Almaty is already a great city to visit, but what makes this destination even better for me was the number of great day trips. Kazakhstan is known for its gigantic steppe, but this country actually has many different types of landscapes. You can find here snow-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes, dunes, and semi-deserts. When I was in Almaty, I took two day trips: to Big Almaty Lake and Charyn Canyon. Both are super photogenic places to visit! In this blog post, I am sharing practical information on how to get there and what to expect during these Almaty day trips.
What you need to know about Almaty day trips
Almaty is an ideal base for exploring more of the region, but there are a few things that you need to know.
1. Not everything can be done as a day trip
Almaty offers many excursion options, but they are not all day trips. Take for example the beautiful Kolsai Lakes, located around 300 kilometers from Almaty. It will take six hours alone to get there, making it at least a two-day trip. Here’s an overview of places that you can visit on a day trip: Big Almaty Lake, Charyn Canyon, Tamgaly-Tas, Nomad’s Land, Issyk Lake, Bartogay Lake, and Kapchagay Lake.
2. Public transport is not a realistic option
Don’t count on public transport for your Almaty day trips. Trains in Kazakhstan are fine for getting from one big city to another, but overall public transport is quite limited in Kazakhstan. Cars are often the only option for day trips, and for tourists, this means looking into organized tour options. Car rental could be an option for some, but it is difficult if you don’t speak Russian. Please note: the distances in Kazakhstan are huge! So going somewhere can easily take hours.
3. Pricey tours & alternatives
Organized tours can be pricey. Prices for Almaty day tours vary between 39 USD to 65 USD, and for multi-day tours, they go up to 110 USD to 190 USD. A cheaper option is the community tours on the weekends, often advertised on Instagram. Parasat Hostel, Steppe Spirit, and Campit.kz offer this type of tour. Most information is in Russian, but send them a message and they will respond in English.
You could also check out the Almaty forum at Couchsurfing.com. Travelers sometimes post messages here asking for people to join them on a day trip and split the cost for a taxi. This is how we met an Armenian traveler to split the cost with on our Charyn Canyon trip. Unfortunately, you now have to pay to use the Couchsurfing platform.
Two beautiful day trips from Almaty
Big Almaty Lake: instant Switzerland vibes
Big Almaty Lake is the most popular day trip from Almaty. It is actually more a half-day trip, because it only takes an hour to get there by car. Add about 45 minutes for photos and walking around and then an hour back to the city. BAO – as the local call this lake – is the pride of Almaty. If you didn’t visit the lake, you didn’t properly visit Almaty. The lake has a stunning light blue color and is surrounded by majestic mountains. When I was there, it felt like I entered Switzerland. By the way, this is not a lake to swim in. It provides Almaty with clean drinking water from the Tian Shan mountains.
How did we get to Big Almaty Lake?
We organized our day trip to BAO with Yandex. This taxi app works the same as Uber. You can link your credit card and it offers the possibility to add several stops on your route. I planned two stops when I booked the ride: one at Big Almaty Lake and one in Almaty’s center. Most drivers will quickly understand that it’s a ride to the lake and back. Our Yandex driver turned out to be the nicest man, spoke English, and had plans to move to Germany someday. At Big Almaty Lake he waited for about an hour in the car and then we drove back to the city. We paid 7,320 KZT for the trip.
You have to pay an entrance fee of 200 KZT per person, plus a fee for the car/taxi (300 – 400 KZT). The fee must be paid in cash at the gate of the park.
Tours & public transport
Would you rather book an organized tour? Nomad Outfitters offers a half-day trip to Big Almaty Lake for 20 USD per person (for a group of 4). There’s is also a public transport option, but it’s not a direct one. Catch bus 28 from President’s Park (150 KZT), get out at a village called Kokshoky and negotiate a price for a taxi minivan for the last part of the route (around 2.000 KZT). So yes, public transport is an option, but to me it sounded like quite a hassle.
Charyn Canyon: the mini Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan
After BAO, Charyn Canyon is the second most popular day trip from Almaty. And rightly so, because this place is dazzlingly beautiful. Imagine the impressive Grand Canyon in the United States, but less overrun by tourists. Charyn Canyon is essentially the mini Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan. It has five canyons, but most tourists only visit the ‘Valley of Castles’ (us too). You can take a walk on top of this canyon to take awesome photos and then take the iron stairs down into the canyon for a walk (2 km). At the end of the canyon, you’ll see the Charyn River that runs from the Tian Shan mountains through Charyn National Park. Great place to cool down after a sweaty walk.
How did we get to Charyn Canyon?
We arranged a day trip to Charyn Canyon with the same Yandex driver that took us to Big Almaty Lake. He gave us a great deal and eventually we shared the cost with a third traveler from Armenia. We paid 25,000 KZT (22,000 for the ride + 3,000 for gas). So that is a little over 8,000 KZT per person (= around 19 USD). In my opinion, it was a great deal, considering this was a full day trip. The drive to Charyn Canyon took 3 to 4 hours, 2 hours for walking around the canyon, and then 3 to 4 hours back to Almaty.
Entrance & practical tips
In addition to the ride, you also have to take the entrance fee at Charyn Canyon into account. This is 730 KZT per person (cash). Bring your passport with you, because they might ask for it at the ticket office. If you visit the canyon in summer, make sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water. The sun will be blazing in the canyon. They sell water near the river, but it is quite expensive.
Tours & public transport
Would you rather go on an organized tour? Check out this 6-stop tour of Nomad Outfitters or join a community tour. Going to Charyn Canyon by public transport is not realistic. I heard about a bus making the drive from Sayahat Almaty bus station to Saty, but the service is highly unreliable. From Saty, you need to hitchhike the last 10 kilometers and it can take a while before you get a ride (especially on the way back). Your best options are a (community) tour or negotiating a deal for the day with a taxi driver.
Where to stay in Almaty?
Staying at a hostel is your best bet, if you’re interested in a community tour or meeting up with other travelers to split the cost for day trips. Good options are Parasat Hostel (8,7 rating at Booking.com) or Wanderlust Hostel (8,5 rating at Booking.com). Click here for an overview of accommodations in Almaty.
What do you think of these day trips? Would you consider visiting Almaty?
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