What (Some Of) the Rest of the World Looks Like: Armenia, Part One

When you tell people you’re vacationing in Armenia, you tend to get one of three reactions: “What?” “Where?” or “Why?”

As it turns out, Armenia is a beautiful, fascinating country, one you might like to consider for your next trip abroad! (Assuming you’re okay with car-sized potholes, as we’ll get to later.)

Armenia countryside

How We Got There

As previously noted, it’s not currently possible to travel from Turkey to Armenia (the most obvious route, given that they share a 200 mile border). If you want to come overland, your choices are Georgia and Iran. For fairly obvious reasons, we opted for Georgia. (Which was also lovely — see my prior Georgia travelogue if you’re interested.)

Being a bit contrarian, we decided to take a shared shuttle (a marshutka) from Tbilisi, Georgia to Yerevan, Armenia. (The other choices were a private taxi, an overnight train, or a really slow public bus. Maybe you also could have taken a plane — I have no idea.)

For whatever reason, it didn’t seem like too many people actual did this — our very well-informed Georgian hosts had to make several phone calls to even find out how you’d do it if you wanted to. They, along with our fantastic Georgian tour guide Mariam, strongly recommended considering other options. We ignored them, probably unwisely.

In any case, the necessary calls were made and the necessary information was eventually procured, and we set off!

Departing Tbilisi

Initially, the marshutka seemed like a decent choice. Compared to other similar trips, it was pretty cushy. We all had seats, the driver was careful, there were no animals on board, and so on. (C.f., a trip down the Mekong Delta, in a massively overloaded van, where my seat was a pile of rice bags surrounded by live chickens.)

But as time went on, it became apparent the marshutka was leaking fumes into the passenger compartment, and no one sitting near the windows wanted to open them. So, everyone got a lot drowsier as the trip wore on!

Here we are, at the mid-trip lunch stop (those puddles are the road):


Sadly, having crossed the border with only 1000 Armenian dram (about $2.50) our options were limited. (In fairness, they were more limited by the fact that it was a kebab shop and we’re both non-meat eaters but having almost no cash didn’t help.)

Conveniently this guy showed up, validating my travel theory that someone will always appear when there’s an opportunity for you to spend money with them!

Mobile vegetable and fruit delivery:

Armenian fruit delivery

Seriously, these cherries were amazing. And we got about two pounds with our funds, plus a bag of carrots and beets. Try that in California!

Meanwhile, everyone else was dining on kebabs cooked on a fire stoked with a hairdryer:

Hairdryer cooking

Initially, we thought this was very creative, but we saw it all over the place, so I guess it’s pretty standard. Outdoor fires came with plugs, just for the hairdryer!

Eventually, after about six hours in the fumy marshutka, we arrived on the outskirts of Yerevan, sweaty and disheveled, and with no real idea where we were heading. We ended up sharing a taxi into town with our Australian marshutka friend, aided by a multilingual fellow passenger who told the cab driver to drop us a some place called Santa Fe (we asked for “a cafe, with wifi”).

Well, let me just say, if you ever find yourself in Yerevan feeling a bit worse for the wear after a lengthy marshutka ride, you could do worse than the Santa Fe:

Santa Fe Cafe - Yerevan

This place was fantastic! It reminded me of South Beach. Technically speaking, this is a photo of the VIP section, which requires an extra payment of 3000 dram. But the manager was sitting nearby and came over to chat, telling us that we could hang out as long as we wanted, since we’d obviously just arrived. 😉 (I admit it — we shamelessly accepted special treatment everywhere we went.)

After a latte, a cucumber lemonade, and some food, we felt like our luck was beginning to turn. And that was before our new best friend showed up!

Road Trip Armenia

If you decide to go to Armenia, I highly recommend you secure a local contact before arriving. In our case, my friend had an Armenian-American friend who had an Armenian friend who said he’d help us out. Little did we know he’d be a three-business-running, three-cell-phone-having force of nature (as well as an incredibly entertaining and generous person).

From the time we met Arsen, everything got a lot easier! It didn’t hurt that he managed a Hertz car rental agency and a tour company. After a bit of back and forth, we decided we should rent a car for the week and drive ourselves around — something strongly discouraged by all the travel books we’d consulted, based on the challenging conditions found on many Armenian roads. Never ones to be dissuaded by practical considerations or good judgment, off we went!

Road Trip Armenia

And…immediately bumped up against reality, when we drove in circles for an hour trying to find the main train station on the way out of town so we didn’t have to return by marshutka. First, the road we needed to take (or, more accurately the road the GPS thought we needed to take) was blocked by a traffic accident. Then it turned out the GPS wasn’t taking us to the train station at all. No idea where it was sending us, but it involved a lot of abandoned industrial buildings, and no trains.

With some “choo! choo!” noises and hand gestures, we communicated our destination to a bunch of helpful guys hanging out at a petrol station, and eventually found the station and procured our train tickets. (Funny aside — the guy who helped us get to the Santa Fe ended up being on our train back to Georgia, after deciding the marshutka ride was too horrible to repeat any time soon.)

Then we set off on Road Trip Armenia!

More to come…

For now, you can check out part one:

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  1. Thank you for blogging about the trip Alison! Don’t think I’ll be getting to turkey or Armenia an time soon – but it’s certainly on the bucket list!!

  2. So now I have an Armenian contact too, right? 😉 What a trip! I’m dying over that fruit and veggie trunk. Maybe that will be the next big thing in the states (move over food trucks, here come the TRUNKS). And that hair dryer stoking trick? Priceless.

  3. Most people prefer in Yerevan transportation by train, but it isn’t always possible as there are few train stations in the city. However, if you have a possibility, rent a car for sure.