This is possibly earth’s weirdest beach vacation.
In a dry, rocky valley in what feels like the center of the earth, the Dead Sea is one of the natural wonders of the world. Ten times saltier than the ocean, this inhospitable body of water is like nowhere else on earth. Tourists flock here for the curative qualities of the hot dry air, saltwater, and nutrient-rich mud.
Where Is The Dead Sea Located?
The Dead Sea is located in the Middle East, at the lowest point on earth, the bottom of the Jordan Rift Valley. Jordan is to the east and Israel and Palestine are to the west. It is 1,412 feet below sea level.
How Was it Formed?
Millions of years ago, the Dead Sea was a saltwater lagoon that connected to the Mediterranean Sea. Over hundreds of thousands of years, tectonic plates shifted, raising the ground between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean and cutting off the water supply from the ocean. The Dead Sea, now a lake, became saltier over years as water evaporated. In 2011, the salinity was measured at around 34.2%, which is more than nine times saltier than the ocean. According to some readers of the Bible, the Dead Sea is the location of Sodom and Gomorrah.
What’s the Beach Like?
It’s definitely not the Caribbean, but that’s all part of the fun. Mostly rocky, sometimes sandy, and always a bit muddy, the shoreline here can make getting into the Sea a challenge. Thankfully, most resorts lay out some kind of sandbags or sunken boardwalk to make getting in a bit easier. And while the sand might not be the powdery white sand of the world’s most beautiful beaches, there’s no doubt that the landscape here is astoundingly gorgeous, with rocky mountains surrounding the sea to the east and west and lush farmland to the north. The setting is not comparable to a tropical beach or an alpine lake, but that’s what makes it such a weird and wonderful place to visit.
What’s the Water Like?
It’s hard to describe the way the Dead Sea water feels. The clarity is low–the water is filled with silt and mud and the salinity and desert landscape makes it so that almost nothing can survive in or near the water–save for a few palm trees. Contrary to what you might assume, the Dead Sea is not stinky. While the mud surrounding the Sea might smell a bit earthy, the water itself smells nice and clean. The salt water is silky smooth, but it can also be rough–there are a few rules about swimming here: No jumping (since you’ll get tiny scrapes from the tiny salt crystals), don’t get the water in your eyes (because it will sting for the better part of an hour), and don’t go in if you’ve just shaved or have any open wounds (again with the stinging).
There are no boats or watersports at all on the Dead Sea, and it’s not quite the refreshing oasis that you might believe it to be. But floating in the Dead Sea might be one of life’s most wondrous experiences.
Is It Crowded?
It depends when you go. From late spring to early fall, the Dead Sea is a ghost town. Temperatures can rise well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and during that time, the Red Sea or the Mediterranean get all the tourists. But in the late fall, winter, and early spring, the Dead Sea is the place to be–a warm spa retreat that’s just a short flight away for most Europeans.
Has it Always Been a Tourist Destination?
The Dead Sea has been a hotspot for a while–Aristotle knew about this place, and the Ancient Romans came here too. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves around the area. In the 1960s, the first major resorts were built on the Israeli side.
What’s the Draw?
Besides the supremely odd but completely wonderful feeling of bobbing around in the water, unable to sink, the Dead Sea is believed to have healing properties. Dead Sea salt has been used to treat psoriasis and eczema, and the salt is harvested and shipped all over the world for use in beauty products and home remedies. In addition, the nutrient-rich mud surrounding the dead sea creates an all-natural spa treatment. There are mud buckets set up at resorts along the shore where you can slather yourself in black, sulfur-smelling mud, lay out to dry in the hot sun, and go into the sea to clean yourself off. This process leaves skin feeling silky soft. Additionally, the Dead Sea has become a spa and resort destination in its own right, with world-class spas in five-star hotels where you can indulge in treatments and therapies from all over the world.
INSIDER TIPOf course you want to bring home a souvenir, but make sure to check the prices first. Beauty products (and Dead Sea salts) for sale at resorts in the area usually come with a whopping price tag that’s up to 10 times what you’d pay for the same product at your local health food store. Before you buy, make sure it’s something you can’t find at home.
Do Locals Go Here?
Yes. The resorts around the sea are popular with both Israelis and Jordanians, but you don’t have to stay at a resort to enjoy the healing properties of this wellness paradise. Public beaches surrounding the sea are open to locals and daytrippers.
How Big Is It?
It’s pretty small, actually, for something that’s called a “sea.” At more of a lake size, it’s 60 kilometers from north to south and about 8-12 kilometers in width, which feels more akin to Lake Como or Lake Tahoe than a sea. The size is nice, though, since it means you can always see across to the mountains on the other side of the shoreline.
Where Should I Stay?
The Dead Sea is surrounded by Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. There are no Dead Sea hotels in the West Bank, so your choices are either the dozen or so hotels in Israel, clustered around Ein Bokek and Ein Gedi, or the hotels on the eastern shore in Jordan. In Israel, especially at Ein Bokek, hotels are a bit boutiquier, like the stylish Isrotel Ganim, while the Jordanian hotels tend to be massive five-star resort complexes that frequently cater to conventions and corporate retreats, including a gorgeous Kempinski Resort and a surprisingly chic Marriott.
How Do I Get There?
It really depends on what side of the sea you plan to visit. Crossing the Jordanian/Israeli border is a breeze for most foreign tourists, but it gets complicated if you’ve rented a car or have a driver. If you’re planning on visiting Petra and Wadi Rum on your trip, visit the Jordanian side, easily accessible within an hour of the capital city of Amman. If you’re more interested in seeing the sights in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on your trip, opt for the Israeli side, where Ein Bokek is just a little over two hours from Jerusalem. Once you’ve arrived, your hotel can tell you the best place to swim–many of them have their own private beaches.
What Else Is There to Do?
Besides floating in the Dead Sea, getting massages, and DIY mud masks … not much. While that’s enough activities to occupy a week for some, more active types probably won’t want to spend more than two nights and one full day here.
Do I Need a Guide?
Not at all. There are no boats, no water sports, and not much to do besides relax and let the waters heal you. Although you don’t need a guide, it’s a good idea to bring a friend so you have somebody with clean hands to take your photo once you’re all covered in mud.