The rock formations of Cappadocia are the backdrop to Turkey’s most popular hot-air ballooning destination, known for its annual festival when the skies are filled with brightly coloured canopies. Here is the lowdown on everything you need to know and if you’re looking to overnight, Konya is nearby.
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This central Anatolian region of Turkey – an eight-hour drive east from Istanbul, and four hours from Ankara – is renowned for its honeycombed hillsides, churches carved into the rock and curious troglodyte dwellings. These geological marvels are a result of volcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago and they continue to enrapture everyone who visits. Hiking in the area is lovely, but by far the best way to experience this unique landscape is from high above. Book a hot-air balloon ride and soar silently over the fairy chimneys at dawn, as the rocks take on the reddish glow of the rising sun.
To ensure you get to experience the wonder of a hot-air-balloon ride in Cappadocia, it’s wise to book months ahead. Although more than 100 balloons go up every morning at sunrise, they are always full, and missing out on this magical experience would be a shame. If possible, stay for a few days after your booked flight, just in case it gets cancelled. Most flights go from Göreme and tour operators usually include a transfer to and from your hotel in air-conditioned transport in the cost.
As hot-air ballooning in this unique place is much sought-after, with specialised equipment and pilots required, you can expect prices to be high. As it’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, upgrade to a deluxe or comfort flight for a more exclusive trip. The economy-class balloons hold 16 people, but on the more expensive tours, the balloon baskets are smaller, so you’ll have more room to move around and everyone gets to be front row for the spectacular scenery below. Some tours even include breakfast and bubbly.
Watching the balloons inflate in the early morning half-light is a thrilling experience. Once on board, your pilot will give you some safety instructions and will tell you what you can expect on your journey, including what to do if the basket tips on landing. This is quite a common occurrence, so don’t panic! The course of the hot-air balloon depends on the wind speed and direction, so you could fly as high as 900m (3,000ft) above ground and reach speeds of up to 22kmph (13mph) while taking in the dramatic panorama below. Don’t forget your camera!
Most flights last around 60 to 90 minutes, but the landing spot is uncertain. Each balloon has a ground crew that’s in constant radio contact with your pilot. The crew follows the trajectory of the balloon and chases it to where it will land, which could be any flat area in the region. Landing can be a little bumpy, but the pilots are well trained and often land it perfectly, directly on the trailer brought there by the ground crew’s four-wheel drive.
Cappadocia is probably the only place in the world where you’ll see hundreds of hot-air balloons dotting the skies at sunrise, for most of the year. It’s quite normal for balloons to fly 250 days a year, whereas the norm elsewhere in Europe is just 60. The main Cappadocia balloon season is between April and November, as between December and March strong winds, fog and snow could mean your flight is cancelled. Floating noiselessly over a snow-strewn Cappadocia is an exceptional experience, though – if you can manage it.
The Cappadocia hot-air balloon festival takes place over four days in July. During this airborne spectacle, you can see more than 150 hot-air balloons, including more than 20 specially shaped varieties, and a night-glow show that takes place after dark. While the action goes on overhead, you can also enjoy musical entertainment and dance performances down below, with plenty of food stalls and bars to keep you refreshed.
Having so many balloons in the sky at one time could seem a little dangerous but rest assured, all the pilots go through rigorous training, pass numerous flight and medical checks and have hundreds of hours of flight time under their belts before they can pilot a hot-air balloon. Many of the pilots in Cappadocia have decades of experience. Plus, there are strict regulations from Turkey’s civil aviation authority about when it’s safe or unsafe to fly. That doesn’t mean accidents never happen, but out of the thousands of flights every year, incident numbers are minimal.
With your hot-air balloon tour under your belt, you may be looking for other things to do in Cappadocia. You won’t have to look far. There are plenty of tours of the area, exploring underground cities, open air museums, incredible archaeological sites and rock-hewn citadels.
You’ll find a maze of hiking trails leading through the lunar landscape, but if you fancy something a bit more high-adrenaline, a quad bike ride around the Unesco World Heritage site is a lot of fun. For a gentler way to experience the beauty of the region, opt for a sunset horseback ride through the volcanic tuff. Don’t forget to book at least one night in a cave hotel – an experience that shouldn’t be missed!