By Robert Schrader | Published on April 5, 2022
When I woke up at 4 a.m. to take a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia, Turkey, I was nervous — and not because of how high I'd be soaring. I'd attempted a similar flight five years earlier, only to have it foiled at the last minute by unfavorable high-level winds.
While clear skies alone can't predict conditions at loftier altitudes, I had a feeling things were going to be different in October than they'd been four Mays prior. For one, by the time the shuttle bus reached the launch area in a flat section between dozens of Cappadocia's famous "fairy chimney" stone columns, balloon captains were already inflating their magical mystery ships.
Indeed, as myself and a dozen strangers piled into the basket and the hissing of the flame intensified, I knew we were just seconds from lift-off. It's really going to happen, I thought to myself, as I crossed "Turkey hot air balloon flight" off the top of my mental bucket list.
What shocked me most about the hot air balloon’s ascent was how fast we went up — it felt like a rocket ship — as well as how silent everything became once we leveled out. After what felt like only seconds, the mountains that had seemed to tower above as I stood on the ground now appeared miles and miles below. When you peer down from a hot air balloon, Turkey looks like a miniaturized version of itself, which makes the Cappadocia region even more surreal.
To some extent, I'm misremembering the silence: The sound of camera shutters permeated what otherwise would've been auditory tranquility, a percussion of click-clacking. It didn't bother me because the franticness was understandable, of course. As the sun rose behind us — no landforms to obstruct its rays — every second that passed painted the scene in front of us in a light so unique the colors would never synchronize quite like that ever again. You had to capture it to believe it.
Hot air balloon flights in Cappadocia move from east to west, starting at a launch site just east of the town of Goreme, in one of the rare flat sections of earth between the seemingly endless fairy chimneys that otherwise define the otherworldly landscape. By the time the initial high of being in a balloon basket nearly a mile above the ground wears off, you've already floated over Goreme.
Not that you'd want to look down anyway. Unless you're a total daredevil and heights don't bother you at all, you'll want to be looking forward. That will bring your eyes to Uchisar, the western of the two main towns of the Cappadocia region. Although Uchisar is slightly less popular (and, therefore, slightly more expensive) than Goreme, it is home to what is probably Cappadocia's most famous visual symbol beyond the fairy chimneys themselves: Uschisar Castle.
You might think of Uchisar Castle — which Byzantine warriors as far back as the 15th century literally carved into a mountain — as the prototypical "cave hotel" in which many tourists now stay when they visit Cappadocia. Of course, back then, the warriors were focused less on the charming aspect of sleeping in a rock-hewn room and more on its protective power.
As I saw the castle in the distance growing closer, I wondered how I would have perceived it as an enemy soldier centuries ago, looking on from horseback. Maybe I simply would've thought it was a mountain and ridden past obliviously.
The good news is you can take a hot air balloon ride any day of the year in Cappadocia — weather pending, of course, as I know all too well. But if you play your cards just right, you can be there during the hot air balloon festival, which I assume may eventually become an annual travel vacation tradition. The festival kicked off in the summer of 2019 and was full-steam ahead, but as you can imagine, it was put on pause in 2020.
Don't sweat this too much, however. The balloons take flight all year round. Although the balloons on a normal day are more standard than the cartoon characters, fruits, and other works of art that fill the skies during the Cappadocia Balloon Festival, you won't be spoiled for sensory satisfaction. As Uchisar drew nearer and the first balloons to have launched began touching down all around me, the last thing on my mind was the fact that they weren't in the shape of giant grapes.
"Dumb question," I asked the balloon captain as I slowly sipped whatever carbonated beverage was in my not-champagne flute. "But why do they fly balloons in Cappadocia?"
He laughed. "Not dumb at all. However, there's no special cultural reason. It's simply that we are able to fly low to the ground — like we did next to the fairy chimneys before we landed — because there's no wildlife here. It's purely practical. Well, that, and the natural beauty of Cappadocia."
I smiled at his endearing display of pride in his gorgeous homeland as I unzipped my hoodie, which had seemed inadequately warm at cruising altitude but was now suffocatingly hot on the ground. If you follow in my footsteps — or flight path — you'll definitely want to dress in layers. Wear gloves if they won't interrupt your picture taking, and a hat if you don't care about messing up your hair. Oh, and it should go without saying, but if you have a strap for your phone or your camera, wear it. There isn't a lot of wind as you fly over Cappadocia, but your palms may be sweaty. It would be a pity to only have your memories of the flight, and not some of the best pictures you'll likely ever take.
As I mentioned earlier, I took my flight in October (and had previously planned to do so in April), but if I go back, I think I'd get the happiest returns in winter. I can't imagine how charming Cappadocia looks with a dusting of snow. The cold would be torturous to bear, so I'd have to come prepared with plenty of layers. No matter when you go, give yourself two to three days in Cappadocia just in case you catch a rainy day. I was lucky this time, but I wouldn't recommend spinning the roulette wheel as I did!
My hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia took place over a year ago, but as you can probably tell, all its details are still crystal clear in my memory. Unlike some other must-do experiences, a balloon flight over this most breathtaking part of central Turkey lives up to every bit of hype, and it feels even more extraordinary than the most staged Instagram photo.
If you're successful on your first flight, I'd recommend waking up early the second or third morning and heading to a rooftop cafe in Uchisar so you can watch the balloons fly in with a hot cup of coffee. Seeing it all play out from the "other side" quite literally rounds out the entire experience and makes it even more unforgettable.