The Jewel in the Negev Crown

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

As I mentioned before,  Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013, not only for its sheer beauty, but also for the variety of interesting places, fascinating history, diverse people and the many adventures and quiet meditative moments one can experience here.

And now, after we’ve peeked into the awe inspiring Small Makhtesh, toured Mamsheet‘s ancient streets and Nabatean Market, collected colorful sands in the Large Makhtesh, we come to the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the beautiful Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon.

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First and foremost, Makhtesh Ramon is the Grand Canyon of Israel.  Created by erosion of sandstone and limestone layers over millions of years, this makhtesh is the largest such geological formation in Israel, stretching about 40 km from end to end and 2-10 km wide.  The makhtesh has been a thriving habitat for many species of animals and plants and a crossroads for nomadic people for millennia.

For tourism, activities and accommodation purposes, the town overlooking the makhtesh is Mitzpe Ramon, a small community with a lot to offer.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this post due to the great number of options and adventures available in the area.  I finally decided to create a list, a mere sample of the many wonderful things to do near Makhtesh Ramon…

What would YOU like to do?

  • Hike in the gorgeous desert with your family?
  • Sleep in a Bedouin tent and enjoy Bedouin hospitality?
  • Hunt for fossils?
  • Ride a camel along the ancient Nabatean Incense Route?
  • Take a jeep tour through millions of years of the geological timeline?
  • Learn how Israel leads the world in anti-desertification techniques?
  • Study the stars in the pitch black night of the desert?
  • Taste the delicious produce grown here and exported to the world?
  • Stay at a 5-Star hotel with the most amazing view from your personal, outdoor pool?
  • Get cozy with alpacas (?!?) who happen to thrive in the desert climate?
  • Go wine tasting at award winning boutique wineries?
  • Learn about David Ben Gurion’s dream, visit his home and his graveside?
  • Rest and relax in one of the many B&Bs in the area?

Now lets make a partial list of great experiences to be had in the Mitzpe Ramon area, not in any particular order:

1.  (hiking, archaeology) Khan Saharonim– In the heart of Makhtesh Ramon lay the ruins of one of the Nabatean caravansaries (khan) on the ancient Incense Route from Yemen to Gaza. The Nabateans were THE expert desert travelers 2000 years ago, building an empire based on the trade of incense, spices and perfumes, and here they rested their camels and their weary bodies on their months long journey.

IMG_2367(fossils, hiking) Ammonite Wall – Ammonites were large mollusks that lived in the ancient seas and became extinct 65 million years ago.   They moved around by filling their shells with air and then releasing it. When the Ammonites died, they floated and were carried toward shallower waters  close to shore. Thus, great numbers of Ammonite shells collected in one place. One of these Ammonite graveyards can be seen right outside Makhtesh Ramon.

IMG_23353. (modern Israeli history, museum) Ilan Ramon Center – Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, loved the Makhtesh Ramon area so much, that as a young pilot, he changed his family name to Ramon, in honor of this spectacular geological formation. He was one of Israel’s heroes but his life was tragically cut short when he perished with the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003. A museum honoring his legacy was just opened, overlooking the spectacular makhtesh . Definitely worth the visit.

4.  (luxury, location location location)  The Beresheet Hotel –  Situated on the edge of the towering cliffs of the makhtesh and blessed with a breathtaking view, this exceptional hotel is pure luxury. 

room with a pool5. (entrepreneurship, animals, family fun)  The Alpaca Farm – One of the strangest experiences one encounters near Mitzpeh Ramon is at this farm, where one can get up close and personal with a herd of alpacas and llamas … yes, you heard it right.  IMG_2356Straight from the Andes Mountains, these camel relatives are thriving in the Negev Highlands, where the air is cold and crisp at night and the altitude is just right.  Sheep, horses and other critters make for a fun day for the whole family.

6. (astronomy)  Star gazing, anyone? – My friend Ira Machevsky leads guided, customized tours of the starry desert night, the clearest sky in the country.  No astronomy experience is necessary… just bring a warm jacket and enjoy!

DSC_0326-300x2007. (entrepreneurship, wine tasting, food) Rujum Winery – When the Nabateans converted to Christianity in the 3rd century CE, they turned their agricultural efforts to the growing of vineyards in the desert in order to supply wine during the Byzantine Era.  The high desert plain actually produces excellent grapes  due to the loose soil, bright sunshine and extreme temperature differences between night and day and the seasons of the year.

gallery_20-300x2008. (eco-tourism)  Eco Desert Lodge – “We are not a 5-Stars, we are a million stars” is their motto. I love that!  Check out this amazing lodge with different desert accommodation options. Romantic  🙂

camels9. (culture, Bedouins, food)  Bedouin Encounters – If you are interested in the REAL thing, an authentic encounter with Israeli Bedouins, this is the place.  Stay at a Bedouin village, sleep communally in a Bedouin tent, enjoy a delicious dinner prepared in front of you, ride camels, chat with Sheikh Salman, leader of this Bedouin clan.  Spartan conditions, unforgettable experience!

And we haven’t even made a dent in the myriad activities and experiences to be had in the central Negev, let alone in the Arava Valley to the west or the magnificent Eilat Mountains and beaches to the south.

Lonely Planet is right. The Negev is THE destination of choice for the travel aficionado!

On dogs, caves and a gorgeous hike

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We have a great dog. We do! And we love her to pieces, although she sheds hair like there’s no tomorrow and she jumps on people (just to say hi and play, mind you) and she is as big as a horse and barks very loudly…

But most of all, Na’ala loves to go on hikes and dip and splash in every single puddle or stream she can find. She’s a lab mix, and labs love water!

And so, we aim to please her. And making her happy, makes us happy. Know what I mean?

One of Na’ala’s favorite hikes lately has been to the Aviv Stream canyon, up north near the border of Lebanon. The Aviv Stream spills into the Dishon Stream and eventually drains into the Jordan River in the Hula Valley.

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So today’s topic is a great hike in gorgeous northern Israel, one to be had with family,  friends, lots of photos and of course, your dog.

The start of the walk along Nahal (stream)Aviv is strikingly beautiful, as one walks along the dry river bed through a narrow canyon. As you may notice in my photographs, one of the reasons I mention our dear dog, Na’ala, is that she somehow managed to jump into most of my photographs that day, obviously wanting to be the center of attention. And so be it.

At the start of the hike along the Aviv canyon, one passes impressive karstic formations on either sides of the canyon walls. The karstic geological process, one by which rainwater dissolves and carves out the limestone, leaves interesting formations in the rock.

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In this instance, the rock formations on the right seem to depict ‘maidens’ carved into the canyon walls.

On the other side of the canyon, the hard limestone has been smoothed over and eroded by dripping rainwater, creating a striped, playful combination of colors on the walls.

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The karstic process also digs out and carves a variety of caves in the limestone rock. The Aviv canyon has impressive ones, some of which were inhabited in ancient times. Along the hike we can find a Byzantine era burial cave, with 10 ancient tombs and a decorated entrance. It is very possible this cave was used by the cave-dwellers who lived further down the canyon.

Walking along the marked trail, we arrive beneath the Hanya cave, sitting about a kilometer after the start of the hike, high up on the cliff, accessible by quite a steep, challenging climb. One need not climb up, but to do so is exhilarating!

Hanya Cave as seen from below

This natural cave was carved by humans into a three-storied habitat, where the upper floor has a number of rooms and windows that look over the beautiful valley.

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The trail continues down the stream bed, dotted with blooming flowers and trees. The next stop on the path are the Aviv caves, a large complex of caves that have been carved by nature and its human inhabitants, complete with water cisterns, rock-carved stairs, upstairs and downstairs apartments…

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It is very probable that Byzantine monks lived in these caves in their attempt for isolated meditation about 1500 years ago.  These inhabitants are probably the ones buried in the burial caves we passed an hour ago.  Not only did they create a very livable space in these caves, but they also carved out a wine press into the cliff!  Na’ala found the rainwater-filled, squeezed grape juice reservoir very entertaining. I was just hoping she wouldn’t fall over into the abyss below…

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Nahal Aviv eventually flows into Nahal Dishon, which drains into the larger Jordan River.  The walk along the Dishon is leisurely and we ended the trek a couple of kilometers downriver by the parking lot.

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A big thank you to dear friends,  Zvi and Linda, for suggesting this tiyul (trek, hike, trip) and accompanying us. It is a very satisfying hike; a little history, a little geology, a little adventure, some cave exploration, beautiful scenery, beds of blooming flowers, good friends and a happy pooch… what else can one ask for?

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