If I have the opportunity to snag a local for a tour, that’s my preferred method of learning an area, but sometimes it is hard to find such a person with limited time. After hours of online searching, I found Elijah Tours for a 1-day Bethlehem/ Dead Sea tour. They were the most affordable with the best time options, so I went with it. Here is how our very impressive day went:
First of all, I broke my own personal rule of no hitchhiking. Our tour met at a hotel in Jerusalem around 8 a.m. so Chloe and I hailed a taxi to get to the meeting point. False. We did not hail a taxi. We accidentally hailed a regular person who had an Italian nun in the backseat that he had also picked up, so I figured this had to be about the safest hitchhiking situation. We hopped in with her and she told us “he is such a good boy, give him 5 shekel.” This might be the best 5 shekel we spent to avoid having to walk one mile uphill before having to walk on a tour all day.
We then met the tour group of about 15 people- which was a relief. Our Jordan group with another tour company the previous day had the single worst travelers I have ever experienced and we were dreading another group tour. We lucked out with these guys. We even ended up going out with some of the Scottish people in our group again that evening.
The itinerary started with Bethlehem in the West Bank. This was our first time going to the occupied territory but we had no problems with getting through the checkpoint. This tour happens to include a quick stroll through the famous street art of Banksy. If you aren’t familiar with Banksy’s work, he has many political masterpieces that you don’t want to miss. While you might associate a trip to Bethlehem solely with Baby Jesus, this is a very worthwhile stop. Don’t worry, Elijah Tours will hit it all and then some. Trust your guides.
After Banksy, we stopped at a lookout point for the Shepherd’s Field. There wasn’t much to see as far as the field goes since it has been developed on, but it is a great view of Palestine. There was also a surprise relic at this site: a popemobile! It was an obscure spot, but it almost felt like a a little celebrity sighting.
The Church of the Nativity speaks for itself. There’s a little more walking in this area and some small doorways, but it’s the main reason to go to Bethlehem. You can actually touch the mark where Jesus was born (and take photos, which is a little surprising.) This tour does not typically include visiting the precise birth site in the basement because the queue is extremely long. We lucked out with our timing that we were the first group in the church after a special event so we finagled our way into going. Our guide knew quite a few ins and outs of the sites that we saw. TIP: even if you can’t go inside, make sure to view the artwork of the Virgin Mary near the entrance of the place of Jesus’s birth. It is one of the few depictions of Mary smiling and it is made with jewels from Catherine the Great.
After visiting the church, there are a few more unique sites in Bethlehem, including Mary’s Milk Grotto where people used to scrape the walls for personal use to enhance the chance of getting pregnant. This was obviously nixed by the associated church to prevent further deterioration of the site, but they do sell small powdered bags for 2 Euros that claim to bring fertility. They have many successful testimonies hanging in their office of people who have purchased them. If you have tried it, let me know!
One part that I hadn’t expected us to do, was a nice stop at a gift shop. I have done many foreign tours that make you stop at those chintzy stops. I know how bad tour groups operate and this was not one of those situations. We stopped at an olive wood factory ran by people with disabilities, and it was awesome. We were greeted by a boy with Down Syndrome who had a tray of baklava ready for us when we got off the bus- who doesn’t love the guy with baklava?? Then we got some drinks and falafel… this place was a good time and gave us a little stamina boost. I ended up buying all of my crosses and souvenirs here to take home. Their prices were exceptional, fair, and didn’t need bartered. So, if you don’t like arguing with salespeople, this is an ideal place. I highly recommend waiting to buy souvenirs here if you are planning on going on this tour, or at least seek it out on your own.
We wrapped up Bethlehem by 1 p.m. This alone was worth the price of the tour, but we still had the Dead Sea to look forward to.
Luckily, our guide knew the Dead Sea was going to be painful in the peak heat of August. So, rather than leaving us there for our anticipated three hours, our driver thought ahead to ask us if we would rather stay for just one hour and then have a little time to see Jericho, as well. This flexibility honestly saved us and added to our tour even more. Our driver was so right. It was not physically possible to stay at the Dead Sea for more than an hour. It was 103 Fahrenheit. This was a smart observation on his part and we greatly appreciated him.
With that, we jumped back on the bus early to pick up our other Elijah tour people who had been dropped off in Jericho. The driver took us on a quick ride to some of the popular sites in Jericho before we waited for our group at the end of their tour. Let me tell you, this parking lot we were in might have been one of the highlights of my day. The local parking lot camel was all the entertainment we needed to wrap up an already adventuresome day. Jericho was a place on my list that I was sacrificing to do some of the other things in Israel, so I am very grateful we were able to check it out.
We covered it all- and more- with Elijah Tours. They were absolutely fabulous. The best sites, snacks, and treatment that we couldn’t have expected!