Israel's mysterious ‘Grand Canyon’
However, for most travellers, the most immersive way to explore the crater is by hiking one of its many trails. One popular trek is the Ein Saharonim Trail, which starts in the middle of the crater, a 20-minute drive south of Mitzpe Ramon at the Be’erot Camp Ground. Run by a local Bedouin tribe, the camp offers large dorm tents as well as fresh mint tea and black coffee for a handful of shekels. The 5km circular trail leads to the 2,000-year-old ruins of the Saharonim Stronghold, an ancient station on the Nabataean Spice Route. The Nabataeans were ancient Arabs who spoke Aramaic, lived in caves and built cities such as Petra in Jordan. At one point, the Spice Route stretched from India to Rome, passing through Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Ethiopia and what was then Judea. Not much remains of the old stronghold, which was an inn for traders, but the views from this elevated position in the middle of the crater are spectacular.
Other maktesh hikes maktesh include a mostly flat 2.5km trek down Nahal Ardon (a desert valley), which also ends with fantastic views, or the more challenging 9km trek to Mount Ramon on the crater’s southern edge, passing the seven volcanic rock hills called the Ramon Horns.
Due to the intense desert sun, it is advisable to start early, take plenty of water and wear a hat. However, the town of Mitzpe Ramon, situated 900m above sea level, is actually one of the coldest places in Israel, especially at night. The best times of year to visit are March to June or September to November, when temperatures hover at a pleasant 20 to 30C.
There is no shortage of accommodation options in Mitzpe Ramon. In the past decade, many of the once-abandoned hangars in the town's old industrial zone have been turned into alternative art galleries, shops and studios. Adama, a large warehouse that is now a dance and meditation centre, offers tepee-like stays.
Just around the corner you can try some good home cooking at Hakatzeh (2 Har Adon St). This cosy family-run restaurant serves dishes such as meatballs with aubergine and couscous, beef goulash and some of the best labneh (white cheese made from yoghurt) in Israel, pared with pita bread and olives.
On the same street is Chez Eugene, an upmarket gastro-chef restaurant and small boutique hotel. Inspired by French-Belgian cuisine, Eugene offers succulent steaks, salmon and goose breast, plus each room is designed with funky furniture and contemporary art.
The most prominent hotel is undoubtedly Beresheet, an ultra-luxurious 111-room resort at the town's eastern entrance that opened in 2011. Unlike anything else in town, Beresheet (which means Genesis in Hebrew) has an infinity pool overlooking the crater, several private pools and a gourmet restaurant with jaw-dropping views. Guests are transported around the resort on golf carts while soft jazz is pumped from speakers.
At the other end of the town, the Green Backpackers also opened in 2011 in a quiet cul-de-sac off Nahal Zia Street. This cute budget hostel has soft carpets, laundry service, second-hand books, free wi-fi, a DVD library, a travellers’ message-board and shared recipes in the communal kitchen.
The most remote place to stay in Mitzpe Ramon is Silent Arrow, situated 700m west of town down a bumpy dirt track. Here, travellers can sleep in a communal Bedouin tent or in private dome tents, where the only sound you will hear is that of your own snoring.