About 450 miles from Istanbul, Cappadocia is a 2000-square mile expanse of desert filled with otherworldly rock formations, cave hotels, ancient underground cities, and watery oases. Plus, it is one of the best hot air ballooning experiences in the world.
Cappadocia is hardly a weekend trip from Istanbul, but it’s not impossible to bag this adventure if you have a few extra days to spare.
The idea to try it came minutes after arriving in Istanbul. On the plastic stool of a tea shop, looking for a little energy, I met Osmond. He poured my tea, but the real takeaway was the conversation. Most of it about his homeland, Cappadocia. And he was adamant that it is the best part of Turkey and you couldn’t fly all this way and not see it.
Then a few days later after a chance meeting with an adventurous Argentinean traveler over refreshing Efes beers (a local favorite) all it took was the mere suggestion, for me to be all in.
Perhaps, maybe, it could work. The only caveats? We were on a budget and he only had a few days.
Getting to Cappadocia: A Local Tour Operator
The first matter of business was to find a tour operator. With little time, we needed help booking transportation and hotels. There are many in the old quarter, but we went with the first agency that appeared reputable: Hannaro Travel Agency. It was 6pm, and Mehmet, a friendly Turkish-New Yorker, gave us a few options and whipped up a 48-hour adventure for us in Cappadocia. The biggest decision we needed to make? How to get there.
It was an hour flight for about $250 round trip, or a 9-hour $50-$60 round trip bus ride that left that night at 9pm. Both to Göreme–the most central base camp for Cappadocia exploration.
We had more slightly more time than cash, and wanted to get there soon, so we opted for the bus–a “red-eye” that got us to Göreme by 7am the next day. If you can sleep on a bus, it’s not a bad way to maximize time. Otherwise, splurge for the fight.
Staying in Cappadocia on a budget
Our destination in Cappadocia? The unassuming yet captivating Mystic Cave House in Göreme, which has shared rooms for $50 a night. Its simple comforts – a snug room, a welcoming bed, rooftop views, and the promise of a hot shower – were a luxury after the long bus ride. But, with 48 hours to spend here, hanging out in the hotel was not on the agenda.
Cappadocia’s color-coded tours
At the tour agency, you will be regaled with a variety of standard tours based on color. They vary based on timeline, budget, and sightseeing goals. You don’t have to take them, but if you can’t hire a private guide and don’t have the time to explore on your own, they’ll give you the greatest hits for between $50 and $200. The red and green tours are the most popular.
Red Tour: Covers Devrent Valley, Monks Valley, Avanos, Göreme Open Air Museum, and Uchisar Castle. It’s a mix of natural wonders and historical sites.
Green Tour: Includes Ihlara Valley, Melendiz River, Selime Monastery, Pigeon Valley, and Derinkuyu Underground City. This tour is great for experiencing Cappadocia’s landscapes and underground cities.
Blue Tour: Less popular, and more expensive because it covers remote areas like Ortasihar and the Gulsehir Open Air Museum.
Orange Tour: A half-day trek, available in the morning or afternoon, starting from Sunset Point (Kizilcukur) and leading to Cavusin through Rose Valley.
The Green Tour
We chose the one-day, green tour, because, of the underground city. And descending into the Derinkuyu Underground City (a 180-foot deep, 8 floored city built in the 7th century BC) boggles the mind. Later, it was an hour-long hike in the Ihlara Canyon. It’s a dry, tranquil trail that once provided solace to Byzantine Monks who build the Selime Monastery (the largest church carved out of stone in the region). The trail follows the Melendiz River and leads to a fabulous restaurant. Finally, we stopped off for a great camera-op at the Mars-like Pigeon Valley overlook, which left me wanting more.
When the tour was over, we had some time to kill before sunset, so we took a cab to the Göreme Open Air Museum about a mile outside of town. It’s a high concentration of Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys, and no guide is needed.
Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia
Outside the color code, you should also book the early morning hot air balloon ride–one of the most unforgettable experiences in Turkey.
The experience starts early, with a pickup time before 4:30 am. After a light breakfast, you’re up in the air by 5:30 am, just in time to witness the daybreak casting its first light over the horizon. The flight lasts for about an hour and it’s worth every last penny. (While the starting rate at high-end agencies is around $120-$130, some may quote as high as $200. However, for the more budget-conscious or daring travelers, there are options as low as $100, though these might be with less modern balloons.) Keep in mind, these hot air balloon tours are in high demand and options dwindle and cost more if you wait for the last minute.
As the sun rose beside Mount Hasan, our balloon drifted over a canyon wall. Below, an awe-inspiring view about 20 feet above an ancient cave ghost town. That was when I understood why Cappadocia is ranked as one of the top destinations worldwide for hot air ballooning.
Cappadocia by ATV
Next, we set an afternoon whipping across the moon-like landscapes of Cappadocia in ATVs. The spacey rocky formations of Kiliclar and so tinted, Rose Valley lead us to the majestic views of Love Valley. A name we understood as soon as we looked out on the expanse of curiously shaped rock formations.
It was a great tour, and a part of me wanted to stay to experience the full day option. If you don’t need to see specific history, you could skip the color-coded tours for a full day of exploring on a dune buggy.
Hassan’s Tea House
We still had a few hours before sunset, and I was determined to maximize our time. The one place I wanted to see more of was the Mars-like Pigeon Valley, which we saw on day one. There’s a flat trail that connects Göreme to the town of Uçhisar, where you can safely walk among the fairy chimneys without getting lost.
And, somewhere about a mile and a half or so in we met Hasan, who serves tea out of his home just off the trail, which really made me feel like an ancient, bedouin traveler. Hasan sat with us for about 20 minutes, and we shared vaguely understood one-liners and talked of family.
Last-Minute Cappadocia doesn’t disappoint
We completed the hike round trip hike, ate a cheap meal in Göreme, and got back on the bus to Istanbul. Thoughts were racing through my head.
Less than a day before it began, this trip was nothing more than a distant thought. But with a little vision, some flexibility, no sleep and a lot of Turkish tea, it’s not that hard to conquer Cappadocia in 48 hours, with less than 24 hours notice. But if you do try it, maybe splurge for the flight.
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