Sustainable Local Travel in Cappadocia, Turkey

  • Samantha Libby
  • 15 March 2011

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed region of Cappadocia, Turkey, is well known for its magical lunar landscape and creative approaches to tourism like its cave hotels. Built straight into the rock or the facades of old manmade caves, cave hotels are no dark dungeons or cold, musty homes. Instead, Cappadocia’s got everything from five-star caverns to brightly lit grottos for tourists on a budget. They’re positively primeval. (Why bother visiting such an ancient place unless you can sleep right inside it?) And they’re just one part of an overall approach to travel that emphasises what’s local and sustainable.

Unique accommodations are available to travellers in Cappadocia: cave hotels

Cappadocia's rich history, which dates back to the 6th century, can be experienced today in a unique type of accommodation: the cave hotel. Photo courtesy of Melekler Evi Cave Hotel (www.cappadocia.travel)

Unknowing Pioneer

In 1990, when Mr. Suha Ersoz first opened the Esbelli Evi Cave Boutique Hotel in the Cappadocian town of Ürgüp, he unknowingly became a local pioneer of sustainable tourism. He began with an abandoned 5th-century cave that had all but collapsed. He then put the surviving pieces of wood, gathered stones and rock hewn from the interior of the cave as material into the hands of workers hired from the same town in order to keep the restoration local.

Months later when the Esbelli Evi Cave Boutique Hotel opened its doors, its immediate success spawned the copycat creation of other cave hotels based on the same model.

Now there are more than 400 cave hotels in Cappadocia, ranging from family-run three-room troglodyte guesthouses to lavish 50-room underground resorts. The cave-hotel industry in Cappadocia has become a unique selling point in this region of Turkey.

Such have been the thoughts of Zafer Yazici and Fuyo Ichikawa of Lirita Tours, the whl.travel local connection in Cappadocia. For seven years the company has dedicated itself to working with locals to preserve a traditional way of life in ancient Cappadocia. Yazici and Ichikawa have worked tirelessly to make Cappadocia one of the most sustainable tourist destinations in Turkey.

Volcanic rock formations like these fairy chimneys are scattered throughout the landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey

Unusual volcanic rock formations like these fairy chimneys are one major drawing card of Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Zafer YAZICI (www.cappadocia.travel)

Exploring Cappadocia’s Nature and Culture

During any stay in the 5th- and 6th-century caves of Cappadocia, the unusual natural surroundings are certain to contribute to an appealing sense of dislocation, of being isolated in another time (it served as a set for the first Star Wars film). Dotted with ‘fairy chimneys’, the moonlike landscape has inspired artists, travellers, philosophers and historians since as far back as the days of Herodotus. For a bird’s-eye view of the extraordinary geography, hot-air balloon trips are a truly special experience.

To get a little deeper, highly recommended by Yazici and Ichikawa is a trip to the hidden side of Cappadocia, perhaps best exemplified by the Songali Valley. Far less touristed than the famous Göreme or Zelve valleys, Songali remains much as it once did centuries ago. Travellers who choose to explore the area at their own pace can really get off the beaten path. In addition, from Songali, a dazzling maze of gorges unfolds where visitors can discover ancient churches and dovecotes (buildings designed to house doves).

Birders will want to visit the Sultan Saziligi in Cappadocia, Turkey, which contains one of the world's largest concentrations of avian wildlife

The flamingos at Sultan Saziligi in Cappadocia, Turkey, help constitute one of the largest concentrations of avian wildlife in the world. Photo courtesy of Zafer YAZICI (www.cappadocia.travel)

Also not to be missed is the Sultan Sazlığı, one of the largest bird sanctuaries in Turkey. This famous natural reserve is home to about 250 types of birds (compared to 450 species in all of continental Europe) and more than 20,000 flamingos. Day trips from Cappadocia can be organised to view the avian abundance by canoe.

Of course, no visit to Cappadocia would be complete without a sampling of the local cuisine. As always, there are many restaurants from which to choose, but Yazici and Ichikawa recommend watching for where the locals are eating. “Some restaurants may not look so fancy from outside, but they have good food,” says Zafer. “I would recommend going to the small restaurants used by locals since the taste is better and the prices are cheaper.”

A woman from Soganli village displays her handmade doll to visitors in Cappadocia, Turkey

A woman from Soganli village displays her handmade doll to visitors in Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Zafer YAZICI (www.cappadocia.travel)

Sustaining Local Life

What makes Cappadocia so unique is certainly its show-stopping scenery, well-preserved churches and caves, antiquated villages and mouthwatering Mediterranean cuisine. Today, the region’s commitment is to preserving all of this, especially through efforts like those of Yazici and Ichikawa, the whl.travel local connection, who actively promote local communities and local guides.

“There are of course sightseeing spots you cannot miss,” explains Yazici, “but local tours are really run in a local way. Selected restaurants are more like family restaurants and typical Cappadocian handcrafts artisans, like carpet weavers, stone carvers or potters, are visited on these tours.

“Travellers can also get on local buses and drive to villages to get away from the mass-tourism sites. Depending on the harvest season, you can see how villagers work in the fields collecting potatoes, grapes, apricots and other products that have made Cappadocia famous. Even in the touristy villages, you need only enter one of the back streets to find kids playing where there are no shops and women sit in front of their homes and chat.”

Yazici and Ichikawa believe that both tourists and locals should benefit from a mutual exchange and relationship that will stall the destructive reach of developers and preserve all that Cappadocia has to offer.

“The biggest advantage of visiting Cappadocia is that it is not a mass- tourism destination,” says Zafer. “We have to keep it this way.”

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Samantha Libby

Samantha Libby is a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she works for a contemporary art gallery. She is also an artist and the author of numerous short stories, plays and, most recently, a novel. She loves the crazy, the random and the weird, as well as places and people that some would deem 'uncivilized'. She received her BFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, in New York City. She likes cake, too.
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adventure travel, Asia, birds, caves, deserts, ecotours, food & drink, handicrafts & shopping, local knowledge, Turkey, Western Asia, whl.travel, world heritage,

3 Responses to “Sustainable Local Travel in Cappadocia, Turkey”

  1. Luke Ford says:

    Brings back some great memories of Cappadocia! Having travelled with Zafer and Lirita Travel I would highly recommend their services. The underground and abandoned cave cities are something out of this world.

  2. sonja says:

    Great article, I am on my way to explore a different area of Turkey. Something different than the Med. Already looking forward to the local food/cuisine we will enjoy on the special cycle tour in April.

  3. Teamworkz says:

    Sounds amazing, would love to visit. The concept of cave hotels is very interesting

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