(CNN) — A rich palette of shimmering caramel swirls, ochres, creams and pinks unfolds across the landscape like a huge hand-woven carpet. Poplar stands line trails carved by ancient lava flows from three now-extinct volcanoes, crisscrossing valleys dotted with conical peribacı.
This is Cappadocia, central Turkey, famous for its whimsical “fairy chimneys”, to give peribacı their English name.
Cappadocia has an abundance of them, as do rock churches and monasteries. The region is dotted with former farming communities with stone-cut homes and outbuildings, where commoners lived alongside monks.
When the volcanic ash cooled, it left behind soft porous rock called tuff. Over thousands of years, the tuff has been eroded and formed by water and wind.
It is easy to cut, but hardens when exposed to air. Until the 1950s, most of the population lived in these surreal rock formations, a tradition that goes back centuries.
Now they are one of Turkey’s most notable tourist attractions, often viewed from the sky by the hovering legions of hot air balloons that regularly fill the sky.
But, say the locals, the real way to appreciate all of this is on foot — or horseshoe. Here are some of the best options for exploring Cappadocia:
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Zelve Open Air Museum
Cappadocia is often explored by visitors in hot air balloons, but is just as captivating on food.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images
Here you can imagine what the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia looked like when Orthodox Christianity was at its peak during the medieval Byzantine period.
“Zelve was permanently occupied from the sixth century to the 20th century, which is an amazing thing,” said Tolga Uyar, a medieval art historian at nearby Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University. That is more than 1400 hundred years.
Like most inhabited caves in Cappadocia, spaces were reused, re-cut and transformed. Now Zelve is a model of a rock-cut civilization preserved from early Christian times to the modern Turkish Republic.
Clearly marked trails make Zelve easy to get around and give an idea of what you are likely to encounter elsewhere in the valleys.
The otherworldly, magical landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, is home to ancient secrets and enchanting stories.
In summer, much of Cappadocia seems barren and lifeless. The plains on approach to Ihlara Vadısı seem no different, until you peer over the edge and see the tops of the lush green trees lining the Melendiz River below.
The length of the Ihlara Valley stretches along its banks, the site of a pleasant 13-kilometer walk that starts at Ihlara Village and ends at Selime Manastırı.
In early spring nightingales in the woods sing love songs, flowers dance to the “oop oop” call of the ibibik or hoopoe bird, and the lapping of water lulls you into contemplative silence.
As everywhere in Cappadocia, there are ancient churches decorated with murals.
There are picnic areas or small restaurants on the banks of the river in Belisırma for lunch.
At the point where the valley opens up, the imposing Selime Monastery comes into view, believed to date back to the eight or ninth century BCE. It is worth climbing the 300 steps to look inside.
Cavusin to Kizilcukur
Several hikes start from Çavuşin, a village that was once home to a mix of Turkish Muslims and Orthodox Christian Greeks, known as Rum.
Here is the huge Church of John the Baptist, dating back to the fifth century, the largest cave church in the region.
Hikers should go through the village to the cemetery, where a trail leads to Kızılçukur. It meanders through orchards filled with apple and apricot trees and past fields of grapes ripening on the vines.
There are several old churches along the way, the most famous being Üzümlü Kilise (Church of the Grapes). In Kızılçukur (Red Valley), the fairy chimneys are pink during the day and take on a beautiful red hue at sunset due to 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 locked. Having a Turkish-speaking guide who knows who to ask for the key makes for a richer, more rewarding experience.
It is recommended that you go hiking with a guide to get the most out of the region.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
He started by accident. “One day I met a couple (tourists) and we walked my dog for a few hours,” he says. “In the end they tipped me. Then I decided to become a hiking guide.”
Since then, Güngör has been sharing knowledge about his favorite places.
Over the past 25 years, he has seen locals transition from agriculture to tourism. Stripped of agricultural additives, the landscape has been transformed with the return of species of flora and fauna thought to have disappeared.
The rare iris galatica blooms in spring. The dark blue or purple petals of these flowers, accented with shades of yellow, arise 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 spot a turtle hiding under a bush or an eagle soaring in the sky. With Güngör, hikers will “see churches and monasteries from the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries that they cannot find on their own.”
He also takes full moon night walks, walks that provide the best light for photographing the valleys, or walks suitable for warm days.
Güngör loves what he does because guiding tourists through the valleys is more than a job, he says.
“Cappadocia is like no other place. It is full of positive energy. Walking I become one with nature.”
For those who don’t want to walk, there are horseback riding tours. Cappadocia has long been referred to as the “land of the wild horses,” after free-roaming animals known as yılkı.
Prior to the mechanization of agriculture, workhorses were released on farms in the winter when the harvest was over, to roam at will. They would be picked up and put back to work in the spring, but once tractors replaced them permanently, they were left to fend for themselves.
Born and raised in the nearby town of Ortahisar, Cemal Koksal is passionate about the horse breeding business he founded 15 years ago with his brother.
“The tranquility 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 several small group tours (maximum 14 people) suitable for beginners, even children, to more experienced riders. Everyone gets a short training session before each tour and helmets are required.
Participants on longer tours can taste food prepared by Koksal’s mother.
It is the only riding outfit with sunset access in the Rose and Red Valleys of Cappadocia. “Looking down on all the beautiful 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”.