Published on 21 Feb. 2021
by Anna Osowska
Estimated Reading Time: 12 min
Israel's Queen of Deserts
Today I would like to invite you once again to travel with me through the deserts of Israel. In my last blog post "The Judean Desert - Israel's Barren Beatuy", I showed you the marvelous Judean desert that begins just outside the walls of Jerusalem, and its yellow lunar landscape contrasts with the blue of the Dead Sea. Now is the time to travel through Israel's greatest desert, which covers 30 percent of the country. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the Negev Desert.
Makhtesh Ramon - a crater that is not a crater
Until the end, I wasn't sure if I would see the place that I am going to tell you about now. First, I didn’t know if I really wanted to. I read on the internet about the great crater in Israel but looking at the photos I did not quite understand where all the wow effects in the descriptions stem from. Second, going from the Dead Sea to Eilat, we then made the last-minute decision to visit the Ramon Crater, but since it was already late, we had no idea if we would be able to get there before sunset. But we managed to arrive soon enough, and the wow effect was huge!
When you search for information about Makhtesh Ramon on the internet, most websites, including Wikipedia, describe it as a crater. But Ramon is not a crater, Ramon is a makhtesh, which is literally translated as “mortar” from Hebrew.
What is the difference? Someone might say that a hole in the ground is a hole in the ground. But I think for Mother Earth who creates these miracles, the difference is quite significant. The crater is formed by a meteorite impact or is simply the summit of a volcano. Ramon is a makhtesh of which there are only seven on earth, five in the Negev Desert and two in Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula. In these areas, specific soil erosions shaped long and steep walls of rock. Unlike a canyon, a makhtesh has not been formed by a river flowing at its bottom. Stretching for 40 km in the Negev desert, Ramon is the largest in the world among all the makhteshs.
We reach Makhtesh Ramon before sunset and for almost two hours we walk along its edge, inhaling the endless space. It is breathtaking, like views from another planet. So why did I hesitate to go there? Where did my doubts come from? Just from photos that I saw. Now I know that it is impossible to take a good photo of a makhtesh. You are not even able to edit pictures of a makhtesh significantly in any way, because in this scenery the crucial aspects are its endless space and the three-dimensionality. In photos, the space blends together and you can only see the difference in sharpness, but it is not enough to show how striking it actually is. So, don't have any doubts in case you are considering going there, it is absolutely worth seeing. But enjoying stunning views of the Makhtesh Ramon is not the only thing you can do there. You will also find many trekking routes and you can take a closer look at the geological formations, their colors, and shapes.
Timna Park - King Solomon's copper mines and rock mushrooms
The Negev Desert has another fascinating place to offer – the Timna Park. This park combines breathtaking views with a rich history dating back to ancient Egyptian mythology. In between the sand, canyons and rocks you can find strange rock formations in the shape of mushrooms, pillars, or arches and even hieroglyphs from Egyptian miners and steelworkers, who were mining ore and smelting copper at this place in the 10th century BCE.
The park is located in the Timna valley. It was here, before our era, that one of the oldest copper mines in the world was situated. The archaeological work in the valley contributed to the discovery of the remains of buildings and furnaces, ceramics and installations used in copper smelting. According to archaeologists, most of them date back to the 10th century BCE, the period when Israel was ruled by the biblical King Solomon.
There are several ways to explore the Timna Park. By taking a look on the map which you will get at the entrance, you will see that you can choose from 25 perfectly marked hiking trails in the park. Of course, you will not be able to explore the entire park and you must pick one of the routes, depending on your available time you want to spend in the valley. You can also rent a bike with a helmet at the park entrance and follow one of the marked bicycle routes, which are also pictured on the map and categorized by the degree of difficulty, for example for families with children.
And there is another option to explore the park, the best one in my opinion, because it allows you to see almost all highlights like the most famous rock formations and viewpoints: visit the park by car. According to the information on the map, this type of movement takes about three hours. But when you stop at all points of interest and plan to go for short hikes, you will definitely need more time. That’s what we did, which is why we spent almost the entire day in the park. Once again, a little warning from my side: it's a desert. Even in January it will be hot during the day so remember to bring enough water with you.
The park is delightful. The views of the extraordinarily shaped, mountainous desert, with multi-colored sand and rocks, are breathtaking. Rock formations shaped like arches and mushrooms complete the experience and will make lasting impressions on every visitor. In addition, I would like to remind you that history fans will not be disappointed either, since you can marvel at the remains of copper mines, and even rock paintings in the park.
The Timna Lake in the artificially created oasis is also on the list of the most popular places in the park. Fountains, palm trees, lovely restaurants and a boat rental give quite a nice variation after exploring the desert landscapes. You can also create your own souvenir from Timna Park here - after presenting your ticket, you will receive a bottle with the park's logo, into which you can sprinkle layers of colored sand and finally cover the bottle with clay.
Red Canyon - a small version of the Antelope Canyon in Arizona
Another pearl of the Negev desert is the Red Canyon. While it became a well-known attraction by this time, a few years ago, it was difficult to find it without the help of locals, as it was not marked in Google Maps at all. Nowadays, Red Canyon attracts more and more tourists every year. The road to the canyon itself is quite interesting, as it runs along the Egyptian border fenced with high mesh and barbed wire. The desert usually looks like a homogeneous mass from distance, but as you approach, the magic begins, and the desert comes to life by changing its shapes and colors.
We drive in the afternoon sun and see how the colors of the desert change from gold to orange and then to deep red. The Red Canyon is comparable to the famous Antelope Canyon in Arizona, but much smaller. Both were created in the same way - by flash floods that washed away the sands.
We follow the road that leads to the parking lot where the trails into the canyon start, and the final section of this road is marked "for off-road vehicles only". Don't trust these signs. You can easily reach the parking lot, since the road is of very good quality. Entrance to the canyon is free of charge (at least that’s how it was in January 2020). There is a map of the trails next to the parking lot and a chest from where you can take (and afterwards return) a map.
We decide to follow the green trail and to get back on the black trail. It takes about an hour to hike these two trails, of which one of them leads through the bottom of the canyon, and the other along its top edge. I recommend being in a good physical condition since parts of the trails require to walk on metal hooks that are stuck in the rock. I also think that it is advantageous to people who are afraid of heights. Both in the canyon and in the Timna Park, you can sleep in a tent on marked areas for free. Although we didn’t do that, I am sure that it’s an amazing experience to marvel at the starry sky in the desert.
Red Sea - coral reefs right on the seashore
In case you get bored of all these desert landscapes, if that’s even possible, you can plunge into the warm Red Sea. Eilat is Israel's southernmost city, very hot and dry. And although the place still belongs geographically to Asia, it creates a uniquely African mood. During my stay in Israel in January 2020, the temperature in Eilat was about 25 degrees Celsius, while a few days earlier it was raining and 14 degrees Celsius in Jerusalem. From this place it is also very close to the border with Jordan and Egypt. However, it is unfortunately not possible to go to Jordan with a rental car in Israel, but buses run regularly.
The city itself has not much to offer apart from the fact that it is a good starting point for trips into the Negev desert. It is a typical resort with large hotels, many restaurants, and souvenir shops. But for me, the city was not the main reason to come here, it was the Red Sea with its beautiful coral reefs which stretch all the way to the beach. Due to its protection, it is forbidden to reach the sea directly from the shore. Every few dozen meters there are platforms with steps that protect this natural wonder from being trodden and allow you to safely enter the water. The sea attracts enthusiasts for diving, snorkeling, windsurfing and water skiing.
I don't have a snorkel with me, just ordinary swimming goggles, and so I take a deep breath and put my head under the water. I put my head under the water and ... if it weren't for the fact that I am holding my breath, I would have to hold it anyway. I see a magical underwater world right in front of me. The reef takes on the shape of sponges, bushes, trees, baobabs in all colors of the rainbow. The fish around me look like colorful butterflies: clownfish, wrasse, angelfish, jellyfish, octopus, shrimp.
If you don't feel like swimming, you can also choose to go to the Coral World theme park. There you can find an underwater observatory where you can see reefs in a nutshell from behind a thick glass. There is also a several meters high tower in the park, from which you can admire the sea and the city. For me, the Red Sea is like the icing on the cake, a wonderful addition that makes the desert taste even better.
"Attention, shots on the right" - practical tips
For most of the part, the stories I shared take place in nature; nature that is within the borders of Israel. That is why I would like to focus attention on some important aspects that are worth remembering when traveling to Israel. Israel is a Jewish state, so all holidays result from the Jewish religion. Important to keep in mind is the Sabbath, which starts on Fridays at sunset and ends on Saturdays at sunset. During the Sabbath, Jews abstain from work, which is why shops are closed and public transport lies still. Try to take this into account when booking flights to and from Israel, since you might find yourself in trouble reaching the city as the only available way out is through taxis with drivers who usually do not speak English. In case you would like to save some money on your trip to Israel, note that hotels and restaurants will be cheaper in the Arab neighborhoods. And if you want to save even more, Israel's delicious hummus combined with pita bread is a good and affordable option for every meal.
Check-in’s at the airport can be quite challenging. There are legends about this on the internet and I have friends with various personal stories about it. Israel cares a lot about national security, which is why the conversation with the customs officer will certainly take place and be sure that this conversation will even be longer before the departure from Israel. It makes sense to get acquainted with some of the standard questions looking them up on the internet, for example here. It is definitely not smart to boast about a visit to Palestine or Jordan. Also stamps from Arab countries in your passport will not work in your favor, so be prepared to explain yourself, for example by reading this article beforehand or contacting us before heading towards Israel.
As I already mentioned, national security in Israel is very important, so you need to know that seeing the army on Israeli street is the norm. Nevertheless, I was quite surprised when I was driving through the Negev desert and saw a sign saying "Attention, shots on the left", and another "Attention, shots on the right". It turns out that the military training grounds are located in the desert.
Despite these minor challenges, I really hope that I managed to convince you that Israel is much more than just Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in my last two blog posts (Part 1: The Judean Desert – Israel’s Barren Beauty). Needless to say, that both cities are mesmerizing and absolutely worth visiting, but remember that not only man creates the wonders of this world and that nature is the best creator. And in case you now consider making a cultural and religious journey with relaxation and the opportunity to discover the treasures of the deserts, keep in mind that we at Giving Getaway are you to help you plan a travel experience of a lifetime for you.
Follow Ania on Instagram for more interesting travel tips and stories. She has visited 28 countries so far and as Giving Getaway's Travel Expert, she will always be happy to offer exclusive travel advice and useful information, for example by creating one of our five Customized Information Packages!