Take a balloon ride in a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Turkey, soaring above fairy chimneys and cave dwellings.
GOREME, Turkey — A few whooshing breaths of fire and up we went, a yellow orb rising in a sea of hot-air balloons like the sun brightening the morning sky.
Others followed close behind, climbing over craggy canyons, pink mountains and mushroom-shaped rock formations called fairy chimneys. Suddenly, our basket, packed with tourists angling for a perfect picture, bounced as it got bumped by an ascending balloon.
“Don’t worry! It’s OK sometimes,” our young pilot hollered out, smiling behind his Ray-Bans and turning up the flame on the balloon’s burner to climb faster.
We chuckled nervously, but it got our blood pumping in the thinning atmosphere. So did what we saw next.
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We slowly spanned up a hillside and hundreds of balloons exploded into view, a colorful mélange hovering above the valleys cut like lightning into the Turkish region of Cappadocia.
But before the breathtaking views comes the preparation. Online travel searches are good ways to scope out top-rated balloon companies in a region renowned for the rides. You will pay more for reputable operators and to share the experience with fewer people — something you will value as you try to shoot photos that don’t include an errant hand or head.
Almost all offer a continental breakfast before the ride, transportation to the launch site and a “Champagne toast” — usually sparkling cider — and certificate after landing.
The region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose economy survives on tourists flocking to see the fairy chimneys, cave dwellings, vast underground cities and ancient Christian churches carved into the mountainsides. Because of its popularity, hundreds of hotels are poised to handle balloon bookings.
The cave hotels, hundreds of which are packed onto a hillside in the small tourist town of Goreme, are a must-do. Pick one with windows to avoid feeling claustrophobic — my large, modern-but-rustic room with a terrace went for about 90 euros (about $100 U.S.).
I booked my balloon ride through the hotel, which allowed me to put the ride on my credit card and pay at checkout instead of needing cash.
My hotel contracted with three balloon companies of different price levels. I went with the midrange after looking up the operators on TripAdvisor. I saved 50 euros by skipping the top-rated balloon company, but I still had an unbelievable experience taking in the alien-like landscape from the sky.
The formations and hillsides served as year-round homes, and the caves also provided safety for persecuted Christians of the 10 to 13th centuries. Visitors can climb through some of the houses of worship, decorated inside with elaborate murals, at the famed Goreme Open Air Museum. The museum is walkable from Goreme’s town center.
The Christians also built extensive underground cities where they hid from attackers, sometimes for months at a time. Two are open to visitors.
At Kaymakli Underground City, you duck through narrow entryways into family rooms, living quarters, kitchens and even chambers where they buried their dead. They also brought down their livestock and made wine in buckets carved into the soft stone walls.
Aboveground, you can hike through valleys with names like Love, Red and Rose; climb up cave castles, which are natural fortresses pitted with tunnels; and scramble through fairy chimneys at Pasabag.
The fairy chimneys have been created over eons by erosion. The soft, white rock at the bottom of the formation erodes more quickly than the sturdier rock at the top, leaving the mushroom shape.
Soaring over this otherworldly landscape is the ride of a lifetime. Getting up at 4 a.m., wrapping up against the chill and cramming into a bucket next to other tourists is not for the unadventurous or those on a tight budget. But as you dip low into the valleys and fly high above the mountains, even those afraid of heights will want to look down.
If you go
Balloon rides in Cappadocia, Turkey
The area is an hour by car from Kayseri airport and a bit closer to Nevsehir airport. Most visitors arrive the day before and stay overnight in a hotel because the balloons typically take off shortly after dawn. Multiple flights leave Istanbul daily for Kayseri and Nevsehir.