Most people heading to Byurakan have their eyes set on nearby Mount Aragats and for good reason. Climbing Mount Aragats offers incredible views considering it is only a day hike away. For those that do make the trip up here, Byurakan has one other site that is a must explore for those with an extra day or two to spare: Amberd Fortres.
Byurakan, is a sleepy little town set in the foothills of mount Aragats. Not much is going on for the outside observer but spending a few days walking around will offer you insight into rural life in Armenia. Old men gather to play games while cows and goats tend to populate intersections more than people do.
Set beautifully on top of the lush Amberd gorge, Amberd fortress has been overlooking this view since the 7th century CE. What remains today is mostly the remnants of the fortress’ 12th century form. While just a skeleton of the original fortress remains, the setting makes what is left pretty epic. It tends to be a busy attraction with locals, particularly on weekends. Despite this, it is still easy to climb up into the fortress and find a peaceful spot to claim as your own in order to take in the surrounding scenery. The highlight here is checking out the gorge views from the fortress but there also is a small reconstructed medieval church which is of little considering how many other churches you will step into while in Armenia. There is no admission fees to the fortress or surrounding area.
The highlight for me was the hike along the gorge that eventually runs into the main road. Claire opted out of the hike and hitched a ride with a young group of locals from Yerevan who were visiting the fortress. While she got to eat chocolate and other snacks, I decided to sweat out another day hike while in Byurakan. If you look down in the gorge, you’ll see a small metal bridge that crosses the river down below. The trail down to the bridge is a little overgrown but becomes more apparent once you cross the stream. Hoping not to step on a snake, I blindly stepped my way down through the thick grass and at some points made my own path down to the bridge. The bridge is in pretty bad condition, but was safe enough to cross as long as you looked where you were standing. After you cross the river, the trail winds upwards along the gorge until you are back on top of it.
After getting to the other side of the river, I kept stopping every now and then to look back on the fortress which kept looking better and better as I climbed my way up the gorge. To my surprise, along the trail I stumbled upon the a very much ruined church where a few stone slabs and khachkars remained. It was a beautiful little site, sitting on the edge of the gorge, with the khachkar carvings adding to the ambiance of the scenery around me. I could have sat here for a while, but with thunder looming in the distance and still needing to hitch a ride from the road, I couldn’t stay for long.
After the trail started leaving the gorge and moves onto the forested plain, it became much more difficult to follow. The trail would disappear at times and left me to completely guess which way the tail was going. Keep walking not too far from the gorge until you reach a small gorge from which you will have to take a sharp left and make your way down the muddy path. Once at the bottom, cross the rocky stream and head up the clear path up the other side. Once up on top again, the trail becomes nearly impossible to find.
On top of the small gorge, I began wondering in the fields where cows were grazing. Unable to see the road and my phone dead, I was a bit confused as I was sure I would be able to see the road by now. I came across a road that looked similar to the one I had taken up to the fortress but it didn’t look right. At this point I was thoroughly confused and needed to ask for directions. To make sure I was right, I stopped to ask two farmers who were tending to some sheep who assured me that if I kept walking in the direction I was going, I would hit the ‘main road’. After thanking them, I pushed on words into the fields again and after passing through some brush had found the road I was looking for. The moment I stepped on the road, a car was passing by and with my first signal, they stopped and picked me up. It had to be the shortest hitchhiking wait I’ve ever had.
The twenty minute drive down passed by quickly, as the driver’s young son knew a little English as we all got to know each other a bit on the ride down. Luckily I made it home before the thunderstorm hit and was very hungry after a long and successful day of exploring.
Where to stay in Byurakan
Unless you’re camping, there is really only one other place to stay while you are in town and that is at the Observatory. While it may look abandoned and straight out of a horror movie scene, the observatory still operates and has renovated 2-3 rooms for guests to stay in. You better call in advanced to reserve a room otherwise good luck finding anyone on the property when you arrive. Give them a call at 094910992 but it is best to have someone who can speak Armenian as their English is very limited.
The people who run the accommodation section are very nice and try to help you in anyway they can. The manager we met even gave his niece’s (she could speak limited English) phone number to us in case we had any problems or questions. 16,000 AMD ($33 USD) gets you a private room with a bathroom, fridge, and living room area. There is no wifi and phone data is hit or miss up here so come prepared. You can also get a tour of the observatory and its telescopes at night but overcast during our stay prohibited us from checking it out. If the sky is clear, it is probably worth the phone free night to check out the star filled sky.
Eating in Byurakan
Byurakan is a village so eating options are severely limited. The observatory offers no meals so it is either do it yourself or hit up the one or maybe two restaurants scattered in the village. The nicest place to eat is about a one kilometer uphill walk in the upper reaches of town. The place tends to cater to large groups but has several private rooms where you can sit and eat. Prices here are high for what you get but after cooking out of a small pot with limited vegetables for a few days, Claire and I were craving a real meal. Trout and some Lavash ran us around 7500 AMD ($15USD) but it was worth it to us. I you have trouble finding the place, take a look on maps.me . It is the only restaurant icon in the whole area.
Also nearby are several small grocery stores that sell limited selections of meats, vegetables, and snacks. These are good places to stock up on lunch supplies and dinner if you plan on doing any cooking.
Getting there and Away
From Yerevan, four buses a day leave for Byurakan from the bus station on Grigor Lusavorich Street. Buses should leave around 10:30, 12:45, 15:45, and 17:30 but it is best to check times with where you are staying. Be sure to tell the driver you want to get off at the observatory as the final bus stop is far away from it. He will let you off not too far from the observatory, but keep an eye on your location through GPS to ensure he doesn’t forget. Check with the observatory on bus times back to Yerevan as they can show you where to wait for the bus and how to get back. Luckily for us, the manager of the observatory was heading into Yerevan that day and gave us a free ride back into the city.
Byurakan: Day Hikes Abound
Byurakan is your best base for day hikes that surround the area. A few days here spent walking around Mount Aragats and Amberd Fortress are well worth the time and effort. Life slows down a bit here, allowing you to relax as you take in the beauty that Armenia has to offer.