South of Lima, approximately 155 miles (250km) is one of two protected areas where marine life meets desert – the Paracas Desert in Peru. It is a little-known area, growing in popularity for its plethora of activities, genuinely kind people, ancient history carved into the landscape, and a raw yet beautiful landscape.
Departing for Our Shore Excursion in Paracas
Disembarking off the Cruise ship was fairly seamless, and were greeted by dancers on the port. They wore white flowing dresses, gracefully grabbing the hems lifting it into the air like a peacock showing its feathers. Wide grins split their faces as their male counterparts rythmically clapped their hands and continued to attempt to dance close to them. It was a traditional folk dance that entranced us better than any television.
We were waiting for our group/guide from Emotion Tours Peru to take us on our respective tours. The guide had a clipboard with all of our names on it, one man’s name was not on his list, but luckily he had a confirmation email printed to show proof that he had previously paid.
Once all the people on the list were accounted for, we hopped on the bus towards the main city center. The A/C was a bit dodgy at first, but after some broken Spanish communication we all sighed in relief as it blasted back to us inside the van. (For those with big hips, the seats are built for the petite Peruvians – so just be prepared to snuggle.)
The entire ride felt as if we were driving on the surface of Mars. As far as the eye could see there was vast desert landscape. Full of reds, tans, browns in all the various shades with naturally occurring textured hills, odd shaped lone rocks dotting the land. I typically like the green, lush landscapes – but there was something clean, crisp and challenging about this landscape that made me itch to explore it.
We arrived into town and immediately were whisked away to our respective tours. Our driver for the Dune Buggy Ride in the Desert did not speak very much English.
Fun Fact: Did you know that 65% of the world does not speak English? Feel like I need to learn more basic communication to each place I visit.
Luckily I do speak some Spanish and was able to have a basic, broken conversation with him. It was about a 20 minute ride to the Adrenarena Dune Buggy Adventure. When we arrived it appeared that our driver brought us to the desert to die….the place was deserted. My friend Bree and I got out of the car, and explored the shop, utilized the bathrooms and then a grizzled man painted in grease popped around the corner and told us they were ready for us.
We put our backpacks, wallets and fragile items in the lockers provided with keys and followed him out back.
Getting Geared Up
Bree (my friend) and I have never been Dune Buggying. Needless to say, we didn’t know what to expect, and didn’t have any standard to compare it to.
So when I saw the cart provided, made of what looked like Metal pipes, bolts, I assumed this was par for the course for Dune Buggy Riding. They had seats, and seat belts, even a mount for my GoPro – What else do you need?
The man handed us our goggles, that looked like something you would wear while skiing, and we both awkwardly climbed in. Then they attempted to seatbelt us in and……..well……it didn’t reach. So while I planned my Operation Anorexia for when I got home, and fanned myself from the embarrassment – he kindly told us that they had the seat belts for kids in the cart. Oh good, but still, extremely embarrassing and I still feel like I need to do a thirty day fast or something.
I tried to tell him we didn’t need the seat belts and that we would just hang on tightly. A bubbling gut laugh escaped him and he politely said that wasn’t an option. Feeling a bit confused as to why they were so persistent, they switched out the seat belts, strapped us in nice and tight and introduced our driver.
Introductions and Beginnings
Our driver, who I can’t for the life of me remember his name (sorry), was a kind looking young man. He shook both of our hands and deftly climbed into the front. He put on his goggles, got instruction from the owner on how to use the GoPro properly, and then put the bandana that was resting around his neck over his mouth, “He must be trying to not get sunburned” I naively thought.
The owner shook our hands like he was (disconcertingly) saying goodbye, and grinned at our unknowing excitement for what was to come. Our driver pumped the gas, pushed the break down showing a bit of the sand beneath us, and turned the key. The machine sputtered to life and he revved the engine.
Exploring the Desert
He turned back to us and gave us a thumbs up, which we returned with giggles. Everyone waved goodbye to us, and he gently drove out from under the shade of the complex.
Even just writing this my heart is starting to race, because I look back at this and think, “You stupid, poor, naive little girl….you truly were oblivious to what was about to come”.
Lest I digress, our driver took us over some of the gently rolling hills and I marveled at the beauty of the vast expanse of nothingness. Then he started to increase his speed, a slight smell of gas reached my nose – and the speed increased even further. We approached a small shack, which I now call the point of no return…and that’s when things started to get crazy.
The Initial Leap
Ascending that first sand peak prepared me for the ‘what goes up must come down’, but those blind peaks are what the real heart stoppers were. The first hill wasn’t too bad, a regular scream of delight came out of my mouth. The next hill soon after that was a blood curdling scream of death and all those trauma patients I had treated in the past went flashing through my mind.
Each hill he took us over, and then he turned sharply to the left just as we crested brought a fresh wave of panic. My throat started to hurt ten minutes into it. We were filming though, sooooo, I felt like I couldn’t chicken out at that point. Our driver kept turning around giving us a thumbs up and I quickly gave him a thumbs up so that he would keep watching the shifting sands under us.
The longer the ride went on the more of those broken femurs sticking out of the thigh, crushed arms, amputating arms, hammering, cutting, slicing, blood, blood, blood went zipping through my brain just as fast as he went over the hills.
This was it, I somehow had the words from Gladiator going through my brain, ‘For those of us who are about to die, we salute you’. I have to preface this with a story about when I was 18 and invincible. I was dared in front a group of six burly cow farming men to go off of a dirt jump on a 250 Yamaha dirt bike. At the time I weighed around 125 pounds and thought I was tough as nails. I mean, just weeks before I was hanging out of a car door pretending to skate on the pavement while my guy friends went 45 miles an hour down the road. I always had a tendency to want to appear tough, and then ended up getting on said dirt bike, jumping the jump, going over the handle bars, landing on my head, having a seizure and waking up to the life flight helicopter.
What gave me some consolation during this harrowing, exhilarating, heart-stopping, A-fib inducing event was that my Grandma had just passed away two weeks before and so if I died, she would be there to greet me. Another thing that was consoling to me, was that my friend was screaming like I have never heard her scream before. Bless her heart, I play jokes on her all the time, and this was her Christmas present from me. To be hauled out into the desert and have a heart attack of a time.
There were a few moments where the bandanna around his face made a lot more sense as to the reason why he was wearing it. It wasn’t just to keep the sun off his face, it was to keep the sand out of his mouth. While I do like a good facial exfoliation, having the inside of your mouth exfoliated with warm sand isn’t the most pleasant thing to be chewing on the rest of the day.
Our driver stopped, took some very good obligatory photos, and then started unstrapping the Sand Boards from the top of the vehicle.
Sand Boarding in the Desert
I didn’t know that we were going sand boarding before we started this trip. There were a few advertisements for it when we had walked into the shop, but I had only really paid for the Dune Buggy Riding.
Up for any adventure, I received instruction on how to know break my back or leg and sat on the board. I know there are some folks who like to stand up on these things, but as I didn’t have any Travel Insurance; I don’t really relish the thought of being in a country where I don’t know the health care system.
Our driver gave me a good push and in a quick rush, was down the sand dune. While it wasn’t like sand boarding down the slopes of the Sand Dunes in Utah, or Lake Powell – at least I could say I tried it.
The reason I’m sharing this with you, despite it feeling a little less thrilling than the recent feelings of near death in a dune buggy; is because I think we would have had loads more fun doing this if we would have brought proper shoes. Both of us wore shoes that did not keep the scorching sand out of our shoes and had to drop to all four limbs a couple of times to give the burning of our feet a break. Plus, running up a sand hill after the Adrenalin rush of the dune buggy ride wears off is really a lot more difficult than it looks.
So my traveler tip to you, is that if you ever decide to go sand boarding in the desert in the middle of the day. Make sure you are wearing tennis shoes, had a bandanna to tie in front of your face, bring reflective goggles, wear sunscreen, and bring plenty of water.
Final Verdict on this Experience
This was by far one of my favorite things I have done while abroad, also the most dangerous. I could have taken about four days to explore Pisco and the Paracas desert. The Dune Buggy Riding alone would have been worth it to spend a whole week in the desert. The adrenaline rush is something like I have never experienced, but like a true adrenaline junkie, I can’t wait to have the high associated with that near death experience again in the serene Paracas desert.
If you find yourself in Pisco or Paracas, I highly recommend Adrenarena (not sponsored). They are kind, accommodating, genuine, and so laid back that despite the fear inducing activities- it kind of feels like you are hanging out with family members.
Other Activities Offered at Paracas and Adrenarena
“You have only been on four dives! Like even during your training?” my diving guide exclaimed in disconcerted shock. I averted my eyes in embarrassment and I jotted down six dives on the sheet over the four I had put down on the sheet originally. I felt like exclaiming, “UTAH DOESN’T HAVE AN OCEAN YOU WANKERS, AND I’M SMARTER THAN I LOOK!” I was diving in Cabo San Lucas, it was my first time scuba diving in a real Ocean, I was excited and terrified.
I stayed in the corner slightly embarrassed by being the newest diver in our group. The person just above me in dives was an older gentleman with 22 dives in his dive book, ‘Great….I’m going to be the weak link here’ I thought begrudgingly, mentally self-flagellating.
So for new divers, the dive company takes you out and will hook up your BCD, get you fitted for fins etc. It is a mad dash, and it all happens very quickly, so be prepared and know exactly what you need. Also, the weights you use in fresh water are going to be much much lighter than the weights you use in salt water. Physics in real life I guess, so I had to add a few more pounds to what I typically wear. Probably the only time that I’m going to say ‘it’s ok to add a few more pounds’ lol.
Traveler Tip: I used Cabo Adventures Dive Shop (not sponsored) they were so precise, on time, and even offer a free drink at the end of the dive. Highly recommend them, especially for first-time ocean divers. Viator also offers Scuba Tours for Beginners as well.
Getting Geared Up
I put my full footed scuba fins on, trying not to think of how many other athlete’s foot infected feet it had previously been on (#healthcareworker problems). While putting on the BCD I brought with me, I momentarily panicked ….. the zippers wouldn’t reach around my girth. ‘I couldn’t have gained that much weight on the cruise already! It has been two days!’
A moment of clarity made me realize that I hadn’t loosened my straps up…oops. It’s hard to try and act like you know what your doing when the boat is getting rocked too and fro, the sea is so choppy that even my friends snuba and her snorkel were both cancelled because of the bad weather. I was secretly hoping that the choppy waves would bring the whales closer into shore so that I could swim with them. Focus Janiel.
This is when the embarrassment started for me as I previously relayed to you. The handsome guide padded his way over to me with the clipboard, “You have only been on four dives! Like even during your training?” he exclaimed in disconcerting shock. I averted my eyes in embarrassment and I jotted down six dives on the sheet over the four I had put down on the sheet originally. I felt like exclaiming, “UTAH DOESN’T HAVE AN OCEAN YOU WANKERS, AND I’M SMARTER THAN I LOOK!”
Slightly irritated I took to getting my mask defogged and placed on my face. I mentally ran through my checklist Air was on, BCD fitted and pre-filled slightly with air so I don’t sink right away, fins on and then the other scuba members started jumping off the boat. There were two other people who were master diver’s from Las Vegas and knew my instructor Rachelle from Scuba Utah. They got the special advanced diver tour….sigh….I will get there…..My turn to jump into the roiling ocean.
The boat pitched to the starboard side just enough that I
was able to unhook the scuba tank from the plastic holders on the sides of the
boat. ‘I will not grunt to get up’, I was by far the largest person diving that
day…’stop it Janiel, just own it. You just found out you have Hypothyroidism,
and a Progesterone level of a Post-Menopausal woman and your only 35 so just
stop it, own it, and the healthy habits will come as your hormones level out’.
I waddled my way to the end of the mid-size boat/yacht, flippers and all and felt like a penguin out of Mary Poppins dancing awkwardly to the end of the boat. I shoved my mask tightly onto my face, held my blessed regulator (air supply) and took my giant stride into the ocean for the first time. It wasn’t too different from jumping into a wave pool, just with more gear strapped on.
Once I broke the surface, a wave generously greeted me with a slap in the face….thank goodness for the mask and regulator. I quickly switched over to my snorkel gear as Rachelle had taught me to help conserve some of my air for the actual Scuba Diving portion. It is the kind of snorkel gear that doesn’t allow water to backflow into the tube, so even though the waves would hit me hard, I could still breath the fresh air.
The current was a little hard to fight with the current weather. We were instructed to hang on to the previously placed buoyed line the dark tall and handsome Hispanic staff had set up for us. Focus Janiel. The other members of the group came over, and then I was whipped around by the best-looking male staff member. ‘Hello Poseidon, I will be your Mermaid prisoner’ I thought dreamily, then was interrupted by him grabbing the front of my BCD and he thought I was freaking out, so he just said, ‘breath slowly, in and out’—– ‘o….m….g…..Dark skin, grabbing the front of my BCD, the waves circling around us…..I’m in a freaking LOVE NOVEL!’ Focus Janiel. Then I heard what he was saying, “Stop freaking out, and just breathe slowly. See if you can sink, “Innn nnoott fweaking ouwww” I tried to say through my snorkel tube….’lovely, now I look like an idot’ I inwardly groaned at my unfeminine unflirty way of handling myself.
The Blue Abyss
We finally got the weight right, my BCD straps re-tightened down and we started to descend into the blue abyss below. Our first stop was the Sand Waterfalls, this would bring us to an edge of a cliff that had sand billowing down into the 1000 or so meters below making it appear as if there was a sand waterfall, underwater. My dive buddy, James, a Dive Master from Oklahoma, graciously decided to join the Open Water crew, where he was so incredibly kind to keep an eye on me and make sure I didn’t dive too deep or kill myself in some naïve way. Thank you James, you da best!
I put my red filter on my GoPro and started swimming with the group. The fish we saw were incredibly colorful to my eyes, stripped, black and white spots, puffer fish galore, and I even found Dory! I wanted to smile, but when you do that it makes it hard to breath, because it takes the air seal away from around your regulator and vuala, you are gagging on salty sea water. So I pursed my lips instead and made a few little squealing giggles, which scared the fish away…..diving is apparently a serious endeavor. Just for your information, fish don’t like bubbles either. It is hard to not create bubbles because the first rule of diving is that you have to keep breathing….so I just breathed a little deeper, and more slowly and a fish came right up to my mask 😊
As we were making our way towards the sand falls, the photographer with us, clinked something on his tank and waved us over. After my eyes adjusted to the colors of the rock, I saw it, a HUGE Eel head with his mouth open and what looked like no eyes. If you aren’t good at bouncy I suggest keeping a safe distance from them lest you accidently encroach on his terf and get electrocuted. I don’t think getting CPR, or dying from electrocuted drowning sounded fun so I got as close as I dared with my current skills and without the current driving me into the eel.
As we made our way around the cliff, there was a school of shiny silver fish, let’s call it Tuna that was swimming around lazily. I quickly turned back facing down and watched them follow each other just like they did in Finding Nemo. ‘I should have been born a Mermaid. I wonder why God didn’t really make Mermaids’, my computer on my wrist beeped at me angrily, signaling that I would need to descend further as I was slowly rising to the surface in awe of what I was seeing. Focus Janiel, no Nitrogen Toxicity for you. Guess diving really is a serious business if you want to go back home without a stroke, electrocuted, or near drowning. Who knew that Scuba Diving could be so dangerous!
The Underwater Sand Falls
I snorted a bit sea water, and quickly cleared my mask, readjusted the tank on my back and then realized we were swimming over the sand waterfalls. Sadly, due to the current and choppy waves above, the underwater physics of it all wasn’t working.
These sand waterfalls are formed by the friction between the tectonic plates of North America and the Pacific, combined with the union of the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez. There are very few places in the world that this geological wonder exists. Please be advised that if the waters are choppy, or a storm is near, the sand falls may not be ‘working’ as well as if the seas are calm.
Ascending from Heaven
After a few minutes at the sand falls, we made our way back
over to our pickup point and did our 3 minute ascending safety stop to ensure
we didn’t get Nitrogen toxicity.
I watched the double arrows on my non-air integrated Cressi watch to ensure I was not ascending too quickly. One arrow indicates you are going too slowly, two arrows indicates you are ascending at a good speed, three arrows the watch gets angry and starts making an annoying beeping like your alarm clock you would do anything to turn off. Two arrows, all the way up for me.
I broke the surface with 1200psi on my air reserve —
perfect – I wasn’t the weak link! So happy that I made it the while dive
without any issue and wasn’t the first to run out of air. I switched over to my
snorkel but the waves and current were a bit too much to handle, I figured I
had the reserve air in the tank for a reason, so I switched back over to the
tank air and kept my regulator in until I was safetly in the boat. I was so
glad there was a protected area lined off for us to surface as the tour boats
full of tourists were all over the place bumping around. Not quite bumper
boats, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it came to that.
Diving Tip:Make sure you take your fins off before you enter the boat, I know they teach you that in Scuba School – but when there is a lot of chaos and bad weather, you might forget and fall back in the water slipping off the ladder. Not that I would know, I took my flippers off just after I had a hold of the ladder…..ahem….just like a pro would.
A Surface Interval with Whales
I walked over to my seat, taking half the ocean with me in the process. I knew my energy stores were low, and was kicking myself for not stealing some granola bars or something for between dives. Then I saw someone eating fruit on a stick, then my eyes glued onto the fruit in the plastic bin….LOADS OF FRUIT! Juicy sweet yellow pineapple, soft honeydew melon that melted in my mouth, and cantelope the orange rind fruit that topped the delicious first dive off with a bang! I then washed it all down with some sweet tea and water they had available for us in the jugs near the dry area of the front of the ship.
After a deliciously sweet interlude with the fruit, I grabbed my GoPro to check some of the footage. The diving staff magically switched over all my gear to the new tank (THANK YOU)! Then I heard a OMG from the front of the boat. My emergency response medical training kicked in, and a slight giggle as I rushed to the front of the boat – hoping that one of the handsome men would somehow need CPR. It was better than giving mouth to mouth to one of the sea god staff members that was helping us – three huge spouts of water blew up into the air a few miles ahead of us. The sea god staff members began yelling, ‘Vamos! Vamos! Vamos! OMG – Did you see that! It’s A WHALE!’
The engine revved and we dropped to our knees holding onto the front of the boat as we all yelled, ‘FASTER’. The captain showed a smile of delight at pushing the engine of the boat to its full capacity as everyone started laughing and scanning the distance at where the whales would have gone to. ‘There!’ I exclaimed in delight as I saw a massive fin come up out of the water on the left, and another spout on the right. The captain slowed as we neared the area, and then it happened, one after another there were two whale backs and a spout that we could feel the spray from on the front of the ship. We all broke into cheers, jumping up and down, slapping each other on the back as if our team had just won the Superbowl. Little did we know the best was yet to come, whale back’s crested again in front of us, two more whale tail fins to the right.
A spout in the distance, and then a whale breached – we were all so stunned we couldn’t believe what had just happened. Nearly crying with excitement I asked the sea God staff member next to me if I could jump in …..they were RIGHT THERE! My ultimate bucket list ambition is to swim with whales – it is the entire reason I got scuba certified! They were so close, alas, the joy quickly disappeared from his face, and a very serious look replaced it with a hard, ‘NO, it is illegal to do that in this area of the ocean’, my dive master friend James chimed in reluctantly saying, ‘Yeah, it might not be so safe if they are feeding. We had some bottle-nosed whales grab us by our fins and start playing with us the last time we went diving’. Although my hopes were dashed in that moment, with a touch of fear…..nothing could dispel the joy I felt at having just witnessed what I did.
During the brief pause of the show – I grabbed my Sony DSC M3 Camera and not 1 minute after I came back to my comrades on the front of the boat the whales gave us another gorgeous show that I was able to capture on camera. My cheeks hurt by the end of the whale of a show from smiling so much, I didn’t even mind though. I was within 20 feet of some of the most gorgeous creatures in the ocean and they just put on one hell of a show for me for my Birthday.
I couldn’t help but think that my Grandmother who passed away two weeks before this trip was there experiencing this with me. I said a little prayer of thanks to God, and whispered under my breath…Thank you Grams, I love you and miss you every day. I don’t think I will ever forget how we went on the Alaskan cruise together, and her awe at spotting whales, and seals in the distance – or small permanent smile my Grandfather had while looking through his binoculars out the window of the cruise ship trying to spot something for his sweetheart while listening to the string quartet in the background. This will always be one of my favorite moments of all of us together. Now I am carrying on the tradition of cruising and whale watching. Don’t cry Janiel, ya gotta be tough, just be grateful and send your love into the Ocean.
Seals, Shipwrecks, and Sand
Refocusing on the task at hand, we made our way back to Land’s End – our second dive site. This is where the open ocean meets the edge of the land mass that is Cabo San Lucas. It was still quite wavy and bumpy in this area, but the sun was peaking out below the stormy looking clouds, and creating a beautiful glow in the water. We quickly dropped into the water and followed the same procedures as above. We quickly dropped down to depth (35 feet) and made our way to the ship wreck that had washed in from the ocean. We were greeted by more colorful fish, my favorite fish were the yellow ones that came towards you in swarms when you played in the sand – they would suck up the sand looking for things to eat. Gorgeous little things almost were left behind in the process of playing with the fish. My cheeks were so sore from smiling, then trying not to smile around my regulator. How did people not choke to death from smiling at all of this!
We continued to see coral reef rock that, honestly, looked a little dead – but fish still seemed to be able to hide in the nooks and crannies. We rounded a rock outcropping and there was the shipwreck, laid out in front of me. Rusted from the ocean, and covered in new coral growth it was laid out so that you could still recognize it as a ship. The ribbed underbelly, the wheelhouse, it was absolutely massive! We slowly made our way along the innards of the ship, being careful to keep our bounancy at the right level so that the strong current in this area wouldn’t pull us haphazardly into a metal ship shard.
I heard the clinking on the air tank from our guide pointing upwards and that’s when I saw the sealion! Playing in the water like a child let out for recess on a sunshiny day. The ocean surprised me yet again, when our guide clinked and told us to come to him and drop down through his hand signals. We dropped to an open area where sand protected us from the shards of the ship. As soon as I dropped down next to the guide, more sealions, six of them to be precise dropped into our view and began barking at each other underwater. Twirling, swirling, flying around each other and above us. It must have been that they have just eaten, I’m always happier when I eat too 😉
We stayed in that area for quite some time until the sea lions were done with their show. We made our way along the ship again, when a fellow diver pointed to an area underneath a warped piece of metal creating a cave like area underneath it. There in the cave was a fish that was bigger than the top part of my body put together (be sure to watch for it in my YouTube Video). The thing was bigger than two sealions put together. I didn’t want to find out if it was friendly or not, nor did I want to find out if it was territorial- I kept a safe distance and realized just how small I was in this massive world I was just discovering.
Ascending as a Sea Goddess
Gathering together, we performed our last safety stop. I could tell I was getting tired because I couldn’t quite get all the air out of my lungs. My Asthma was beginning to kick in and I knew it was time for me to be done and use my inhaler again. Once we got to the surface, it was difficult to fight the current when I was this tired so I turned over on my back – kept my regulator in and methodically kicked my way towards the boat. I knew I needed to get in the boat before my energy gave out, but I took my fins off, hauled my butt and the heavy gear up the 5 rungs on the ladder – leaned forward to let one of the Sea God Staff members grab the top of my tank and helped me into the tank holder and I sat down with a thud.
As I was catching my breath, my diving buddy and master diver, James thudded down next to me and said breathily, ‘You can be my dive partner any day. You did AWESOME! Your buoyancy was so good. You should be really proud of yourself with that being your first ocean dive, especially with the weather we are having’. It put another achingly satisfying smile on my face, and I replied with a slightly stunned, ‘REALLY!?!? You mean that?’, ‘Absolutely, you did great for your first dive’.
Just call me a Sea Goddess! I had just mastered my first
dive successfully with a compliment from a Master Diver that was more of the
quiet type, yet he congratulated me. I was indeed proud of myself, despite the
concerned looks that friends gave me when I said I wanted to do diving. The
kind, but doubtful way that people often look at me because of my size – with
the unsaid words of ‘difficult diver’, ‘burden’ ‘too big to fit and all the
other self-depreciating, anxiety driven encounters and moments along the way
the last 4-5 months of diving….I had done it, and I had not just completed it,
I was SUCCESSFUL at it.
See the thing is, we are the masters of our own souls – we
are the driving force behind each decision. Don’t let your own insecurities,
own self-doubts get in the way of doing something that will give you a reason
to live and reconnect not just what is important, but who is important (you),
and memories of loved ones that may be important to you. Push your internal
boundaries, and a whole new world will truly open up to you.
As always….happy travels, happy tales, and see you on the flip side.
I booked my trip with a tour group called Cruise Lady, a Christian tour group that would take us from Jordan over into Israel to tour the popular Christian pilgrimage sites. I figured that I would tack on the Israel tour since they were already going there, but my primary focus was Petra.
The flight over to Jordan was…..well…HELL. It started off great, then I arrived in Atlanta and discovered with an eight-hour delay I would have to leave the terminals and could not check in until four hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. I was left to utilizing a wheelchair and attempting to sleep from my red-eye flight in the front of the check-in desk right under the air conditioner.
Finally getting into the airport, I flew to JFK airport in New York. This was another three-hour delay before heading to Paris, where another four-hour delay happened. I was overheard some of the other passengers and discovered they were in my tour group. I was too irritated and sleep deprived to try and make friends with the happy couples two aisles away. Freaking city of love, I hated happy people at that moment and was soooo determined to make people pay for my lack of sleep.
While I realize this wasn’t the best attitude, by the time I got to Paris, I had been on planes and in airports for more than 28 hours with very little sleep. Getting onto the plane, I did an attitude check and consoled myself with the fact that this was the last leg of the journey. This last flight was one of the most uncomfortable flights to date, my legs were swollen, I didn’t know at the time how to Combat Jet Lag, but was so exhausted I fell asleep while trying to eat dinner and slept the rest of the way to Jordan (Thank God for that).
Arriving at the Jordan Airport in Amman
Getting off the plane….I almost cried in relief….ok I did cry a little when we got there. I don’t do well when I don’t get at least four hours of sleep a night, and tend to get irritable, then emotional and start crying like the world is going to end. Then the culture shock set in….I was in the Middle East. There were beautiful dark-skinned men in white robes like angels, that contrasted with the tactical red and white scarves tied down onto their heads with black (what looked like, headbands). Women dressed in headscarves, and long trench coats despite the humid heat the enveloped the whole airport. The medical professional in me wanted to start handing out water bottles to every woman who passed by, but on closer inspection….they weren’t sweating.
I still don’t understand how these women weren’t melting like the Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. My culture shock was interrupted with instructions from Diane and her husband, our guides for this trip – to quickly collect our luggage and head to the border control. Without getting into too much detail about the laborious process of crossing the border into Amman, answering a thousand questions in English to the policeman – we got on our bus and headed into the heart of Amman at Ten o’clock at night.
Checking into our hotel was a smooth process as any I have experienced. I think I half-expected to just be breathing in dust, have sub-par sleeping arrangements then leave on our adventures the next day. I have to apologize to the people of Jordan for having a very skewed view of my expectations, I couldn’t have been more wrong about my expectations. Walking into the hotel was like walking into an upscale Marriot hotel with intricate patterns, rich colors and beautiful furnishings. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘I am an Arabian Princess’. I quickly checked in, rode the elevator that fit 2 people with their luggage to my 4th-floor room, turned on the AC, took out my eyeballs (aka my contacts) – and collapsed in exhaustion on the bed. Nope, I didn’t even shower – #noshame.
Traveling to Petra
The drive to Petra was very long, but our tour guide was able to give us an education on the people of Jordan, and their cultural practices along the way. A brief history was provided about Petra, and what it actually encompasses.
We arrived into the Petra Guest House quite late, but the warm glow highlighting the stone buildings was very inviting. A quick check in, and then off to my room where I had to figure out how to get the water to be warm without scalding me, and not turn the 1/8 of an inch to where I would get hypothermia, lol.
Petra Guest House – Visit Petra
Overall the Petra Guest House fit my needs perfectly, with a small workout room, plenty of stairs to exercise in, quiet mornings where I had ‘Best Day of My Life’ by American Authors on repeat while I ran all over the hotel grounds. I was told that it would not be safe to run around the town in my tight yoga pants and exercise shirt. This is not because the men are predatorial, they just aren’t used to seeing women in tight clothing, and would attract unwanted attention. While I don’t like running around in circles, I do try and respect the cultures idiosyncracies as best I can. It doesn’t hurt to put a bathrobe or a swimming suit cover over your exercise clothes until you get into the workout room.
I did have a few boys in their early 20’s come to peek in the exercise room at me, which was a little disconcerting – but if you saw a man in short shorts at a business meeting you would stare too right? Not because it is sexual, but more because it would be so out of the ordinary for you. It is the same kind of idea in countries like this. I had a local once told me, “it would be better to just walk naked than wear yoga pants because then the imagination just goes crazy”. So now that you know, try to keep things loose and covered, unless you like that kind of flirtation – then, by all means, have a hay day…. the men there are rather gorgeous.
Relief of a traveler with a remnant of camels toes
The History of Petra
Petra comes from the Greek word for rock. In Arabic, it is known as “al-madina al wardi-ah,” meaning rose-colored city.
Petra was once the capital of the Nabatean Empire, a group of nomads that began wandering here from Arabia in the 6th century. Before this archeologists report that this area was inhabited by the Edomites.
The peak of the Nabatean Empire had an estimated 30,000 people within Petra. How did that many people survive in a desert with no discernable water source? The answer to this lies in water cisterns, an extensive and intricate water canal system that is carved into the rocks at the edges of the Siq, or road into Petra. You can see an example of this as you hike into Petra. Eventually, clay pipes were made and pumped water into the city.
water canals in Petra
This ancient city grew to be a critical control point for trade as it controlled the Spice Road into Arabia, Africa, and India to the West. Due to the skills the Nabateans had from being nomads, they excelled in trading spices, ivory, perfumes, fabrics, iron, copper, sugar, medicines, gold, and incense. You can get a taste of this trade still when you visit today as shops, tents, and even children roam Petra in search for a dollar (or fifty) to help them survive the year.
For 600 years only the Bedouin tribes knew of its existence until Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt heard locals talking about the city while in Cairo. The need to explore something unknown overtook him and he disguised himself as an Arab scholar and had a guide take him to the Tomb of Haroun (Tomb of Aaron, the Biblical figure) – which is said to be near Petra.
Make sure to keep your eye out for God figures carved into the surrounding rock on your journey to the heart of Petra. If you sit next to one of the tomb-like structures, it is often believed by the Bedouin that the wind whistling through the open holes at the top are the voices of the past speaking to those who enter Petra.
Hiking to Petra
The desert and stone absorb the heat and reflect up towards you, making the trek through the shaded canyon a welcoming reprieve. The split rock canyon feeds you down into the Petra valley below, but not before it engulfs you in its 250 foot high walls. About a mile into the Canyon, I began thinking, “I traveled 2,000 miles to hike in Las Vegas Red Rock National Park”. While the walk down into Petra does amusingly feel like walking through the desert canyons of Red Rock National Park or Southern Utah the water canal systems and statues of Ancient Gods remind you that it is a different place.
Traveler Tip: If you plan your trip right, or stay a few days – visit Petra at night, where there are candles and meditation available for the tourists. While it isn’t something locals do in particular, it is an activity that is provided for the tourists & gives some fantastic opportunities for nighttime shots.
As you get closer, it seems as if the canyon swallows you whole, the sun disappears from view completely, and just as you start to feel claustrophobic….a light at the end of the canyon appears and you see it! The Treasury, it took my breath away and my face split into a wide grin that was infectious to the Bedouin passing by at alarmingly fast speeds. I was here, I made it, despite all the doubt and fears and the long-awaited journey…I was here. I purposefully slowed my walk, drinking in every moment of triumph and wonder this was giving me. Dreams really do come true, and as the American Author song said – it truly was the best day of my life.
Al Khanza (in Arabic) is the Treasury, and in fact is the treasure of Petra. It was right in front of me in all its 150 feet tall and 100 feet wide glory, the diamond of this desert Oasis. While there is much speculation as to what this particularly lavish tomb was used for, many believe it to be the tomb of a Nabatean King.
Disappointingly, you cannot enter the structure as Indian Jones did in The Last Crusade. The views are well worth it though, to realize you are standing in front of one of the wonders of the world.
Photography Tip: If you walk towards the Treasury, then turn to the right – there is a smaller tomb that you can descend into. Go down the first few steps and turn back towards the Treasury. As you can see the tourists disappear from your shot and you can look like you are a beautiful desert flower against the palace behind you 😉
Our group split up to explore the city of Petra and all its nooks and crannies. I decided to ride a camel into and around the city so that I could scratch another item off my bucket list.
What people don’t tell you about riding camels is how grimy they are. They also so tall that were it not for my iron grip on the reigns and the death like squeeze of my thighs around its midsection I would have pitched right off the front of the camel to the surrounding bedouin’s gleeful laughter.
Pro-Tip: When riding a camel, please lean back as it stands up – imagine you are riding one of those mechanical bulls and you should be able to retain your seat.
The Bedouin People
This is where my story became a little bit dark. As I was riding the camel through Petra and was on my way back to the Treasury – I experienced a little catcalling from the locals. In a way that was explicitly suggestive of riding the animal like I would ride them.
A Bedouin photographer also tried to steal a kiss from me in one of the tomb alcoves. Another man tried to buy me through a marriage proposal with 1,000 camels. After talking with several different Jordanian men, who live in America and are dear friends of mine now – I discovered that the Bedouin men do not have a good reputation when it comes to integrity. While their blue eyes, dark skin, and dark hair are alluring and tempting, to say the least – keep yourself, safe ladies. There will be plenty of offers of kissing, sex, and coming home to enjoy dinner with him and his family (except the family won’t be there). They have been taught over and over by women who visit that it is ok to have a ‘fling’ with them and then leave. Many of them would love to come to America or your home country, so just be cautious and firm in your stance of ‘no means no’.
Camels in Petra Jordan
For those men who do not take no for an answer, just loudly exclaim ‘Hakeer Kelb’ while pointing at the pursuing male – and he will likely become disgruntled and back off.
While there are rare instances of some of the Bdoul Bedouin tribe men marrying foreigners successfully, it is best to keep the culture of the area free from any more inappropriate influences. It is easy to get lost in Petra, and according to my Jordanian Police friend, this is not somewhere that is safe to stay overnight unless you are with a tour group.
For those who would like a horseback and carriage rides to the main sites in Petra. Be careful of tricks the Bedouin try to pull on tourists. They will tell you the rides are free, or the rides are included in your ticket – but once you get to your location they demand $50 or more and will be incessant about it. Keep your purses close to you, as pickpocketing can also be a problem for some.
While some interactions may be distasteful, there was one unexpected friend that I found while in Petra. A small girl, dressed in typical garb, selling necklaces and bracelets to tourists. Her business-like manner, hustle, and frankly way of selling herself left me thoroughly impressed. While she was ok with my answer of, ‘no thank you’ – she made me smile, told me her story and sat with me for a spell. I ended up buying a necklace and matching earrings from her that I could have made on my own at home – but have become the prized pieces of my jewelry collection.
I ended up giving her about 20 Jordanian Dinar for the items, I know this is an outrageous amount of money to pay for the type of jewelry she was selling – but I couldn’t help bring hope into her eyes. A girl of twelve, who smoked like a chimney, spoke like a wall street sales woman – call me a sucker, but I couldn’t help it.
It was enough money for her, that she stopped selling the jewelry and came around with me and the tour group for a while. She showed me some nooks and crannies that most tourists miss, gave me photo ideas, tied my scarf around my head properly to keep the sun off and the sweat out of my face, and helped brush me off when I played a mummy in one of the graves. In the end – she became an unexpected friend. It was hard to leave her, and we both became a little teary-eyed when I left – I wish I could have adopted my little bosom buddy.
I think the visit to Petra overall was something that will stay in my heart forever. I overcame a lot of self-doubt and speculation about the dangers in Jordan. I made the journey there alone, despite going in a tour group, I’m proud that I did it alone. I fulfilled one of my dreams of seeing a wonder of the world, learned so many things about the culture, the people and myself along the way. While the culture shock was quite real, I now find my Jordanian friends get so excited to be able to relate to me in a way that brings an unspoken mutual understanding and level of trust between us. There are so many misconceptions about Jordan and its people, but yet they are one of our greatest allies in the Middle East. So if you get a chance to visit Jordan, be sure to make your way to Petra and see how the Arabian nomads made it into a thriving desert city.
Useful Arabic Words (phonetically)
Shukran : Thank You Hakeer Kelb: A slightly off colorway of calling someone a dirty dog (considered rude, but just under the offensive language) Hello: Marhaba, Salam Malaykum No: La-ah ; Yes: Na’am Other Useful Phrases in Jordanian Arabic
Founded in 1203 by Alexander the II of Scotland, this is the oldest surviving benedictine monastery still used for its original purpose. With a steady and repetitive schedule, the Monks that live here have well established it as a place of peace and refuge. To get here it requires a long walk from the car park down a paved path. The sun breaks through the trees, revealing mossy forest floor, while the rustling leaves provide a natural symphony of peace. As you approach the Abbey, the bells will chime out that it is time for prayer, and are just the beginning of your journey. Rounding the corner, you will enter the Abbey through a small wooden door that puts you directly into the grand apse. Here there is the history laid out in a timeline you get lost in, doors quietly close and open into the main chapel. Following one of the monks into the chapel, you sit down as they quietly read prayers and contemplate your journey not just through Scotland, but of your life. It is hard not to reflect on these things, as a sense of fortitude, peace, love, and devotion rings through to the soul accompanying those bells above. Once the bells end, the rumbling chorus of the men in full-length white robes begins. The monks sing quite hymns, with unwritten gentle harmony resulting from the contribution of the many different voices joined together. Of all the choirs you will hear, this will be the most uniquely reverent and soul moving – no matter what religious affiliation you are from.
Traveler Tip: If you join during one of these sessions, be sure to stand up when the monks leave the chapel as a sign of respect. I didn’t know you were supposed to do this as I was sitting in the front row and felt extremely foolish afterward.
Originally a wooden fortification, the Spynie Palace was once home to the Bishops of Moray. There are very few visitors to this corner of the world, but well worth the visit for its picturesque surroundings and to witness one of the tallest surviving great towers in Scotland. A wooden shack serves as the ticket counter, with a man that looks like the grandfather that would sneak you cookies behind your grandmother’s back.
With a gleam in his eye, he gives you a ticket, instructs you on a bit of the history of the Palace in a calm and measured way. Then sends you on your way to explore the historic building. Surprisingly the grounds are well kept with gently rolling slopes of grass, where a moat once was. The surrounding trees and towers provide ample shade, perfect for a picnic and to bask in the Scottish Sun in May. This would be a perfect place for a picnic, so much so that a picnic table sits just outside this 13th century stone fortification.
For the more adventurous and physically capable, ascend the stairs up the six stories of David’s tower. Peer down into the floors below, where giant fireplaces take up 5 spans of a wall where I imagine Mary Queen of Scots would have warmed herself during the 18 months she was imprisoned here. The intrigue surrounding her imprisonment and rumors of Lord Bothwell fleeing here as well is a story well worth reading about. After the quadricep burning climb of the six flights of winding stairs, you emerge on the top of the tower with 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside.
While I wasn’t personally able to visit this Castle, I would recommend it to all those who love ruins and a bit of history. This motte-and-bailey castle built in 1140, yes that’s right….1140! At that time it was one of the most secure fortifications in Scotland, a place where its occupants and tenants would have sought refuge from raiding parties, Vikings and the like. Surprisingly the castle remained occupied up until the 17th century. After the death of the 2nd Lord Duffus in 1705, the castle became unsuitable for living and was abandoned.
Touring the grounds you may see a filled in moat, the tower that partially sunk into the land itself toppling over and becoming a perfect spot for the visual trick of pretending as if you are attempting to put the castle back upright. Despite being in ruins now, Duffus Castle has picturesque surroundings and a landscape that makes it easy to imagine the surrounding area as it would have been so long ago.
Why is Elign Cathedral a must see Cathedral?
As I was looking at the best Castles in Scotland, I came across a cathedral that reminded me of those in France. It is called Elgin Cathedral and was considered the Candle of the North in its day. Yet despite being in ruins now, it still has a very romantic feel to it – and is worth the visit if just for the view. It wasn’t the history that intrigued me per se on this one, it was the activity in a 12th-century cathedral that intrigued me. This is one of the few remaining 12th-century cathedrals, and the only one in Scotland that you can still climb to the top of the Belltower as the Monks would have.
I stopped counting how many steps once my quadriceps muscles started to claw their way out of my leg. By the time you get done with Scotland, you will be able to kick a soccer ball to the moon by how many stairs you are going to climb. Once you get to the top, past all the hanging chains to keep out the pigeons and birds laying nests in the towers. You emerge onto an expansive steel platform, the wind whips your hair and makes your eyes water a bit – but all the effort is worth the view that greets you. It made me understand why religious places, typically the tallest buildings in the towns of the 12th-17th centuries had bell towers. If I was a monk, the bell tower with a view like this would make me feel close to God.
The History of Elgin Cathedral
Originally consecrated in 1224, burnt down in 1270, the building doubled in size and the aisles and choir nave was added. Bishop Alexander Bur declared Elgin Cathedral the ornament of the realm, the delight of foreigners, and an object of praise in foreign lands. In 1390, Earl Alexander Stewart the “Wolf of Badenoch,” brought an army of Highlanders to burn the cathedral and town of Elgin. This was in retaliation for being excommunicated for adultery. Then in 1402, Lord Alexander Macdonald plundered the cathedral. It lost its roof shortly after the Protestant Reformation of 1560, and in 1711 its central tower fell after hundreds of years of neglect and pillaging of booty and stones. But the cathedral’s fortunes began to change when it became a visitor attraction in the early 1900s and was adopted by the Historic Scotland Foundation.
Self-Guided Tour of Elgin Cathedral
I would suggest starting at the west end, with the 1270 AD square towers and intricate window above the entrance to the Cathedral. Turn and look at the coat of arms of Bishop Dunbar (1422-35), this is located high on the gable. Wander through the graves and see just how old some of them are, contain your excitement for this next bit….you are literally standing among history. Walk into the octagonal chapter house where the clergy of this church used to meet.
Explore the different tombs, here you will find graves of crusader knights, and the tallest grave in Scotland, standing 5 meters high. Play ‘Where’s Waldo’ and try to spot the Pictish Falconry image, a very rare site (hint: it is in the St Giles Parish Church area). The Guided tours run daily at 10.30am and 2.30pm (available Mon 9 Apr to Sun 30 Sept)
The Final Verdict
Elgin isn’t as face paced as nearby Inverness or even Edinburgh to be sure, but it is perfect for those seeking refuge from the rat race of life. Visiting Elign will make you feel as if you have been transported back to the 17th-century village life, provide views of the surrounding areas that give you the real experience of the culture that is Scotland, and allow you some downtime to connect with locals, or just a leisurely stop along your road trip through Scotland. As Always….Happy Travels, Happy Tales and see you on the Flip Side.
Stretching 60 miles along Jordan, Israel and the West Bank shores is the Dead Sea. Rich with history, festivals, Dead Sea scrolls, and the health benefits surrounding the Dead Sea Minerals – it is a luxurious natural spa that you shouldn’t miss while visiting Israel or Jordan.
This is the lowest place on earth, measuring at 1412 feet (430.5) meters below sea level. I was on a tour bus with 50 other people and sat in the same spot as I did on the school bus in High school…..at the back.
We were traveling from the Jordanian border into Israel. We were planning a stop at Masada, the former palace of Herod, and the tragic story of the Jewish community trapped there by the Romans. Then would spend the afternoon exploring the Dead Sea.
What I didn’t have the foresight to see, was the winding roads all the way down to the lowest points on earth at the back of a bus. I don’t get seasick on ships, I don’t get sick at the sight of blood and have a blunted sense of smell from working in the Operating Room for six years. This bus trip down to the Dead Sea was terrible, I turned Green, had my plastic bag ready in front of me and sat on the bus floor in the front of the bus trying to not let me entrails become my ex-trails.
Traveler Tip: Always bring hand sanitizer with you on trips, especially if you get sea sick or car sick. There have been studies in those in Post-Operative recovery periods that have shown smelling rubbing alcohol helps decrease nausea. Hand sanitizer has the same affect, so keep a small bottle with you for emergencies like this.
How to Get To the Dead Sea
There are plenty of ways to visit the Dead Sea. There are plenty of tours offered to the Dead Sea, here are a few options:
For those who are staying in Jerusalem and have an extra day, there is a shuttle bus that leaves regularly from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. This shuttle costs about $45 per person round-trip, departing Jerusalem in the morning and leaving the Dead Sea in the afternoon. The $45 does include the $24 entrance fee required to enter the Dead Sea.
Why Visit the Dead Sea
For the History
The earliest name for the Dead Sea comes from the Book of Genesis in the Bible called ‘the Salt Sea’.
Once the Roman Era came about, Salt was a source of trade – even more so than silver or gold. Emperor Trajan controlled every entry point into this valley at one point and would tax the traders, who would bring the salt out of this lake, in salt, not coin.
There have also been many Biblical fugitives that found refuge in this area. Some of these fugitives you may know like David, Jesus, Christian Monks, and Jewish Zealots to name a few. It is also rumored that at the South end of this sea, is a salt rock formation that is said to be Lot’s wife. As the city of Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed, she disobeyed God’s instruction to not look back – so he turned her into a pillar of salt.
For the Health Benefits
Researchers claim that there are eight times more minerals in the Dead Sea than there are in any other sea. The mineral concentration and the unique atmospheric climate are what makes it uniquely beneficial for the skin.
Surprisingly there is scientific evidence that proves the Dead Sea can help treat a host of illnesses: joint pain, arthritis, psoriasis, and heart problems. I have not personally researched the legitimacy of these reports and who funded these studies, so take it with a grain of salt (pun intended).
At the very least, it does make your skin quite soft and after my shower, I did feel incredibly relaxed and zen-like.
Concerns over the dying Dead Sea
Three generations of Jordanian Farmers live on the shores of the Dead Sea. A man reported that when he was a child his Father’s fields were just a few feet from the Sea. Now the Dead Sea shoreline is over a mile away, in 20 years he worries there will no longer be a Dead Sea- and he will be forced to abandon his fields.
In just 50 short years, the Dead Sea has dropped nearly 112 feet. Mostly because of river diversions and the decreased flow of the Jordanian river that used to feed the Dead Sea.
What is more alarming are the sinkholes that have started to appear as an after effect of the erosion of land, landslides etc… The sinkholes can be anywhere from a small room to the size of a soccer field and up to 114 feet deep (34 meters).
If that isn’t bad enough, with the decreased water flow, the evaporation’s from the Dead Sea that would help feed nearby farming fields with the morning dew are now starting to die off.
So could we see the end of the Dead Sea in the next 50-100 years? This is why it is important to me to be aware of the environmental impact I have as a traveler to the places I visit. It isn’t just about the photo or the experience, it is also very much about being aware of the cultural impact my visit has on the locals.
What to Expect when visiting the Dead Sea?
I don’t handle humidity very well at all, and near the water is worse than visiting Masada. I can run outside in Las Vegas in 99F weather and be fine, but even 80 degrees with anything above 30 percent humidity and could rival the Wicked Witch of the West in melting under water.
Hi temp F/C
Low temp F/C
69 / 20
54 / 12
71 / 21
56 / 13
77 / 25
61 / 16
86 / 30
70 / 21
95 / 34
77 / 25
81 / 27
104 / 39
86 / 30
102 / 39
86 / 30
98 / 36
83 / 28
90 / 32
76 / 24
80 / 27
66 / 19
71 / 21
57 / 14
I know I am not the only one with this issue, because when visiting the Dead Sea with the tour group – the temperatures were scalding hot in May for me. The bathrooms were incredibly hot and muggy from the showers that were going. With my Asthma I felt a bit claustrophobic and yet can go Scuba Diving.
There was sand and mud everywhere, flies buzzing about, and no protection from the sun other than the cafe – where you had to buy a drink in order to sit under the shaded patio.
Needless to say, that getting into the Dead Sea and changing into my swimming suit with a sticky/sweaty body was not the most pleasant part of this experience. I quickly trudged my way down to the water’s edge in my shoes and dropped my gear by some folks from the bus that chose not to get in. The offered to take a few photos of me in the water, which I’m glad they did, because I wouldn’t have had any otherwise.
The water itself is lukewarm yet cool, refreshing and a bit tingling from the salinity of it. My skin felt as if it was going to drip right off my back from the sun, so I reached in and put some mud all over my exposed skin. Ahhhhh……finally…..I felt cool and relaxed and it was lovely. A smile broke the sour face I had and I wanted to stay for hours. I attempted to float in the water, and it was an extraordinarily unique feeling to be weightless. I had to convince the instincts of my mind to not feel the need to ‘paddle to survive’.
Unfortunately, my blissful moment was short-lived, as the water felt as if it was starting to burn my skin. I piled more mud on my skin, and it didn’t help, so I reluctantly washed the mud off as best I could in the murky waters of the Dead Sea Coast and made my way to dry land.
I quickly made my way out of the unforgiving sunshine and headed into the showers. The panic of not being able to breathe was just slightly less pressing as the stinging of my skin – so I quickly stripped down my bathing suit and washed off. They do have private changing rooms available, and each shower has a curtain for modesty.
Traveler Tip: Be sure you bring some of your own soap, they have some you can buy there but everything is quite expensive due to the remoteness of the Dead Sea.
Precautions when Swimming in the Dead Sea
A few things to precaution you about if you choose to float in the Dead Sea.
1- You cannot get the water in your eyes. It is very dangerous and would require medical care should you get water in your eyes (per our Israeli guide).
2- If you have sensitive skin, I would not swim in the water. They have spots where there is just mud, that is said to be beneficial and give you soft skin — but I get the same soft skin from a good Bath Bomb.
3- If you have a long drive to your next destination, you will have mud and sand in places that are uncomfortable and difficult to get out. For some reason, on me, I felt the mud was more difficult to get off of me than the regular mud you encounter in a forest. I don’t know the chemical mechanism behind this (? electric charge), but I had a very long shower once I got to the hotel in Tel Aviv.
4- DO NOT, I repeat….DO NOT attempt to enter the Dead Sea just at any shoreline. You will get sucked up into one of the sinkholes and there will be no rescue of your body as it would put emergency responders in too much danger to try and fish you out.
Coordinates 57.6095° N, 6.1738° W – Parking available – Easy hiking rating This sparkling feathery, but steady, waterfall drops 180 feet (55m) gracefully onto the smooth ocean-battered rocks below. Fed by a freshwater lake called Loch Mealt, it ensures that no matter the time of year, it is heartily fed, just like the Scottish locals on the Isle of Skye. This particular waterfall is often confused with Lealt Falls, but they are very different. It is also one of the few waterfalls that retained its Gaelic name (the Scottish Highlander Language), Cread an Fheilidh. The sheer cliffs are made of tall Basalt columns. These columns have a very hexagonal like shape, that in sequence make it appear like the pleats in a Scottish Kilt.
Coordinates 57.4484° N, 6.5901° W, There is Parking available but the quite a hike to the castle.
Just above the tree line, you see the castle ramparts competing for the view of the tourists that flock to see this stony fortress on the Isle of Skye. The stones are cold and unapologetic to the winds and loch waves that tend to batter it during storms, but warm and welcoming to the outlander’s that come as tourists to see it’s beauty. this ancient house has survived for the last 800 years with Chief of the McLeod’s and boasts to be the oldest and most continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. Stay in the Garden Cottage, take a trip to see the seals, wander the walled gardens and this ancient clan seat residing within the walls of Dunvegan Castle. See how life is lived in the Scottish Highlands.
Coordinates 57.2500° N, 6.2833° W, there are pull-offs on the side of the road to take photos – just mind the traffic. Not many toilet facilities along the roadways unless you stop at a hotel.
The craggy Cuillin Hills are the most challenging hiking areas in Scotland. The forlorn grey ruggedness of the tops seems out of place in the lush greenery that surrounds these mountains. To really know Glen Brittle, I suggest reading these books by a well-known explorer W.H. Murray. By the end you will feel you have traveled there yourself, and/or also help you prepare for your own trip to the true outdoors paradise that is the Scottish Highlands.
No matter where you stop to take your photos, your camera will feast on visual delicacies that are sure to enthrall your friends at home and fill your heart with warmth. Waterfalls will dance among the rocks in this place, teasing the fairies believed to frolick in these parts. The Sligachan Hotel is strategically placed for those daring to summit these mountains. The Sligachan Bridge is full of Folklore, and one of the most photographic places of the Cuillins. For those who like a more laid-back feel, try MacKenzie’s Peak Home – a cozy place to truly soak in the Scottish pride and hospitality whilst overlooking the loch with your cuppa tea in hand.
There are campsites available in Glen Brittle, should you choose to brave the Scottish weather. It is about 10-15 Scottish Pounds per night, and a cafe is also available in the campground. I would advise those who would like to attempt climbing the Cuillin Mountains to do so with an experienced guide. These hills are not for the inexperienced as moss can frequently hide the pitfalls, holes, broken earth etc…
Coordinates 57.5010° N, 6.6372° W; Parking- a 25-minute walk from the carpark, Rating easy walk
This low lying pearly beach is a 10-minute drive from Dunvegan Castle. It requires you to walk and hike for about 25 minutes from the car park along a farm path. These farm paths to the uniquely secluded photography treasure troves are quite common throughout Scotland. If you have your dog with you, remember to keep it on a leash as you will encounter sheep, cattle, and an occasional bull depending on the season. The best time to visit is when the tide is halfway in as this gives the area a very tropical like setting, even if the weather doesn’t match the view. Scottish summers in May and September will give you the best weather, according to locals this is the when all the chores, vacations, and whatnot get done. The beach itself isn’t a typical sandy beach, it is full of bleached Red Coralline seaweed that looks like Coral. There is so much of it on the shores that it truly looks like a pearly paradise. If you are feeling adventurous, visit when there is a low tide, and visit the island just off the coast and see the Lampay beach as well.
Coordinates 57.5650° N, 6.1552° W, Parking is available for about 20 cars or so, Rating easy to difficult depending on upper view vs lower view. The Upper view of Lealt Falls is quite easy to get to. You walk up a small hill, then towards Lealt Gorge. Once you get to the gorge, you have to turn around and look back toward the car park and you will see the Upper Lealt Falls.
If you follow the edge of the gorge, you will notice a very steep area that follows a path down to the bottom of the gorge. If you take this path, please keep in mind that this is a remote area. Be sure you have traveler’s insurance, or that your own insurance covers you. Taking this path towards the south side of the gorge will spit you out at the Lealt River, which is easy to cross at low tides. If you go during high tides, you will have to get wet and swim around the corner back towards the gorge to see the lower falls.
Coordinates 57.6824° N, 6.3396° W, Parking is available at the start of the trail- but is limited, Rating: Easy Guarded by the sheer cliffs surrounding this point, is the iron age, Duntulum Castle. I will warn you that the castle itself has fallen into ruin, and is fragmented at best. But to be able to peer into the cellar of the original McLeod Castle.
The Castle fell into the hands of the McDonalds, who after a nursemaid dropped the son of the clan chief from the great keep onto the stony rocks below – the castle was abandoned. It is said that the nurse still wanders the ruins, along with Hugh MacDonald attempted to kill the clan chief and was starved to death in the dungeon of Duntulm. There are parts of the castle that have dropped into the sea below, so do not go near the edges lest you end up like the clan chief’s son. Be sure to pay tribute to the MacArthur’s at their cairn (the rounded pillar of stones); who are the hereditary clan of this area from the MacDonalds. The views of the ocean and the surrounding countryside make this well worth the visit.
Neist Point and Lighthouse:
Coordinates 57.4235° N, 6.7883° W, Parking is available but fills up quickly at all times of the day, Rating: easy hike to the lighthouse, but can get steep
This is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Scotland and is still in good working order. While it is grand to say that you hiked to the lighthouse, the real money shots are on the cliffs just to the right of the lighthouse peninsula. If you go during the day, you can do both the hike, and be able to capture the sheer cliff faces that surround the lighthouse while birds play among the crags.
We had a rental car and decided to make the trip from Portree, it was a harrowing ride for my roommate as I raced the setting sun on the rough roads to the Lighthouse. I was in sandals and neither one of us had a coat. The ground was soggy, muddy, and almost ate my sandal trying to get to the cliffs. We mad it just in time to see the sunset make the lighthouse and cliffs glow in the array of beautifully untainted colors unique to the Isle of Skye.
Traveler Tip & Photographer Tip: Wear a coat, good shoes, and bring a blanket for good measure. You will also need your long telephoto lens and a tripod to capture a good shot that isn’t too grainy. Keep your ISO low, and hopefully, you will get the perfect shot of this beautiful landscape.
Skye Museum of Island Life:
Coordinates 57.6603° N, 6.3689° W, Parking is available and plentiful This was the most fascinating and authentic parts of the trip to the Isle of Skye for me. I visited both the Skye Museum of Island Life, as well as the Highlander Folk Museum in Newtonmore. If you have the time, I would spend a 1/2 day at the Highlander Folk Museum, it is not on the Isle of Skye so I won’t talk much about it here – but I do prefer the Highlander Folk Museum over the Skye Museum of Island Life. The Highlander Museum walks you from the Modern age, through the woods (literally) and into the 1700s. It was also the museum where the popular show Outlander was shot.
If you only plan on visiting the Isle of Skye or have limited time, then I would certainly stop by the Skye Museum of Island Life. They have huts here that you can explore what it was like to live in the 1700s as a villager. How they kept their animals warm against the harsh and unforgiving Scottish winds, as well as how they kept their roofs to stay down during the torrent of gales that would sweep the land. There is a small shop there, that may seem overpriced- but many of those items are locally made instead of being shipped from China. So support the locals as tourism is a major source of their income that lasts them through the winter.
Old Man of Stoor:
Coordinates 57.5071° N, 6.1831° W, Parking is off the side of the road just before the trailhead – get there as soon as the sun comes up or you will not find a spot to park Rating: Moderate with a 2280 feet (691 meters) ascent
This 5-mile (8.1km) trail starts off very mild, then you crest the first ridge that makes you break a sweat and you will see the stairway to heaven. Yep, you read that right, it is the longest set of stairs on a hike I had ever seen. My reaction to it was to first think of the Led Zepplin song Stairway to Heaven, then immediately followed with a few expletives and denial that I had to ascend them & subsequently renamed the song stairway from Hell.
Be sure you know how to navigate the trail, I did not know how, and once I got close to the Old Man of Storr I ended up scrambling up shale – yep, hiking poles and all splayed out and knocking the ground around me as I was determined to touch the old man. I realize that sounds very dirty, but it was just that comical of a scene that it is the only way I can think of to describe it.
It was worth the effort and determination, up the stairway of Hell, nearly falling down the shale strewn hills to reach the top and spend a few quiet moments with the Old man. On my pant ripping way down from my perch, I was greeted by an outdoor savvy European female who was suppressing a grin and a giggle as she showed me the proper course back down the hill. Despite feeling the fool, I accomplished my goal and held my head high as I stuffed my holy gloves in my pack and the wind caught the hole in my pants to help me back down this breathtakingly beautiful mountain.
I still feel a sense of awe at the views I was able to quietly drink in on that mountain, it suffused my soul and helped repair some of the damage circumstances back home had caused.
Kensaleyre Standing Stones
Location: A87, Uig, Isle of Skye, Highlands and Islands, Scotland
Rising 5 feet 8 inches high (1.5 meters) from the edge of a cliff, are the Kensaleyre Standing Stones. While the reasons for standing stones is still a mystery and highly debated, these particular stones are associated with the legend of Fingal. Have you heard of Fingal’s Cave? If not be sure to check out my journey to Fingal’s Cave, and the legend of the giant Fingal at war with a rival giant in Ireland. It is said that Fingal used these stones as a prop to hang his stew pot from to cook a deer whole. There is another theory that these stones were used as a way to mark the direction to something. The theory is that there were three stones that made a row, running NNW to SSE, making up the Eyre Alignment. There are also a few remains of Burial Cairns near these stones you can visit as well. These burial Cairns were such an important part of the religious and cultural practices of the ancient highlands before Christianity came to the area. Be sure to read my post on the Burial Cairns of Scotland.
Quaraing Loop vs Quaraing Pass
Coordinates: 57°39’02.0″N 6°16’40.4″W (far) 57°38’18.8″N 6°16’19.4″W Difficulty Level: Moderate, Parking is available, but it is a popular trail
The trail is not too bad the whole way up to the pass. If you do the Loop, it will take you all the way out to a beautiful view of a lake with the ocean in the background. The Quaraing Pass takes about 1-2 hours depending on your physical prowess. The Quaraing Loop takes about 4 hours to complete in it’s entirety.
The trail is getting more and more popular to tourists, but I felt it wasn’t ‘chaos’ as some other websites put it – it only required a few hugs along the narrow path. If you fell off the path, you would just roll for a long long time down the mossy covered hills.
The most popular parts of this trail are the Needle, a rock formation that appears from land slipping. The Keep, which looks like a rock formation resembling a medieval keep. Table rock which looks like a table coming up out of the valley. Interestingly enough, this area was previously used by the Clans to conceal cattle from the Viking Raiders. The name Quairang also comes from the old Norse word ‘Kví Rand’, which means “Round Fold”.
There are not a whole lot of restroom facilities available on Skye, but just find a rock to hide behind and take a whirl. If you make a poop pie, please be a gem and cover it with some moss or pack it out.
Coordinates: 57°15’01.6″N 6°15’30.0″W – Parking is available, Rating Easy Said to be the place where Fairies bath, due to pure and pristine waters that allow you to see all the way down to each moss-covered rock in the turquoise waters. These pools have become so popular in the last few years that it is nearly impossible to get a photo without another person in it, unless you visit early in the morning, or late in the evening in the offseason (March-early May, or Late Fall).
To get to the trailhead it is about a 30-minute drive from Portree. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the sign reading ‘Glumagan Na Sithichean’ this is the Gaelic sign, but it also has smaller writing saying Fairy Pools. The trail itself is on an open plain and can take anywhere from 45 min to 1.5 hrs, while the trail back out can take (on some reports) up to 2 hours; but it is only a 1.49mile (2.4km) trail. The increased length of hiking for such a short trail is due to the slippery ground, and complete exposure to the elements when hiking. Once you reach the fairy pools, those brave enough can jump into the frigid waters. Many dares have been attempted here among the locals, but just remember that you are exposed to the elements on the way back to your car.
Coordinates: 57°34’56.6″N 6°19’30.1″W- Parking enough for 10-15 cars – Rating Easy On the West side of Trotternish at Balnacnoc (which means – the village or township in the hills) above Uig, is the Fairy Glen. Growing in popularity over the last few years due to social media sharing of this otherworldly glen, it is now a major tourist attraction when visiting the Isle of Skye. First made popular by the writings of famed author Hugh Miller who wrote about the Glen as a:
‘natural connection…between wild scenes and wild legends; and some of the traditions connected with this romantic and solitary dell illustrate this remark. Till a comparatively late period, it was known at many a winter fireside as a favourite haunt of the fairies…I have conversed with an old woman…who, when a very little girl, had seen myriads of them dancing as the sun was setting on the further edge of the dell…’ (Miller, 1835)
As you drive to this secluded location, you get a sense of trespassing on someone’s property and miss the turn to get to the parking lot a few times if you aren’t careful. Once you get to the carpark, if there aren’t many people there, you could easily find yourself lost among the hills with the sheep giving you disdainful looks of contempt for trekking on their feeding grounds. Not that I would know how that feels personally as I know exactly where I’m going, and have no handicaps in knowing which way is indeed North….ahem. Once you have hiked about 15 minutes, you will see a large rock jutting out of the ground with a flat top. It looks very out of place against the surrounding rolling hills. This is a basalt column, that looks like the ruins of a castle, so has thus been named Castle Ewan. So don’t get your panties in a twist about tourists ruining the ruins by climbing on them like I did. They aren’t actually castle ruins, its a big flat-topped rock covered in green moss.
If you were to hike behind Castle Ewan, there is a small cave where rumors spread that if you press coins into the cracks as an offering to the fairies it will bring you good luck. There is another tour guide that will tell you, to bring a blade of grass instead of the coin around the stone circle (newly laid out for tourists) and lay it at the center as an offering to the faeries. Then proceed to walk backward out of that stone circle, your wish will be granted. It seems ridiculous, so I asked him why would he tell them to do that. In good ole Scottish humor, he said, ‘Why not? They think they are getting involved in the cultural folklore. It gives me a good chuckle, and they enjoy it – so why not’. He was right…why not? So I proceeded to pick myself a blade of grass, thought of my wish, put the blade of grass down on the growing nest, and clumsily walked backward out of the circle. When I neared the end though, I got a good clapping and vocal drum roll from three handsome looking French men. The guide was right, good chuckles all around and now I can pretend that someday my wish will be granted 😉
The locals on Skye have repeatedly removed the stone spirals in an attempt to keep the Glen in its natural state, but with the growing number of visitors, the effort has been stopped. The coins that the visitors leave behind are often eaten by the sheep in the area, which then gets stuck in their throats and ends up killing them. So if you should visit the Fairy Glen, buy some flowers, get some hay woven into a star or something that won’t kill the local wildlife. We hope that all visitors would respect the country code. To visit & enjoy, but not make adjustments and certainly not leave anything behind, even if you think it may give you good luck.
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The Final Verdict:
The Isle of Skye has plenty to see and offer for at least a week’s worth of exploring if not two. You will have to rent a car, should you want to visit all these locations as most tour companies won’t take you to each of these sites specifically. I have been to Scotland and the Isle of Skye twice now and still have yet to see everything I wanted to see while there. The land is vast, beautiful, unforgiving, wild, and a natural visual feast for the eyes. So should wish to be inspired by beauty, mystified by Folklore, and warmed by Scottish Hospitality…then the Isle of Skye should be your next trip.
This ancient civilization wasn’t actually civilized in the modern sense of the word until 850 BC when those from Egypt, Hittites, and Assyrians began to migrate here. Once these people began living civilized lives invention, innovation and scientific reasoning made this into a major trading city, port city and housed the largest collection of scrolls in the ancient world. These scrolls were filled with mathematics, philosophy, religious beliefs and superstitions, engineering, historical facts, geography, astronomy and many of the other sciences that we know today.
Entering the City:
Entering through the Magnesia gate into the site you will see the State Agora and the Temple of Isis in the center of the Agora, with the Stoa on the North side. The Odeion (Bouletarion or Parliament) this building alone could hold up to 1,400 members of the community could attend the city council meetings. This is also where musical gatherings took place.
The State Agora and Temple of Isis (the Egyptian Goddess) were located in the center of the Agora. If you look on the east side of the Odeon (Council Building), you will find the Baths of Varius (Four Arched entries with Mosaics inside), the Monument of Memmius and the fountain of Sextilius Polio circa 93AD, and 1st century BC. The Monument of Memmius is one of the few architectural monuments which has survived from the late Hellenistic Period. Built by Memmius (one of the prominent people of Ephesus) to honor the Roman Dictator Sulla.
Fountain of Sextilius Polio:
The fountain of Sextilius Polio is hard to miss, a massive arch can be seen throughout different parts of the city. This fountain was covered with marble slabs over a rubble base. Two doorposts on either side merged with a grand niche. There were branching systems of clay baked pipes that provided water to this fountain. A number of statues decorated the facade of the fountain including the head of Zeus. The statues that once decorated this fountain are now exhibited at Ephesus Museum.
The Curetes Street:
The Curetes Street will start you down a relatively steep incline towards the main thoroughfare. You will notice how wide the street is, and columns sectioning the side portions into perfect partitions for shops. This is where local merchants would set up shop, and sell various items to politicians. After passing through the Curetes Street you will see the fountain of Trajan built in 112 AD, on the right-hand side of the road.
The Scholastica Baths (4th Century AD) are behind the Temple of Hadrian, the houses of all those rich people were built directly in front of it. These terrace houses filled with beautiful mosaics and decorative arts have been restored, protected and are now on display.
Traveler Tip: It is an extra fee and requires special permits to enter the Terrace Houses, to help preserve them so take some extra change with you.
The Corder of Curetes street and Marble Road you will find the House of Love (aka a Brothel). With the famous Celsus Library directly across from it, facing the Terrace houses.
The Celsus Library:
This Library held the remains of Tiberias Julius Celsus Polemaeanus who was the governor of Asia. The scrolls contained within this library were the crowning jewel of this city, with more than 12,000 scrolls contained in cupboards that were protected by double walls behind them to protect from humidity and the extreme temperatures in this area. This was the third wealthiest library in the world (after Alexandra and Pergamum). If you stand back and look at the columns on the facade, the side columns are shorter columns. This gave it an appearance of being a larger building than it truly was. The statues that occupy the spaces within this facade all symbolize something. Wisdom (sophia), intelligence (ennoia), knowledge (episteme) and virtue (arete); these were all represented as these were the characteristics and virtues many believed Celsus exhibited. This was by far my favorite part of the entire city, to think of how much knowledge was contained within those walls. How quickly their working knowledge was progressing, innovation, learning etc….. I could have stayed in there all day reading personally. Then I remembered….the limitations of women in that time period to hold rank. It made me grateful to be in the country, time and modern city that I live in today. Despite this line of thinking, it still broke my heart that in 262 AD the library was destroyed by fire during a Gothic invasion.
The Great Theater:
Imagine walking down the marble road, the street packed tightly with your friends and neighbors of the city and strangers from the surrounding area. The roads, lit by oil lamps, putting a warm glow around the city while the sea breeze blew into the city cooling down the marble, granite, and stone within the city. What was playing at the Great Theater tonight? Was it a gladiator game? A dramatic play about the Emperor again? Was it a love story with a happy ending? The Great Theater would have had the capacity for 24,000 people, with the port avenue extending out in front of it.
The Story of Paul in Ephesus:
For my Christian friends, this is where Paul was dragged into the theater for sending a letter to the Ephesians (See Acts 18-20). His time in Ephesus was quite fruitful for the Christian religion a significant number of Jews and Greeks were converted, the Christian gospel was spread throughout Asia. There was a significant decrease in the purchasing of the silver Diana statues, which made the silver merchants go into a panic. The mob gathered there to accuse Paul of hurting the Artemis and her temple. Paul continued to preach to them calmly, despite the peril to his life. Ephesians chapters one through four epistles are commonly known as the Prison Epistles. few hearts in the crowd changed and are the reason Paul survived that onslaught. Funny enough it was the security corps that rescued him from certain death. Timothy became the head of the church in Ephesus and was there when Paul wrote to him (I and II Timothy). Later the Apostle John made the city his headquarters and was one of the seven churches of Asia Minor addressed in Rev 2:1-7.
Temple of Artemis:
Built in the 8th Century BC was another one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. To put the size of the building into perspective, it is double the size of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. The massive columns reached 180 feet (55 meters) into the air, with the roof reaching 377 feet (115 meters) long. Two marble statues of the God Artemis can be seen in the archaeological museum near this site.
Who was Artemis? She is a lot more important than you would think, as she is the daughter of Zeus (or the CEO of all the Gods). Surprisingly she was the most respected of all the Greek Gods, even more so than her twin brother Apollo. She was considered to be the Goddess of the Hunt, Forests and Hills, protector of children and virginity, goddess of wild animals, the Moon and Archery — sooooo she was pretty busy, to say the least. The Bear is said to be the most sacred animal to her, and it remained so until Orion won her heart.
Artemis remained one of the patron Gods of this flourishing city, with dense forests that surrounded the area – perfect place for legends to be told. The Temple of Artemis was eventually destroyed by a deranged man called Herostratus who wanted to have his name written into history books, and believed destroying this building was the only way to do it.
The House of the Virgin Mary:
When Christianity took over, the House of the Virgin Mary, where it is believed that Mary spent the last years of her life is now worshiped still to this day. This sacred place is variously referred to as Meryem Ana Evi. It is said that she came to Ephesus with John around 37 AD in order to flee the persecutions of Christians in Jerusalem. Many Christian pilgrims believe that Mary died here, or near here and was taken up to heaven rather than experiencing a standard death around 45 CE.
While there are many arguments surrounding where the Virgin Mary died, this site has been declared a Shrine and visited several times by Catholic Popes. While some say it is a highly commercialized area, there is a quiet sense of reverence and peace when you come to this place. Not many Christians know of this Shrine to Mary in Turkey, but of those who do, it is regarded as a place of healing, miracles, and where many can tie kerchiefs with prayers on them to a wall near Mary’s home.
I was moved by the white kerchiefs that were hanging from the Wishing Wall. I thought of the Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem, and a part of me could feel the pleading and grateful words written on those kerchiefs. As you make your way down the wall, and around the area surrounding Mary’s home, there is a small spring. Many pilgrims believe that this spring has healing powers and would splash the water on themselves as if being baptized again, or take a small drink of water and make the sign of the cross over themselves. I am Christian, but I am not a worshiper of sacred sites – only to the point of, I enjoy the feeling of reverence that surrounds them. No matter what religion it is, there is something inspiring, moving, and triggers a soulful reflection of how I can be better — because of the example of their devotion to what they believe in.
The Final Verdict:
When I first came to Ephesus, I thought ‘oh brother, not another broken down ruined Romanesque overcharged place’. I was with my family, so it wasn’t really an option to NOT choose to visit. After getting an audio guide so I wouldn’t be completely bored, learning about the history of the place, seeing the Shrine to Mary, learning of the Goddess of the Hunt, and being able to walk up the Great Stadium Steps and going down Curates Street – I have to say I was quite impressed with this place. The Celsus Library was heartbreaking to hear of all that knowledge that was lost to the world at that time. Walking down Curates Street with all the other tourists, was one of the few times I was glad there were crowds because it helped me imagine what it would have been like in ancient times with hoards of people headed to the stadium. So is it worth it to see and explore Ephesus? I will give a resounding YES, I am not that into ruins strewn about on the ground haphazardly – this is not that kind of place. I would say the awe that it inspired was close to the awe and wonder I felt the first time I stepped in the Coliseum. For my religious friends, witnessing the wall of kerchiefs, the feeling at Mary’s Shrine is well worth it. It is not just the shrine that will inspire you but imagining Paul in the Great Stadium. Go stand in the middle of the Great Stadium floor and imagine people jeering and calling for your death for writing a letter – it will send chills down your spine.
Ephesus certainly has a right to be on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. With how well preserved the town is (compared to so many others), it will give you one of the best examples to imagine yourself in the time of the Ancient Greek/Roman life in one of the greatest cities of that time.
I have always associated the Acropolis with Athena…the Greek goddess, but did you know that even before the Greeks built her this temple— it was utilized to house a King? It was a massive structure built in the Bronze age with walls that were 15 feet thick, and 20 feet high! This was the ideal place for fortifications and protection due to the high walls of limestone that make up the Acropolis. It wasn’t until the 6th Century (BC) that the Athenians built a temple they called the Bluebeard Temple but was dedicated to the Goddess Athena. Confused? Yeah, I thought so ….. the reason they called it the blue beard temple, was because of a man serpents face with 3 beards adorning the outside of the temple. It seemed strange to me that they would name the temple as such, the Native Americans in the States have a similar practice when naming their children. The first animal they see becomes their name and the action the animal is doing as well such as, ‘running bull’, or ‘flying eagle’.
Fast forward a few hundred years and we arrive at the Golden Age of the Acropolis when Pericles built it into a grand pavilion fit for the Goddess of Wisdom, War, and Crafts. This project lasted nearly 50 years! I would kill my builder if my house had taken 50 years to build, although it truly felt that long (even though it was 9 months to build). In fact, it took so long, the builder (Pericles) died before it was finished.
When it was finished though, it represented the most iconic piece of Ancient Greece. A massive Parthenon with the Doric-style temple with an ornate entrance that once had plastered colorful walls dedicated to the Goddess. As the worshiper made their way into the Parthenon, a small shrine to Athena was located on the right. The worshiper would put there offering in this place, and then approach the imposing 30-foot statue of Athena, and pray for events related to Wisdom, War, or Crafts. If your offering was good enough she would offer wisdom on your plea, and then give you the courage to follow through with the advice. Pretty swell deal if you ask me!
Except for the offerings which most basic sacrifices were that of an animal For those who are squeamish (or vegan), skip to the next section heading,if not please continue. Animal Sacrifices typically consisted of a steer, pig, or goat. They would then pour a cold bucket of water over the animals head, to get its consent in the form of a head nod. The animal’s throat would then be sliced, collecting the blood in a sacred vessel for the God.
The priest would then cut the animal open after it’s death, and find readings on the entrails and liver to determine if the God or Goddess accepted the offering. If the offering was acceptable, the bones were burned at the feet of the God/Goddess so that it could rise to the heavens. Then the meat was cooked at the shrine, or at the feat of the God/Goddess. It was considered a family time, a community time for those in that time period. It was also the only time that the Greeks would eat meat. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Dining with the Gods’ now when I hear it in movies.
The smaller temple that adorns the Limestone hill to the North of the Pantheon is the Erechtheion. Six beautifully sculpted maiden statues support an outcropping of the temple once dedicated to Athena, the local hero Boutes, Hephaistos and other gods and heroes. This smaller temple was considered the most sacred area on the Acropolis. Legendary Kings of Athens are said to be buried around this site.
The Christian Takeover:
The climb up the Acropolis takes your breath away, in every sense of the phrase. The climb up will give you a glimpse of Mars Hill. A very popular site to Christians, as this is the place that the Biblical Apostle Paul gave The Areopagus sermon that addressed the ignorance of the Greeks that practiced Pagan worship, encouragement of worship towards the God of creation as the only God to worship.
The sermon also addressed the loving relationship God had with humanity, how idols of gold and silver and stone are not proper things to worship. This was in 49 AD that he preached to the Greeks on the day of the yearly festival for the Goddess Athena, right below the temple for her. The sixth century came around and Rome converted to Christianity, many of the Temples were converted to Christian churches. The Parthenon was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the Erectheion became the chapel.
The Turks and Venetians in Greece:
The one thing that surprised me the most was the story of the Venetians attacking the Acropolis. It was September 26, 1687, when they decimated the Parthenon as it held the cities powder munitions at the time when they attacked. Items were looted, taken, and then a British Earl came and rescued the remaining artifacts and took them to the British Museum for preservation (at the discontentment of the Greek Government those items remain in a British Museum).
Nazi Occupation of Greece:
The Nazi resistance in Athens was unlike any story I have heard of before. After the Nazi’s began their occupation in Greece nearly 11% of citizens died; with 40,000 of those being in Athens from Starvation. The Greeks have always been fighters though, small guerrilla resistances were popping up all over the country with the National Liberation group, guerrilla force ELAS, and other axis groups throughout Greece.
On April 27, 1941, the Acropolis added one more story into its history of surviving in the face of hardship and centuries of change. On April 27, 1941, two nationalists were forced to take down the Greek flag and raise the Nazi flag. Manolis Glezos, instead of raising the Nazi Flag, wrapped himself in the Greek flag and jumped from the Acropolis rather than have to raise a flag that was causing such oppression and death in his country.
Yet despite the long fall, he survived and climbed back up the Acropolis on May 30, 1941, and tore down the Nazi flag again. Over the years experienced imprisonment, torture, exile, re-imprisonment, and accused of espionage during the Cold War. In total, he had 11 years and 4 months of imprisonment, and 4 years 6 months of exile. As of 2018, he is now a 96-year-old with a resume to rival any ancient Greek God.
Still Inspiring Generations:
It was so hot the day that I went to the Acropolis, standing on that Limestone hill in the humid summers that often plague Athens. The hike didn’t help that fact, but it did help with giving me a much better perspective and appreciation for the high walls, steep hills, and what it would have been like to be a worshiper in ancient times. The most moving part about visiting the Acropolis was the soul inspiring story of Manolis Glezos. His courage in the face of the tyrannical Nazi’s left a deep impression on me as I walked back down the hill of the Acropolis.
How to Visit the Acropolis
The Acropolis is open year-round. Lines can be long, even if you do have a ticket to get in, but tickets can be bought at the entrance as well. I would suggest arriving 20 minutes before opening to avoid the crowds, bring cash, and you will have some shade in the morning until around 11 am from the grand entrance to the Parthenon. Please check out the Acropolis Opening times, as they are subject to change depending on the season and holidays. Most importantly, bring comfortable shoes and water because exploring the Acropolis requires a lot of walking. Keep in mind that some buildings may be inaccessible due to renovations.
Activities Near the Acropolis:
Corinth Cave of Lakes, Meteora Day Trip, National Garden of Athens, Acropolis Museum, Plakas Neighborhood, Pisirri Neighborhood, Temple of Hephaestus, Panathenaic Stadium (where Olympic flame originates during the Olympics), Central Market (for a more local experience), Thermal Spas are another great place to meet locals, Kayaking on the Aegean Sea, Museum of Illusions. Eco Tours: Base Outdoor Activities and Trails beyond. Viator Tours:
There are a few times of year that there is a free entry and coincides with National Holidays. Yes, it will be busy, but you may get fireworks as a backdrop or some incredibly unique lighting of the Parthenon (every photographer’s dream). Here are a few of the days and associated holidays that come with free entry to the Acropolis: 6 March (In Memory of Melina Mercouri), 25 March (Greek National Holiday), 18 May (International Museum Day), 28 October (Greek National Holiday).
The history of the wars, changing hands, religious changes, celebrations, brutality has been ongoing up until the present day. As Archaeological digs continue, more facts about those who lived in this ancient city are becoming more clear and ever-present. The argument of who has the official rights to the city is beside the point, the point is, is that with such a tumultuous past in the name of control and religion; it is very hard to visit this city and not be keenly aware of the fragile peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
To give you a better idea of just how passionate not just it’s residents and citizens are here are my Top 25 Things to See in Jerusalem; and how to be culturally sensitive to both groups when visiting.
1- Visit the Temple on the Mount
This is the place where you will find the most tension, yet the most spirituality between the two current clashing religions.
Separate entrances for men and women guard the way into the Temple on the Mount. You can go to the left and visit the wailing wall, where prayers are poured in by the 1,000’s weekly.
The wall is the remnant of the outer wall of the second temple of Jerusalem – which was not originally part of the Temple only surrounded it. The Second Temple of Jerusalem was originally built by King David around 70 CE. The wall measures 160 feet (50 m) long by 60 feet (20m) high and extends well below the part that is visible to us today. For nearly 1,000 years, the area was used as a garbage dump to humiliate the Jews, but after The Jewish people believe that the presence of the divine has never left this place.
Prayers are offered up in mourning for the temple that was destroyed and pray for its restoration. To the Jewish people, it is called Kotel ha-Ma’aravi, this place is so well visited you can see that the granite flooring is polished from so many feet walking on it. Prayers are stuffed into every crack that can reasonably be reached. Male children are taught the word by their Father’s and Grandfathers.
The women are not allowed to hold prayer meetings at the wall, nor can they wear prayer shawls here. There have been demonstrations with Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who believe that prayer circles can only be held and led by men.
Some reports of prayer meetings being broken up by chairs being thrown, women being arrested for bringing prayer scrolls to the wall etc… However in 2016, space was created for women and men to worship together at the southern end of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch; and the first co-ed prayer was held there on February 25, 2016.
If you head back towards the entrance, you will see a wooden walkway guarded by two armed guards. This is the entrance to the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the seven pillars of the Islamic faith. It is the third most holy site for them behind Mecca and Medina. This is where Mohammad made his ‘night journey’ to the throne of God. The square on top of the mount, also known as Temple on the Mount, can accommodate up to 5000 worshipers.
It was originally built around 710 AD, but collapsed into ruin about 5 different times from Earthquakes, having to be rebuilt each time. Crusaders took over the area and used the temple as a headquarters until Saladin re-conquered the city. The crusader’s embellishments were torn down except for the Southern portion that is used as an Islamic Museum and Women’s Mosque now.
Visitors were previously able to peer inside the Mosque during visiting hours, but after a crazed Christian man (allegedly) set a fire inside and destroyed the 12th-century table of Saladin’s….all non-Muslim visitors were banned from entering. Now you can only visit the Temple on the Mount during certain hours, it can close without warning for protecting it, it is closed on Friday and Saturday as well. If you visit, women need to have their hair covered (out of respect) have modest clothing, you cannot wear anything Jewish or bring anything Jewish related with you onto the Mount.
Despite the perceptions of these two religions, as visitors, we should be respectful of their beliefs and abide by their rules. If you keep an open mind, and an open heart – you will see just how spiritually uplifting those so incredibly dedicated to their different causes can be just in observing them. The tensions between these two predominant religions within the city go back centuries. The most current disputes are the same as they have always been, but are still seen frequently between believers. While we were there learning about the history of the Mosque, it was the Jewish Independence day, and Jewish people are not allowed on or near the Al Aqsa Mosque. This day, however, about 20 men dressed in traditional Jewish garb formed a line and started to walk towards Al Aqsa Mosque. Those who were praying in fervent prayer, arose from their places of worship and slowly started walking towards these Jewish men crying out ‘Allah Aq Bar’, meaning God is Great. You could feel that the tension was there, and the Palestinian men in arms formed a barrier between the Jewish men and those walking towards them. Our guide hurriedly asked us to follow him, education on the Mount hastily halted and we were ushered down a side exit where our guide had a key.
I left that place with both peace and sadness for the two parties that have been warring for so long. I can see both sides of the argument, each side wants justice for injustices they feel have been inflicted upon them. There is a fragile peace between Israel and Palestine, that is not easily explained, is incredibly complicated and may not have a solution for thousands of years to come.
2- King David’s Tomb & Tower
I didn’t really understand what this tomb meant to the Jewish people when I visited, or why the different areas needed to be separated. Why was King David so important to the people?
This is one of the holiest sites for the Jewish people, he is celebrated as the warrior King of Israel. He is revered not just for his warrior spirit, but also for writing many of the Psalms in the Old Testament. For Christians, the room above King David’s Tomb is the room where the Last Supper is Traditionally said to have been held.
While archaeological digs have yet to reveal the actual resting place of the warrior King, Jewish people will traditionally worship him here. It is a tiny cramped room, only allowing a few people in at a time. The room is further split into two sections, one for the men and one for the women to worship. The entrance hall to the tomb is traditionally where Jesus is said to have washed his Apostles feet as well. The walls surrounding the tomb of David is also said to be known as the church of the Apostles because of the dating of the walls surrounding it as well.
The Jordanian rule of the Temple on the Mount and all surrounding areas did not allow Jewish believers to visit the Western Wall; they ended up worshiping here instead.
3- Visit the Church of the Nativity a UNESCO Heritage Site
While not exactly in Jerusalem, I still wanted to put this one on the list as it is in Bethlehem which is 6.2 miles (10 km) south of Jerusalem….the Church of the Nativity. This is the traditional site (since 2 A.D.) of where it is believed that Jesus was born. As religion morphed and grew, a Basilica was placed over the site in 339 A.D. The current church overlaying that basilica is from the mid 6th century.
Before visiting Jerusalem, I hadn’t really done my research on what to expect when visiting these holy places. I would caution you to not go expecting to see a humble stable or peaceful place of worship. There are three different religions who occupy the same space, with such tensions arising over the control of the religious edifice that a treaty had to be signed that joint custody of the building is shared among the groups. It can get quite crowded, and people are extremely passionate about not having you in front of them to see the sacred areas. I would humbly suggest, just wandering the building and seeing all the adornments of the building, as they are just as impressive.
If you head under the chapels and kingly adornments, there are some small and simple stone chapels underneath the church – just as it would have been during the time of Jesus. Here you can quietly sit and contemplate the life of a man that means so much to nearly every religion in the world. If you are near the Church during Christmas time, the Pilgrimage Route is walked, led by three of the religious leaders along the path that Mary and Joseph (Jesus’ parents) walked on their way to Bethlehem. The road connects the traditional entrance of Bethlehem, with the Church of the Nativity, and extends along Star Street through the Damascus Gate (the historical gate of the town) towards the Manger Square.
4- Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem
This site is very important to Christians the world over, as it has been held as the traditional site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ since the first Crusade. While the site itself was originally a Temple to Venus; the Temple of Venus was torn down by Constantine and a stone grave was found here. This grave was assumed to be the Tomb of Jesus, a Holy Relic of a remnant of the cross he was crucified on was said to have been found here.
While tradition holds this to be the site where Jesus was crucified throughout the centuries, archaeological scholars argue that it may have been elsewhere in the city. Mixing science and religious traditions is always a dangerous venture so I won’t go too heavy into this, but just know that throughout Israel – holy Christian sites are constantly being argued and trying to be proved or disproved.
To me, this place was an absolute madhouse, in the best and worst ways (at least for me). There were women crying with shawls on their heads, rubbing clothes and scarves over the stone on the ground (believed to be the stone where Jesus was laid after his crucifixion). While I don’t understand the intricacies of interpretation in each religion, this particular practice took me off guard. In my own practices, I traditionally am quiet, reserved, and quietly contemplate religious ideals and offer a private prayer within my heart to that which I believe – as I feel this is the most reverent way to honor that which has gone. I do know there are some religions that the more you weep and wail, the more you show you miss the person. Maybe this was part of that ceremony of death that is associated with certain religions, maybe it was just these individuals….I don’t really know. It taught me something seeing it this way though, these women were worshiping in the best way they knew how and what was true for them. I decided I couldn’t fault them for that— and politely let them worship as I moved through the crowd trying desperately to find a break in the mayhem of tourists.
The buildings were so large, the spaces were so crowded, I couldn’t even feel peace and my brain was not allowed a time to ponder. It was very disconcerting and a part of me was frustrated that I was not able to find a place to think. There was incense being burned in a chapel I passed which triggered my Asthma and then my anxiety set it. I immediately told my guide I needed to leave just so I could breathe easier – and quickly found the exit. I think that the most spiritual part for me, was when I left the building. Seeing people from all walks of life flood into this place to worship, take photos, rub their scarves on the stone, shed a few tears of grateful joy is what impressed me the most.
In a time of social media, popularity contests, and bragging rights……with all the efforts people impart to ‘be remembered’ – a man born into a stable has survived the test of time. How would it be to have wars fought for you and in your name? How would you feel to have people weeping at your coffin thousands of years after you died? It deeply impressed me that so many people, after all this time, still felt so much for a humble carpenter. It was very moving to see how it brought us all to the same space to worship the same thing. Now if we could just remember to do the same thing in our day to day lives, would we still have wars? If we truly sat down and focused on what was important. In Israel, however, clashes over the Holy Sepulcher still continue to this day and may continue throughout all of time, unfortunately.
5- Visit The Israel Museum
Here you will find the replica of the Holy Land and how it looked in the day of Christ. It is quite impressive in its detail, scale, and replication. Be sure you get an audio guide, or have a Biblical Historian with you, to give you an idea of each of the areas within this Ancient Holy Land replica and what stories they correlate within the Bible.
It was startling how much it helped my understanding of where things were and how the land was laid out. It is much like an ancient Google Maps, where you can get a better idea of and trace the steps of Jesus Christ. Even how the land behaved during rainstorms, how they collected water to bathe, where the different bathing pools were for each social class. Then you see where they dumped their storage, where the Second Temple of the Jewish people was located – so when visiting the Temple Mount you can imagine what it may have looked like.
I can’t wait until they have an interactive movie on the Bible stories, where you can enter a 3D version of it – and watch it all happen as if you were a member of the crowd or a religious follower. (Ahem….can someone please give this to the appropriate powers at be, and try to make this happen, lol).
The most important collection in this museum, are the Dead Sea Scrolls. These are scriptural texts that were found near the Dead Sea (in Wadi Qumran) around 1947, yet the age of the scrolls themselves date back nearly 2,000 years.
When a young Bedouin sheepherder was climbing through the cliffs and found a crevice to which he threw in a rock to see how deep it went. He was surprised to hear something break inside. After a series of events, the scrolls were sold to a few different antiquities dealers and eventually led to the Israel Museum acquiring them for preservation and ability for all faith’s to witness the greatest find of the 19th century. The earliest translation of these scrolls led to three being published: The War Scroll, the Thanksgiving Scroll (Hodayot), and a second copy of Isaiah.
Since this that time, thousands of Scroll fragments in 10 additional caves—in total the remains of over 900 manuscripts have been found. These scrolls are being preserved and revered by thousands in the Shrine of the Book, located within this Museum.
6- Visit the Shepard’s Field
This is a quaint place to visit, and our guide gave us some incredible insight into the lambs that were kept in these fields. It was incredibly important to have sacrificial animals for the Temple in Jerusalem (the Second Temple, which was still being utilized prior to the death of Jesus Christ). The lambs kept in this field were the best of the best, and even the Shepard’s were specifically chosen for the task of caring for the animals for the Temple.
I find it very fitting that these were also the same Shepard’s that were asked to visit the babe in a manager. The symbolism of this is remarkable if you sit and ponder on this for a while.
Traveler Tip: There is an incredibly good Restaurant right near here (I don’t remember the name), but it has the best Mint Tea and Hummus in Jerusalem (of what I was able to try – and I ate A LOT of hummus).
7- Witness a Bar Mitzvah
While visiting the Temple on the Mount, if you go on a Friday – you can see a Bar Mitzvah! This is where a thirteen-year-old Jewish lad is celebrated for his reaching an age where he is spiritually, emotionally, and physically ready to observe the commandments of the Torah.
If you directly translate this, it means son/daughter of the Commandments. Celebrating a Bar Mitzvah is not a commandment, but more of a tradition of the Jewish people. A Bar Mitzvah is for a boy, and a Bat Mitzvah is for a girl. Head to the Western Wall on a Saturday morning and you may see several of these celebrations.
They are hard to miss, as they are typically accompanied by drums, horns, music and large canopy over them, or raised upon the shoulders of his family members. It is really quite a party, and cheering as the boy passes by with his family, or clapping to the music is encouraged 😉
8- Visit the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu
Don’t skip over this one! While it is a church dedicated to Peter’s denial of Christ three times, and then reconciliation – there is something even more interesting. This is the traditional spot where Jesus Christ was believed to be held before his trial and subsequent crucifixion.
There is an argument among archaeologists on this point, but if you descend into the stony pit and look up at the hole where prisoners were lowered; you can see a crusaders cross painted on the edge of it. The painted cross has been dated, and the slots in the surrounding stone where prisoners were tied are consistent with the time period of Christ.
This is not a well-known site to visit, but is a unique center where you can see how Olive use to be pressed – and is (at times) still utilized for educational purposes. Walk among the beautiful garden with incredible views of Jerusalem.
Here you can also learn about how education about the dynamics of the different religious factions within the city are functioning, their belief systems, and you will be able to learn of the intricacies of their beliefs. If you are looking for relaxing things to do in Jerusalem, you may want to plan your visit for a concert here. If you would like more information on their concert series, email: email@example.com
10- Visit the Bible Lands Museum
Although it is rated as the number ten, in Museums to visit on multiple travel sites I still think it is worth a visit. Every single room, artifact, and a display is geared towards educating those from every religion about what biblical life was like. The artifacts and displays are correlated to the different books and time periods, the oldest artifacts dating back to 1550 B.C.E. For me, it was the perfect ending to my two week trip on the Holy Land.
I had learned so much throughout the week, and the museum itself was not as crowded as the cathedrals, basilicas and other museums I have been in. Having this be my last stop on my tour really brought the whole Biblical picture together for me. I am a visual learner, so being able to envision what they utilized when working the fields, the type of adornments they used etc…. really brings the stories alive (at least for me).
11- Visit the Yad Vashem: Holocaust Memorial Museum
This was the most moving museum I have ever been into in my entire life. I felt hopeful walking in, refreshed I could do this Museum alone and not in a large group. Take my time reading the descriptions, and really soak in the atrocities that happened to the people who occupied this land now.
Traveling through the Museum itself is like walking through an interactive art piece. You start by seeing all the fun commercials that were shown during that time period. What Jewish life in Germany was like before the war. Then you notice that the newspaper articles start to make racist jokes, commercials begin to portray Jewish people in offensive ways and the subtle rhetoric used. It made me realize how powerful marketing is, the subtle jokes or messages can influence a way an entire country thinks. If I had never met a Jewish person in my life, then I would have wondered if this is how they truly were. Making your way through the Museum, the messages get darker, the Jewish stars come out, and you crisscross over bridges to the very end. Each bridge you cross brings you to a different level of oppression and eventually you witness the heartache caused by this genocide. Memorials to those who were taken from this world by monsters that were totally convinced what they did was for the good of their country.
I personally had to skip through some of the videos, and memoirs….by the end I was totally sick to my stomach and had to take breaks on the bridges to continue. With my background working in a Trauma 2 hospital on the night shift, I have seen my share of gore and had to notify families that loved ones have passed. Those nights in the hospital didn’t have the kind of effect that this museum did on me. I couldn’t finish going through the museum, it was too much for me personally. I did go to the memorial portions of the Museum, and when I finally reached the Memorial to the Jewish children that were murdered during the war…..I stood in this dark room full of candles and cried.
Cried for the war then, cried for the ongoing war in the Holy Land – and something in me changed that day. I won’t go into the deeply personal changes that happened within me, but I knew that I wanted to show more love, inclusive, and stand up for those who are oppressed no matter their race, creed, religion, or orientation. There are basic human rights that EVERYONE should have love, safety, and peace. Life isn’t always fair, but each individual can contribute what they can to helping establish safe zones. If you want a real-life example of one of my favorite heroes of this time period, check out Corrie Ten Boom, this is the woman I want to be should I ever be faced with a situation like the people during this time were.
12- Visit the Via Dolorosa
The Via Dolorosa is said to be the road that Jesus walked on his way to the Cross. The alleyways are quite small, and the apartments lining them are getting taller and taller; this adds to the sense of stifling chaos on the streets. Making our way up the alleyway, there are small churches that signify important points on that final journey to the cross.
Station Three: Jesus falls from the weight of the cross for the first time
Station Four: Jesus meets his mother Mary
Station Five: Simon helps Jesus carry his cross
Station Six: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
Station Seven: Jesus falls the second time
Station Eight: Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem
Station Nine: Jesus falls the third time
Station Ten: Jesus is Stripped of his garments
Station Eleven: Jesus is nailed to the cross
Station Twelve: Jesus dies on the cross
Station Thirteen: Jesus is taken down from the cross
Station Fourteen: Jesus is laid in the tomb
While we weren’t able to stop at each station due to time constraints, it is a path I would like to go back and visit— taking the time to stop at each station and contemplate what he went through. There is a lot that can be learned from what he went through.
If you decide you would like to take a tour of the Via Dolorosa, then I would suggest taking an official tour of the path. This will get you access to guides that have more than 2 years of education on these sites and will be able to get you access into the chapels that mark each of these moments. A very popular way of experiencing this is to carry a medium wooden cross with your friends in the heat, up the alleyways and to each stop. If you see wooden crosses being carried by such people, be respectful and allow them to worship in the way they feel is best.
I am not much for large displays of devotion, but seeing the example of their devotion to the experience really truly humbled me. In a way, it felt that I wasn’t doing enough in my daily life to be grateful for what I personally feel to be true.
13- Visit the Garden of Gethsemane
For this visit, I highly recommend you go first thing in the morning – rain or shine. It will give you time to enjoy the beautiful garden in peace. Take your scriptures with you, sit and contemplate what happened here. Read the passages that are pertinent to this place and let the weight of it sink into your soul.
I went with a tour group and we sat in a moment of silence, letting the moment really sink in as to where we were standing. We read a few scriptures and then sang a few songs reverently. Being surrounded by Olive Trees that are more than 2,000 years old, is an experience in and of itself — but to have a spiritual component to it made the time there even more impactful for me personally.
We arrived 15-minutes before the opening time and were able to sit in the space for at least 20-minutes nearly alone before other travelers started to trickle into the garden. Visiting hours for the garden are: Daily from 8:30 am to 12:00 pm and 2:30 to 5:00 pm Sunday and Thursday the Garden of Gethsemane closes at 4:00 pm
14- Visit The Jerusalem Archaeological Park – Davidson Center
This place is fascinating solely because of the history behind it. The views are not the prettiest in this section of the Temple Mount, but the archaeological finds are the best part. The large rubble that you see is that from the first and second temple periods after it was destroyed by the Romans and has lain ever since.
You will see the intact ancient city wall, and the Temple’s staircase, a preserved ancient street, some ritual immersion baths, and storerooms. This was the main thoroughfare, where pilgrims would visit, pay for their sacrificial coin to give to the temple sages and Rabbis. They would stop at the stalls before entering the temple; bring either grain, birds, animals etc… then are given a coin imprinted with what they exchanged. The coin would then be stowed away while they completed their ritual baths before entering the temple. They would then walk up this staircase (see photo below) and enter the Temple Mount to receive religious blessings and spiritual insights from the Rabbis for their daily lives.
If you look closely at the rest of the grounds, you will see Robinson’s Arch, the Herodian Street, the Dung Gate, and the Western Wall. If you enter the Robinson’s Center you can explore interactive Maps and 3D images of what the area would have looked like then vs now. The Center follows events that spanned more than 5000 years of activity all in one location. You will become a witness to what the Canaanite (Bronze) Age looked like, up until the Israelite monarchy in the First Temple period.
Visitors to the Park follow events spanning some 5000 years, beginning with the Canaanite (Bronze) Age and continuing through the days of the Israelite monarchy in the First Temple period. This place does get quite crowded with visitors, so be sure to visit the Robinson Center earlier in the day, or maybe on a day when the Western Wall and Temple Mount are closed.
15- Visit the Pool of Siloam
There are two areas that are called the Pool of Siloam, one is the traditional spot, and one is the archaeological spot.
The true pool was built around 400 AD by the Empress Eudocia. The archaeological pool was found when two stone steps were excavated and revealed a pool from the Second Temple period, from the time of Jesus Christ. The pool that was discovered was 225 feet long, thought to be in a trapezoidal shape. The waters that feed this pool is from a spring from the Gihon Spring flowing from the Kidron Valley. It is considered a naturally flowing spring and would have been used as a ritual bathing pool. How did engineering feat happen so long ago?
After further archaeological investigation, it appears that Hezekiah (the King of Judah during the 8th Century BC) built this to protect the cities water supply during a siege. A 1,750-foot tunnel under the City was built to bring water in from the Gihon Spring. You can take tours of this tunnel by reserving your tour beforehand. In many Christian faith’s, this pool has profound significance, as it is considered to be the pool where Jesus Christ healed the blind man.
16- Eat Kebab and Falafel
These are classic dishes for everyone to try when visiting this ancient city. The spices within this city are incredibly flavorful, with a savory nutty undertone. These are not spicy but would recommend you get some water. For the Kebab it is a mix of minced lamb with salt, pepper, parsley, and onions. It is then grilled and stuffed into a pita with a Salad. The Salad is a mix of greens, cucumber, tomato, and raw tahini sauce…..are you drooling yet? I am…. These are often served with a dish of freshly made seasoned Hummus.
For the Falafel, it is chickpeas ground up and filled with spices like coriander and a generous dose of cumin. Then you press these into patties, or roll them into small balls of goodness and fry them up. They are typically served in a wrap or a pita with tomatoes and lettuce. Sometimes you will get Turkish-inspired fried eggplant, tabouli salad, Balela Salad, and Roasted Garlic Hummus.
The Best Kebab is from Shaheen Kebab located at Shuk Hakatsavim 76, Jerusalem, Israel The Best Falafel is from Moshiko Falafel located at Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem, Israel
17- Visit the Church of St Anne
This is one of the best-preserved Crusader churches in Jerusalem, and also happens to be the site of Jesus’ maternal grandparents. Why is this important? It also means it is the birthplace of the Virgin Mary, a figure worshiped by many religions the world over.
This quaint church is surrounded by trees, shrubs and beautiful flowers eliciting a sensation of peace and tranquility due to the foliage blocking out much of the business within the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. As you head into the church, you may see a large excavation area on the left, believed to be the Pool of Bethesda, where Christ healed the sick man.
The church itself, dates back to around 450 AD, as a site dedicated to where the Virgin Mary was born. The church is quaint, but still has the fortress-like appearance characteristic of many Crusader churches. As you enter the large gray building, you will notice a quiet reverence within. Then a group will stand in the front and sing hymnals in a strategically measured way to present the incredible acoustics that is naturally produced within these walls.
Music always has a way of bringing up spiritual feelings for me, even more than any sermon that could be given. I honestly could have stayed here for an hour or two, letting the voices of the earthly angels drive the feeling of peace into my soul.
18- Visit the Church of Mary Magdalene
You can’t exactly enter this church as it is cared for by 30 Russian Orthodox nuns, from several different countries. Some say that if you are very nice, and ring the front bell, they may show you around (worth a shot if you have the time). They are known for their liturgical singing, and also paint icons, embroider vestments liturgical use, and decorate Russian eggs. The church was built by Czar Alexander III of Russian in 1888 in memory of his mother, whose patron saint was Mary Magdalene. The Onion tops look like the architecture of the 16th-17th century, and the facade is not marble, it is in fact….white sandstone! If you do not know, any rain on sandstone repeatedly will quickly wear it down and disintegrate the facade quite quickly if not properly cared for. It is quite stunning to witness such a fragile masterpiece though.
I would recommend this as your last stop though, particularly at night as the iconic onion-shaped golden domes break through the surrounding skyline of trees and are flooded with light. It is truly a photographers dream to see such a play of light and dark. If you go just outside of the Mount of Olives, you may be able to get a good view; or visit the Tomb of the Virgin and get both photos as a keepsake about the mother of Jesus.
19- Go to the local Markets
You cannot come to such an ancient city, fraught with contrasting division and unity and not support the locals. The interactions you have with the locals at these shops might be some of the only exposure they get to foreigners visiting their country, so why not put forward your best face 🙂
Take a day and commit to a buying one or two items from someone that you can sit and have a candid conversation about them, their life, how it is living in Jerusalem, what are their daily struggles, ask about their families, how the family units are run etc…. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you learn. Just keep in mind, that just because a people, culture, religion, or economic structure is different than what you may be used to, does NOT mean that it is inherently wrong. In short: Be open-minded, be kind, have the courage to ask the hard questions in a way that is respectful to them and their beliefs. These are the conversations that I hold the dearest to my heart. It connects you to the culture, fosters good impressions and will help change opinions one person at a time. Like with any business, word of mouth is a powerful tool, so don’t think for an instant your efforts are wasted.
Here are some of the best markets to visit in Jerusalem:
Mahane Yehuda Market (The Shuk or Machne in local terms)
Anthony Bourdain visited here during one of his visits, there are craft beers and barrels of spices for the choosing. It is quite popular with the tourists, so come early!
Location: Ha-Shazif Street, Jerusalem, Israel
Hours: Typically open 8am-7pm Sunday through Thursday. Limited hours on Friday. (double check on opening times as they are subject to change)
Bezalel Arts Fair
This is an arts and crafts fair with a more relaxed ambiance. There are crafty pieces made by locals, cosmetics, jewelry for every price range, and is far less frantic than other markets.
Location: Rehov Bezalel, Jerusalem, Israel
Hours: Typically open Fridays 10am-4pm (double check on opening times as they are subject to change)
The Farmers’ and Artistic’ Market in the Germany Colony
This is one of the more beautiful areas of Jerusalem and holds a large variety of cheese, hand puppets, crafts, and a variety of other treasures. The items you find in this market are going to largely be handmade by those who live in Jerusalem – so authenticity and quality are the norms not the exception in this market (the perfect place for that unique gift).
Location: Emek Refa’im Street, Jerusalem, Israel
Hours: Typically open Friday 9am-3pm (double check on opening times as they are subject to change)
The Old City Souk
This is known for its textiles and trinket souvenirs. This is also a very crowded area as it is so close to all those areas within the old city, which means many of the tourists come here for the convenience of the location. So it just depends on if you are ok braving the narrow streets and hoards of tourists.
Location: Shuk ha-Tsaba’im Street, Jerusalem, Israel
Hours: Mon-Sun 9am-6pm (double check on opening times as they are subject to change)
20 – Visit the Cardo of Jerusalem
This was a very captivating part of the old city for me. Imagine you are walking through the bustling streets of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, in a very modern part of the city, with perfectly manicured garden balconies in Granite appearing apartments. Then you take a right turn and descend into a massive pit with Roman columns and an alleyway that is hidden in the shadows underneath the bustling modern streets above.
This is the Cardo, a spectacular stone column-lined street that was just like those of the ancient Roman times. The Cardo in Jerusalem starts at the Damascus Gate and runs south underneath the Old City and ends at the Zion Gate. The Northern side is more Roman, the Southern side is from more of the Byzantine empire.
As you make your way into the shadows, there is a fantastic mural depicting what life would be like back in the time of Jesus along a Cardo like the one you are standing in. Be sure to pick out the modern male child being given a gift by an anciently garbed young girl. This mural could not be more perfect in the depiction of this area where old meets new and melds together to sustain the memories of the past.
Take a stroll into the Cardo, walk along it like any ancient Jerusalemite in the 6th century. As you make your way past the shops, you will enter an area that used to be the Crusader’s Bazaar, built around the 12th century, and then renovated to let stores sell their more modern trinkets. THIS is the place to go on a hot day honestly. There is a nice breeze down the Cardo, and the sun is not grating you, nor is the reflective heat off of the stones and pavement reflecting back up off the surfaces as it is on the streets above.
SUN-THURS: 9 AM – 7 PM (SUMMER); 9 AM – 5 PM (WINTER); FRI: 9 AM – 1 PM (Please double check on opening times, as they are subject to change depending on the climate, and political situations)
21- Visit the Basilica of Our Lord in Agony
This is one of the most beautiful churches I have had the privilege of entering in my entire life. I couldn’t quite hear what my guide was saying about this church, as it is required to be as quiet as you can within this building. This is the traditional site of where they believe Jesus left his disciples and went to pray to the Lord, suffering the agony of the world while he did it.
The windows are made from a purplish-blue alabaster, that creates a dimmed-lighting effect to the inside of the church. Six monolithic columns support 12 cupolas, the insides of which are decorated with mosaic tiles depicting the national emblems of the communities that donated to make this church possible (this is also the reason it is nicknamed the ‘church of all nations’).
As you look up at the ceiling in the dimmed lighting, small gold stars surrounding the mosaic of Jesus will greet you. Giving an impression of what it was like the night that Jesus came here to suffer for the sins of all nations. Gesthemene is actually a Greek word meaning ‘Olive Press’, which is essentially what many Christians believed he endured; the weight of the world’s sins pressed the blood from every pore.
Just be warned that this church is also crowded during the day with tourists, even when we arrived early in the morning. Be sure to arrive either right at opening time (maybe a little before), or give yourself an hour before closing time to allow those quiet moments of contemplation. It is worth the effort to feel slightly uncomfortable in the crowds honestly, and I detest tourist traps with a passion…..but this was worth the effort to me.
22- Visit the Museum of Islamic Art
Islam forbids the worship of images, and especially those depicting the Prophet Mohammad. This is why when you see an Islamic Mosque or Art, many times it is the artistry in the words and the way they are spoken that they express their form of worship. After centuries of perfecting their craft, many collections have been gathered into this museum. There is a collection of not just Islamic Art, but also artifacts and archaeological finds that have been discovered throughout the Holy Land.
What is even more fascinating is that the Museum was founded and opened by a member of the Jewish community. Vera Salomons herself was the epitome of religious tolerance and was interested in building bridges of understanding between Palestinians and Jews in Jerusalem. I am completely inspired by her dedication to truly making an enormous effort in trying to make changes in a region fraught with misunderstanding and distrust. Here you will gain a better understanding of what you are seeing when you look at the writings, the colorful images, and what they mean to the Islamic religion and culture. If you would like to understand a conflict in its entirety, first you must understand the point of view from both eyes.
23- Walk the Inner and Outer walls of the city
I know this sounds like a bit much, but a gentleman in our group took a run around part of these walls every day. If you don’t want to run, just take a short walk in the mornings so you can get the layout of the city. See what local people do in the mornings and the evenings, and really feel the beat of this city before the chaos of tourists ensues.
He went on a run twice a day and said that in the evenings the walls are all lit up around the city – giving it a fantastic view of the ancient structures. In the mornings, he reported that a mist would come in on parts of the city and give it a heavenly feel as locals rushed about getting errands done. Traffic is also significantly lower in the mornings as well, which is much kinder to your lungs.
I was personally traveling solo, and get lost VERY easy, so I get too nervous to do this type of thing alone in a large city. Smaller cities I like to take a morning walk, or if I have my GPS and a full phone battery then I love to explore.
24- Visit the Chapel of the Ascension
This is a Crusader Chapel, that is said to be built over the footprint of Jesus before he ascended to Heaven after his resurrection. It is a simple octagon structure over a stone said to hold the imprint of Jesus Christ. Many Christians visit this Chapel, light candles, sing songs, read passages in their scriptures, and cherish the last spot that Jesus Christ was said to have been before leaving the Earth.
It is located on the East side of the main road leading up to the Mount of Olives. There is a Russian Orthodox Church nearby also called the Chapel of Ascension that is another traditionally held site where worshipers believe Christ ascended to Heaven.
25 – Visit the Gates of Jerusalem (Jaffa, Damascus, Dung, Zion, New Gate, Golden Gate)
All of these gates had significance in not only the ancient world but some even in the more modern history. With the city constantly under attack, entrenched in war or conflict between religious factions City walls, fortifications, and gates were essential to daily life and keeping the city safe. Here is some history of each of these gates, and why they are an important part of your visit to Jerusalem.
This gate is on the Western side of the city and it was used as the main entrance from the old city into the Temple Mount. It also faced towards the ancient city of Jaffa.
The gate was first constructed in the Hasmonean period when this portion of the city had no natural defenses. Then in 37 BC, Herod the Great built three large towers, one of which still stands and is known as David’s Tower.
In 1948 the War of Independence ensued and the Israeli forces attempted to enter the city through this gate. If you look around the edges of the entrance you can still see large, deep bullet holes around the gate. Looking at these bullet holes gave me chills. I always hear about wars on the television, but seeing the scars on this gate that were bigger than my head made me realize just how intense the fighting here must have been. It made me grateful to live in the country I do.
A road was eventually built here on the south side of the gate and is still used today as the major entry point for vehicles into the old city
On the North Western Side of the city walls. This was the main entrance into the city in the time of Agrippa (ruler during the 1st century BCE). As time passed and the city grew with the Roman Rule, the gate was significantly enlarged with three arched openings. These gates led into a Roman-like courtyard (according to excavations) and a large statue of Emperor Hadrian was said to greet (and intimidate) travelers into the city. Two streets started from this courtyard, leading southward during that time; but still, function as the main thoroughfare today. The statue of Hadrian is now gone, but the surviving streets are now known as Khan A- Zeit (to the right) or Beit Habad street (to the left) and lead into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
The Damascus Gate is also the gate that is nearest to the two most important Biblical sites in Jerusalem: Golgotha, just across the street, and Jesus’ Tomb, which is 90 meters away.
Travel Tip: Prices here are cheaper than other parts of the city, many people will tell you not to venture over here just for the lower prices, but tourists still go and are just fine. You will see Israeli soldiers stationed here, and in the past, some have been stabbed and shot in recent years so be aware of your surroundings, wear appropriate clothing, be respectful and you should be fine.
On the South West Side and is also known as the Gate of the Prophet of Davide, because of David’s tomb on Mt Zion. This is near the Jewish and Armenian Quarters of the Old City.
Also on the Western Side of the City, this gate was once a wall built by the Ottoman Empire in 1540. It was 350 years later that this ‘New Gate’ was built into the wall to allow for easier access into the Christian Quarter from the outlying monasteries.
This is a sealed gate on the eastern side of the city and was built around 640 A.D. by the last of the Byzantine rulers. It is also known as the Gate of Mercy because according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through this gate. The gate is now sealed, as the Muslim people during the time of Suleiman wanted to prevent this.
On the North Side of the city, and was the gate that led to Herod’s Palace – because why wouldn’t a man named Herod the Great have his own entrance. It is also known as the Flower Gate because of the flowers that adorn the stone surrounding the entrance. This gate leads into the Muslim quarter on the Northern Wall.
This gate is located on near the Western wall. There are different theories for the naming of this gate, one which when trash was cleared out of the city through this gate. It is also known to some as the Gate of the Moors due to North African immigrants living near the gate in the 16th century.
No matter what street you take, what building you enter in this ancient city — you will find some historical or religious facts that will strike you at the very core. You can visit this city if you are Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Jewish, an archeologist, or historical fan and leave feeling moved. The best advice I could give anyone in visiting this city, keep an open mind and especially an open heart. Have conversations with the locals, ask about their lives, discover the modern and ancient history melding together in a beautiful story that continues to be told and created even today.
As Always….Happy Travels, Happy Tales, and See YOU on the Flip Side 😉
I was with a tour group while there and felt completely safe in Israel. This was about 2 months before a skirmish broke out between Gaza and Israel. There is a lot of sensationalism in the media about this country, but just keep your ears and eyes open. Avoid the Old City on Fridays as this is typically when the two religions are there praying at the same time and there are clashes between the two on occasion. Safety in the Old City Trip Advisor Forum on Safety in the Old City US Consulate in Israel