(CNN) – A rich palette of shimmering caramels, ochres, creams and pinks spreads across the landscape like a giant hand-woven carpet. The valleys of the poplars are lined with paths carved by ancient lava flows from three now-extinct volcanoes that cross valleys studded with conical peribacı.
This is Cappadocia, central Turkey, famous for its whimsical “fairy chimneys”, to give the English name peribacı.
Cappadocia has many, as well as rock churches and monasteries. The region is dotted with ancient farming communities with houses and buildings carved out of stone, where common people lived next to monks.
When the volcanic ash cooled, it left a soft porous rock called tufa. Over thousands of years the tufa was eroded and shaped by water and wind.
It is easy to carve but hardens when exposed to air. Until the 1950s, the majority of the population lived in these surrealistic rock formations, in a centuries-old tradition.
They are now one of Turkey’s most eye-catching tourist attractions, often seen from the air by the mobile legions of hot air balloons that fill the sky.
But, as the locals say, the real way to appreciate all this is by foot or mouth. Here are some of the best options for exploring Cappadocia:
Zelve Open Air Museum
Cappadocia is often explored by visitors in hot air balloons, but the food is just as appealing.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images
Here one can imagine what the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia looked like in the medieval Byzantine era when Orthodox Christianity was in its heyday.
“Zelve was permanently occupied from the 6th century to the 20th century, which is something amazing,” says Tolga Uyar, a medieval art historian at nearby Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University. That’s over 1,400 hundred years.
Like most caves in Cappadocia, the spaces were reused, re-carved and transformed. Now Zelve is a model of a rock-cut civilization preserved from early Christian times to the modern Republic of Turkey.
Clearly marked trails make Zelve easy to navigate and give you an idea of what you’ll encounter elsewhere in the valleys.
The magical otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, holds ancient secrets and fascinating stories.
In summer, a large part of Cappadocia appears dry and lifeless. The plains approaching Ihlara Vadısı do not seem different until you look over the edge and see the green treetops surrounding the Melendiz River below.
The length of the Ihlara valley stretches along its banks, the location of a pleasant eight-kilometer walk that starts in the village of Ihlara and ends at Selime Manastırı.
In early spring, bush nightingales sing love songs, flowers dance to the “oop oop” call of the nightingale or titmouse, and the murmur of water lulls you into a contemplative silence.
As anywhere in Cappadocia, there are centuries-old churches decorated with murals.
On the banks of the Belisırma river there are picnic areas or small restaurants for lunch.
Where the valley widens, you can see the impressive monastery of Selime, dating back to the eighth or ninth century BC. It’s worth climbing the 300 steps to look inside.
Cavusin to Kizilcukur
The landscape has been sculpted by thousands of years of erosion.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
Several tours depart from Çavuşin, formerly a mix of Muslim Turks and Greek Orthodox Christians known as Rum.
Here, the huge church of John the Baptist, dating from the 5th century, is the largest cliff church in the region.
Hikers have to go through the village to the cemetery, where a track leads to Kızılçukur. It crosses orchards full of apple trees and apricots and surrounds vineyards, ripening on the vine.
There are several old churches along the way, the most famous being the Üzümlü Kilise (Grape Church). In Kızılçukur (Red Valley), the fairy chimneys are pink during the day and turn a beautiful red hue at sunset due to the iron mineral in the tufa.
It is possible to follow the track on your own, but many churches are difficult to find or blocked. Having a Turkish speaking driver who knows who to ask for the key makes the experience richer and more rewarding.
Hiking with a guide is recommended to get the most out of the region.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
It started by chance. “One day I met a couple (tourists) and we walked with my dog for a few hours,” he says. “They gave me a tip at the end. That’s when I decided to become a walk-on driver.”
Güngör has been sharing his knowledge of his favorite places ever since.
The last 25 years have seen the locals move from agriculture to tourism. Cleared of agricultural additions, the landscape has been transformed by the reappearance of species of flora and fauna that were thought to have disappeared long ago.
In spring, the rare iris galatica blooms. The dark blue or purple petals of these flowers, accented with yellow, emerge from narrow slits. Güngör knows where to find them, along with wild asparagus, orchids and thyme.
On your own, if you’re lucky, you might see a turtle hiding under a bush or an eagle in the sky. With Güngör, hikers will “see churches and monasteries from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries that they would not be able to find on their own”.
It also runs full moon night hikes, hikes that provide the best light for photographing the valley or perfect for hot days.
Güngör loves what he does because guiding tourists through the valleys is more than work, he says.
“Cappadocia is like no other place. It is full of positive energy. When I walk I am one with nature.”
People have lived in the caves of Cappadocia for centuries.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
For those who don’t want to walk, there are horse rides. Cappadocia has long been called “the land of wild horses”, after the free-ranging animals known as yılkı.
Before the mechanization of agriculture, the horses that worked on the farms were turned loose in the winter at the end of the harvest, to roam at will. In the spring, they would be rolled up and put to work again, but once they were permanently replaced by tractors, they were left to fend for themselves.
Born and raised in the nearby town of Ortahisar, Cemal Koksal is passionate about the business he founded 15 years ago with his brother and horse breeder father.
“The peace and naturalness of riding my favorite horse through such a unique and breathtaking landscape helps keep me close to nature and my family roots of growing up and working with horses,” she says.
Cemal Ranch offers different small group tours (up to 14 people) for beginners, as well as children, for the experienced. Everyone has a short training session before any tour and helmets are mandatory.
Those who take part in longer visits will be able to taste the food prepared by Koksal’s mother.
It is the only horseback riding outfit with sunset access to the Pink and Red Valleys of Cappadocia. “Looking at all the amazing valleys changing colors in the sunset light is magical.”
He added: “I am happiest on horseback and happiest walking in the beautiful valleys of Cappadocia. It is the greatest freedom and tranquility.”