(CNN) — Swirls of shimmering caramel and a rich palette of ocher, cream and pink colors spread across the landscape like giant handwoven carpets. Lines of poplar trees crisscross valleys carved by ancient lava flows from his three now-extinct volcanoes and studded with cone-shaped peri-wasps.
This is Cappadocia in central Turkey, famous for its quirky ‘fairy chimneys’.
Cappadocia is rich in not only rock churches and monasteries. The area is dotted with former farming villages, where ordinary people lived next to monks, with stone dwellings and outbuildings.
As the volcanic ash cools, it leaves a soft, porous rock called tufa. Over thousands of years, tuff has been eroded and shaped by water and wind.
It is easy to engrave, but hardens when exposed to air. Until the 1950s, most of the population lived in these surreal rock formations, a centuries-old tradition.
Today, they are one of Turkey’s most impressive tourist attractions and are often seen from the air by the swarms of hot air balloons that regularly fill the sky.
But according to locals, the real way to enjoy it all is on foot – on your 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 also attracts food.
AFP via YASIN AKGUL/Getty Images
Here you can imagine what the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia looked like during the medieval Byzantine era, when Orthodox Christianity was at its height.
“Zelve was permanently occupied from the 6th century until the 20th century, which is amazing,” says Torga Uyal, a medieval art historian at the nearby Nevsehir Haj Bektash Veli University. It is over 1,400 hundred years old.
As with most inhabited caves in Cappadocia, the space has been repurposed, re-sculpted and transformed. Today, Zelve is a rock-carved model of civilization preserved from the early Christian era to the modern Republic of Turkey.
With clearly marked paths, the Zelve is easy to navigate and gives you an idea of what you might come across elsewhere in the valley.
The otherworldly and magical landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey holds ancient secrets and enchanting stories.
In summer much of Cappadocia looks dry and lifeless. The approach plains to Ihlara Vadus look the same until you peer over the edge and see the lush tree tops that line the Melendis River below.
The length of the Ihlara Valley stretches along its shores and is a pleasant eight-mile hike starting from Ihlara village and ending at Selime Manastir.
In early spring, the nightingale sings love songs, the flowers dance to the chirping of the yibik and the hoopoe, and the murmuring of the water lulls you into a meditative silence.
As everywhere in Cappadocia, there are centuries-old churches adorned with murals.
There are picnic spots and small restaurants on the banks of Belishurma where you can have lunch.
At the point where the valley opens, you can see the impressive Selime Monastery, believed to date from the 8th or 9th century BC. Climbing the 300 steps to see inside is worth a visit.
From Cavusin to Kizilcükur
A landscape shaped by erosion over thousands of years.
Omar Haji Kadur/AFP/Getty Images
Some walking trails start from Cavusin. The village was once a mixture of Turkish Muslims and Orthodox Christian Greeks known as Ramu.
Here you’ll find the enormous 5th-century Church of St. John the Baptist, the largest stave church in the area.
Hikers must head through the village to the cemetery. In the cemetery, a path leads to Kizilcukr. Wind through lush orchards of apple and apricot trees, surround vineyards and ripen on the vines.
There are several old churches along the way, the most famous being the Üzümlü Kilise (Church of the Grapes). The fairy chimneys of Kizilcukur (Red Valley) are pinkish during the day and turn a beautiful red at sunset due to the iron ore found in the tufa.
It is possible to follow the path yourself, but many of the churches are difficult to find or are locked. Having a Turkish-speaking guide who knows who to ask for the keys makes the experience richer and more rewarding.
To get the most out of this area, we recommend going on a hike with a guide.
Omar Haji Kadur/AFP/Getty Images
He started by chance. “I met a couple[of tourists]one day and took a walk with their dog for a few hours,” he says. “I got a tip at the end, so I decided to become a walking guide.”
Güngör has since shared his knowledge of his favorite places.
Over the past 25 years, he has seen locals transition from farming to tourism. The landscape has changed as agricultural additives have been removed and species long thought extinct have reappeared.
Rare irises bloom in spring. The dark blue or purple petals of these flowers spring up through narrow crevices, accentuated by pops of yellow. Güngör knows where to find them, along with wild asparagus, orchids and thyme.
If you’re lucky, you might even spot a turtle hiding under bushes or a flying eagle. In Güngel, a hiker can “see churches and monasteries of the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries that he cannot find on his own”.
He also does full moon night walks, hikes that give the canyon the best light for photographing, or hikes that are suitable for hot days.
Gyungol loves his job and says that guiding tourists through the valley is more than a job.
“Cappadocia is a place like no other. It’s full of positive energy. When you walk, you become one with nature.”
Horseback riding tour
People have lived in the caves of Cappadocia for centuries.
Omar Haji Kadur/AFP/Getty Images
For those who don’t want to walk, there are horseback riding tours. Cappadocia has long been called the ‘Land of the Wild Horses’ after a free-roaming animal called the Yuruk.
Before the mechanization of agriculture, farm horses roamed freely during the winter after the harvest. In the spring they would be collected en masse and put into operation again, but after the tractor was permanently replaced, they had to fend for themselves.
Born and raised in the nearby town of Ortahisar, Jemal Koksar is passionate about the business he founded 15 years ago with his brother and horse-owning father.
“The peace and naturalness of riding my favorite horse in such unique and enchanting landscapes brings me closer to nature and to my family roots in breeding and working with horses.” It helps us get closer,” he says.
Cemal Ranch offers a variety of small-group tours (up to 14 people) for beginners, kids, and experienced riders. Everyone undergoes a short training session before the tour and wearing helmets is mandatory.
Participants on longer tours can sample dishes prepared by Koksal’s mother.
The only horse trekking outfit that gives you sunset access to Cappadocia’s Rose and Red Valleys. “It’s magical to look down on a stunning valley that changes color in the light of the setting sun.”
“I am happiest on horseback, in the beautiful valleys of Cappadocia. It is the ultimate in freedom and peace.”