One Kilometer Above Cappadocia, Only Air In Between


This post isn’t strictly about Istanbul. Or Rome. But it is about hot air balloons.

And who doesn’t like hot air balloons?

(Well, except for those with height phobias. Or small bladders. But still.)

I was given a very special present for a particularly big birthday: a hot-air balloon ride in Cappadocia.

A remote region in central Turkey known for its fantasy-world rock formations and unique cultural sites (including underground cities, churches, monasteries and homes carved into the soft rock, sometimes with frescoes dating back as early as the 4th century), Cappadocia also happens to be the place in Turkey to go hot-air ballooning. Rock formations of Cappadocia, Turkey

While the vast majority of travelers book with big companies like Kapadokya Balloons, we decided that for an experience this once-in-a-lifetime, smaller and more-tailored would be better. Horror stories were rife of 25 or 30 people being packed into a balloon basket, and we didn’t want to be among them. Not to mention that Kapadokya Balloons had had an accident last year and one man, a British scientist, was killed.

Enter Butterfly Balloons. The company promised no more than 12 people in one basket, 16 in the other (it runs only two balloons), and, with its higher price, a higher-quality experience.

It definitely delivered.

Like those flying with almost all of the companies, we had to get up before sunrise for our 5:15am pickup. Why so early? Because the wind conditions are (usually) perfect in the early morning — and the weather is still cool, so you don’t bake in the sun. We ate breakfast at the company’s office as the others straggled in; the two pilots, Mike and Mustafa, hurried around in their pilot uniforms, exuding an air of calm amidst their clients’ nervous anticipation.

Coffee downed, it was off to the launch site. We drove to a remote valley and watched the sun begin its rise over the mountains as the two balloons were readied. In the distance, more than a dozen other balloons all were being pumped up, side by side. Alone in our valley, our flight seemed extra-special.

Waiting for take-off in Cappadocia, Turkey

Mike manning the hot-air balloon in Cappadocia, Turkey
After an awkward, grappling climb into the basket, and some noisy firing-up, we were off.

There’s nothing quite like the sensation of feeling where your feet just were float away beneath you — and knowing that there’s absolutely nothing between you and the ground, not even a big tube of metal that most reasonable people somehow trust to rocket them through the air.

After ten minutes, we were a kilometer high. All of the monumental rock formations, the fairy chimneys, the canyons, the Goreme Open Air Museum, seemed like toys. The sky turned strawberry-milkshake pink behind the line of volcanoes. Farther I could see the other balloons, 20, 30 of them, rising into the sky. Hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

And I could see that many of those balloons were, indeed, packed. But I found myself with tons of room — to shift around, take pictures, look about, nobody in the way. As if that didn’t sell us enough on this particular company, it turned out that Mike, a veteran pilot, had worked for Kapadokya Balloons for years; he left after last year’s accident, frustrated both by the tragedy and by how the company didn’t seem to be learning from the crash or improving its procedures. Go figure.

We were in the air for about an hour and a half, floating up and down, “playing” (as Mike called in) in the canyons and dips of the land, coming so close to the ground that, twice, we scraped past trees, leaves shaking off into our basket. And then, with the sun already high and the other balloons dropping from the sky, one by one, like particularly fat snowflakes, it was time for us to land. Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to Cappadocia. But if I ever know of anyone going there, I’ll tell them two things: The hot-air balloon ride is worth it. Do it with Butterfly Balloons.

Oh, and use the bathroom before you go. Once you’re in a basket in the air, there’s absolutely nothing you can do.

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