Turkey is the only country I’ve been to where the man who served me lunch, asked me sit down with him to enjoy some tea afterwards. His treat. So, on my first day in Istanbul, from lunch until the the sun set, I joined him. We sat on plastic stools in front of his food stand on a small street in the old quarter, along with a man selling fruit from a cart next door. We made some conversation in broken English.”Cappadocia,” he said, “I from there. You going? Tourist like.”
“Cappadocia is Turkey Texas,” he went on. Its endless vistas of ochre and copper canyons did remind me of some place the Lone Ranger might’ve felt at home, but Cappadocia is so much more. Cave homes, stone carved churches and entire underground cities speckle these canyons like a Jackson Pollock painting. The homes, some still used today, had been carved into the unusually smooth, ancient volcanic rock—a soft but durable material called tuff, first by the Hittites 5000 years ago, only to be co-opted and expanded by early Christian refugees from Rome, Turks hiding during World War II and farmers today.
I knew all this before Osmond (his name) got started—but Cappadocia was not on my itinerary which gave me just five days in Turkey. Reading about Cappadocia, it seemed impossible to really do the place justice in under three days; I’m the type of traveler who would rather spend a lot of time getting to know one place well than a lot of places superficially. This experience was to be about Istanbul; Cappadocia would have to wait.
“But why wait!?” my Argentine pal said the next day, trying to make a trip happen. We’d met my first night over some ice cold Efes (The local Turkish pilsner) and both being solo travelers, we’d teamed up and managed to see a bulk of Istanbul’s tourists draws that day. The question soon arose, “Would you rather bum around the city for the next four days or go see one of the most beautiful natural places on Earth, if just for a few days?”
Hanging with the Doner Kebab man my first day let me pretend that I’d conquered Istanbul on a deeper-than-Lonely-Planet-Rough-Guide level, and my heart beats fast for wide open spaces like Osmond had described, so I went against my better judgement. “Sure,” I said…”but how?” If this was going to happen, it needed to happen in the next few hours, and from everything I’d read on the internet and in various reputable guide books, Cappadocia didn’t seem easily navigable and was too big to focus on for just two days. Plus, it’s 450 miles away.
The old quarter of Istanbul is carpeted in tour agencies who can answer questions directly, so we popped into the most pristine one we could find, Hannaro Travel Agency. It was 6pm and the only way for me to make this work, was to leave that night.
“I can do this” Mehmet said. He was in his early 30s and Turkish but grew up in Queens, New York and we bonded over some area code chatter.
It took him 20 minutes to secure a place to stay, transportation, explain our sight seeing options and book the right tours that covered them all, giving us all the tools to make 48 hours in Cappadocia work like a well oiled machine…and we still managed to sneak in some unplanned time with a local man there.
Here’s how we did it:
Home Base: There are many great villagespeppered through the valley. Göreme is the most tourist friendly and is centrally located. Being stationed here made it easy to figure out food, get to all the attractions and cut down on any superfluous travel time. More secluded and high-end, but less than five minuets away in taxi is the village of Uçhisar. Both are a 45 minute drive from the Nevsehir Airport and the bus from Istanbul goes directly to Göreme.
Get There: It’s an hour and a half flight with frequent departures. Turkish Airlines will run you between $150 and $250 round trip. For the intrepid or budget travelers, it’s also a 12 hour overnight bus ride, a round trip that costs $50 to $60 that gets you there at around 7am the next morning. Flights are mainly for tourists and don’t always sell out, so last minute bookings are possible. The tour company can book the flight and includes your transfer from the airport.
Stay: Keep in mind that with 48 hours in this stunning land, you won’t be lounging around in your hotel. Some people spend on lavish cave hotels, which sounds neat, but really a clean, quiet place and a shower with hot water is all you need. After Hannaro explained the options, we went budget at Mystic Cave House, one block off the main street of Göreme. For a place that was sold to us as no frills, it had some quite nice amenities like free wifi, an impressive free breakfast, a rooftop bar/restaurant with views of the entire town and a very helpful staff. Rooms were very basic, but started at $20. We paid direct to Hannaro. For $135 a night, we could have gone with design-y digs at Doors of Cappadocia.
The Color Coded Tours: You will be assaulted with a variety of standard tours. They’re not great and I usually try to avoid them, but they can do the trick if you have a limited amount of time. The main ones are color coded, but the red tour doesn’t have any of the wow spots and the blue tour is not worth the money. The green tour hits the most poignant spots like the Derinkuyu Underground City (a 180 foot deep, 8 floored city built in the 7th century BC), an hour hike in Ihlara Canyon (an entire canyon so pretty that Byzantine Monks carved cave homes and churches into its sides), Selime Monastery (the largest church carved out of stone) and a great camera-op at Pigeon Valley overlook (this looks like Mars). The full day tour is a good overview and should be done on your first day. If you get back early enough, take a cab up to the Open Air Museum or walk it (it’s less than a mile from Göreme)—you’ll have already seen some of Cappadocia’s most impressive rock formations and more remote cave churches, but this place has a high concentration of both. It’s not a must, though everyone in town will tell you to go. Skip the guide unless you have a thing for 11th century history. Give yourself about an hour here.
Day Two, Morning:
The Hot Air Balloon: There was a moment just after the sun rose next to Mount Hasan, when we drifted over a canyon wall and then slowly passed about 20 feet over a cave ghost town. That memory was worth the $150 dollars I spent to experience early morning from the basket of a hot hair balloon with 19 other people. Because of scenes like this, Cappadocia is one of the top places in the world to hot air balloon. $120-$130 is the lowest price you can negotiate for the higher end agencies (Some will try to get you for $200), but if you’re brave, it can head south to $100, and less modern balloons. The tours can sell out and generally costs more to book in Göreme. You get picked up at a time before 4:30am, given breakfast and then are up in the air by 5:30 for an hour as day peaks over the horizon. You’ll be exhausted when its over, but the thrill of the ride (and coffee) will keep you going for the rest of the day. Schedule this for the second morning, you’ll nap on the plane back to Istanbul that night.
The ATV Tour: Two hours of zipping through desert on an ATV sound fun? Of course it does. You’ll pass through Kiliclar Valley (looks like another planet), Rose Valley (so named for its many shades of pink and red), snag a panoramic view of Love Valley (fairy chimneys that look very phallic) and the ruins of Çavuşinn valley.
Hike: About 40 minutes into the Pigeon Valley Hike, a sign announced “Hasan’s Tea House”. Being that we were thirsty, and we were in the middle of no where, we approached. Hasan himself came out, a stoic looking old man with a Tom Selleck mustache, blue turban wearing a beat up old flannel, and invited us to sit down and rest our weary legs. He served us tea and cookies and then sat down with us. Turns out, the man is a comic and kept us laughing with goofy, actually funny jokes for the 30 minutes we stayed. Hanging with Hasan was worth the entire hike though Pigeon Valley, which is the walking route between Göreme town and Uçhisar town, about an hour’s hike through the Cappaocian rock formations on fairly flat terrain. You can hike back or try to catch a taxi from Uçhisar. Get your dinner in town and then it’s time to go back to Istanbul.
If you could care less about history, skip the color tour on day one and extend the ATV package for an all day adventure. Then on day two, you can hike Pigeon Valley and Rose Valley, both easy to access from Göreme.