Cappadocia: Hiking, Cycling, and Touring
I had never heard of Cappadocia until I was researching a nice place to visit in Turkey outside of Istanbul. We had about 3-4 days, so we didn’t want to go too far. At first, Cappadocia seemed too far to make the trip worth it. However, with a pair of night buses, we found that we’d be able to get almost 3 full days to explore. We decided to make it happen.
When looking at pictures of Cappadocia, you probably won’t think this place really exists. Ancient castles and cathedrals built into fairy chimney rock formations? Underground cities that were used by the Christians to protect themselves from the Romans? It really doesn’t seem like it could actually exist. So we had to check it out.
We took a bus from Istanbul to Goreme from Istanbul’s Otogar Bus Station. The cost was 65 liras ($32) each way from the Metro bus company. We left at about 9:15pm and arrived in Goreme at 7:00am the next day.
There are numerous towns to stay in the Cappadocia region, but the most popular one seems to be Goreme. It is centrally located, and the small town is truly unique. With hundreds of fairy chimney rock formations throughout the town, locals long ago started carving the formations to create their own homes and churches inside the rocks. Now, many hotels, homes, and restaurants have at least part of their buildings built into the rock formations, meaning that a certain room or rooms may literally be a cave. The dining area of our hostel, the Terra Vista Hostel, was literally inside a rock formation. The rounded rock walls actually made it a cave.
We’re definitely happy that we stayed in Goreme. The location was perfect for nearby hiking and cycling, and the town has plenty of places to eat and things to do.
The Open Air Museum
The most popular thing to see in Goreme is the Open Air Museum, located just a 15 minute walk from the center of Goreme. The Open Air Museum showcases the monastic complex, where churches were built into the fairy chimney rock formations from the years 900 AD to 1100 AD. The churches are well-kept and still contain the painted frescoes in great detail. The museum leads you through numerous churches and different fairy chimneys that were used for eating, storing food, and sleeping.
The impressive part is how these are still so well-preserved. Throughout different wars and even the change to Islam as the region’s most important religion, the churches are still in their almost original state.
The entrance fee to the museum was 20 liras ($9), and it took us about an hour and a half to walk around the entire place. It was well worth the price and is definitely a must-see in Goreme.
The Green Tour
After much debate, we decided to go with a day-tour from our hostel rather than doing the same trip ourselves by renting a moped. The typical Green Tour takes you to the Derinkuyu underground city, hiking in the Ihlara Valley, the Selime Monastery, and a few viewpoints. We decided against doing the tour ourselves because the distance is pretty long to do the entire tour, and the tour guide information would be very helpful in understanding it all. The one-day tour cost 100 liras ($46) and included lunch. In the end, we had a great tour guide so it was well worth taking the tour. Renting a moped would’ve been a little bit cheaper, but the ease of it all and the great tour guide made the organized tour well worth it.
We first stopped at a viewpoint just outside of Goreme in the town of Uchisar. Uchisar is famous for the castle perched up on a large rock formation while houses were built down along the hill. From afar, it’s a magnificent site to see. Again, it doesn’t look like I could even be real!
Afterwards, we headed about 50 miles southwest of Goreme to the Ihlara Valley. The valley comes out of nowhere, as just out of nowhere it just deep down. And it’s not even that wide, maybe a half a mile. So from above, it looks like a large chunk of earth that was cut out as if it were a brownie. Our group started from the top, went down 320 stairs to get to the bottom, and then hiked about 2 miles northward. Along the way were a few cave churches. A small river ran straight down through the canyon, as well. Compared to close by Goreme, it was lush and green with trees and plants. I even saw a snake hiding in a hole in some rocks. After about an hour and a half, we stopped at a restaurant nearby the valley and had lunch.
We then made our way to Selime Monastery, an impressive monastery complex carved into a large rock. The monastery first used in the 8th century and was used to educate leading religious figures. The monastery contains a cathedral, monks’ and nuns’ places to live, a kitchen, and even a stable for mules and other animals. It’s still possible to see the holes that were used to place firewood when cooking.
The cathedral was even built into 2 stories, with two different stairways going up to the balcony level. Remember, this was all carved out of a big rock. The top of the monastery gave great views of the surrounding desert area and the Ihlara Valley region in the distance.
Finally, our last stop was at the Derinkuyu Underground City, built over 2,000 years ago. Like the Cu Chi Tunnels that we visited in April of this year, locals built an underground city to better protect themselves during war. However, while the Vietnamese were protecting themselves against air strikes, this underground city was used to better protect themselves in close combat war. More specifically, the Christian Orthodox who were fighting the Romans used the underground city to give themselves an advantage, as the attacking Romans could only enter the small doors little by little; they could not surround the people underground with their larger army.
The advanced underground city was expanded with different empires, like the Persian empire and the Byzantine empire. At its largest, it could hold 20,000 people and went down 60 meters (196 feet) into the ground. The underground city would only be used for emergencies, like when the villages were being attacked. Some normal stone homes would have secret entrances into the underground city, where families would have easy access below. They would only stay for as long as needed, but probably stayed for up to two months at one time. Schools, churches, food storage, and stables were all set up inside the city. It’s incredible to think that this complex underground city was built so long ago.
In Goreme, there is a self-explanatory spot called the Sunset Point. Located up on a plateau above the city, it’s the perfect lookout to get a great view of the town of Goreme, the nearby Rose Valley, and the Uchisar Castle in the distance. Just a 10 minute walk from our hostel, we went up there two times, once to catch the sunset and to watch the sunrise and to see the famous hot air balloons fly. The viewpoint is very impressive on both sides. You get a great glimpse of the uniqueness of Goreme with the town and many of its buildings attached to the fairy chimney rock formations.
Before the sunset, we had about 30 minutes of hard rain, so we ran to a small café located at the lookout point. Luckily, the rain let up and the clouds didn’t cover up the horizon to the west, and we saw a great sunset.
In the morning, we got up to the viewpoint at about 5:45am, just in time to see the hot air balloons starting from the ground and working their way up. Goreme is very popular for hot air balloons rides, as it’s a beautiful place to do it, the conditions are usually perfect, and it’s relatively cheap. Prices start out at 90 ($120) euros per person and go up from there. However, you would usually be with 15 or so other people in the basket. Seeing all the balloons from the sunset point was quite the site.
Within 30 minutes, I counted 80 different hot air balloons. I imagine it’s like being at a hot air balloon festival. Seeing these balloons rise up over Goreme and the Cappadocia region along with the rising sun is a sight that I’ll never forget!
Cycling in Cappadocia
For our last day, we decided to rent bicycles to explore the area around Goreme. There are several places around town. We tried going with the cheapest one, but it didn’t work out so well. The first bike that they gave Chika immediately got a flat tire just sitting at the bike shop, the second one’s derailleur was extremely bent, and the third and final bike didn’t even have a chain (somehow it was sitting outside the shop without a chain). After this one, we got our money back and went somewhere else. We ended up paying 25 lira ($12) for a 6 hour rental of pretty nice mountain bikes. The main road heading north was perfect for cycling, as there was a large bike lane on one side of the road, making it safe to use.
Many nice places are within a short distance of Goreme, making it very easy to get around by bike. Just 2 miles north of Goreme is what they call Love Valley. Love Valley named for the fairy chimney rock formations that now stand in the valley, which happen to be in the shape of a man-part. It really is a nice valley, but you can’t help but laugh at the shapes that these rocks have taken.
Afterwards, we cycled just another mile up the road to the town of Cavusin. The small town is known for the church which is located inside a huge remaining rock formation. The towering rock formation is visible from over a mile away, and inside are many rooms carved out for different parts of the church.
There was no entry fee to get in. We climbed to the top, a decent climb up, and were rewarded with an incredible view. One of the highest points of the region, we were able to see for many miles. Down below was the town of Cavusin, behind us was a rocky mountain, down below the other side were mushroom looking rock formations, and in the distance was the Uchisar Castle. It was an incredible view of the Cappadocia region, and it was hard to climb down and get myself away from it.
We had lunch in a small restaurant in Cavusin and then found a dirt trail taking us east of the town to the Pasabag Valley. Riding on this small dirt road in between these rocks was something that I really enjoyed. Finally, we got to the main lookout in the valley, a large mostly flat rock with 360 degree views.
From here, we biked back to Goreme along the main road. It took just about 30 minutes and was easy with the bike lane. Although the cost of the bike is a bit expensive, it was still worth it to get out in the area around Goreme.
Where We Stayed
We ended up staying in the Terra Vista Hostel, which was located in the heart of Goreme but on a quiet side street. The total cost per night was about $12 per night for a bed in a 4 bed dorm, and it included a nice breakfast. The staff was very friendly and helpful and the rooms were clean and comfortable.
We then took a night bus back to Istanbul. The bus left at 9:00pm from Goreme and got to Istanbul at about 7:00am. After arriving in Istanbul, we went straight to the Grand Bazaar and hung out in that area for the morning and early afternoon.
I made my first big mistake for a flight. I booked my round trip flight from Chicago to Thessaloniki, Greece, with a long 8-day layover in Istanbul. The idea was to simply not take the flight from Istanbul to Thessaloniki and to just travel by bus to Thessaloniki in a 3 week backpacking trip. However, I later found out that the airline could very well cancel the rest of my plane ticket if I do not take my flight. Rather than risk this or pay the $500 fee to cancel this part of the flight, I ended up flying from Istanbul to Thessaloniki, taking a bus directly from the Thessaloniki airport to the bus station, and then taking an overnight bus to Sofia, Bulgaria. Chika took a bus directly from Istanbul to Sofia. It all ended up working out, as we got to Sofia within 30 minutes of each other and met up at the hostel. However, it was a mistake with the plane ticket that I’ll never do again!