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Monday, July 22, 2019

Mitzpe Ramon is often an overlooked gem in the Negev region in the South of Israel— an out-of-the box experience. About 90 miles North of Eilat, my husband and I, along with our children, visited Mitzpe Ramon and it was hands-down the highlight of our vacation. Mitzpe Ramon is somewhat like the Grand Canyon of Israel. Mitzpe is home to the largest Makhtesh in the world, and also to a second smaller one. A Makhtesh is similar to a canyon or crater, but completely different in origin. No meteorites here!

The Makhtesh used to be a mountain constructed of soft stone under a hard limestone shell. Over millions of years the tough top became eroded, which exposed the softer core to the elements. Both weather and erosion washed the softer sand stone out of its hard shell, creating a crater-like structure. In fact, a Makhtesh is not a crater by geological terms. There are only seven Makhteshes in the world and they are found only in Israel and in Sinai, very close to the Israeli border.

While in Mitzpe, we went on an off-road jeep tour with Itai Harary and his tour company called Deep Desert Israel. Itai was unbelievable with explaining everything to my children so that they stayed interested. He also created interactive activities using only the nature around us. We made face paint with natural colored sand and rocks, produced soap from a desert plant, and licked a plant that tasted like sugar. We found all this and more in an enormous desolate hole in the earth.

Itai’s jeep guided us up mountains, through gullies, across cliffs, past sand-dunes, all the while bouncing up and down, side to side, while driving over the bumpy, dusty, rocky ground. Without the tour, the Makhtesh would have been a sight to see, but not an experience to be had.

At night we went star gazing with Ira Machefsky. After retiring, Machefsky, a former resident of Englewood, NJ, made aliyah and opened a star gazing tour. According to Machesfky’s website, “Mitzpe Ramon offers the clearest, darkest skies in the country, which make it excellent for star-gazing.” Be sure to dress warm no matter the season, since the desert nights are always cold.

An expert in astronomy, Machefsky taught us about the stars and planets, told us stories and legends of the constellations, the way you can never learn them in school or by reading a textbook. His goal is to share the wonders of the universe while educating his visitors to be able to star gaze knowledgeably on their own after just one evening. And that he did!

Venus and Mars could be seen with the naked eye, an amazing sight in itself. Then we peered through a high-tech, powerful telescope to see Saturn with all its rings. Even now, my sons and I look up at the sky and point out Venus, Mars, the North Star and other constellations. Machefsky gave me a newfound appreciation for the night sky.

The luxurious Beresheet Hotel has brought a lot of buzz to Mitzpe Ramon in recent years. The hotel is literally built into the mountain overlooking the magnificent Makhtesh, and there are also many quaint boutique hotels in the area.

Other activities in Mitzpe include creating your own sand art from natural colored sand, visiting the Alpaca farm, rapelling down the slopes, camel rides, and more. Also, Itai offers a new tour called “glamping,” otherwise known as glamour camping, which operates in the Ramon crater and in other areas. As Itai said, “It gives an extraordinary, luxurious, outdoor desert experience to people who would otherwise never consider stepping out of the comfort of their fancy hotel.”

By Kellita Weber