After our brief stay in Tel Aviv, we took our rental car and proceeded south towards the city of Eilat, which is pretty much the most southern city in Israel. To get to Eilat you can take a quick flight if you’re pressed for time. But if not, the drive through the Negev Desert is about 4.5 hours.
Heed this warning: Israeli drivers are aggressive and brazen. I mean – really brazen. So much so that most credit card companies’ insurance WILL NOT cover any rental damages in Israel. You’ll have to really do your research if you want to find a credit card that will insure rental cars in Israel. We actually had to open up an American Airlines credit card in order to get rental insurance for our car (and it’s a good thing we did too because our car didn’t make it through the trip without suffering some damage – admittedly my fault). And make sure to have a GPS! The maps aren’t exactly easy to use for getting in and out of the urban areas (more to come about that in the Jerusalem segment).
The roads through the Negev are very mountainous and quite scenic. On the route there are several sights to see such as Sde Boker, which is the sight where Ben Gurion’s desert home is located. There are also several wineries to visit, however some of them are gated and you MUST have a cell phone to call them to open it up.
Once we arrived at Eilat, the first thing you’ll notice is it’s very modern. The city is very commercial and much more of a beach town than anything else. You won’t find much local cuisine as they’re catering to the tourists, so unless you’re there when it’s warm and you’re going to do some sunbathing – the city doesn’t need much more than a day to see. However, though it wasn’t local, we did eat at a very good Italian seafood restaurant called Pago Pago that is worth trying out. I had the shrimp & calamari butter oil gnocchi which was excellent.
So we weren’t in Eilat for the beach. The true reason we stayed in Eilat wasn’t so much to see the city as much as it was our launch point to see the great ruins of Petra.
Petra is located just across the border in Jordan so it’s best to book a guided tour to help you get through customs. This is not a cheap excursion however and it cost us around $300 per person as well as $60 for the customs entrance fee into Jordan. IMPORTANT: Remember – if you ever want to visit a place like Lebanon or another Arab country that doesn’t recognize Israel as a state, you MUST get the Israeli customs to give you a separate, special visa to stamp so that they don’t stamp your passport.
The group we went with was EcoTour. They were quite good, providing us with an excellent guide and delicious lunch/dinner (the place they took us had amazing hummus). They also offer overnight Petra excursions for the serious trekkers, and in hindsight we wish we had booked the overnight tour as we quickly realized that Petra had much more to offer than we thought.
The drive to Petra is about 2 hours from Eilat. The start of the Petra tour begins as you take the downhill (about 1/4 miles) walk towards the Siq (narrow passage). Once you get to the Siq, it’s like entering a whole other world. The stroll through this narrow canyon is surprisingly long, with several archaeological carvings and monuments along the way. You have to mind your step every way because donkey pulled rickshaws come careening through the curves of the Siq.
As you walk through the Siq, you’ll eventually come to one of the most famous sights in history – most notably made recognizable by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Treasury 0r Al Khazneh. It’s easy to see why this facade was used as the location where the Holy Grail was located, but unfortunately in real life all that’s inside is an empty chamber. Sorry, no blades cutting off heads or leaps of faith to be had. Still impressive nonetheless, the Treasury is best viewed in the morning when the light from the sun hits the facade perfectly.
Because Indiana Jones made the Treasury so famous, I didn’t believe that there was much more than that. Wrong. As we continued our tour, the Siq opened up and we came upon an impressive and expansive set of ruins that would rivals those in Pompeii and Ephesus. Here you’ll see ruins of the entire city including ancient temples, buildings and columns all around. I’m sad to say that because of the time constraints, we were limited in the amount of sightseeing we could do and sort of sped walked through the ruins without giving them their due attention. This is why I said earlier that in hindsight we wish we had done the overnight excursion.
Even so, we got our money’s worth and as much as we would have liked to stay longer we saw the highlights. Remember when I said we walked downhill at the beginning? Well as we started walking back we quickly realized that we never really went uphill at any point. So bear this in mind: the uphill walk all the way back will be a little challenging. There are several locals offering horse, donkey and camel rides back to the starting point if you’re willing to spend a little cash for a lift (they’ll get in your face, but in general they’ll back off if you say no – unlike the guys in Egypt who will follow you and follow you).
I know the trip to Israel will already cost you a pretty penny, but if you’re already there and there’s any way you can get yourself to Petra, I would highly recommend doing so.