Armenia’s Debed Canyon: a travel guide
This post is about the Debed canyon in Armenia. An area that is often overlooked by travellers, but that I found to be one of the highlights of Armenia. The Debed Canyon is located in between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Anyone traveling in between these cities should definetly stop here.
The Debed canyon does not only offer a beautiful mountainous landscape, but also ancient monasteries and churches in almost every town. Two of them are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Coming from Tbilisi in Georgia, it seemed almost impossible by public transport to include the Debed Canyon and then continue to Yerevan on the same day. I was about to give up on my plans, but then I found out about Envoy tours and their Enlinking Caucasus tour.
This tour is not only a transfer from Tbilisi in Georgia to Yerevan in Armenia, but also explores the Debed canyon on the way. It was exactly what I was looking for.
Debed Canyon in Armenia
The Debed Canyon was one of the highlights of my trip to Armenia. Once we crossed the border from Georgia we soon entered the canyon. The winding mountain roads passed by green hills and pastures full of yellow and red flowers. It was spring time and nature was in full bloom.
My main reason to visit the Debeb canyon was because of its ancient monasteries. They belong to some of the oldest monasteries in the world as Armenia was the first Christian country.
The monasteries are somewhat difficult to get to, because they are built on the top of mountainous hills. As a result the location of most monasteries is rather spectacular with sweeping mountain views over the Debed Canyon.
Our first stop was Akhtala monastery from the 10th century. Most monasteries in Armenia are rather sober from the inside with nothing more than a simple altar and a place to burn candles. Akhtala is the only monastery in the Debed Canyon that still has well preserved frescoes on its walls with scenes from the bible.
Personally I found this to be the most beautiful monastery on the Debed Canyon your.
The second place we visited was the Sanahin monastery. Sanahin translates as “This one is older than that one”. This probably refers to nearby Haghpat. Both are from the tenth century and they are among the oldest monasteries in Armenia.
Sanahin’s buildings were impressive for its age. The interior had a certain beauty in its austerity.
Last, but not least, was a visit to Haghpat. This monastery had the most spectacular location in the Debed Canyon. Its buildings are perched halfway on a hillside overlooking the Debed river below.
This monastery also has several beautiful kachkars. These Armenian crosstones are decorated with intricate motifs. The first kachkars appeared in the 9th century. Despite Armenia’s violent past of raids and lootings by invaders there are still about 40,000 kachkars throughout the country.
Monasteries of the Debed Canyon
The monasteries of the Debed Canyon might look similar from the outside, but each has its own charm. In addition, they also have their own legends and superstitions. Often there is something that locals believe will bring good luck.
In Akhtala newly weds can pass through two rings for a happy marriage. For those who are single, it might help in finding the right partner. In Haghpat you can walk on a small edge across the wall. It looked very easy, but nobody in our group succeeded. Even so I felt luck was with us during this whole day.
Behind all the beauty, there is also a different story. Our guide tells us more about the history of the Debed Canyon. In Soviet times this area had a lot of copper mine factories. When Armenia became independent many of them closed down leaving most people unemployed.
The factories that still operate emitt dark clouds of smoke in the air. The reason that lung cancer is much more frequent here than elsewhere in the country.
The large town of Alaverdi is full of old shabby looking Soviet flats with laundry hanging outside on its balconies. We passed by several abandoned factories scarring the landscape. It makes me wonder what a horrible trade off this was for the people.
The Soviets built factories that brought work and economic stability, but that polluted the landscape and caused severe health problems. Now the factories are closed, which is a blessing for the environment, but leaves people without jobs.
Hopefully tourism can be a new source of income. The Debed Canyon is still an off the beaten path destination, because it is relatively far away compared to Armenia’s other monasteries. It definetly feels remote, but actually Alaverdi is only 4 hours away from Yerevan. Many tour operators have started to include the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin in their itineraries.
Envoy tours supports a local family in one of the nearby villages by having lunch there. For me this was one of the highlights of the day. Armenia’s big pride is Khorovats (pork barbecue). The pork was grilled to perfection, but even more delicious were all the small side dishes and salads. Everything was made from fresh products. The host family was lovely and kept feeding us till we were almost exploding.
After lunch we drove straight to Yerevan. The rocky mountains gave way to green rolling hills. Soon our guide pointed out the views on mount Aragats right next to us and Ararat in the distance.
Our guide was so enthusiastic and so informative that when we arrived in Yerevan I felt I already learned so much about Armenia that it did not feel new to me. I couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to Armenia.
Debed Canyon Travel tips
Public transport to the Debed Canyon
Visiting the Debed Canyon by public transport is a bit complicated and takes time, but it’s not impossible.
Alaverdi is the main town in the Debed Canyon. There are frequent marshrutka’s (minivans) to and from Yerevan taking about 3-4 hours. From Alaverdi there are 1 or 2 daily marshrutka services to the villages of Haghpat, Sanahin and Akhtala, but not to the monasteries.
Haghpat is still a 6 kilometer walk from the highway and Akhtala a 3 kilometer walk. It is also possible to visit Sanahin by taking a cable car from Alaverdi and walking about 2 kilometer to the monastery.
Debed Canyon by tour
As an independent budget traveller I am not a big fan of tours and I use public transport wherever I can. However, the Debed Canyon in Armenia is one of these few places where taking a tour is really worth it.
With an organized tour it is possible to visit all the monasteries in the Debed Canyon within one day, saving you lots of time. Furthermore, the background information the guides provide about the monasteries is very interesting and gives you a better understanding of what you see.
If you are travelling from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia or the other way around I can really recommend the Enlinking Caucasus Tour from Envoy Tours. They travel from Tbilisi and Yerevan with stops in Haghpat, Sanahin and Akhtala with a delicious Armenian lunch that will fill you up for the rest of the day.
They also have excellent hostels in both Tbilisi and Yerevan with good facilities. A great way to meet other people and discover the Caucasus. Besides the Enlinking Caucasus Tour that I did, they also offer other tours in Georgia and Armenia.
Debed Canyon by car
If you prefer to have the flexibility to explore the Debed Canyon at your own pace it’s best to have your own transport.
You could either hire a taxi for the day or rent a car. This option will probably be slightly more expensive than a tour, but provides all the freedom to go wherever you want to go in the Debed Canyon.
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