Until recently, the notion of getting to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an American was a far-fetched and unachievable. Tourist visas were functionally impossible to come by until late 2019 when Saudi Arabia instituted an efficient online process that delivers your visa within minutes of receiving your application. Since then, the country has been working to create a tourism industry where there never was one before. When I heard that Jared and Rachel of Percussive Tours were planning to travel to Saudi Arabia, I was eager to join them in exploring a country with rich history that is going through a period of massive change. I knew that this would be different from any trip I’d taken before and I couldn’t wait to be there.
Luckily I wouldn’t have to wait long, as we finalized plans and booked everything just a couple of weeks before the trip. It hadn’t really sunk in yet that we were actually going to Saudi Arabia by the time our cab driver pulled up to the door of our Airbnb in Diriyah, just outside of the capital city of Riyadh.
Before we could even identify which house on the street was our Airbnb, two men approached us and struck up a conversation. Their names were Mohammed and Nasser, and they quickly invited us over for tea. Mohammed spoke very good English and he explained that he had gone to school in the US as we followed them into a nearby yard. We left our luggage and shoes outside when they invited us into a sitting room full of their family members. Everyone was sitting on the floor, playing cards, smoking shisha, and drinking tea and coffee. They offered us coffee, tea, snacks, and set up a hookah for us to share. After Mohammed introduced us to his family and we chatted for a while, he and Nasser drove us around Diriyah, mentioning points of interest along the way.
I noticed small groups of people gathered together along the roadsides, clearly sharing coffee and conversation with each other in the cool hours after dark. Mohammed pointed out that women were walking alone after dark and explained that they were able to do so because the area was extremely safe. Eventually they pulled into the parking lot of a supermarket so that we could pick up some food (which they insisted on buying for us). I was feeling completely dumbfounded by their hospitality and kindness by the time we arrived back in the neighborhood. We took some pictures with them and then said goodnight, and Mohammed called our Airbnb host to let us know we were ready to check in.
Our host, who was also named Mohammed and had also studied in the US, showed us around our chalet, and soon an Uber Eats driver arrived with a massive dinner that Mohammed and Nasser had ordered for us. It was Saudi food, but it tasted a lot like comfort food from the Southern US, and there was so much that we were able to save some to eat the next day. We got to bed late (which didn’t really matter because jet lag kept me up most of the night anyway), and the next morning we again had an Uber Eats driver drop off a fantastic breakfast of mezze that Mohammed had ordered for us. The trip had barely started, and we were all absolutely blown away by the amazing welcome our new friends had shown us.
Breakfast also produced a healthy amount of leftovers, so we knew we wouldn’t be hungry for the rest of our time in Riyadh. After stowing everything in the fridge, we took an Uber into the city where we visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia. The attendants didn’t charge us admission because we were visitors, and we were once again floored by the hospitality we were experiencing. We spent the entire morning exploring the museum’s exhibits and absorbing as much information as we could. The museum was completely empty of visitors so we were able to really take our time going through the fascinating collections.
We had an afternoon tour scheduled, but we still had a couple of hours to fill once we left the museum, so we went into a souk so Jared could buy a thawb (the traditional white tunic worn by most Saudi Arabian men in the summer months). There was also time to go out to lunch at Najd Village which was a restaurant with private dining rooms decorated in traditional Najd (a region in the middle Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) style.
But the most exciting part of the day started when we met up with our guide, Salman of Riyadh Hiking, for an afternoon tour out to the Edge of the World. We would have to drive 90 minutes into the desert to reach the dramatic canyon that juts up from its perfectly flat surroundings, but the ride was just as fun as the destination itself because Salman made frequent stops to show us points of interest along the way. The first of these stops was a quick photo op at some old, crumbling buildings.
This was a very short break, and soon we were back in the 4×4, bumping along down the increasingly rough desert road. Salman made another stop to attempt to get the attention of some camels, but they were preoccupied with eating dinner and weren’t the least bit interested in taking a break to hang out with tourists. Salman wasn’t deterred, and promised us that we would look for another place to get camel selfies. He was able to deliver on his promise on our next attempt.
We pulled into a farm where the camels hadn’t gotten dinner yet, and they came right up to their fence to greet us. One camel in particular was very interested in us, and it gently nuzzled at our cheeks while we posed for photos. Another camel wore the same dopily adorable expression for our entire visit, and a couple of thick-lashed, mischievous young ones tried to nibble at my scarf.
I was so delighted with the camels that the tour could have ended right there and I still would have been happy. Vince, unfortunately, was having a worse afternoon. Something he’d eaten seemed to be disagreeing with him and he finally ended up throwing up in the dust outside of the camel pen. He spent the rest of the evening puking periodically, and trying his best to have a good time in between. He still managed to put on a good face and pet the camels though.
After some more driving, Salman stopped the vehicle once again, leading us to a hole in the ground with a ladder protruding from it. He climbed partway down the ladder and said “Yalla,” which means “Let’s go.” I was the next one to follow him into the cave. Rather than the usual cold, damp atmosphere of the caves I’ve explored in Kentucky, this cave felt more like a furnace. I could feel sweat beading on my forehead as Vince, Rachel, and Jared took turns climbing down the ladder.
Once we were all safely down the ladder, Salman shone a flashlight, illuminating the large room we were standing in, and sending a few bats flying deeper into an adjacent tunnel. We followed him into the passage, ducking as the ceiling dipped lower. Salman did his best to explain some details about when and how the cave was formed (he didn’t speak much English, and we spoke even less Arabic, but he was still good at finding ways to communicate his points). He pressed his light against the cave wall to demonstrate that some of the cave was comprised of salt deposits that gave off a translucent glow when exposed to light.
Along the passage, we found a few crevasses that housed adorable little bats (I realize that “adorable bats” is a somewhat contentious word pairing, but I guess I like what I like). As we got deeper into the cave, the bats started flying away from us in droves. We followed the colony until we hit a wall where they flew into a small hole and out of sight.
When we finally reemerged from the bat cave, the air outside felt like stepping into an air conditioned building in comparison. The sun was dipping low toward the horizon now, and the oppressive heat of the day had turned into a pleasant warm evening with a refreshing breeze. Now it was finally time to see the main attraction of the day, the Edge of the World. A short, but rough drive brought us to the edge of a tall cliff, and it became obvious how the canyon had gotten its name.
It really did feel like the world just ended right in front of us as we gazed over the expansive desert that sprawled hundreds of feet below us.
Salman enthusiastically led us on a hike to the top of a prominent cliff, stopping to take pictures of us at beautiful viewpoints along the way. I was shocked at how few other groups there were. There was only a handful of other hikers, unlike the few travel vlogs I’d watched before the trip where the cliffside was packed with visitors.
We crested the summit of the cliff just as the sun sank into a layer of haze that hovered above the horizon. With the last bit of daylight, we drank in the beautiful view before hiking back to the 4×4 where Salman started boiling water for coffee and tea.
We sat on a blanket, sipping the delicious spicy drinks, watching the twinkling lights of a distant city until the sky was full of stars. Vince used the opportunity to take a nap since he still wasn’t feeling well, but the rest of us enjoyed the peaceful feeling of being out in the wilderness alone. I was sad when we finally had to call it a night and return to Diriyah. Our tour was supposed to provide dinner, but we opted out so that Vince could get back to the Airbnb and get some sleep. Rachel, Jared, and I made a dinner out of leftovers from the meals Mohammed had sent before we also turned in.
The next day we didn’t have anything scheduled, so we stayed at the chalet until it was time to check out, where we got to spend some relaxing time in our private pool. When it was finally time to leave, we asked Mohammed (our Airbnb host) if we could leave our bags with him and come back for them before our evening flight. He invited us into his place to drop them off, and we got to meet his beautiful cat. Then he graciously offered to drive us to where we wanted to go.
We had hoped to visit Old Diriyah, but knew that our chances weren’t good because the old city was closed to the public while undergoing major construction to open up a new artisan marketplace and many new businesses to revitalize the area. This was all part of Vision 2030, which is a huge endeavor that is being spearheaded by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The KSA government is investing billions in diversifying their economy and opening up to the rest of the world, and everywhere we went in Saudi Arabia, there were major projects in the works.
Mohammed drove us to Old Diriyah on a road that went right passed the king’s farm, which looked more like a palace than a farm. He asked a guard if he could take us in to see the old town, but was given a friendly, but firm no. Instead, he drove us into Riyadh and dropped us off at the Kingdom Centre, a tall skyscraper in the middle of the city. On the way, we got to have a nice conversation with him and get his perspective on all of the major changes that have been happening in Saudi Arabia. He had been in the US studying up until around the time that Covid hit, so he had the unique experience of coming home to a country that was incredibly different than it had been when he left. He was happy with the changes, noting that the daily lives of Saudi Arabians have greatly improved in the last couple of years.
He dropped us off in the looming shadow of the Kingdom Centre, and we waved goodbye and said we’d be back in a few hours to pick up our bags. Then we went inside the building, which houses a large shopping mall, and paid for tickets to take an elevator up 99 floors to see the view from the building’s iconic Sky Bridge. My ears popped as the elevator ascended, and soon we stepped out to see a spectacular view of Riyadh through huge windows on either side of us. Tall buildings looked like miniatures from where we stood, and once again we had the whole place to ourselves.
Back on the Kingdom Centre’s main floor, we discussed how we might fill the rest of the day. Since it was outrageously hot outside (not hot for Saudi Arabia, but definitely hot for Michiganders), we decided to stay in the mall and window shop. The stores were filled with high-end fashionable clothing, and Rachel and I went into a couple of make-up stores, to our husbands’ chagrin. After eating lunch at the food court, we caught a taxi back to Mohammed’s place to pick up our bags and thank him again for the ride. Then we were off to the airport to fly to our next destination: the mountainous town of Al-‘Ula.