 24 perfect hours in Göreme.
Ann Babe is a New York City-based writer who loves the unexpected adventure. She has contributed to Conde Nast Traveler, Forbes, Techonomy, and Language Magazine, among other publications.
Cappadocia’s aptly named Love Valley is home to some of the most striking (or shall we say well-endowed?) rock formations in the world, a labyrinth of pillars that loom larger than life. Spend the day taking in the exotic—and erotic—view from every vantage point; from up above by hot air balloon to on the ground by ATV.
Begin with the hot air balloon tour, scheduled for sunrise when conditions are calmest. While the sky still bleeds black, balloon operators fetch you from your hotel and drive you to their facilities to enjoy a light breakfast. It’s the crack of dawn, but sugary pastries and a jolt of Turkish coffee should wake you up.
At about 175 euro for a one-hour flight, and topping 250 euro for two-hour trips, hot air balloon rides don’t come cheap. The splurge, though, is well worth it. Just make sure to choose a reputable ballooning company that’s safe and insured, and to book in advance. One recommended operator is Butterfly Balloons.
Lift-off sites change daily depending on the wind patterns. Once operators determine today’s spot, you’re on your way. After arriving, hop out and survey the surrounding fantasyland. Go ahead and gawk—you’ve got time. While you take it all in, the tour operators prepare the balloon.
A balloon basket holds between 12 and 20 people and is divided into separate quadrants, three to five flyers in each, with your intrepid pilot stationed at the center to man the flame. Butterfly Balloons’ Eftal Durak, pictured here, is a first-rate pilot.
As the balloon ascends higher, the sun does as well. It’s a heart-stopping sight, and though you might have been cursing that 4 a.m. wake-up call, chances are you’re speechless now.
Bucket List Item No. 71: Watching the sun rise in Turkey. Check. Greeting the day from 3,000 feet above ground in the Land of Fairy Chimneys? Checkmate.
Hot air ballooning is a rare example of an attraction so enhanced by other tourists, you’ll actually welcome them (who would have thought?). The more balloons in the sky, the merrier your view.
The picture couldn’t be prettier: a rainbow of balloons dotting a sherbet-streaked sky, like a Candyland course for the birds.
Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys owe their curious shapes to volcanic activity and eons of erosion. Millions of years ago, the region’s underlying volcanoes erupted, leaving behind a thick layer of soft rock that’s been chiseled over time by the elements.
Sky-high spires radiating in the sunshine—this is the king of golden hours.
Be sure to book your hot air balloon flight for the first morning of your stay in Göreme. If balloon operators deem weather conditions too dangerous for flying, your ride will be postponed until the next morning, so it’s best to give yourself some leeway.
As you soar up above, the drivers chase down below. Their vigilant tracking ensures they’ll be ready and waiting the moment the balloon lands. Peer down from the basket and spot teeny trucks speeding along a patchwork of russets and tans.
Flights typically conclude with a communal deflating of the balloon—call it Cappadocia’s version of a grape stomping—and a champagne toast. Once the revelry’s over, your tour operators drive you back to your hotel, where you may choose to recharge with a quick snooze. Afterward, grab lunch at one of Göreme’s top-rated eateries like Manzara Restaurant (Aydınlı Orta Mah, Harım Sok. No:14), which features al fresco dining for beautiful, less dizzying views of the city.
Once you’ve refueled, it’s time for ATVing. Arrange a guide through your hotel or stroll around downtown Göreme to scout out the best local operators, making sure to select one that provides a separate ATV for each driver and includes petrol in the price. Motodocia is one reputable company.
Thirty-five euro per person will get you a two-hour trek from Göreme to a number of nearby valleys and back. ATV newbies: Don’t fret; no prior experience is necessary. Your guide will show you everything you need to know to drive a quad.
Cappadocia’s hilly landscape ensures there’s no shortage of thrills for adventure seekers. Take the plunges at full speed—or, if you’re like me, at quarter-speed.
The Anatolian countryside unfolds like a progression of paint swatches, from the salmon hues of Rose Valley, pictured here, to the terracotta terrain of Red Valley.
Halfway through the excursion, make a pit stop at one of the area’s tiny cave villages and have a look around. Age-old cavern dwellings backdrop modern-day stores where you can pick up a Turkish silk scarf or a picture-perfect postcard if you’re in the mood for souvenir shopping.
For a lovely view of village life, climb up and gaze down. This is rural charm at its most unassuming.
The caves that pepper the rockface—human-carved homes, storage sites, and places of worship—are evidence of Cappadocia’s long history, with some as old as 1,000 years.
Visitors are likely to spot a dog or two roaming the scene. While many are harmless pets, others are potentially dangerous strays, like the ones that attacked a British tourist exploring Göreme earlier this year. So tread with caution. Still, this one is downright doe-eyed.
Pause at White Valley to drink in the dramatically sculpted vista.
Cappadocia—by some accounts Old Persian for “the land of beautiful horses”—is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cap off the day with dinner and drinks—Dibek is a choice spot—then crash at one of the area’s many cave houses, like Kelebek or Shoestring, pictured here. Ancient cave dwellings that have been converted into fully outfitted hotel rooms, these abodes pair lavish décor with natural wonder and historical appeal, making for a hotel stay that’s anything but run of the mill.