At the beginning of this year we decided to visit Israel. We bought the tickets departing Bratislava in mid January with a plan to explore Israel from Eilat to Jerusalem. First, we didn’t know what exactly would be the best things to do, but it wasn’t hard to find a suitable plan for the trip. Here are few of the guidelines that are common to many travellers and everyone can use them to determine, what kind of trip does he/she want to plan. For us it’s (almost) always in this way.
- Discovering new places over staying at one place.
- Budget living like/with locals over renting a hotel room.
- Buying local food in markets over eating in restaurants.
There are so many criteriums and everyone travels differently. I don’t want to tell that this is the perfect way of travelling, however this is currently, the best way of travelling for our purposes. Either way you travel, the important thing is that you are travelling and enjoying the experience.
Eilat to Jerusalem and back
When planning a trip like this, it requires a lot of searching to be done. There are so many great websites about Israel, it wasn’t hard to find interesting places to go. Two great sources I would like to mention were IGoogledIsrael and TouristIsrael. Both offer good tips for travellers in Israel and of course some paid tours, if you’d like. We are guides to ourselves so we didn’t buy any of these tours and thus can’t give you any recommendation about those. Well, we did one tour in Jerusalem, but more about that one later.
We spent our time in Israel during the winter times (January) so our experience might differentiate from those, who were there during the summer months. The reasons why we choosed to travel to Israel in winter are described here – Israel in winter: 3 reasons Why is it the best idea.
Okay, so our trip begins here. We went from Eilat to Jerusalem (from South to North if you like) + short unexpected trip to Tel Aviv and then back to Eilat. Israel is rather small country so the distances aren’t big. It is only 350km from Eilat to Jerusalem and getting from Tel Aviv to Eilat by public transportation takes approximately 4-5 hours (depends on traffic) and is very affordable. One way ticket is something about 70 NIS.
Arriving to Israel
As already mentioned, we arrived to Eilat, which is completely in the South of Israel. I’ll give you one good advice straight away. Think first before you start taking pictures… Okay so we finally got to Israel. I got off the plane and saw beautiful blue sky and the desert all around us (the airport is in the middle of desert). Started to walk toward the hall. And there is a huge sign Welcome to Israel with “o” in the shape of Star of David. I thought Uuuu, what a nice usage of symbol. So I took my camera and quickly took a picture. Only a few seconds later a security guard-lady came to me and politely (but with the firm authority, which only holding a huge gun gives you) asked me, to remove that picture. Quick series of other question followed. The questions are quite basic and can be expected to be asked of anyone arriving to Israel. They usually cover: Why did you come to Israel? Are you visiting anyone in here? How long are you planning to stay? or also (if they find you have some special characters in your name) How do you pronounce your name? Nothing to be worried about. You don’t have to worry even in the case that your English isn’t on top of the game.
It used to be an issue when you previously travelled to some countries, that don’t have a friendly history with Israel (pretty much all countries around it in the Middle East). It only raises more questions. Israel also realized that it also makes more difficult for you, ordinary traveller, to travel to these countries, after you visited Israel, because of the stamp in your passport. That’s why you don’t get any permanent stamps in your passport anymore. You will only get a small paper showing the date of your arrival to the country. You have to save this paper and show it on your departure. Please, save it somewhere safe. Back pocket of your jeans is not one of those safe places …
Eilat – the town with 360 sunny days per year
Eilat, the city between the Negev Desert and the Red Sea.The only Israeli city with access to the Read Sea – 12km of beach is all what Israel has got in the South. Really, one can only imagine how hard it had to be to made a deal, when the borders of Israel were defined, to get at least those few kilometers of access to the sea. The town itself has less than 50 000 citizens, so nothing huge. What is huge in this town, are hotels. They cover almost the whole city center, if that is possible, as the city center is the beach. When you compare Eilat to Jerusalem you have to take in account the weather. Eilat is a “summer city”. You can swim in the Read Sea even in winter months, as we did:)
If you like amazing views of sea combined with high mountains, you will definitely love this place. Even though the mountains feels like they are rising directly from the sea they are already in Jordan. It should be possible to cross the borders there, but we didn’t try it. Although I am sure there has to be amazing trekking options. The mountain range goes on and on for at least 40km North.
Eilat is kind of common summer resort and you don’t even feel like being in Israel. Everything is basically the same as in Europe. Nobody looks bad at you if you walk around only in your shorts, don’t worry. You can surely find more tourists than locals during summer there. Even thought it was January, the sea was pleasingly warm and we could swim without any troubles or feeling cold. We spent only one night in Eilat, because we were already eager to get out of a town and get into the Negev Desert and be on the road once again. Just a small recommendation, don’t book the hotel. It is way much more expensive than using Airbnb.
We rented a car the very next morning. Surprisingly enough it’s very cheap. Compared to almost everything else in Israel, which is rather expensive. The cost of renting a car is about 10$ per day + mandatory insurance 20$ per day. Total of +-30$ per day (+ gas) is a really good deal. Not only it saves you a lot of troubles trying to use the local transportation, but also it gives you the freedom and storage room🙂 I also had to contact the car rental company beforehand to ask if it will be okay, as my driving license is expiring soon. There was not a single problem and everything went fine.
North of Eilat – Red Canyon
When travelling from Eilat to Jerusalem you have two options, basically. Most people use the eastern road along the Jordanian borders. This road is faster and goes around Timna National park, which is definitely worth visiting. We took the second possible way leading from Eilat to Jerusalem. It is the western one, along Egyptian borders. The road itself is magnificent. I fully enjoyed driving on an empty road in the middle of the Negev Desert and rocky mountains. Even though driving in Israel can be stressful, more about it later, this was one of the best roads I travelled on ever. It’s hard to explain, it’s just the feeling that you are somewhere far away from “the real world” and you are going somewhere, you have never been before.This is one of the reasons I love travelling.
Back to the Red Canyon. It’s a place only 30-40km north of Eilat. Easy to miss so pay attention or use any of the GPS apps. I am using Maps.me and it is working wonders for me so far. Simply download the maps of the country you are travelling to and you are literally ready to go. Once you hit the final turnaround to Red Canyon, think twice about going all the way down to the parking lot, as the road is bumpy. You can also leave your car right next to the road and walk down the path (5 minutes). When you finally reach the entrance to the Red Canyon area, you can decide which path you take. There is no entrance fee so you can walk all over the place. We’ve spent there 2-3 hours, but we also did a little bit longer tour and we didn’t go straight to the Red Canyon (oh yes, we got lost). Either way, it’s well worth visiting. You can walk directly at the bottom of the canyon and it looks magically. There is one ladder, nothing hard. If you could walk the way from parking lot, you will be also able to climb that ladder:)
Mitzpe Ramon and Ramon crater (Maktesh ramon)
After leaving the Red Canyon we continued driving North through the Negev desert. Again, the road was very peaceful with very few other cars. Only sometimes you could see the road signs telling you to be careful as you are going through a military area and you should not stop your car here. There were also signs warning you there might be tanks crossing the road. Un/fortunately any tanks crossed our way. Army and soldiers can be seen pretty much everywhere in Israel and they had a lot of their tent camps spread close to the main road. Be careful, don’t stop your car in these areas, just in case. Like in the whole Israel, if you follow the simple rules, you will be most likely fine.
If you follow the wester road from Eialt to Jerusalem, the first city you will go through is Mitzpe Ramon. If you stay on the road (you should) you kind of can’t miss it. The road goes directly inside the Ramon Crater, which is the world’s biggest erosion crater. It is 40km long and it’s width stretches between 2 and 10km. Long story short, it’s huge. And on it’s edge is Mitzpe Ramon. Relatively young city, build in 1951 for workers building the road #40 heading to Eilat. Nowadays the city has about 5 000 people, but felt bigger to me. We rented Airbnb apartment directly above the edge of the crater with fantastic views. There is a lot of tours that one can take while in Mitzpe Ramon like renting a jeep, visiting Lama farm or going to watch a short film about, how the crater was formed in the local visitors center.
Negev Camel Ranch
We woke up the next morning to almost clear sky and spent half a day observing the Ramon crater. You can walk around the edges as much as you can and also visit the Camel lookout – a camel shaped rock. You don’t see camels on every corner in Israel. At least we didn’t. Luckily we had a Camel Ranch on our way to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. Do you remember how I was a dog handler in Alaska? There is a man in Israel, doing completely the same as I was, but instead of dogs he is taking tourists on rides with camels. Even though dogs are still the best, this sounds pretty cool too. I will consider it for my next journey;) We didn’t arrange anything ahead, just drove to the place and visited the ranch. It looked very friendly, the staff was just having a late lunch in the backyard and politely pointed us towards the group of camels. There were only two rules. 1) Do not feed the camels and 2) do not get over the fence. Easy.
Camels didn’t pay any attention to us. At first. As we started to walk slowly around the fence some of them begun to walk with us. Of course we wanted to pet them, so we stood and waited for them to come to us. Camels were very friendly and curious. Definitely worth visiting. You can make a reservation for a trip on camels or an accommodation, which we would definitely do, if we had more time in Israel. Here is a link www.cameland.co.il. You can also book the accommodation directly in Booking.com and search for “Negev Camel Ranch”
Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea
The next stop on our way from Eilat to Jerusalem was the famous Dead Sea. Again, I even enjoyed the way, again. Descending about 400m below sea level and discovering there the Dead Sea is a valuable memory. You can see the strip of the earth, where it used to be a sea, but now, it’s only a dead land. Nothing can grow there as the land is so salty. This is what it looks like, when the sea dies ..
If you are visiting the Dead Sea you almost surely will also visit kibuttz Ein Gedi. It is a place, where you can find everything you need for a restful day. You can either rent a room in a hostel OR you can take slightly cheaper and uncountable better accommodation in Ein Gedi Camp Lodge. This was the only place we booked via Booking and not through Airbnb. And it was great. People there live in a shared tents for up to five people. The accommodation is simple, but offers everything you need. You will get a blanket, linen and a place on a mattress in the tent.
Tent in kibuttz Ein Gedi is something different from you might expect. It’s a 5x5m big and 2m height. Air conditioned in summer. During January the night temperature didn’t get lower than 15°C so also very comfortable. Even if you really hate cold, just ask in the bar/reception for another blanket and you will get it. The atmosphere there is also unique. There is an open bar where you can lie in hamakka, or just hang around and talk to travellers. There is also a shared outdoor kitchen. Recommended place to stay.
Floating in the Dead Sea
Ein Gedi camp is very close to the Dead Sea, 15-30 minutes by foot. Dead Sea is also an experience that you probably would like to have, once you are travelling in Israel. It’s not hard to find a place, where you can be completely alone. The entrance to the Sea wasn’t completely painless though. There are probably only three sand beaches (little bit north of Ein Gedi, Ein Bokek and Neve Zohar), otherwise it’s rocky or muddy. Of course we went straight to the shore, so we went through a dead land and then through crystalized salt field. Nice, but if you are already barefoot, slightly itchy:) Once you finally get into the Dead Sea, it feels like regular sea. Until you try to lie down into it. The feeling that you are actually floating is almost tickling. It’s just weird, but funny weird.
To be continued …
These were just the first few days on our way from Eilat to Jerusalem. The next post will be covering how we went for the Sunrise at Masada, visited the mighty Jerusalem (incredible) and an unexpected journey to Tel Aviv.