(CNN) – A rich palette of bright swirls of caramel, ochres, creams and pinks unfolds across the landscape like a huge hand-woven carpet. The surrounding poplar trees line paths cut by ancient lava flows from three now extinct volcanoes, crossing valleys full of conical peribacı.
This is Cappadocia in central Turkey, famous for its whimsical “fairy chimneys”, to give peribacı its English name.
Cappadocia abounds with them, as well as rock churches and monasteries. The region is dotted with ancient farming communities with stone-cut dwellings and outbuildings, where ordinary people lived alongside monks.
When the volcanic ash cooled, it left behind a soft porous rock called pumice. Over thousands of years, the tufa was eroded and shaped by water and wind.
It is easy to cut, but hardens with exposure to air. Until the 1950s the majority of the population lived in these surreal rock formations, a tradition that goes back centuries.
They are now one of Turkey’s most amazing tourist attractions, often seen from the air by the floating legions of hot air balloons that regularly fill the skies.
But, locals say, the real way to appreciate it all is on foot or with hooves. 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 it’s just as captivating when it comes to food.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images
Here it is possible to imagine what the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia looked like when Orthodox Christianity was at its height during the medieval Byzantine period.
“Zelve was permanently occupied from the 6th century to the 20th century, which is an amazing thing,” says Tolga Uyar, a medieval art historian at nearby Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University. That’s more than 1,400 hundred years.
Like most inhabited caves in Cappadocia, the spaces were reused, sculpted and transformed. Now Zelve is a model of a rock-cut civilization preserved from early Christian times to the modern Turkish Republic.
Clearly marked paths make Zelve easy to get around and give you an idea of what you’re likely to find elsewhere in the valleys.
The magical and otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey is home to ancient secrets and enchanting stories.
In summer, much of Cappadocia seems barren and lifeless. The plains approaching Ihlara Vadısı don’t look any different, until you look over the edge and see the lush green treetops bordering the Melendiz River below.
The length of the Ihlara Valley stretches along its banks, the site of a pleasant eight-mile walk that begins in the village of Ihlara and ends at Selime Manastırı.
In early spring, bush nightingales sing love songs, flowers dance to the “oop oop” of the ibibik or pubilla bird, and the bubbling water lulls you into contemplative silence.
As anywhere in Cappadocia there are centuries-old churches decorated with wall paintings.
There are picnic spots or small riverside restaurants in Belisırma for lunch.
At the point where the valley opens, the imposing monastery of Selime comes into view, which is believed to date from the 8th or 9th century BC. It’s worth climbing the 300 steps to look inside.
Çavuşin to Kızılçukur
The landscape has been carved by thousands of years of erosion.
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Several walks start from Çavuşin, a town that was once home to a mix of Turkish Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians known as Rum.
Here, the enormous church of John the Baptist, dating from the 5th century, is the largest rock-cut church in the region.
Hikers should go up through the village to the cemetery, where a track leads to Kızılçukur. It winds through orchards full of apple and apricot trees and borders fields of grapes, ripening on the vine.
Along the way there are several old churches, the most famous being Üzümlü Kilise (Grape Church). In Kızılçukur (Red Valley), the fairy chimneys are pink during the day and turn a beautiful red hue at dusk due to the iron ore in the tuff.
It is possible to follow the trail on your own, but many of the churches are hard to find or closed. Having a Turkish-speaking guide who knows who to ask for the key makes it a richer and more rewarding experience.
Hiking with a guide is recommended to get the most out of the region.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
It started by accident. “One day I met a couple (of tourists) and we walked for a few hours with my dog,” he says. “In the end they tipped me. Then I decided to be a walking guide.”
Güngör has been sharing knowledge about his favorite places ever since.
Over the last 25 years it has seen the inhabitants move from agriculture to tourism. Cleared of agricultural additives, the landscape has been transformed with the reappearance of species of flora and fauna long thought to have disappeared.
In spring, the rare galatic iris blooms. The dark blue or purple petals of these flowers, highlighted with hints of yellow, emerge from narrow cracks. 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 soaring in the sky. With Güngör, hikers “will see churches and monasteries from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries that they cannot find on their own.”
He also does full moon night walks, hikes that give the best light for photographing the valleys or suitable for hot days.
Güngör loves what he does because guiding tourists through the valleys is more than just a job, he says.
“Cappadocia is like no other place. It is full of positive energy. As I walk I become one with nature.”
Excursions on horseback
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 horseback tours. Cappadocia has long been known as the “land of wild horses” after free animals known as yılkı.
Before the mechanization of agriculture, working horses on farms were turned loose in the winter, when the harvest was over, to roam at will. In the spring, they would regroup and go to work again, but once the tractors replaced them for good, they were left alone.
Born and raised in the nearby town of Ortahisar, Cemal Koksal is passionate about the business he established 15 years ago with his brother and horse-breeding father.
“The peace and naturalness of riding in such a unique and fascinating landscape on my favorite horse helps me stay close to nature and close to my family roots of breeding and working with horses.” he says
Cemal Ranch organizes different tours in small groups (maximum 14 people) suitable for beginners, even children, up to more experienced riders. All are given a short training session before any excursion and helmets are compulsory.
Participants of the longer tours can taste the food cooked by Koksal’s mother.
It is the only horse trekking team with sunset access to the Roses and Red valleys of Cappadocia. “Looking at all the stunning valleys as they change color in the sunset light is magical.”
He adds: “I am happiest on horseback and happiest riding in the beautiful valleys of Cappadocia. It is the ultimate freedom and tranquility.”