Bordered by the Caspian Sea to the east and by Azerbaijan and Georgia to the south and west, the Republic of Dagestan is often overlooked by tourists in favor of more well-known Russian destinations. During the late 90’s and well into the 2000’s, Dagestan’s reputation took a hit as conflict spilled over from war in Chechnya and spread throughout the region. In the last few years, however, the security situation in the republic has stabilized, and tourists have gradually begun returning – especially as the COVID-19 pandemic hindered international travel and many Russians took the opportunity to explore their own country domestically.
After much research, a friend and I, both studying abroad in Moscow at time, booked flights to the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala in December 2021 to see the republic for ourselves. While there, we strolled along the shores of the Caspian Sea, sampled local dishes, walked the streets of Makhachkala, and encountered a secure region of friendly people, eager to welcome tourists.
We spent about a week in the republic. If you stay in the capital and major cities, you can do this on a budget of perhaps $300 per person, when sharing housing expenses between two. If you’d like to have an adventure more like ours, with a guide into the mountains for a few days, you should budget closer to 450 per person. For rooms, booking.com is the most popular site in Russia. Airbnb works too.
Arrival to Makhachkala and Derbent
After our two-hour-and-forty-minute direct flight from Moscow to Makhachkala, our first stop was our Airbnb, where we unpacked and made a list of places we wanted to visit. Unlike other regions of Russia, there did not seem to be nearly as many online tourist resources available in English. While we knew for sure that we wanted to visit local museums and the nearby city of Derbent, the few travel blogs we could find made it very clear that to really enjoy the beauty of Dagestan, people must travel into the mountains where caves conceal hidden waterfalls and where tough, scenic hikes lead to spectacular views.
As we worked to iron out the more challenging parts of our itinerary (primarily transportation), we visited Makhachkala’s local beach along the shores of the Caspian, attended a stage performance in the Kumyk language, sampled tasty local dishes like Chudu and Khinkal, and visited cool local history museums like the Dagestan Aul Museum-Reserve-Ethnographic Complex, which displays traditional clothing from many of the different ethnic groups in Dagestan.
The next day, we woke up early in the morning to order a taxi to Derbent on the Yandex app, leaving around 6:00 AM to make the drive of a couple of hours. We paid in cash upon arrival to our destination because neither of our American bank cards work on the app. Derbent is the southernmost city in Russia and also claims to be the oldest; it is home to the UNESCO World Heritage list protected citadel, the Naryn-Kala Fortress, which overlooks the city and is thought to have been built around the 6th century AD. While there, we explored the fortress, visited the Derbent Lighthouse, went through several museums, tried my new favorite food – a regional dish of apricot-based porridge with urbetch (ground-up seeds) – and later, we took a taxi a little outside of Derbent to visit the 380-ton Lun-class Ekranoplan which currently sits on a beach. The ekranoplan is a massive “ground effect vehicle:” a cross between a ship and an airplane, and it was left abandoned here after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Derbent itself was fairly easy to visit. However, getting to other places on our list proved more challenging as there are few taxis servicing less-populated areas and the rough, bumpy roads in many parts of the mountains would likely be difficult for many taxis. Numerous searches for tour guides through Google and social media platforms revealed limited results, and the few tour companies that we could find legitimate pages for seemed a bit expensive, so we decided to ask around while exploring Makhachkala to see if anyone knew of any trustworthy tour guides we could contact. (Just a note that we did not encounter many English speakers during our trip, so it helps to know Russian or travel with someone who speaks Russian well).
On our visit to the impressive National Museum of the Republic of Dagestan, a kind museum employee gave us contact information for a local tour guide named Murad. We called him, discussed potential itineraries, and he gave us the Instagram page that he uses for booking his tours so we could see the tours he has given. His quoted price was $100-200 less than the other tour companies we researched, and he gave us realistic expectations in terms of how many places we could plan to see each day. After some deliberation, we decided we would take a daytrip to see the Sarykum Sand Dune, followed by Sulak Canyon, and if all went well, we would take a two-day trip into the mountains to see Gunib, Chokh, Salta, and the abandoned village of Gamsutl’, as well as other small villages or towns that could be passed through on the way.
Into The Mountains of Dagestan!
The first day of sightseeing at Sulak Canyon and Sarykum Sand Dune went amazingly well, and we learned a lot about the history of the area. Murad took us to a great restaurant in between locations where we ate shashlik (a skewered grilled meat dish considered to be native to the Caucuses) and discussed preparations for the 2-day trip we would begin the morning of the next day.
Murad spoke both Russian and the local Avar language, so the Russian-speaking friend I was with helped translate Russian into English for me, and we learned a lot about the culture and history of Dagestan throughout the tour.
The Sarykum Sand Dune, for instance, lies approximately one hour from Makhachkala and is home to a variety of animals and species of rare plants – some of which are endemic to the area. The dune’s origins have baffled people for many years, and there are a number of local legends as to how the dune formed. Another couple hours away from the Sarykum Sand Dune, the aqua blue Sulak River flows through one of the deepest canyons in the world – Sulak Canyon – which is even deeper than the Grand Canyon and offers boat rides and ziplining in some areas.
Several of the locations we visited or drove through were historically significant sites for famous people and past battles. We trekked along mountainside cliffs; donned thigh-high waterproof boots to wade into the natural pool at the base of the Salta Waterfall, spent the night in the town of Gunib, and on our final day, we took an intense hike to the top of Mount Gamsutlmeer to visit the ancient, abandoned village of Gamsutl’. Its exact age is not known, but it is thought to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old. It was inhabited until 2015 when its last resident died.
The roads into the mountains were winding and usually very bumpy as the elevation increased, so anyone who is uncomfortable with heights or driving on rough terrain may want to take this into consideration. For us, however, the drive was absolutely incredible. The weather varied throughout the mountains, and we experienced everything from warm, sunny temperatures to slightly chilly temperatures and rain before finally getting snowed on as we left to return to Makhachkala.
While Dagestan has recently begun attracting more tourists – especiallyRussian tourists and YouTube vloggers – its tourism sector is still developing, so people without strong Russian language skills may feel more comfortable booking an organized tour with a (more expensive) English-speaking tour guide. As tourism continues to develop in the republic, other tour companies are bound to continue springing up as well, so do your research.
In addition to all-weather clothing, tourists to Dagestan should keep in mind that modest clothing should be worn at all times due to the conservative nature of the republic.
Our week-long trip in Dagestan was unforgettable, and we met kind, helpful people everywhere we went. It is definitely a recommendable experience for those studying abroad in Moscow, from which it is easily accessible.
At the time of our visit, Makhachkala, Derbent, and the other towns and villages we went through in the mountains felt very safe. We were able to see many places thanks to our excellent guide and there were many other places – like Kubachi and Goor – that we wished we could have seen if we had a few more days to stay. Until next time!