Cappadocia: Hot air balloon bliss

While visiting Turkey, I also took a short trip with a couple of friends to Cappadocia. I had first heard of this town and seen pictures of its beautiful scenery when researching the best places to take a hot air balloon ride, which has been one of my bucket list items. And I could not wait to see the natural wonders of this semi-arid region in person. Following are some of the things to do and see in this town:

What to Do:

Hot air ballooning. Goreme is rated as one of the top places in the world to take a hot air balloon ride because the views are amazing, and the wind pattern is steady. This was my first time taking a balloon ride, and I loved it! The balloon operators in Cappadocia have been doing tours here for a while, and there are a number of companies to choose from. Visitors will not go wrong choosing any of them. The easiest way to book is probably through the hotel, which will have a company they work with. The companies all have experienced pilots, and a similar price structure. The main difference in prices is based on how many people are in the basket, with the lower price having more people. We opted for the mid-range price, which had about 16 people in the basket, and found this to be a good number. We were not overly crowded, and everyone was able to get great shots. The basket was divided into four sections so we had five people in our section since we were a party of three. The price of these balloon rides are definitely worth the splurge and are some of the cheapest prices I have seen. I have looked into balloon rides in other countries, but the deals here were unbeatable. And the lower prices are not a reflection of the quality of the balloons, which were in great condition, or the experience of the pilots, who were professional and skilled. The only thing to worry about are the wind speeds because they will not fly if the winds are above a certain speed. We signed up to go on a ride our first morning in town, but our flight was canceled due to winds. The operators immediately offered to roll our flight over to the next morning or to give us a refund. Luckily, we were able to try again the next day and had a successful flight. This was a once in a lifetime experience that I am so glad I did not miss. Balloon rides last about 60 minutes in the air, but the whole experience with pick up, set up, and drop off will be longer. Operators start picking up people from their hotels around 5:00 AM. Everyone is taken in vans to a hotel near the take off site where they will sign in, get a free coffee and breakfast pastry (neither of which is anything special, although the coffee is definitely welcome that early). Then everyone waits until their group is called to be loaded in another van and dropped off by their balloon. Travelers will get a chance to see the balloons in the final stages of set up and being blown up. They will then enjoy a ride over the valleys of Goreme, taking amazing pictures and viewing the sunrise. After the balloon lands, visitors will enjoy a glass of sparkling wine and receive a certificate. Then they will be loaded into another van to be dropped off at their hotel. Drop offs start about an hour after sunrise.

ATV tour. This is a fun way to see some of the sights in Goreme, including the fairy chimneys and rose valley. Operators will provide everyone with a helmet and face mask (as dust will get everywhere). They will also provide a short tutorial on how to operate the vehicles. Visitors can ride their own or share a vehicle with one other person. The price for the tour is per vehicle so sharing is a cost effective option, and people can switch off driving. The tours are 1-4 hours depending on the package. And each tour has a group leader who ensures that people stay on the path and do not go too fast. For those travelers looking for a thrill ride, a tour is probably not the best option. Instead, try renting an ATV separately. The tours, however, are a great way to see some of the natural highlights of the area, and they stop at the major sites to allow people to get off and take pictures. We chose to do the two hour tour, which in my opinion was plenty of time on the ATV, and we chose to go on the tour right before sunset so that we were able to see the sun set over rose valley. When we went, a storm was coming so we did have some wind and rain but that just added to the fun experience.

Color tours. This area offers travelers three main tours to see the region, the red tour, green tour, and blue tour, since travelers are unlikely to have their own vehicles. The red tour includes some of the highlights of Goreme, the Goreme open air museum, and a pottery demonstration. The green tour includes a tour of Derinkuyu (an underground village), a light hike through Ilhara valley, stops for several panorama views (including Pigeon Valley and Damsa Dam), and a tour of Selime Monastery. The blue tour includes a similar itinerary to the green tour but in a different section of the region so different city, different valley, and different monastery. We chose to do the green tour, which is one of the more popular ones, because we wanted to see the underground city and we had seen several of the sights from the red tour on our ATV tour. I would definitely recommend the green one. We were picked up from our hotel and taken to a larger air conditioned bus where we met our tour guide and the rest of the tour group. Our tour guide was great. He was a local who was very knowledgeable about the region and who spoke English well. During the tour we had lunch at a restaurant set next to a stream in Ilhara valley that was picturesque and served good food. The last stop of the tour was the obligatory stop at a jewelry store, which seems to be part of every overseas tour, but there was no pressure to buy anything. The larger bus dropped everyone back off at their hotels at the end of the tour. This tour was a full day, and it was worth the money given how much ground we covered. These tours start late enough in the day that travelers will be able to do one after a balloon ride if they are super ambitious but that will make for a very long day. We ended up taking our tour on the day our ride was cancelled. We still had to get up for the ride and hang out for about an hour before they officially canceled, but we were able to catch a short nap before doing the tour.

Wine tasting. This area is supposed to have some of the best wines for Turkey. Although Turkey is not known for wine, the wines from here are supposed to be decent. Unfortunately, we were so exhausted from waking up early both days of our visit for the balloon ride that we did not have the energy to go to one of the wineries for a wine tasting so I cannot recommend one over the other. However, if I were to come back to this region, I would definitely go to one because I do love wine. For travelers who have the time and energy, I think this would be a worthwhile activity.

Shopping:

The shops here sell much of the same stuff as can be found in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. They have a lot of the typical Turkish ceramics and pottery. However, they have a smaller selection because there are less vendors. This may be a plus for those wanting to shop in a place less intimidating than the bazaars in Istanbul, but may not be as appealing for those looking for the best deals. One thing that I would recommend buying here is the ceramic hot air balloons. These beautiful pieces can be found in almost all the shops in this area and are a great reminder of the hot air balloon trip, for those who take one. They come in different sizes and colors and make a pretty decorative piece for the home. Another item that I would recommend is some of the painted pottery. There are a few artists in the area that do some beautiful artwork on ceramics, including scenes of the area and Turkish script.

What to Eat:

Cappadocia has the typical Turkish dishes that can be found throughout the country, but this region is known for testi kebabs. This dish is slow cooked in a sealed clay pot that is broken open with a knife at the table. Testi kebabs can be found in other parts of the country, but it is traditional in the Anatolian region and a must try here. Restaurants in this area cook it with lamb, beef, chicken, or just vegetables and serve it with bread. It is very tasty. Several restaurants in the area serve this dish so get a recommendation from the hotel, which is what we did, to find one with a good reputation within walking distance of the hotel.

Where to Stay:

Cappadocia is a large area, but I recommend staying in Goreme in a cave hotel, which is what we did. These hotels are an interesting experience. They are built into the caves, much like the homes in that area, which makes the whole stay seem a little more authentic. Plus, it is unlikely that many travelers have stayed in a cave before. This town is really a tourist town now. Many of the locals have left so there really is not much of a choice but stay in a hotel. Luckily, the prices on these are very affordable. We split a room with three people, and it was a steal. However, even solo travelers or parties of two will find the prices to be reasonable. Goreme is a safe area and is also an area with restaurants, shops, and natural sights all within walking distance.

Getting Around:

We arrived to Cappadocia from Istanbul by plane. Travelers can also get here from Istanbul by bus. We chose to fly, however, because of our limited time and because the tickets through Pegasus and Turkish airlines were very reasonable. We waited to book two days before our trip so while they still had tickets available, the cheapest ones were sold out. For those who plan better, they should be able to get a really good price on plane tickets. We flew into Kayseri airport, which is about an hour away from Goreme. We had our hotel arrange for an airport pick up. Many of the hotels in the area use the same shuttle service so that a person will be waiting at the airport exit with a sign with multiple party names on it. That person will walk travelers over to a waiting area to wait for their van. Names will be called when the van has arrived. Beware that these vans do not have working air conditioning, and it will get hot on the hour long ride but there is not much that can be done. My best advice is bring a cold bottle of water. Once in Goreme, most necessary things should be within walking distance. The hotel will also likely offer guests a ride into town, if needed. And all booked tours should include a pick up and drop off at the hotel. When we departed Goreme, we took another plane back to Istanbul. Again, we arranged for a ride to the airport through our hotel that used that same shuttle service. The Kayseri airport is small so very easy to navigate once inside.

Overall:

Cappadocia was not only the highlight of my trip to Turkey, it was one of the highlights of my travels through the Mediterranean region. The natural beauty here really is breathtaking. We went in September, and it was still hot, which is not surprising considering how arid it is here. We were only able to stay two nights here, but I would recommend staying longer. Travelers should definitely stay a minimum of two nights, though, to increase the odds that they can take a balloon ride. They should also book the ride for their first morning there just in case it gets canceled and they need to book again for the next day. After our first attempt, there were several people lamenting the fact that they had only booked one night in the region and were going to have to miss out on the balloon ride completely. This is something travelers will not want to miss! Because the balloon rides are so early in the morning travelers will likely be tired the day of the ride and may not be up to seeing a lot that day so having an extra day is crucial to see some more of the sights from the ground. We had to get up super early three days in a row (the morning of our flight there and then the next two mornings for the balloon ride) so we were exhausted and did not get a chance to do much exploring and hiking on our own, which is a shame because the hiking and exploring of the chimney rocks (including the houses and churches hidden in them) is supposed to be amazing. I would definitely come back to this area again to do some more exploring on my own. This place is for travelers who enjoy hiking and the outdoors and for those who have always wanted to take a hot air balloon ride.

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