Mud volcanoes, imposing mountains and out of this world scenery –Azerbaijan is uncharted territory for most tourists, but an experience that brings you closer to nature.
Azerbaijan is not the country most people would first point out for a road trip. Driving in Baku can be a nightmare, finding a good restaurant on the highway is a task not even a travel expert can fulfill, and right-hand drive vehicles share streets with left-hand driven, miraculously without causing complete chaos. On the other side, the reward for those adventurers who drive outside the city and explore the mostly untouched landscapes is worth the trouble. Azerbaijan has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and most of them can only be reached with your own vehicle.
Insider Tip: DON’T DRIVE IN BAKU. This city has probably some of the worst traffic in the world and driving around it can cause you some of your worst headaches. Leave your vehicle at home and use Uber to move around the city.
In a country where the Caucasus takes a large part of the land, a road trip has to include a visit to the mountains. With three different routes from Baku going up to the mountains, there are lots of different choices where you want to go depending on your preferences, mode of transport and time.
Independent of the fact that the Baku-Quba route on the northeastern side of the country is the shortest one to see the Caucasus, this route is the one that offers the most diverse landscapes and cultural experiences. It passes through Azerbaijan´s most contrasting panorama views and offers an excellent example of the beauty in the country.
The biggest advantage with a vehicle is that you can visit two of Azerbaijan’s most underrated spots.
Multicolored mountains and massive rocks
The mountains in the Khizi region are commonly known as the Candy Cane Mountains for their similarity to the red and white striped candy bars. These multicolored mountains are located 15 to 20 minutes away from the main highway connecting Baku and Quba and Google Maps recognize them as the “candy cane mountains”. These hills will transport you to an alien planet. Wandering around the hills is very easy, too, as visitors can simply park their vehicles by the side of the road and explore by themselves. There is no visitors’ office, tourist path or any souvenir store around this area. Just a completely new world. In my many years traveling the world, I never encountered such a unique place like this.
Info: Probably one of the most interesting things about the Candy Cane mountains is the large number of belemnites found in the area. The belemnites are small squid fossils from the late Cretaceous period. Travelers in the mountains can find them almost everywhere they step.
Around 30 minutes north from the Candy Cane mountains you will pass a very isolated and particular peak with the form of a hand. The Besh Barmag Mountain (literally translated as Five Finger Mountain) is one of the most beautiful mountains in the Caucasus and it´s known as a regular place for pilgrims. It rises to 382m (1253ft) above the sea level and if you are traveling by car, this is a spot you cannot miss.
There is a vehicle track leading to a parking spot at the feet of the mountain but depending on the weather conditions this track is only possible to drive in a 4×4 vehicle. Once in the parking spot travelers must go up lots of quite steep stairs.
Once at the top you will be able to walk around the stones and finally reach a small house for pilgrims (yes, there is a house built on top of a 100m high rock). In this house you will find some pieces of clothing, offering from the pilgrims, and prayer rugs.
The route to a village in the sky
The Candy Cane and Besh Barmag Mountains are definitely two places to be amazed by. However, if you want to feel and see the greatness of the Caucasus at its finest, the towns of Laza and Khinaliq should be the highlight of your trip.
These two villages in the middle of the mountains are located 1 hour from Quba and depending on the weather conditions, they can be extremely difficult to reach. Here, life becomes simple and rustic. There is no internet, no hotels, restaurants and even signal in your cellphones becomes a rarity. Visitors can go for a hike and even stay in one of the many homestay locations in the villages – a totally recommended experience as these guest houses cost no more than 10 Euros a night and will give you an idea of how locals live.
Before you go: The area before reaching Laza is becoming a major tourist spot for winter sports. Some large resorts are already taking this region, while others are still under construction. This is changing the way people in the villages are living. Before you book accommodation take into consideration the damage you might do when booking at these resorts and the cultural experience you might miss.
While Laza is way easier to reach and more modern than Khinaliq, the isolated village of Khinaliq will have you go back to a more nomadic era, when life was way simpler, and people lived in the middle of the nature. If you want to learn more about Khinaliq and its cultural importance, click HERE to find out more.
This is just one of the routes you can take, but Azerbaijan has much more to offer. This was a country I traveled looking for the unexpected and the most incredible and unexpected experiences were there for me. New and diverse landscapes amazed me every single day and the mountains felt like a journey back in time. Life is slow and simple when traveling around Azerbaijan by car.
Before you go: Google Maps works great as a guide to travel in Azerbaijan. In order make the best of it get a sim card at the international airport and have access to internet wherever you go. Take into consideration that in towns like Khinaliq and Laza there is no mobile signal and the internet won´t work.