How to visit the Varzaneh Desert in Iran

A couple of hours away from Isfahan, lies the Varzaneh desert, a spectacular area of silent golden sand dunes, close by Varzaneh town, which is known to be one of the most accessible deserts in Iran due to its proximity to the popular destination town of Isfahan.

Once we heard about Varzaneh desert, we knew we wanted to spent some time there. Unfortunately, our itinerary was already super packed, but we managed to squeeze in a couple of days (and one night) in Varzaneh desert by sacrificing some time from Isfahan. Luckily, we still managed to see and experience plenty of Isfahan attractions in one day.

The desert of Varzaneh in Iran

If you’re interested in seeing more of the spectacular desert life, be sure to also visit the Lut Desert close to Kerman. 

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How to get to Varzaneh

Getting to the centre of Varzaneh town from Isfahan is actually incredibly easy using public transport. First, we got a Snapp! to the Jey bus station and asked around for transport to Varzaneh.

We were directed to a little bus, more like a minivan, which seemed ready to depart and which actually dropped us off at our chosen guesthouse (Negaar Varzaneh Traditional Guesthouse) at our request.

Find it on a map! – Jey Bus Station

The salt lake at the Varzaneh Desert

The cost of the Snapp! ride from our hotel in Isfahan to the Jey bus station was of 50,000 rial (5,000 toman), whist the bus from Jey bus station to Varzaneh set us back 50,000 rial (5,000 toman) each.

Getting back to Isfahan from Varzaneh was just as easy. The guesthouse’s driver took us to the Varzaneh bus terminal (just a few minutes away) from where we caught the next bus to Isfahan for 100,000 rial (10,000 toman) each. The bus was a regular bus this time, as opposed to the minivan-style of bus we had arrived on.

Friendly Iranian locals working the salt flats
Friendly Iranian truck driver working the salt flats

Where to stay in Varzaneh

Once we decided upon going to the Varzaneh desert, we needed to plan out where to stay, and what to do. Although the guesthouses near the Varzaneh desert are accessible by bus, the sand dunes and salt lake, for which Varzaneh is famous, are not.

We understood that both Negaar Varzaneh Traditional Guesthouse and Hafez Traditional Guesthouse offer Varzaneh desert tours to different parts of the area, including Varzaneh desert tours at sunrise and sunset, as well as tours to the town, so we decided that staying at one of these two guesthouses would make sense.

Salt flats of Varzaneh

We settled on Negaar Varzaneh Traditional Guesthouse for no obvious reason, and it was a fantastic option, although we heard wonderful things about Hafez Traditional Guesthouse too. There are also a few other accommodation options around the Varzaneh desert that were not available at the time we were traveling.

Negaar guesthouse has a beautiful courtyard in which to chill, and a few rooms set around it, including a few dorm-style rooms as well as private rooms with private bathroom. In fact, we booked a double room with a private bathroom, and were surprised to find ourselves in a large spacious 4-bed room all to ourselves for which we paid €16.

The hospitality at Negaar Varzaneh Traditional Guesthouse was brilliant, as was the variety of traditional Persian food we got to sample there! Dinner cost €2.50 each, whilst lunch cost €2.10 each.

For more about Iranian dishes and traditional Persian food, read our dedicated post here.

Persian food at the Negaar Varzaneh Guesthouse

What to do in Varzaneh and how to visit the Varzaneh Desert

As previously mentioned, you would need to take some sort of tours to the Varzaneh desert, unless you are driving your own, equipped vehicle. We did meet one group of people driving a camper van, camping out in the desert, although they were only at the edge of it, by the side of a road. It is always advisable to let a local know you are heading to the desert, in case you get into some difficulty.

It would also probably be possible, with an early start, to drive all the way from Isfahan and back, to visit the desert without spending your time in a guesthouse, although that would turn out to be one very long day.

There are several tours offered by the different guesthouses which suited our needs perfectly. If you’re the only people taking a tour, you will need to pay the full price, but otherwise, you can share the tour with other guests. We were lucky enough to find people wanting to go on our chosen sunset Varzaneh desert tour on the first day, and the sunrise tour on the second day, so that made them pretty affordable to us!

Varzaneh buildings
Water courses and locals at the Varzaneh Desert

Here’s an idea of what you can expect to experience on a Varzaneh desert tour:

Varzaneh Desert Afternoon / Sunset Tour

€10 each (sharing with others)

Our afternoon Varzaneh desert tour first started with a trip to an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple. If you don’t know much about the fascinating Zoroastrian religion and culture, one of the world’s oldest, continuously practiced religions, we recommend that you read up a little before arriving in the country, since you will observe references to the Zoroastrians throughout your trip in Iran, where the religion is still practised.

Zoroastrian fire temple in Varzaneh

Next up was a pigeon tower. Now, we had already noticed the many-holed towers along our trip, and hadn’t figured yet out what their purpose was. Well, they are ‘resting places’ for pigeons and hence collection centres for pigeon poop which in Iran was a valuable fertilizer. Eventually, we got to see far more beautiful pigeon towers in other parts of Iran, but this particular one in the desert was pretty cool!

Pigeon Towers in Varzaneh

Next up where the salt flats, semi-hexagonal patterns in the desert, quite similar to those in the more widely-known Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia.  There’s literally a little road that cuts through the flats, so your diver can take you right through them, and stop along the way for some instagram-worthy pictures.

Nikki posing for his instagram pic
The salt flats of Varzaneh, in Iran

The salt flats, were followed by a visit to the blue-green salt lake in the Gavkhouni wetland, close by the Varzaneh desert sand dunes. There aren’t any particular activities to do there but walk around the salt lake and marvel at how the shimmering white and green hues complement each other. Part of the salt lake is used for salt mining.

Salt lake at the Varzaneh desert

We watched sunset on the Varzaneh desert sand dunes, after a hurried, steep climb up the dunes during which Nikki almost died (but made it)! We didn’t experience a spectacular sunset, but the silence and sense of solitude up the dunes was truly magical.

Sunset over the Varzaneh dunes

You can also sandboard down the dunes if you’re so inclined! Running down was exciting enough in our case, although Nikki did (fake) pose for a sandboarding sunset photo!

Faking his way with some sand boarding

On the way back to the guesthouse, our driver stopped us for a ‘picnic’ of tea and biscuits in the dark, to experience the silence of the desert and the sky without light pollution. Having spent some time in other deserts around the world, this wasn’t really a novel experience for us, yet each particular experience is special in its own way, with the eerie silence accompanying the starlit desert sky.

Varzaneh Desert Sunrise Tour

€9 each (sharing with others)

The next morning, we woke up early at around 4.30am, so that at 5am, our driver picked us up from Negaar Varzaneh Traditional Guesthouse to take us to an abandoned caravanserai from where we would see sunrise.

Sunrise over the Varzaneh Caravansarai

Those sun-less couple of hours immediately reminded me of how much I always struggled with the dry cold of the desert early in the morning, and this was no different. We bundled up into the car as we set off for the caravanserai, and as we waited for the sun to make an appearance and save us from the blistering cold, the guide and aides started to prepare breakfast around a blazing fire.

Sunrise over the Varzaneh Desert

Sunrise viewed from the crumbling caravanserai was a pretty cool affair, although at that point, we were more interested in staying as close to fire as possible. Breakfast atop that caravanserai was just lovely with hot tea and coffee, hunks of bread and cheese, butter, tomatoes and cucumber, grape syrup and sesame paste, as our faces started to get warmer and the day got brighter. This simple meal was easily one of our most memorable!

Breakfast at the caravansarai at Varzaneh

After breakfast, our guide took us to a water reservoir close by a bright blue water spring, a sight we were not expecting to see in the dry desert area. Even more surprising, was hiking up a (small) volcano for some fantastic views of the wetlands and being greeted with refreshing, tasty pomegranate on our return to the car.

Gold in the Varsaneh Desert - a fresh water spring
Michelle at the Varzaneh Volcano
Hiking up a small volcano in Varsaneh

The last stop on the tour was to the ‘singing ox-mill’, an example of an ancient system used to irrigate farmlands. Nowadays, the place has become a bit of a tourist attraction since the ox will only move to the sound of his owner’s song. Indeed, Nikki also tried singing to the ox who would not budge an inch, not even to get away from the inharmonious chanting! Once the elderly farmer sang though, the ox would pull a rope with water from the well to the amusement of everyone around.

Nikki annoying the ox with his singing
The singing ox-mill

The different guesthouses offer various other tours including those around Varzaneh town, as well as tours to observe and learn about traditional Persian medicine, an ancient desert village, hiking tours and traditional Hammam experiences. Of course, the guides at the guesthouses can also arrange for you to spend some time camping in the desert, and provide you with suitable camping equipment.

All in all, our short trip to Varzaneh was fantastic, a very accessible desert experience which is an easy enough trip from Isafahan. We felt that spending two days in the desert versus a full four days in Isfahan was a great way in which to experience as much of Iran as possible, although we will  be sure to extend it a bit longer the next time round!

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