The first morning in Cappadocia dawns overcast and grey at 4:30 AM when we wake to ready ourselves for a hot air balloon ride with Butterfly Balloons. My travel buddy April and I have deliberately scheduled it for our first morning because I’ve been told that at least half the time the balloons can’t fly because of bad weather conditions. We’ll learn this is a good decision, because out of the three days we’re in Göreme, ours is the only day the balloons fly. We bundle up in all our layers expecting a cold, windy ride at high altitude. We couldn’t be more wrong.
Sixteen of us pile into the basket, and after a brief safety speech from our pilot Mike (“don’t jump out of the basket”) the gas ignites and we’re in the air. Even though the cloudy skies make photography difficult, there’s no wind buffeting us around like we expected – instead it’s smooth sailing over the caves and spires the area is famous for. This is one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced.
Formed by a series of volcanic eruptions, the Cappadocia landscape is soft sandstone topped with a layer of harder basalt. Eons of wind and water have eroded the sandstone, leaving the hard top layer in place creating what locals call “mushroom caps.” Early Christian monks discovered this area and carved caves into the hills to live in. The caves were populated until as recently as the mid-1900’s, when erosion made living there too dangerous. Today the entire region is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park dotted with small towns. Hotels and even homes are built right into the hills and caves are carved into rooms. We’re fortunate enough to experience one of these homes first-hand.
Dinner with locals
There’s a woman living in Uçhisar, the next town over, who is part of the Broads Abroad Travel Network I participate in, and invites us over for a Turkish barbecue. April wisely suggests we take a taxi so I don’t have to worry about driving us home on the twisty roads in the dark. We find ourselves with Black Snake, a portly, middle-aged man with a huge smile. Black Snake doesn’t know the address in Uçhisar, but when we mention Susan’s name he immediately knows who she is. It’s a small world out here with not many Westerners. He pulls up to a house and starts yelling Susan’s name and a bunch of other stuff in Turkish. We like how things get done here.
Susan’s home is carved out of a cave, making the term ‘man cave’ very appropriate for her housemate’s part of the house. Ibrahim is about 75 and half-deaf, but he speaks French fluently and is a true gentleman. We’re joined by two Venezuelan couples, a Frenchman and two local Turks – one of whom has brought moonshine – home made rakı – to share. Before long we’re all half-drunk and giggling like old friends. One of the Turks works the open pit barbecue and produces some of the most delicious köfte I’ve ever had. After hours of great conversation and laughter, Black Snake rolls up to fetch us and barrels us down the hill blasting Power Turk pop on his radio to my ridiculous in-seat dance moves. April reminds me the next day how hard Black Snake tried to convince me to come home with him and become his second wife. He won’t be the last Middle-Eastern taxi driver to try this.
Parks within the park
The next morning, slightly hungover, we meet Mustafa, the guide I’ve hired for the day to show us around the area. We’ll discover that we really don’t need a guide, but Mustafa does manage to take us to a few places we wouldn’t know to go on our own. We start at the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is a series of caves painted by the Byzantine monks who lived there. Unfortunately there’s no photography allowed inside the caves, so you’ll just have to imagine how beautiful they are. Mustafa is very knowledgeable about the details of history and geology and wants us to feel like we’re getting our money’s worth, but we’re not that kind of travelers and find ourselves hustling him along.
Devrent Valley is known as Imagination Valley by the locals, and it’s a great spot to take pictures of rocks made of volcanic ash and shaped by centuries of wind and ice into what can easily be imagined as animal shapes. We see a camel, two penguins kissing, and I even do my best meerkat pose in front of a rock shaped like one before we head off for more cool photos at Mushroom Cap Park. We end our tour in Kaymakli, an underground cave city. Mustafa wants to regale us with all his in-depth knowledge, but April and I both feel claustrophobic underground and give him that all-too-familiar “move it along” gesture.
April and I ditch Mustafa and take a road trip to Ihlara Valley, a deep gorge cut into the cliffs. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Göreme, and finding our way there is half the fun. It looks gorgeous, but we’ve come too late in the day to hike it properly. I get the feeling April isn’t too upset about that, but I could have spent a full day there, it’s that beautiful. We meet an adorable older couple along the path and they get giddy taking selfies with us. These Turkish people are just darling!
If you’re going to Turkey, do not miss Cappadocia. It’s simply spectacular. There are frequent flights out of Istanbul and the town of Göreme is also served by a bus route. You can also make the drive yourself in about eight hours from Istanbul or 10 hours from Antalya. Try to stay in a cave hotel if you can. They are more expensive than the low-lying hotels, but it’s a unique and wonderful experience. If you can, save up your pennies and splurge on the hot air balloon ride.