Everything You Need To Know Before You Visit Palestine

Everything You Need To Know Before You Visit Palestine

Don’t miss the chance to visit Palestine.

If you happen to travel to the Middle East, you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Palestine. This is a place like no other – unique in terms of history and culture; with people that are amongst the most welcoming you can find, and food that is mouthwatering.

I have been to Palestine several times, and each time I have enjoyed it more. The typical question that I get asked when I say I am traveling to Palestine is whether it is safe – well guess what: it is. So safe that I took my mother there. And when I asked her whether she perceived any immediate danger, she said “not at all.” In fact, I think she enjoyed it even more than I did.

This is to say – leave all your worries home, and start planning to travel to Palestine.

In this post, I highlight everything you need to know before you visit Palestine, share some tips on places to visit and on how to make the most of your time there.

In a rush or tight on time during your trip to the Middle East? Go straight to the point and book your guided tour of Palestine here:

Walled Off Hotel visit Palestine

One of Banksy Murals in Bethelehm

21 Things To Know Before You Visit Palestine

The political situation is complicated

I won’t go over the details of the history of Palestine or of the conflict – you should be visiting Palestine, and preferably on a good guided tour (more about this later), to grasp a bit more of that. I will just sum up the political and administrative situation very briefly so that you don’t get as confused as I was last time I visited.

One thing you will notice when you visit Palestine is that in some parts there are no Jewish / Israeli people and visitors; while in some there are a few. I noticed this when I visited Herodion Palace – the people at the ticket office where all speaking Hebrew. And I was honestly confused: I thought I had gotten back to Israel without realizing it.

So, here is the thing. Palestine is divided in Area A; Area B and Area C. This division was established during the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements which were signed in the 1990s as part of the peace process.

Area A is in full control of the Palestinian Authorities. There are no Israeli settlements in Area A and Israeli citizens can’t enter it. This counts for around 18% of the West Bank and includes the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, and about 80% of Hebron among others.

Area B sees Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. It counts for about 22% of the West Bank and there are no Israeli settlements.

Area C is the remaining of the West Bank and it is under full Israeli civil and security control.

Palestine is also divided into the West Bank, which is the area you will likely visit, and the Gaza Strip, where only NGO workers and journalists are allowed to enter. The Palestine I refer to in this post is strictly the West Bank.

There are no airports in Palestine

If you decide to visit Palestine, you will have to fly into one of the neighboring countries as there are no airports there. The easiest (and usually also most budget friendly) option is usually to fly to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport and travel from there. You may want to fly to Amman, in Jordan, but you won’t be able to cross the border directly into Palestine from there.

It’s safer than you think

The reaction you’ll get when you’ll tell your friends and family that you intend to visit Palestine will likely be a blank face. Questions will follow: “Is it actually safe to visit?”

The thing is, whatever people know about Palestine, they get it from the little news that makes it to our countries. Most of the time, news focus about the situation in or near the Gaza Strip, while little is said about the West Bank, which is where you would go.

The West Bank is completely safe to visit. It’s been living in peace for around 20 years now – with occasional protests, which by the way occur in any country. The overall impression you get when you visit is of an extremely friendly, chilled place where it is pleasant to walk around and explore.

Even though Palestine is safe to visit, I recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip. Get yours here.

Arafat Mausoleum in Ramallah

Arafat Mausoleum in Ramallah

The local currency is the Israeli Shekel

The official currency in Palestine is the Israeli Shekel (NIS). The Jordanian Dinar is also accepted, and it is often the currency used for savings. Euro and US Dollars are also accepted.

Visiting Palestine is not cheap

I bet you think Palestine is nice and cheap to visit, and it will give you a break from the crazy prices of Israel. Think again! Palestine is just as expensive. The only cheap thing you are bound to get in Palestine is staple food – hummus, falafel, and similar.

A meal will cost you between $10 and $20 USD – and that’s if you manage to get to a place that is not overpriced. Accommodation starts from $20 USD for a bed in a dorm. Not exactly a budget friendly place.

Your Israeli SIM card will work in Palestine

Getting a SIM card in Israel is super easy (though it’s not the cheapest thing in the world). The good news is that you can take it with you to Palestine, and it will work just as fine and at no extra charges. This is a better option than getting a Palestinian SIM card, which is usually limited to 3G. High speed wifi is available in most of the country.

People are truly lovely

One thing people never say about Palestine is how nice locals truly are. I think it’s hard to find such kind, friendly, welcoming and truly generous people. These are people that would literally open the door of their houses for you, and make you feel like a king and would feel honored to host you. Expect to be offered freshly brewed coffee anywhere you visit!

Arabic is the official language

People in Palestine speak Arabic – one of the many dialects of it. English is widely spoken in the tourism industry, so chances are that you will be able to have conversations with cab and bus drivers, people at restaurants and shops as well.

travel to Palestine

Many Christians live in Bethlehem

Islam isn’t the only religion

The majority of Palestinians are Muslims (Sunni), and modest clothing is appreciated there. Places like Hebron and Nablus tend to be quite conservative, but Ramallah is more modern and thriving with life.

However, you should know that Islam isn’t the only religion in Palestine. Other than the Jewish people that live in the settlements, there is a nice chunk of the population that is actually Christian. Most of them live in Bethlehem, and in other smaller cities.

The food is delicious 

One thing you can rest assured with is that food in Palestine is delicious. You have probably heard of Palestinian staples such as falafel (fritters of chickpea flour mixed with parsley, onion and other tasty ingredients) and hummus (a spread of chickpeas with tahina, lemon, garlic and a good dose of olive oil). But there is way more to Palestinian food than hummus!

Make sure to try mansaf – a dish of slowly cooked lamb with yellow rice and a fantastic mix of spices. Most restaurants will serve it, but the best one is homemade!

Maqluba is another must have. The word literally means “upside down” and refers to the way of serving this dish of meat, rice, and fried vegetables – which are flipped when served.

You can actually get alcohol

The presence of Christians in Palestine is good news for those of us who enjoy a drink every now and then. Alcohol is available in Palestine, and you can have wine or beer with your drink. In fact, there even are some really good microbreweries where you can get craft beer and even go on beer tasting tours. The first brewery was founded in Taybeh, where many Christians live. It is easily accessible from Ramallah.

Ramallah is not the capital

Ask anybody in Palestine what their capital is, and they will say that although Ramallah is the center of the local economy and of administration, their capital is Jerusalem. They call it Al Quds.

In Bethlehem

Palestine is safe to visit – so said my mom!

You can easily get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem

If you want to pop in for a quick visit to Bethlehem, you’ll be glad to know that there are several public buses that will take there from Jerusalem. You need to go to Damascus Gate, where there is a bus station, and hop on bus 231. If you don’t mind having to cross the checkpoint (more about this below), you can also take bus 234.

Though Bethlehem is really close to Jerusalem (around 10 km) the trip can take up to one hour as the bus has to stop several times, and go around town through several streets to avoid the checkpoints.

The trip costs just 7 Israeli Shekels (NIS) one way. You must get off at Bab El-Zalak / Beit Jala Road and it’s about a 15 minutes walk to the center of Bethlehem.

You may have to cross a checkpoint to visit Palestine

This is not always the case – it really depends on the route you follow and on the public bus you use. Sometimes you will have to walk through a checkpoint (it’s no more no less than a passport control, really), other times you won’t need to. One thing for sure, whenever you travel to Palestine you need to have your passport with you.

Keep in mind that checkpoints can take time – there may be a line of people trying to get across, and this may delay your arrival to your final destination, and you may end up having less time than you had hoped in Palestine.

TIP: If you want to avoid checkpoints altogether, you can opt to do a guided tour like one of those I have suggested.

IMPORTANT REMINDER: Make sure to bring your passport and your Israeli visa card any time you plan to go to Palestine.

But you don’t need a visa

You won’t have to apply for a visa to visit Palestine, and your passport won’t be stamped when you cross the border. All you need is the Israeli visa card. Visitors from European Union countries, United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and many more can get a visa on arrival valid for 90 days upon getting to Israel.

Jordan River Palestine

It’s much easier to visit places such as the Baptism Font on the Jordan River on a guided tour

You’re better off going to Palestine on a guided tour

I think that visiting Palestine on a guided tour is a far better option than going independently – especially if you don’t have much time to make all the arrangements. You really need a local guide that explains you the history, the culture and even a little bit of politics. Plus it is much easier to have everything arranged beforehand so that all you have to do is bring your camera and enjoy the day.

The best tours of Palestine are led by Abraham Tours. I have been on all of them (literally, and some of them actually twice) and I wholeheartedly recommend them. These are the ones I prefer:

But you can can also visit independently

If you are a convinced independent traveler, you’ll be happy to know that you can visit Palestine independently. It’s a bit more time consuming, and it probably will turn out just as expensive as going on a guided tour, but it is doable. Roads are in good conditions and public transportation works well in the West Bank. Big buses are cheap, but a bit slow. Serveece – yellow minivans – are more expensive but faster.

Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity is a must see in Bethlehem

There are some incredible places to visit

There are many more places to visit in Palestine than you’d imagine. I have been there several times and I have yet to see them all. Nature wise, Palestine is very varied – there are beautiful hills and forests as well as the desert. Scattered around you will find some very interesting archeological sites; villages and cities. The ones I mentioned are those you really should not miss.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem usually is the first stop for anybody visiting Palestine – mainly because it is very easy to reach from Jerusalem. The city isn’t the most beautiful you will see in your life, but there are many interesting places to visit – especially if you are keen on seeing Biblical sites. I have selected a few you can’t miss.

For a complete guide about Bethlehem, make sure to read The Crowded Planet’s post.

TRIED AND TESTED: For a very reliable driver to take you around Bethlehem, you can get in touch with Ali, a taxi driver from Bethlehem. You can get in touch with him via whatsapp at +972 522 912745 or via his Facebook page. He’s an incredibly friendly, reliable person; he drives a good, clean car; and he speaks really good English. Don’t forget to mention my name (Claudia from Italy) when you contact him.

The following are some of the places to visit in Bethlehem you should not miss.

Church and Grotto of the Nativity

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity. This church, which is beautifully decorated, is famous for being home to the Grotto of the Nativity, said to be the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus – though even the rest of the church is really interesting to visit.

The church was built upon orders of Constantine’s mother Helena in 339 AD. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the church is actually quite large and airy, with some beautiful mosaics – some discovered after renovation works in 1934.

The grotto is quite small. There are a few steps to get to it. Once inside, you will see that there is a 14 point star, which marks the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus; and the manger where Jesus was placed. The Grotto of the Nativity is regularly packed with people chanting or praying – for religious people this is a highly spiritual experience. For Atheists like me, it’s an interesting historical place to visit.

TIP: There are normally lines to get to the actual grotto – so make sure to visit first thing in the morning. The church is inevitably more crowded during Christmas time.

TIP: Make sure to also visit St. Catherine’s Church, which is right next to the Church of the Nativity.

The Church and Grotto of the Nativity are much better visited on a guided tour: you really need a guide to help you through the crowds and to makes sense of what you are seeing. Read above for the recommended tours.

The Chapel of the Milk Grotto

The lovely Chapel of the Milk Grotto is a must see

Chapel of the Milk Grotto

Significantly less visited (we were the only ones there when we went) than the Church of the Nativity, this lovely chapel was built in the 19th century around the Grotto where the Holy Family stayed to preserve baby Jesus from Herod’s massacre of the innocents. According to legend, some drops of milk fell from the Virgin Mary and turned the rock inside the grotto completely white. Nowadays, this is a place of worship especially for couples looking to conceive a child.

Shepherd’s Field

Another place to visit in Bethlehem for Christians is Shepherd’s Field – thought to be the place where the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. It’s located a bit outside the center of Bethlehem, in a beautiful, quiet park where you will find a Greek Orthodox church and a catholic one built to remind the structure of the tent where the shepherds would spend the night. Below this, there is a grotto with a small chapel.

Rachel’s Tomb

This is a sacred site for the three monotheistic religions. In theory, it would be located on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall, but in order for the Israelis to be able to visit, a detour in the wall was created so that it now is in Israeli territory.

Walled Off Hotel

The stunning interior of the Walled Off Hotel

Separation Wall

I am not sure I’d call the Separation Wall a tourist attraction. This wall was built for more than 700 km around the border of the West Bank. It is 9 meters tall, with barbed wire on its top. It marks a clear separation between Israel and Palestine and it is a massive source of controversy. The wall itself has been used by graffiti artists – including the famous Banksy – from around the world to express their contempt for the conflict and for the wall itself.

Walled Off Hotel

This lovely boutique hotel was built right in front of the Separation Wall. While most hotels will pride themselves of having a beautiful view, the Walled Off Hotel made the conscious choice of clearly showing a place that has such a strong meaning in the every day life of Palestinians. You can visit the ground floor, where you will find a couple of pieces of Banksy (in fact, this is hotel – also known as Banksy Hotel – was open by the artist in the hope of bringing Israeli tourists and dialogue in Bethlehem), and a quirky yet cozy lounge room.

If you are interested in spending a night there, you will be happy to know that there is something for any budget. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Views from Herodion Palace

The stunning views from Herodion Palace

Herodion Palace

Located 5 km south east of Bethlehem, this is a palace and a small town the Herod The Great built between 23 and 15 BCE. It is thought that Herod was also buried there. The site is under Israel National Parks Authority and a national park – so you will find Israeli visitors there.

You will have to walk uphill from the visitors’ center to get to the main site, from where you will be able to enjoy incredible views that on clear days span all the way to the Dead Sea. You can walk back down from the secret tunnels.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: The entry fee to Herodion Palace is 29 NIS.

Jericho Palestine

Jericho is known as the oldest city in the world

Jericho

Close to the Dead Sea, Jericho is located at around 400 meters below sea level. It’s known as the lowest city on Earth, as well as the oldest one – having been founded around 10000 years ago. The city itself is nothing special – there is an archeological site that has been half excavated, but you can’t really make sense of it without a guide.

The surroundings of Jericho are gorgeous though – lots of hiking trails, and a couple of monasteries which include the Monastery of Temptation, said to be the place where Jesus spent 40 days and nights praying and fasting while he was being tempted by Satan. The monastery can be reached via cable car and from there you can get incredible views of the Dead Sea and of Jericho.

Baptismal Site on the Jordan River

This is the site where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was baptized. Marking the border between the West Bank and Jordan, this is a very important place for Christians, who go there on pilgrimages and immerse themselves in the water to be baptized. You will find several fonts of water – you’ll see many people refilling their bottles, which they often take home to offer to their friends and relatives who were unable to travel.

Ramallah

Ramallah is the biggest and most cosmopolitan (as well as chaotic) city in Palestine. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours, usually the starting point of guided tours of the West Bank. The most interesting place to visit is Arafat Mausoleum and Museum, where you will be able to learn a bit more about the history of Palestine.

Travel to Palestine Hebron

Hebron is one of the most interesting places to visit in the West Bank

Hebron

Hebron is by far the most interesting place in the West Bank – if you plan to visit Palestine for just one day, this is where you should go. This is a much fought over city – holy for both the Jews and the Muslims, as it is where the Tomb of Abraham is located.

After a series of conflicts, the city has been divided in two separate zones – one strictly for Israeli settlers, who count for around 3% of the population; and one for the Palestinians only, who make up the rest of the residents.

Hebron is not an easy place to move around (though you can get there easily by public bus from Jerusalem central bus station), with all the checkpoints, so you really want to go there on a guided tour. The best ones are run by Abraham Tours and usually see two guides – a Palestinian one to take you around the Palestinian part of the city; and an Israeli one to go around the place inhabited by the settlers.

It’s a very intense place – you go there and hear two sides of the same story, and each one of them is incredibly convincing. You will left speechless, and unable to really make sense of what you have experienced. But it is worth it.

You can go there any time of year

Any time is a good time to visit Palestine. I have been there in April, in November and in December, and each time had a fantastic experience. Keep in mind that the desert bits such as Jericho can get scorchingly hot in the summer.

Other useful tips

I recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip to Palestine. Make sure it covers trips to the West Bank. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

Further readings about Palestine

There is a wealth of material you could be reading to get to know a bit more about Palestine. I recommend heading to your local library and get your hands on on any book that sounds interesting to you. The following is a selection of readings – some are travel books, other are general books about Palestine:

Further posts about Palestine and the Middle East

Traveling to the Middle East? Make sure to read the following posts:

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Abraham Tours during my trip to Palestine and I wish to thank them for the wonderful time. As always, the views expressed in this post remain my own.

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Find out what to see and do in Palestine - via @clautavani

What You Should Know Before Doing A Hebron Tour

What You Should Know Before Doing A Hebron Tour

Taking a Hebron tour is a great way of learning more about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

If you ever visit Israel, and especially if you go to Jerusalem, you should make it a point to pay a visit to the West Bank. Though most people go to places like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho and the Jordan River, I actually recommend heading to Hebron, one of the most contested cities of the conflict. 

It is not a merry place to visit – after all, it’s been at the center of disputes for decades. But it’s very interesting, and during your visit you will learn a lot about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.  

If you plan to visit Hebron, you are better off joining a guided tour. You may wish to wander around the streets of the city by yourself, but honestly this should be a learning experience more than anything else. 

To find out why I recommend taking guided tours, read my post “Ten Reasons To Take A Guided Tour.”

During a tour of Hebron you literally get showered with information about the conflict. You hear two sides of the story – each very convincing, each person recollecting the story very passionate about it. Dual Narrative tours of Hebron are run by Abraham Tours, one of the best group tour companies in this part of the world.

In a rush? Book your Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron here.

In this post, I explain what you should know about visiting Hebron, with lots of background information about the city. I will also provide some useful tips that should help you make the most of your time in Hebron. Let me first start with some background information.

West Bank Hebron tour

Road blocks in Hebron – they are all over the city

Some Background Information About Hebron

Please keep in mind that this is a mere summary of my understanding of the history and political situation of Hebron. I am by no means trying to give a full recollection of historical facts – it would be impossible to do so. Nor do I claim to fully grasp what went on there, and what goes on nowadays.

Hebron is located at around 30 km from Jerusalem, at about 900 meters above sea level. It is the largest city in the West Bank, with around 215000 people living there, of which no more than 800 are Jewish settlers.

According to the Old Testament, Hebron was founded in 1730 BC. Its biblical name is Kiryat Arba (literally “the Village of Four”) and it refers to its position on four hills. Another interpretation of the name is that Hebron is the burial ground of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their respective wives. This makes it one of the most sacred cities to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike; but sadly, instead of promoting links between the main monotheistic religions, this has made Hebron the most contested city in the West Bank.

Hebron fell under the Islamic rule during the 7th century. It then subsequently fell in the hands of the Crusaders, only to be reconquered by Saladin and fall once again under Islamic rule (and later on Ottoman rule) in the late 12th century. In 1917 the British occupied Hebron, which then fell under Egyptian rule in 1948 and then under the rule of Jordan.

Problems in Hebron started in 1929, when Arab nationalists revolted against the Jewish community after their leader spread the false rumor that Muslims were being killed in Jerusalem. Dozens of Jews living in the city were attacked, 67 were killed, and the rest were evacuated. This sad episode became known as the Hebron Massacre.

In 1967, after the Six Day War, Jewish settlers started moving to the centre of Hebron, and the village of Kiryat Arba was established nearby to attract more settlers. After that, Jews finally gained access to the Cave of the Patriarchs after 700 years of being unable to do so.

Hebron tours

Soldiers patrol the H2 part of Hebron to protect Jewish settlers. Some of them are nothing more than kids.

After the Oslo Agreements of 1993 which saw the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from parts of the West Bank, Hebron was given special status and currently divided in two areas: H1 makes up 80% of the municipality and it is under Palestinian control; H2 makes up 20% of the municipality and is under Israeli military control. H2 also includes the important Tomb of the Patriarchs and parts of the beautiful Old City. Around 40000 Palestinians live in H2, against no more than 800 Jewish settlers. Roughly 4000 Israeli soldiers are spread around the Old City to protect the settlers.

In 1994 a Jewish settler shot and killed 29 Palestinian Muslims at the Cave of the Patriarchs mosque. Riots followed, causing more deaths and eventually leading to the creation of a buffer zone between H1 and H2. Palestinians who lived and worked on Al Shuhada Street (now called King David) were forced to relocate. The shops were shut, and have remained so since.

In more recent years, Hebron became famous for the story of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier accused and eventually convicted for having killed a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron. 

tour of Hebron

No more than a handful of tourists and a few soldiers can be seen on what used to be Hebron’s busiest street

The Dual Narrative Hebron Tour: One Story, Two Interpretations

The Dual Narrative tour of Hebron run by Abraham Tours is a very interesting project; a joint effort by the Israeli company Abraham Tours and the Palestinian one Visit Hebron – Palestine. It is structured to have two guides. A Jewish guide takes visitors around the the bits of the city inhabited by the Jews; and a Palestinian guide walks them around the Palestinian areas.

The reason for having two guides is that literally Jews can’t go to the Palestinian parts of the city; and Palestinians can’t go to the Jewish areas. Meeting members of the two communities is an integral part of the tour. They sit with the tourists, talk about the city, and their daily life.

This means that if you visit Hebron on a guided tour you hear two versions of the same story. And as it is obvious, each guide and each local met more or less overtly hints that theirs is the version that anybody would want to support.

You may go to Hebron full of certainties, with your own views of the conflict. But those certainties crumbles in front of the convincing stories of the two guides: it is hard to keep a neutral side to each story; it is hard not to side with whichever story you will be hearing, because both guides (and both people) seem to be having very strong arguments.

By the end of the day, you will have troubles making sense of the experience. 

Palestine Hebron

Shops have shut in 1994 in King Street – once the busiest street of Hebron

Doing A Hebron Tour

Touring Hebron is easy enough for foreigners, especially if they are chaperoned by a guide. I can reassure you that you should never feel concerned about your safety while there – whether n the Palestinian side of the city, or on the Jewish one.

Durning your trip to Hebron, you will notice the sorrow feeling going through the empty streets of the Old City, or listening to the stories of two people who once lived in peace, who are so similar in culture and values, and who have both suffered, and yet can’t seem to find a way of living peacefully together again.

Exploring the Jewish side of Hebron

The first stop of the Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron is the Abraham Avinu Synagogue. This was built in 1540 and destroyed in 1929, during the Hebron Massacre – and eventually rebuilt after the settlers started moving back to Hebron after 1967. There, your guide will open a display case containing a 500 years old Torah scroll that managed to survive the destruction of the synagogue.

The most sacred site in Hebron, to both Jews and Muslims, is the Cave of the Patriarchs (also known as the Sanctuary of Abraham). This is where Abraham (or Ibrahim, in Arabic) is buried. The building has been split in two to accommodate both faiths. Until 1967, when Hebron fell under Israeli control after the Six Day War, Jews were only allowed to go as far as the 7th step outside the cave.

You will walk up a view point – the terrace of an apartment building – to get a full view of Hebron. From up there, it looks like the most normal of cities: full of history and culture, and beautiful. But then, going back down you’ll get slapped in the face by the reality of life in this city.

King David street, once buzzing with life and business, is now a ghost version of itself: the only people in sight are the few tourists who venture to Hebron, and the Israeli soldiers that stand at street corners and check points.

You will see many new buildings and commemorative plaques. These are located in places where the Palestinians have carried out attacks against the Jews, to remember the victims. That’s the Zionist response to a terror attack.

The question that comes to mind wandering those empty streets is why would any Jew want to move to Hebron, in a place that is so openly unwelcoming to them?

Meeting with a representative of the settlers community, you will the answer to this question. Hebron is important to Jews. It is seen as the cradle of the Jewish civilization, where the most important religious figures for the Jews are buried. Not allowing Jews to Hebron would equate to not allowing Christians to go to Jerusalem, or Muslims to go to Mecca.

Desolation and sadness is what you will mostly feel when walking through the Jewish quarter of Hebron. Hardly anybody is around, save from the soldiers that patrol each street and any building of relevance – some of them nothing more than kids. 

Palestine

From a view point, Hebron looks like a completely normal, lively, interesting city

Visiting the Palestinian side of Hebron

Once you’ll leave your Israeli guide, you will meet your Palestinian guide. He will take you to his home, where you will be welcomed by his family and offered a delicious, home cooked lunch. Over lunch, the impression you will get is that of sitting with a group of old friends – that’s how friendly Palestinians are.

H1, the Palestinian side of Hebron, feel completely different from H2. This part of the city is bustling with life: cars, bikes, food carts, families with small children, shop owners inviting you in, people everywhere, going about their daily business as if Hebron isn’t one of the most contested cities on earth.

West Bank

A junk dealer on the Palestinian side of Hebron

It almost feels like a completely normal city, at least until your guide takes you further into the bazaar, and the buzz is completely gone. Once again, there is hardly anybody around and once again you will be overwhelmed by the desolation of the place. A lot of buildings look abandoned, furniture left to rot on the streets. Many blinds are down.

E within H1, Israeli soldiers stand to guard some buildings, armed in their watch towers and observing every move. 

In the old bazaar you will meet some local shop owners, who – like the Jewish settlers on the other side – share their story and views with you. Looking up, you will realize that on top of the crumbling old buildings of the bazaar stand shiny, stone buildings inhabited by the Jewish settlers. It doesn’t make any sense to see Jewish settlements on areas that are evidently Palestinian (as if the separation made sense at all, actually).

As if this wasn’t enough, a roof of wire mesh works as a separating net between the two levels. Throughout the years this has acted like a sieve, collecting stones, plastic and glass bottles (at times containing urine or bleach), cans and any other items that the settlers have allegedly thrown below to their Palestinian neighbors.

It’s disturbing to know that such things can happen, especially when taking into account that less than a century ago Palestinians and Jewish people lived peacefully next to each other.

West Bank

Desolated streets in the Palestinian side of Hebron – Israeli soldiers patrol some buildings there too

Guided Hebron tours

The Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron is offered by Abraham Tours every Sunday and Wednesday. It costs or $85 USD. While it is not necessary to take a guided tour of the city and tourists are perfectly safe there, I recommend going on a guided tour to get better insights on the history and politics of the city.

You can book your tour of Hebron here.

Getting to Hebron

You can easily get to Hebron from Jerusalem by public bus from the Central Bus Station. The bus has bullet proof windows. After making several stops along the way, it stops right outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The overall journey lasts around one hour.

Hoping for peace

Violence in Hebron is a tragic reality, but it occurs in waves. It is now facing a period of relative peace after the conviction of Elor Azaria. Attacks happen on both sides, carried out by Hamas forces as well as by the Kach Party (a Jewish terrorist organization). Tourists may feel discouraged to visit, but they are hardly a target.

Before visiting Hebron you will walk in with your own ideas. During your visit you will quickly learn that it is not nearly as black and white as you may think, and you may leave more confused than when you started.

You will keep wondering why the Palestinians and Jews of Hebron can’t live in full peace today, as they have done for centuries. Why are they so stubborn, fighting over seems like useless matters of principle, and can’t just accept that yes, tragic events have occurred in the past, but it is time to move on and finally forgive.

Further readings

Make sure to read my other posts on the West Bank and on Israel:

Note about the comments: I know that the Palestinian – Israeli conflict is a controversial topic, but keep your comments civil. I appreciate disagreement but I won’t tolerate rudeness and profanities.

Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Abraham Tours during my visit of Hebron, however all the views expressed are my own.

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Where To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka

Where To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka

A safari in Sri Lanka is a great way to admire the incredible wildlife variety that this country has to offer.

Though most people think of African countries when they hear the word “safari,” you should know that Asian countries such as India, Nepal and especially Sri Lanka are great wildlife viewing destinations.

There are many fantastic national parks in Sri Lanka that you can choose from to do a safari. However, you have to pick wisely depending on the kind of experience you want to have, and you have to go prepared knowing what to expect and what to look for.

I have been on a few safaris in three different national parks in Sri Lanka, and each place offered a different experience. In this post, I highlight three of the best places to do a safari in Sri Lanka, and share some information and considerations that will help you pick the most suitable one.

But, first of all, let me explain why you really should consider doing a safari during your trip to Sri Lanka.

Safari in Sri Lanka

A safari in Sri Lanka is simply a must!

Why You Should Consider Doing A Safari In Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is blessed with an incredibly lush landscape, perfect for wildlife to thrive. Chances are that even if you don’t actually go to one of the 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, you’ll end up spotting animals here and there.

Among the species you’ll be able to spot there are Asian elephants (around 7000 currently live in Sri Lanka), which are a bit smaller than their African cousins, with the majority having no tusks (something researchers say is a result of evolution to minimize the risk of being poached). You can spot them in many places, and in regions with the highest concentration you may come across them even while you drive – elephant crossing signs are quite common in Sri Lanka, just as actual elephants crossing! (I saw a couple myself).

You’ll also have a chance of seeing water buffalos, jackals, bears, spotted dears, a wealth of bird species, and if you are really lucky you will be able to see leopards – it is said that around 100 leopards live just in the area of Yala National Park.

Another reason to do a safari in Sri Lanka is that it is very budget friendly. Safaris are normally associated with luxury, and to be fair they usually are. Thanks to the small national park fees and the overall budget friendly costs of traveling in Sri Lanka, doing safaris in this country is actually much easier than anywhere else in the world. This obviously has its consequences – but I will talk about it later on in this post.

Gal Oya National Park

Gal Oya National Park is a lesser visited one

3 Beautiful National Parks To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka

With a whopping 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, picking one for a safari is a difficult task. Each park offers something different in terms of landscape, wildlife and overall experience.

Some parks are a bit more difficult to reach compared to others, and have less accommodation options nearby, which in turns means that they are lesser visited and you are bound to having a more private experience.

Other parks are significantly more accessible and, because of that, more crowded. With crowds, animals tend to retreat to safety and spotting them may become more difficult.

My advice is to pick a park which is within your itinerary – with so many parks to pick from, it wouldn’t make any sense to go out of your way!

Now, without any further ado, let me tell you about my favorite national parks for a safari in Sri Lanka.

Gal Oya National Park

Of all the national parks in Sri Lanka, Gal Oya has to be my favorite. I went during my first trip to the country and fully enjoyed my time there.

Located on the eastern part of the island, Gal Oya was established in 1954. It’s one of the largest national parks in Sri Lanka, and one of the lesser visited, thanks to the blissful isolation and the fact that there are very few accommodation options nearby. Chances are that if you go for a safari there, you won’t see many other visitors.

Gal Oya is a prime destination for elephant watching, but you’ll also be able to see spotted dears, crocodiles and various species of birds.

At Gal Oya you’ll have the chance to either do a classic jeep safari, in cars that fit up to six passengers, or a boat safari (this is the only place in the country where you’ll have the chance of doing that) in Sri Lanka’s largest man made lake. Safaris start very early in the morning, or in the late afternoon, when the days is cooler and animals are out and about feeding.

Various companies run safaris in Gal Oya National Park. I recommend joining game drives led by Gal Oya Lodge, as they are run in full respect of animal welfare by experienced and knowledgeable guides.

Should you want to book a safari in Gal Oya online, these are some options:

How to get to Gal Oya National Park

Getting to Gal Oya National Park via public transportation is not easy – and this is probably why not that many people go.

The closest large town is Bibile, which can be easily reached by public transportation from Kandy and other places in the Hill Country. From there, you can take another bus towards Ampara, or a tuk tuk, to go all the way to Gal Oya Lodge, which usually is the place where visitors stay when visiting the national park. The ride from Bibile to Gal Oya Lodge usually lasts around 45 minutes.

Where to stay near Gal Oya National Park

Gal Oya Lodge is the only good place place to stay near Gal Oya National Park. It’s not cheap at all, but it is 100% sustainable, entirely immersed in nature, and they organize game drives with well trained rangers. The on site restaurants serves delicious food. There is no phone reception, so you will be blissfully isolated. Check here for rates and here for reviews.

Kaudulla National Park

Kaudulla National Park is an excellent place to see elephants

Kaudulla National Park

Together with Minneriya, Kaudulla is home to some of the largest elephant gatherings in the world. Elephant gatherings usually take place between June and November, when the levels of water decrease and elephants move from one area to the other in search for food and drink.

Going on a safari in Kaudulla means you’ll have the chance of seeing the highest number of elephants you can think of – there are hundreds of elephants (adult male and females, juveniles, and even new borns) all close to each other, grazing through the grass. Other animals you may be able to see are storks, fish eagles, and leopards (though the latter are not seen very often).

The main drawback of doing a safari in Kaudulla National Park is that it is very crowded. Getting there is easy if you are staying in the area of Dambulla and Sigiriya, and with the budget rates to get in the park, this means that there generally are quite a few jeeps driving around in search of elephants.

In other words, if you are going for a safari in Sri Lanka pick Kaudulla knowing that this won’t be a private experience. It’s still better than Minneriya, which is even more crowded – to the point that elephants are now accustomed to jeeps and their migratory route has been changing because of that.

At Kaudulla you’ll be able to go for a morning or afternoon game drive, which usually lasts between two and three hours, to which you should add the time to travel from and back to your hotel. You’ll be going around in a jeep that sits up to six passengers, and that has a canvas roof that can be put down so that you can stand up and take photos. Unfortunately, when I visited it was pouring – so the roof had to stay on.

Safaris in Kaudulla can be arranged directly from your hotel, which will take care to find a good jeep and driver for you. The price of the safari will include the fee for the jeep (this is usually fixed and can be shared among passengers) and the entry fee to the park. Any tip for the driver / guide is an added cost.

Alternatively, you can book your safari in advance online. These are some good options:

The Crowded Planet has a full guide about Kaudulla National Park you may find useful.

How to get to Kaudulla National Park

Most people visit Kaudulla National Park from either Polannaruwa or Dambulla / Sigiriya. From either towns, it is an easy tuk tuk drive. Alternatively, you can join a tour that directly departs from your hotel.

Where to stay near Kaudulla National Park

The best place to stay near Kaudulla National Park is Dambulla. There, the best hotel is by far Jetwing Lake. The hotel has spacious rooms decorated in traditional local style, with views of a beautiful lake and park. There is a 72 meters long pool, a spa where you can get beauty treatments and massages for a real steal, a buffet restaurant and even a Chinese restaurant. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews

Yala National Park

An elephant showing signs of stress at Yala National Park

Yala National Park

Of all the national parks to do a safari in Sri Lanka, this is my least favorite. Yala National Park is the second largest and by far the most famous national park in Sri Lanka. The wildlife variety in Yala is outstanding. There are 215 species of birds; more than 40 mammals including elephants and leopards (it is said that around 100 live in the park, making it the one with the highest density of leopards in the world) and sloth bears; reptiles such as crocodiles and the cobra.

Yala National Park is divided in five different sectors, and visitors normally get to visit one or two at the most – the majority goes to sector 1, as it is the easiest one to reach. Some tourists occasionally go to sector 5.

The main issue with Yala is that, because it is so popular and so easy to reach, it is extremely crowded with jeeps. Chances are that you will see a line at the gate well before opening time, at 6:00 am, and as soon as you get in, jeeps will start racing and driving recklessly, passing other jeeps from all sides, so that they have a chance to be the first ones and the first in line at an animal sighting.

As a result of the crowds and the noise, animals tend to hide more than usual, or they show signs of stress – an elephant charged a jeep right in front of ours when we visited!

Despite the fact that Yala should be a prime location for wildlife watching, the overall experience tends to be a bit disappointing.

Safaris in Yala usually start very early in the morning, or in the late afternoon. They last around 3 hours, during which you go around in a jeep, including heading to a beautiful, secluded beach.

You can book your safari in Yala through your hotel, and even online. This is a good selection:

How to get to Yala National Park

The closest town to Yala National Park is Tissamaharama, which can be easily reached from Ella (around 2 hours) or even Galle (3 hours).

Where to stay near Yala National Park

You will find a good range of budget accommodation options in Tissamaharama.

If you are opting for something more comfortable, go to Jetwing Yala – it has gorgeous rooms in a nature setting, and it is very close tot he park. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews

peacock in Yala

Peacocks are a common sight in Yala National Park

Practical Information And Tips For Doing A Safari In Sri Lanka

The best time for a safari in Sri Lanka

National parks in Sri Lanka are open for safaris year round, so you can really go when you want. Having said so, the best time to do a safari in Sri Lanka is usually the dry season, as more animals are out at the fewer water sources, and this means you’ll have more opportunities to spot them. On the other hand, dry season also means more crowds!

GOOD TO KNOW: Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, so different parts of the country are hit with rain in different months. Keep this in mind when planning where to go for a safari.

How long to factor in for a safari in Sri Lanka

This is totally up to you! However, Sri Lanka is not like Africa and you don’t have to spend days doing a safari. Most safaris take half a day, or a day at most, which I am sure you can easily spare in your itinerary. If you really want to extend your safari experience, you could consider going glamping in places like Gal Oya, where you’d have a whole range of other activities to keep you entertained for days.

The costs of a safari in Sri Lanka

Doing a safari in Sri Lanka is really not expensive – and that’s probably part of the reason why parks are so crowded.

This is a typical breakdown of costs:

$25 USD for the park entry fee – to be paid in Sri Lanka Rupees, and according to the daily exchange rate.

$35 USD – around 6000 Sri Lanka Rupees – for the jeep rental, to be shared among the various members group.

Additional tip for the driver.

Elephant in Yala

An elephant literally surrounded by jeeps in Yala National Park

Issues with safaris in Sri Lanka

Safaris in Sri Lanka aren’t nearly as nicely regulated as they are in Africa.

First of all, the government doesn’t limit the amount of jeeps that can get into a park. National parks thus end up being terribly crowded, and the fact that there is no regulation establishing how close to an animal you can get only adds to that – with cars that really get too close.

Jeep drivers behave terribly bad – they race among themselves to get closer to animals; they encircle them; and the end result is that animals are so stressed that they even charge the cars (I saw an elephant doing that in Yala). I have also been told that a reason why drivers behave so badly in parks is that they feel the pressure of pleasing their tourists and showing them more wildlife, so that they get higher tips.

Tips for a better safari experience

Having said so, if done properly a safari in Sri Lanka can be an incredible experience!

So, here are a few tips to make sure that your safari runs smoothly:

  • Do your research before you go! Check reviews of tour companies running safaris in search of signs of bad behavior. Do tourists mention the car getting close to animals, rather than the opposite? Do they mention reckless driving or chasing wildlife? If so, then it’s a big no no.
  • Make sure you tell your driver that you won’t tolerate any bad behavior. Tell him that you won’t accept speeding, chasing animals, and driving recklessly through the park.
  • Look for reviews pointing to a good guide that shows excellent knowledge of the local wildlife.

Make sure to read my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”

What to wear for a safari in Sri Lanka

The main key when doing a safari, anywhere in the world, is to wear color neutral clothes. Go for comfortable pants vs. a dress or skirt, as there are likely to be mosquitoes; make sure to wear shoes rather than sandals for the same reason; and wear a long sleeves shirt. A hat will be necessary if you are going in the dry season and the canvas roof of the jeep is rolled up.

Remember to put sun block on, and to carry enough water for the duration of the safari. And don’t forget your camera!

For a more detailed guide, head over to my post “What To Wear On Safari.”

Further readings about Sri Lanka

For further readings about Sri Lanka in general, you can check one of these books:

Make sure to also read my other posts about Sri Lanka:

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau during my trip to Sri Lanka, and I wish to thank them for the incredible trip and all the useful insights. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain mine. 

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A Complete Guide To Where To Stay In Bogota

A Complete Guide To Where To Stay In Bogota

Deciding where to stay in Bogota can be challenging. But with the tips and tricks shared in this post, you won’t have any issue finding the best accommodation to suit your needs.

Though in the past people who visited Colombia would rather avoid Bogota as they perceived it as a dangerous place, the capital of Colombia has been working hard to shake off its bad reputation and in recent years it has become an important tourist destination in South America, and it is thought to be one of the best cities in Latin America.

Visit Bogota and you’ll be impressed by its array of interesting sights, good museums, excellent restaurants, cultural activities and nightlife. What’s more, Bogotanos are fantastic people – welcoming, open minded, friendly. In other words, it would be a pity to miss Bogota during your trip to Colombia.

There are some very good hotels in Bogota – but also some very bad ones. Some areas are great, others interesting but not tourist friendly. And some continue to remain just plain dangerous and you should stay away from them.

The city is massive, and your decision on where to stay will inevitably affect your experience there – indeed, some areas are more budget friendly but lack good restaurants; other areas are packed with things to do but are also more expensive.

In this post, I will help you find where to stay in Bogota, selecting the best areas to stay, the main highlight of each area as well as any safety concern; and pointing out to the best hotels and hostels in each of them.

Where to stay in Bogota

Bogota is massive, but public transportation works well

5 Things To Consider When Deciding Where To Stay In Bogota

Bogota is huge (and traffic can be an issue)

With more than 10 million inhabitants, Bogota is one of the largest cities in South America. In a city that crowded, traffic is inevitably an issue and it can take a long time to travel from one place to the other – you need to keep this in mind when deciding where to stay, as depending on that you will have to make use of public transportation or taxis.

The good news is that the web of public transportation works quite well, with the TransMilenio bus system using a dedicated lane and running from around 5:00 am in the morning until 11:15 in the evening. TransMilenio connects the center of town to the airport, and links the various neighborhoods.

Taxis in Bogota are everywhere, but you have to haggle the prices before getting on, and as there is no preferred lane for taxis your chances of getting stuck in traffic are high.

If you are a keen biker, depending on where you base yourself you may want to rent a bike. Bogota is indeed extremely bike friendly, with dedicated lanes running through the city.

The weather in Bogota isn’t exactly nice

There is nothing tropical about the weather in Bogota – in fact, it feels more like good old England for it rains so much. Located at 2600 meters above sea level and right in the heart of Colombia, Bogota gets a good dose of rain pretty much every day. And the average temperature is 13 degrees Celsius, with the hottest month being March, when it gets to a whopping 15 degrees.

Some areas are more pleasant with rain than others, as there are more museums, nice cafés and malls where you can hang out while you wait for the rain to stop.

Bogota amusement park

An amusement park in Bogota

Think about what you are looking forward to do

The main thing you need to consider when picking where to stay in Bogota is the kind of scene you are looking for, the activities you are interested in. Do you mostly want to go sightseeing and hit all the museums, churches and other places to visit? Are you looking forward to try the local specialties? Or do you just want to party?

Keep in mind that some parts of town are incredibly lively during the day, and packed with museums and places to visit, but become virtually deserted at night. Others may not offer as much in terms of cultural activities, but they offer a wider range of restaurants and are famous for their nightlife.

Make sure to read my post 17 Unmissable Things To Do In Bogota” to get a better idea of the attractions and places to visit. 

Keep your budget in mind

Bogota is mostly very budget friendly. However, some areas are more suitable than others to travelers on a budget and backpackers, as they offer a wider range of hostels and places where you can cook your own meals. There you will also find a larger selection of local budget eateries and street food. La Candelaria is generally the go-to area for backpackers, but even places like Usaquen have a good selection of hostels. Places like Zona Rosa, on the other hand, are significantly more expensive.

Some areas are still a no-no

For as much as Bogota has cleaned up in the last decade, some parts of town are still off limits to tourists, and you are better off staying away from them. Please beware that even the nicest areas are at a short distance from dodgy ones, and if you mistakenly take the wrong turn and get lost you may find yourself in an unsafe place.

Ciudad Bolivar should be avoided entirely. Cerro Montserrate, one of the nicest places to visit in Bogota for the expansive, breathtaking views, is often targeted by pickpockets and muggers. La Candelaria is safe during the day, but not as safe at night.

Let me now finally get to the aim of this post and highlight where to stay in Bogota. I will start with my favorite area.

My Views On The Best Area To Stay In Bogota

When I visited Bogota for the first time I stayed in La Candelaria. I honestly regretted it. The area is nice and lively during the day, with plenty of places to visit, things to do and people out and about. But comes 7:00 pm everything shuts, it is hard to find a decent place to eat (the only way around that is getting a hostel that allows you to use the kitchen) and there is virtually nobody around.

With this in mind, I came to the conclusion that the best area to stay in Bogota is Zona Rosa, which is where there are the best hotels, the nicest restaurants and cafés, and the best bars for a good night out. Yes, it is a little bit more expensive than the rest. But to me it is worth the investment.

Bogota Cathedral

Many people opt to stay in Candelaria – but is that the best area?

Where To Stay In Bogota – The Best Overall Options

Before getting into the details of the actual areas where to stay in Bogota, let me get highlight the best hostels, apartments and hotels in Bogota, Colombia.

Best hostels in Bogota

Casa Central

Located in Teusaquillo, this hostel is very basic (you literally just get a bed and a locker) but also extremely budget friendly, with dorms costing a mere €5 per night – and breakfast is included in the price. Rooms are spacious, and the hostel is clean. There is a bar for guests, and good working wifi. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Fernweh Photography Hostel

This lovely hostel is located in the heart of La Candelaria. It features dorms as well as private rooms. There is an on site restaurant, a bar and laundry facilities and guests can use the fully equipped kitchen. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

The Cranky Croc Hostel

Another nice find in La Candelaria, this hostel only features dorms. Guests can enjoy the use of the kitchen and the on site restaurant and bar. Breakfast is served for an extra fee. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Best apartments in Bogota

93 Luxury Suites and Residences

This beautiful apartment complex is located in Chapinero and features a fitness room, a restaurant and a bar. Apartments are fully equipped for a wonderful stay, and have a good kitchen and even a living room. Families or groups can opt for the 3 bedroom one. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Apartamentos Plaza Suites

This luxury apartment complex has a fitness center, a restaurant and a bar. The fully equipped apartments are perfect for families with children, business workers and anybody who’d rather self cater. It’s located in Usaquen. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Apartaestudios La Candelaria

If you want to stay in La Candelaria but can’t be bothered sleeping in a hostel, this is an excellent option, and very budget friendly – especially if you can share. The apartments are not nearly as luxurious as the ones mentioned above, but they have everything you may need to make your stay comfortable. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Best hotels in Bogota

Hotel El Dorado Bogota

This hotel, located in Chapinero, features modern, comfortable room. There is a fitness center, a bar and breakfast is included in the price. For extra comfort, ask for the room with the hot tub. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Grand Hyatt Bogota

One of the best hotels in Bogota, and one of the few with a pool. There is a fitness center, a spa and wellness center, and a bar. Rooms are very spacious. It’s located in Teusaquillo. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Biohotel Organic Suites

This lovely ecohotel is located in Usaquen. It features spacious, modern rooms; a spa; a fitness center; a bar and even a restaurant. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Bogota best hotels

A beautiful nighttime view of Bogota

Where To Stay In Bogota – The Best Areas And Places To Stay

Zona Rosa – Where to stay in Bogota for partying

Zona Rosa is the most fashionable area of Bogota, with beautiful boutiques, some of the best shopping malls in town (El Retiro, Atlantide and Centro Comercial Andino), fantastic restaurants and the best parties in the city. It’s located in the North of the city, and most of its streets are pedestrian, which makes it nice and easy to explore. When in Zona Rosa, make sure to go dancing at La Villa or at Maroma Nightclub Bogota and enjoy a drink at The Pub. If shopping and partying are your things, this is the best area to stay in Bogota.

The area is safe, both during the day and at night.

Best places to stay in Zona Rosa

best area to stay in Bogota

Fantastic during the day; unsafe at night – that’s La Candelaria

La Candelaria – Where to stay in Bogota for budget travelers

La Candelaria can be considered the center of Bogota, and a great starting point to get to know the city. The area can be chaotic, but it’s very quaint and pretty – especially if you move to the narrow alleys packed with beautiful colonial buildings and street art.

In La Candelaria you’ll find some excellent museums such as Museo Botero and Museo del Oro; Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Center; and you’ll be walking distance from the access point to Parque Montserrate. There are some nice restaurants but you’ll mostly have to rely on street food.

Keep in mind that though it is perfectly safe during the day, it’s not nearly as safe at night – so be aware of your whereabouts if you decide to stay here.

Best places to stay in La Candelaria

Usaquen – Where to stay in Bogota for families

Usaquen is where you should stay in Bogota if you are traveling with your family, as it is packed with good hotels as well as budget options, there are many excellent places to eat, street food stalls galore, and easy access to attractions such as Usaquen Park and Usaquen Sunday Flea Market. There also are an amusement center and a shopping mall.

It’s an overall safe area to stay.

Best places to stay in Usaquen

where to stay in Bogota

Bogota has some interesting street art

Chapinero – Where to stay in Bogota for LGTB travelers

Chapinero is one of the best neighborhoods of Bogota, where the most affluent people in town live. There are many restaurants (especially in the famous Zona G), excellent hotels, and since it is centrally located it’s easy to reach all the main attractions. It’s also close to Zona Rosa, in case you want to have a night of partying.

Among the best things to do in Chapinero, shopping is probably the most popular one – there are some great shopping malls such as Unilago and Avenida Chile. Parque del Chicó and its museum is another must. Make sure to also stop by the Monument to the Heroes, which was dedicated to those who fought during the war of independence.

Chapinero is very LGTB friendly, to the point that it is referred to as Chapigay. Here you’ll find Theatron (which is the largest LGBT club in the world) as well as other bars that are gay friendly.

Best places to stay in Chapinero

Teusaquillo – Where to stay in Bogota for first timers

Teusaquillo is right at the heart of Bogota, and a perfect place to stay if you have a short time in the city and wish to explore it before you move on. It’s not as charming as La Candelaria in terms of historical landmarks, but there are some modern architectural gems as well as the famous Simón Bolívar Metropolitan Park, which has a plethora of walking trails, a lake with paddle boats and even a playground for children, who can also enjoy the Kid’s Museum and Salitre Mágico Parque de Diversiones.

The area is overall safe.

Best places to stay in Teusaquillo

hotels in Bogota

Downtown Bogota has a lot to offer

Centro Internacional – Where to stay in Bogota for business travelers

North of La Candelaria and south of Chapinero, the Centro Internacional is the banking district of Bogota, with office buildings and a few residential ones. It’s close to the National Museum of Colombia and Plaza de Toros. It’s very well connected to the rest of the city as the TransMilenio bus has several stops in the area.

It’s an overall safe area, but make sure to know your whereabouts at night.

Best places to stay in Centro Internacional

Santa Fe – Where to stay in Bogota for museum geeks

Santa Fe can be identified as Downtown Bogota. It’s a place where you’ll come across other travelers on their ways to museums, and it’s the very place you’ll see overlooking from Cerro Montserrate, which can be easily accessed. It’s where the National Museum is located – a must see if you are keen in knowing more about Colombia’s history and culture.

It’s an overall safe area, but once again keep your wits about at night.

Best places to stay in Santa Fe

Final Tips 

As for any other trip you may be taking, make sure to get a good travel insurance for your trip to Colombia. Read my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.” Get your travel insurance here.

Make sure to read my other posts about Colombia:

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Discover the best places to stay in Bogota - via @clautavani

Everything You Need To Know About Traveling To Tibet

Everything You Need To Know About Traveling To Tibet

Traveling to Tibet is an incredible experience, but you need to be prepared and know what to expect.

Few places in Asia have a stronger magnetic pull on travelers than Tibet. The Roof of the World, as Tibet is known internationally, has been on the world stage since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.

One famous Hollywood film, Seven Years in Tibet, has captured and broadcasted an image of old Tibet that is no more real: a barren mountain kingdom where people live in harmony with the mountains.

What you can expect to see if you are traveling to Tibet today is very different, of course. Modernity, coupled with the effects of Chinese intervention in the region, have certainly changed the face of ancient Tibet completely. But it’s exactly because of this situation that you should go and see Tibet with your own eyes.

There are many important things to know before you travel to Tibet, and this post will break down the essential information you need to travel to Tibet stress-free. Before doing that, however, let me explain why I think you should consider visiting Tibet.

Why You Should Consider Traveling To Tibet

There are many reasons to visit Tibet. Most people would suggest traveling to Tibet to admire its sheer beauty. But I have different views.

The most important reason to go to Tibet is because many Tibetans outside of Lhasa still live in very poor conditions. Tourism can be a very important source of income and livelihood for them. On the other hand, with so much misinformation and media manipulation, not counting a dearth of international coverage, it’s only by traveling to Tibet that one can really get a grasp of the current situation, and understand why traveling to Tibet today is so important.

Even the Dalai Lama himself said that the best way to understand his native land today is to travel to Tibet firsthand.

Tibetan boy

A cute Tibetan boy

10 Useful Things To Know About Traveling To Tibet

How to get to Tibet

You can certainly fly to Lhasa from most major Chinese cities like Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai, but the best way to travel to Tibet and adjust to the altitude is to take the train from Xining to Lhasa. It’s a 21-hour-long trip, but a very scenic journey along the world’s highest railway.

Make sure to leave Xining in the evening, so that you’ll be able to see the Tanggula Pass, which is over 5000 meters above sea level, and the beautiful scenery along the way the next morning and afternoon before reaching Lhasa.

After the terrible Nepal Earthquake destroyed the border of Zhangmu in 2015, it’s now once again possible to reach Lhasa from Nepal via the new Tibet – Nepal border at Kyirong, a bumpy 9 hours ride from Kathmandu.

However, because of altitude concerns, and also the fact that you will not be able to get a regular Chinese Tourist Visa to enter Tibet in Nepal but only a Group Permit that has stricter limitations, it is recommended that you start your Tibetan journey in China.

Going to Nepal? Make sure to read What To Expect When Walking The Poon Hill Trek, Nepal.”

Independent travel to Tibet

Like or not, independent travel to Tibet is not possible. Except for Chinese and Hong Kong nationals, everyone else must be on a compulsory organized tour, meaning it is necessary to contact a tour operator which will organize your Tibet Travel Permit and guide, driver and vehicle to explore outside of Lhasa.

This may put many adventurous travelers off, but it’s a strict rule and I don’t recommend trying to sneak inside Tibet from China without a permit. You may be able to make it, but you’ll also face fines, a ban, or at worst, imprisonment, for trying that out.

I traveled with Explore Tibet and can recommend their services. They only employ Tibetan staff and guides who speak very good English, a must if you want to get valuable explanations during your compulsory tour of Tibet.

If you’d rather go with an international company, G Adventures has some tours that also go to Tibet. This one starts in Beijing and ends in Kathmandu; whereas this one goes for the Kailash Saga Dawa Festival.

Visit Tibet

Gorgeous Tibetan landscape

The cost of traveling to Tibet

Traveling to Tibet is not cheap: a hard sleeper (which actually is a very comfortable sleeping berth) ticket on the train from Xining to Lhasa costs around $80 USD, and tours of Lhasa start at around $300. For longer tours, including the 8-days overland tour from Lhasa to the Nepal border I was on, expect to spend between $1100 and $1300 USD.

Also consider that most tour operators offer entry tickets to the sights and accommodation as part of their packages, but note that food is not always included and has to be paid for separately. Food is more expensive in Tibet than elsewhere in China – expect to pay around 20 Renminbi (RMB) (around $3 USD) for a simple noodle meal that would cost 12 RMB outside of Tibet.

TIP: You can certainly try to slash the costs of your tour to Tibet down by booking your own accommodation in Lhasa on sites such as Booking.com. (Continue reading below for a list of recommended hotels in Lhasa).

It’s important to make sure of what is and what is not included in the cost of your Tibet tour. Talk to your tour operator and don’t be afraid to ask important questions.

TIP: don’t get the cheapest deals offered by China-based companies, as this often means terrible accommodation, bad buffet food, and guides who can barely speak Chinese – English is not contemplated.

Consider where your money goes: if you decide to spend and come to Tibet, it’s better to benefit a Lhasa-based, local tour operator that only works with Tibetans and thus helps them improve their livelihoods. Don’t save money to end up having a less than stellar experience, because you’ll probably want to splurge to come to Tibet only once in life.

Head over to the post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”

Everest Base Camp

The views from Everest Base Camp

Risks of Acute Mountain Sickness in Tibet

Another very important thing to consider when traveling to Tibet is the altitude you will experience and the risk it entails.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is not to be taken lightly, as it can be lethal if not treated appropriately.

The best way to go around this is to acclimatize by remaining at the same altitude for a while before ascending to higher altitudes. This is the reason why most tours of Tibet start with 2 to 3 days of acclimatization in and around Lhasa. A visit to the Potala Palace, with its steep staircases, is reserved for your last day in town.

Risk of AMS is also the reason why it’s better not to fly into Lhasa: catch the train, and consider spending at least a few days in and around 2275 meters above sea level Xining before moving on to Lhasa.

On a practical note, if you love the Himalayas, don’t think you’ll see the same scenery in Tibet. The hill stations of North India are a much better place for that. Tibet has amazing scenery, but it’s more about lakes, meadows and monasteries. You will only see the Himalayas when approaching the Nepal border and Everest Base Camp.

People of Tibet

People of Tibet

How to move around Tibet

As foreigners cannot move around independently, the only way you have to travel around Tibet is using the vehicle provided by your tour company.

You can’t take buses between cities, and if you manage to, roadblocks will make it very hard to continue as you’ll be sent back to Lhasa and deported. You can catch public buses within Lhasa city, but be careful as even visiting the outlying monasteries requires the presence of a licensed tour guide.

Five Unmissable Places To Visit When Traveling To Tibet

Tibet has many places to see and you won’t be able to see everything on your first trip. The following are some of the unmissable places to see in Tibet you should consider on your first visit.

Lhasa

Tibet capital is stuck between modernity, globalization and deep and ancient traditions.

The city revolves around the Barkhor square, at whose center is the Jokhang Monastery, Tibet’s most sacred temple. You will see pilgrims complete their journeys of devotion here, bending to the floor at every step.

The Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, is Lhasa’s most important sight, together with other interesting monasteries such as Drepung and Sera, where you will be able to see monks practicing their traditional debates around 3:00 pm daily.

Yamdrok Lake

This freshwater lake set about 100km south of Lhasa on the way to Gyantse is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet and over 72-km long. It’s a main stop along the route between Lhasa and Nepal, and a very beautiful place indeed. Tibetans await on the shore with their yaks and mastiffs to offer tourists a chance for a particularly scenic selfie shot. Yes, it’s a bit touristy, but consider that you are giving some money to needy locals.

Sakya Monastery

Sakya Monastery, one of the unmissable places to visit

Sakya Monastery

This beautiful monastery on the way to Shigatse is the seat of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism and soars in the middle of the town of the same name. Surrounded by high cliffs, it’s a very scenic place to visit in Tibet.

The monastery is divided into two parts: the old one is abandoned and crumbling, set high on one side of the valley, while the current working monastery is surrounded by the new town. Beside observing monks in prayer and the monastery’s huge halls filled with ancient statues, Tibetan wooden-bound books and artifacts, you can spend some time hiking around the valley.

Everest Base Camp

The highest mountain in the world shares the border between Nepal and Tibet, and it’s easily accessible from the Tibetan side. A newly introduced eco-bus service helped keeping the area cleaner since mid–2019, and private vehicles are no longer allowed – similarly, the former base camp is now closed to camping and tourists.

Travelers stay in a tented camp near the Rongbuk monastery, at 5200 meters above sea level – the highest in the world.

TIP: Try to arrive in the morning, when views of the mountain are best.

Remember that getting a glimpse of the Everest is all up to your luck. you can’t expect to see Everest on any given day, and since you’ll be scheduled on a rigorous tour, you just have to wish for the clouds to part, and the mountain to give you a much coveted photo opportunity. It is, indeed, a majestic sight, and I feel very fortunate to have witnessed it in full.

Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar

Mount Kailash, stuck in Tibet’s far west, is the most sacred mountain and attracts many pilgrims, both Hindus from nearby India, and Buddhists, who come here to perform a kora – the ritual circumnavigation of the mountain.

You can join them and explore one of Tibet’s most remote regions, but please remember that coming here from Lhasa is a long trip, and tours including visits to Mount Kailash are expensive because they last around two weeks.

Nearby Lake Manasarovar is a sacred freshwater lake, revered both in India and Tibet, and an important stop if heading out west on the Kailashís circuit.

Tibet landscape

The landscape can at times be barren

When to travel to Tibet

Traveling to Tibet is possible year round except for several weeks between February and March, as this is the time of some sensitive anniversaries – in particular, the 2008 Tibet rebellion that started all of these travel restrictions. During this time, Tibet shuts down and tourists are not allowed to visit.

The best time to travel to Tibet is the summer, when the weather is warmer, but not the clearest.

The best mountain views are in November and December, but snow and punishing cold make a trip to Tibet an option only for the most hardcore adventurers.

Spring and Autumn until early October are also good times to visit Tibet, as there are less tourists, prices go down a bit, and you’ll have the attractions all to yourself. Avoid Chinese holidays, when Tibet, and Lhasa in particular, fills up with domestic tourists.

Where to stay and eat in Tibet

Lhasa has of course Tibet’s best dining and accommodation options, including some of the world’s best hotel franchises like Sheraton and Holiday Inn, which returned to the region only as of late.

A stay in one of the many boutique hotels around the Barkhor is highly recommended. The more you move to the west and out of Lhasa, the less you are likely to find good accommodation options. Still, cities like Shigatse and the one-horse town of New Tingri, on the way to Everest, have some good hotels.

Below are some of the hotels I recommend you check out in Lhasa.

Mid Range Hotels in Lhasa

High End Hotels in Lhasa

Eating in Lhasa

Lhasa, and especially the Barkhor area, have plenty of dining options offering all sorts of foods.

For a blend of Tibetan food and Western styles try Makye Ame, right on the corner of the square next to the globalized Pizza Hut and McDonalds outlets.

Tibetan Family Kitchen, on a main road on the western end of the Barkhor, is a gem in Lhasa: you’ll sample a wide range of Tibetan dishes in a communal atmosphere.

Tibet travel

Traveling to Tibet is costly, but rewarding

Safety concerns in Tibet

As you’ll be traveling with a guide all the time, there are no big security concerns when traveling to Tibet.

Lhasa, the only place where you’ll have some freedom of movement, is extremely safe and controlled by many police officers, who stand by the many entry checkpoints around the Barkhor. You will have to scan your bags when entering, not going out – cooperate and you won’t have any issues.

One thing to pay attention to, however, are dogs in remote areas. You will encounter Tibetan mastiffs most likely only on multi-day treks, but even if you intend visiting some nomadic villages, make sure you don’t stray too far from your guide because these dogs are very territorial, and pretty big.

Final considerations on traveling to Tibet

This guide should have clarified all the aspects involved in travel to Tibet.

It is a bit expensive but safe, and definitely an experience to treasure for a lifetime.

You will be able to witness an ancient and charming culture, and see how Chinese intervention on one hand, and globalization on the other, have changed this land and its people.

For sure, one may have ethical concerns while traveling to Tibet, but the best way to get over stereotypes is to go, see, and experience it by yourself.

With tour operators taking care of you, traveling to Tibet is safe and easy, and you’ll be left with the main task of taking pictures and enjoying the trip.

Would I do it again? I am not sure: if on the one hand the lure of going back and traveling to Tibet is great, on the other, a combination of lack of freedom of movement and a constant control puts me off a little in returning. But of course, I had dreamt of going, and I would certainly say please go at least once in life to any adventurous traveler.

Other useful information 

I recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip to Tibet. Get yours here.

Check out the post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

Further readings

For further readings about Tibet, check out the post Top 10 Tips For Hiking In Tibet.”

You may also want to consider getting hold of one of these guidebooks:

This post was written by guest author Marco Ferrarese of Monkey Rock World. Photo credit Kit Yeng Chan.

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Find out what you need to know before traveling to Tibet - via @clautavani

Read what you need to know before you travel to Tibet - via @clautavani