Tatev is one Armenia’s most famous landmarks. It’s also one of the hardest sights to reach in the entire Caucasus region.
Some 250 kilometers from Yerevan, Tatev is much closer to the borders of Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh than it is to the Armenian capital. The village of Tatev is high in the hills, and the monastery itself is perched on the edge of a cliff. Minibus service to the village only operates once a week, leaving visitors to rely on a rather unique method of transportation:
The world’s longest, non-stop, double-track cable car.
Getting to Tatev, Armenia
For most travelers, the journey to Tatev begins in Yerevan (more on this near the end of my post). However, I was coming from “elsewhere in the region” (if you catch my drift…) and was able to arrive at the lower cable car station in the village of Halidzor via private taxi. I had departed relatively early in the morning, with the hopes of being on one of the first cable cars, but my taxi broke down three times on the way and consequently it was closer to mid-morning when I finally arrived at the Wings of Tatev cable car station.
I quickly headed for the cable car station to buy my ticket. I was a little bit worried because I would be spending two nights at the top of the cable car, in Tatev village, and didn’t see any other passengers with luggage. Would they even let me board the cable car with my full-sized backpack?
After queuing for about twenty minutes I was able to buy my ticket quickly and efficiently. The ticket vendor wasn’t sure about my pack, so she disappeared to speak to a supervisor. It was determined that my bag and I could go up, but not necessarily together. If my cable car was full, they were going to keep my pack at the base and send it up later that day on a less-busy car. I accepted this option and bought my return ticket, choosing the next available departure (in about half an hour) and a return trip at the time of my choice, two days later. The cost of a prepaid return ticket was 5,000 AMD (about $11 USD).
I spent the next thirty minutes wandering around the cable car station, looking at the posted information and taking in the views. There was a proper sit-down restaurant on site, along with clean bathrooms, a small gift shop and several ice cream vendors. As a little bonus, there is free WiFi at both the top and bottom stations!
About ten minutes before my scheduled departure, I got in line for the cable car. The attendants tried to squeeze me in to the very back of the cable car before my scheduled departure time, but I feigned ignorance and pretended that I thought I had to wait for my scheduled departure. This way, I would be the first person in the car and I would get one of the prized spots at the front, with unobstructed views of the landscape below. My little charade worked, and they let me – and my backpack – board the next cable car first.
The actual ride from Halidzor station to Tatev station was spectacular.
The 5.7-kilometer trip takes about thirteen minutes, and there is an audio tour guide in Armenian, Russian and English that points out the different things you can see along the way. At times, I found it difficult to be sure that I was looking at the sight being described in the recording, but I didn’t care because it was so beautiful.
At its maximum height, the cable car is more than three hundred meters above the ground below. There are a few white-knuckle moments as the car reaches one of the support towers, pauses, and then dips down onto the cable below. The mood in the car shifts from awe, to nervousness, to relief as you realize that yes, the journey is completely safe.
Visiting the Tatev Monastery
The main attraction at Tatev is the monastery. Dating back to the ninth century, the cliff-side monastery complex features three churches and a variety of other buildings necessary for the monks to sustain their lifestyle.
Admission to the monastery complex is free, but they are very strict about enforcing the rules. Most importantly:
- Modest dress is expected of both sexes, including head-coverings for girls and women. Shawls and scarves can be borrowed for free if necessary.
- Avoid the use of cell phones and flash photography within the complex.
- Be quiet and respectful everywhere on the grounds.
I thought I had followed all of the rules very carefully. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was sitting alone in a dark corner of a church and suddenly found myself being smacked by a nun!
I tugged at my scarf and shawl, trying to better cover my hair and shoulders. This just got me another smack, but this time on my knees.
Apparently the nun disapproved of me sitting with my legs crossed.
I was wearing loose-fitting pants that covered all of my legs, so it wasn’t like my chosen sitting position was revealing anything inappropriate. However, I suppose that crossing my legs might have been perceived as “suggestive”?
Either way, I quickly uncrossed my legs and hustled out of that church, back to the safety of the sunlit exterior grounds.
Exploring the grounds of the Tatev Monastery can be quite interesting. As you explore each different area, you are treated to completely different views of the surrounding countryside. Some rooms even have English signage to help clarify how the monks had originally used that space.
Outside of the fortified complex there is also an olive oil mill, which has been reconstructed and modernized into a museum showcasing both the history of the site and the history of olive oil production in the region. Admission is free, and there is a fantastic gift shop inside if you’re looking for authentic, locally-produced souvenirs.
Staying in Tatev Village
Most travelers who ride the cable car come as part of a day trip, arriving and departing on the same day. However, it is possible to sleep overnight at a guesthouse in Tatev village.
Although the village of Tatev is home to fewer than 1,000 residents, it has a handful of guesthouses that open their doors to religious travelers, hikers and others who would benefit from spending a night or two at the top of the cable car.
I can highly recommend Bed & Breakfast John and Lena, where I stayed for two nights. It is located in a modern home (not like the ones shown above!) that is very close to the cable car station and the monastery. The women who operate the guesthouse are absolute gems whose hospitality knows no bounds. My room was very comfortable and spotlessly clean, and the food they served for breakfast and dinner was among the best I ate in the Caucasus. I spent two afternoons sitting with them at their kitchen table, chatting, drinking tea and cracking open fresh walnuts from the trees outside.
There are not really any typical restaurants in the village, although there are a few stands where you can buy grilled meat, beer and ice cream near the cable car station, and there are two or or three simple mini-markets in the higher part of the village that sell non-perishable food items and cold drinks. If you’re planning to hike in Tatev, you’d be wise to bring your own snacks from Yerevan or Goris.
Hiking in Tatev
One of the main reasons I chose to stay overnight in Tatev was that I heard it had excellent hiking. However, having been hiking in Tatev, I am not completely convinced.
I opted to hike the Petroskhach Trail, because it was one of the best-promoted and best-marked trails in Tatev.
The trail started at the upper cable car station and the beginning was clearly signed. I followed the trail through the village and past the farms on the outskirts of town, until I met the proper walking trail.
From the outskirts of town, I followed the trail for about three or four kilometers. The landscape didn’t change at all. It was a rocky dirt path with a gradual incline and absolutely no shade.
After more than hour of walking along the path, I encountered a German family walking back towards me. They told me that they’d walked for several more kilometers along the same path, finding more of the same landscape and never really being sure if they’d reached the advertised lookout point or not.
I continued for a few more kilometers, finding more barren ground and an absolutely shocking number of grasshoppers (including one that flew full-speed straight into my sunglasses… thank goodness I’d been wearing them or I probably would have lost an eye!). There were a few benches along the way, but I didn’t like sitting for too long as I seemed to be attracting even more grasshoppers.
Eventually I gave up and turned back towards the village as well. It was a pleasant walk, but I wouldn’t necessarily call the Petroskhach Trail a proper hike, nor will I remember it as particularly interesting. If I had another day in Tatev I might have considered doing the hike down the gorge (and back) to the Devil’s Bridge, a much steeper loop heading down into the gorge past some abandoned churches to a natural stone bridge.
Returning to Yerevan from Tatev
For my return journey to Yerevan, I followed a more standard tourist route.
I planned to start my morning on the first cable car out of Tatev village. Unfortunately, they were experiencing technical difficulties with the cable cars, so I was left standing at the upper station for more than an hour while the staff poured suspicious-looking neon blue liquid all over the cables at the station, pausing for frequent smoke breaks. Fortunately, the free WiFi was working and I Facetimed my family in Canada to show them the beautiful views.
Once the cable car was working, I was able to get in the first car. I was the only tourist, so I rode down to Halidzor station with the operator and one local passenger (residents of the upper village get a highly-discounted ticket price).
There were no buses or taxis waiting at Halidzor station when I arrived. However, this being the Caucasus, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was able to find a ride. I walked through the parking lot with my backpack until a man shouted at me, “Taxi, lady?” We negotiated a reasonable fare to the nearest major town, Goris, and I hopped inside his air-conditioned BMW.
My driver tried to drop me off at the “Welcome to Goris” sign, but my phone’s map was telling me that I was still several kilometers away from the central post office, which was where taxis back to Yerevan would depart from. I asked the drive to take me to the city center, which ended up costing me a few more dollars.
In Goris, I simply said “Yerevan” and was pointed towards an unmarked door on the main street. Inside, there was a single desk where a woman was organizing passengers for shared taxis to Yerevan. The trip would cost 4,500 AMD (about $9 USD) and take about four hours. She told me that it would be about an hour before the next departure, so I left my big backpack behind her desk and headed to the nearby Deluxe Lounge Cafe (inside the park) for a coffee and some WiFi while I waited.
The ride back to Yerevan was interesting. The front of the taxi had the driver and a member of the Armenian military, and the backseat was packed with myself and two girls from China. Or so we thought. As we passed through the outskirts of town the driver stopped at an apartment block and picked up a rather rotund babushka. The Chinese girls and I looked at one another doubtfully. The backseat was already full. Where was this woman going to sit?
Well, our taxi drive had a backup plan. And a backup seat. He opened up the trunk of his car, moved around our luggage and pulled a lever… suddenly a hidden seat popped up in the trunk. I pretended not to see it, lest I be sent to sit in this questionable contraption. However, one of the Chinese girls seemed to think that it was a better option than spending the entire ride squished between the window and the babushka, so she volunteered to sit in the back.
Four hours and approximately one hundred Eastern European pop songs later we pulled into Yerevan and our driver kindly dropped each of us at our destination. He was unfamiliar with the popular hotels and hostels in the city, so we had to show him our exact addresses on our phones. If you’re returning to Yerevan by shared taxi, make sure you know your local address!
Tatev Day Trips
In light of the fact that it takes at least four hours of driving in each direction to reach Tatev, I would not recommend it as a day trip from Yerevan. Instead, I suggest organizing your own two- or three-day independent trip to southeastern Armenia, so that you’ll have sufficient time to take in this beautiful region.
If the thought of organizing your own transportation to Tatev seems overwhelming, it is also possible to visit Tatev on an organized overnight trip through Envoy Hostel in Yerevan. Their signature “Enticing Armenia” tour takes two days and stops at several interesting, lesser-known attractions on the road to and from Tatev. I can also recommend Envoy Hostel as a solid accommodation option for budget and solo travelers in Yerevan. It’s not as good as their location in Tbilisi, Georgia, but it’s still the best hostel in the city, and guests receive a discounted rate on their organized tours.
Have you ever visited Tatev?
What is the most bizarre transportation plan you’ve had to make to visit a special destination?
Let me know in the comments!