Dagestan is a place that, if you listen to your embassies and foreign offices, you aren’t really supposed to go to. Type Dagestan into Google and you’re hit with the headline “The Most Dangerous Place In Europe,” and most information about this incredibly diverse and hauntingly beautiful republic is littered with references to terrorism and kidnappings. Well, I’m here to set the record straight.

Dagestan is not dangerous. While its capital city Makhachkala is a rather charmless place, the ancient city of Derbent, home to the ‘Caspian Gates‘ of legends past, and the mighty Caucasus mountains (the name Dagestan literally means ‘Land Of Mountains’) are full of gorgeous scenery, fascinating history, soaring eagles and the welcoming hospitality that Dagestanis are rightly known for.

While part of the Russian Federation, Dagestan doesn’t feel like Russia at all. In fact, only around 3% of the population are ethnically Russian with the other 97% made up from over 30 different ethnic groups! There are a dazzling array of different languages, traditions, dress and foods, and each group has its own story to tell. Islam unites the republic and provides another key difference from the rest of Russia, mosques dot the landscape and the ubiqitous vodka is a far rarer sight here. I made my way into the mountains to spend time in the mountaintop village of Chokh, home to Zaur Tsokholov and his family, who have built a beautiful guesthouse where you can get a feel for the culture and history of his group, the Avars, and check out the amazing abandoned village of Gamsutl, cheekily nicknamed the ‘Machu Picchu’ of Dagestan. Scroll down below to check out some pictures!

From the nearby village of Chokh, famous for its wrestling and MMA champions, we took these classic Russian jeeps as far the road let us

The very last inhabitant of the isolated village died a few years ago, leaving an eerie ghost town behind that not many visitors see

You are free to walk around the crumbling structures, while majestic eagles swoop just overhead

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people in the countryside lost their livelihoods and the young headed to the cities in search of work

Some buildings still contain Soviet-era relics and possessions

Nearby the village is an amazing cave system with a raging waterfall inside

You can stay in Chokh with Zaur and his family, here I am wearing traditional Avar dress. They have a cozy guest house and you can eat plates of fresh lamb, khinkal, a kind of dumpling, and the best cheese-stuffed bread you’ll ever experience. For those who like to get off the beaten track, Dagestan has it all!