Up untill the last moment we hesitated whether we should go or not. The travel advisories discourage travelling to the Bekaa valley, because it is a Hezbollah stronghold. A prime target for IS because they believe Hezbollah is supporting the Assad regime in Syria. Only 20 kilometers north from Baalbek the Lebanese army was fighting.
Obviously we were in doubt and maybe crazy for even considering this trip. But the Bekaa valley is also one of the most beautiful parts of Lebanon with one of the best Roman ruins in the country. We tried to call the Tourism Information board but got no response, so we decided to head to the bus station and see if there were others like us.
How to visit Baalbek
From the Cola intersection there are still frequent buses going to Baalbek. At the bus station the bus drivers had found us before we could find them. We saw this as a good sign.
When we asked whether it was safe, our driver didn’t seem too concerned “Sure, why not? people go there every day”. It wasn’t clear who these people were, certainly no tourists, but we were happy with the answer.
Baalbek wasn’t so popular after all and it took a long time for the van to fill up. We were almost about to give up on our plan when at the last moment a big family showed up taking the last vacant seats.
Lebanon’s Bekaa valley
We were on our way and as soon as we entered the Bekaa valley I could see why this is considered to be one of the most beautiful parts of Lebanon. Small villages surrounded by vineyards and orchards with snow-capped mountains in the back. It is hard to believe that this seemingly peaceful place can get pretty violent at times.
Now everything was quiet. Although we passed several Syrian refugee tent camps that are a strong reminder of the political turmoil across the border. The fertile soil is apparently also good for growing hashish and opium poppies and the Beqaa valley has a long history of illicit drug trade.
Roman times in Baalbek
Because it was friday most shops were closed and it was eerily quiet. We quickly made our way to the ruins. A single man trying to sell his Hezbollah souvenirs approached us immediately. He had not seen any other tourists for the whole week.
The ruins were worth the visit. Where else can you wander around alone through ruins so well-preserved that it is like travelling back in time. The Greek and Romans called it the city of the sun (Heliopolis). The acropolis has several temples of which the temple of Bacchus is the best preserved.
After the ruins we headed back to find a minivan to Beirut. This time the van filled up pretty quickly and it seemed our driver was in a hurry. He was driving on full speed on a back road through the mountains. He made it to Beirut in almost two hours, but this was probably the most dangerous experience of the day.
How to visit Baalbek: logistics
It takes between 2 – 3 hours to travel from Beirut to Baalbek in the Bekaa valley. Mini vans leave when full from the Cola intersection or the Al Sayad roundabout in eastern Hamzieh.
It can take some time for the vans to fill up, but it seems there is at least one van leaving every hour.
Where to eat in Baalbek
There is a very nice restaurant in front of the ruins for lunch.
Is it safe to visit Baalbek?
Wen I was there it was a tense period with fights between the Lebanese army and IS going on, only 20 kilometers north of Baalbek, near the border with Syria.
Still, it was safe to visit the ruins in Baalbek. Despite our worries about what we saw on the news, things were quiet in the parts of the Bekaa valley that we travelled through to get to Baalbek.
Also check my post on Backpacking Lebanon: the different faces of the middle east to see all the other beautiful places that Lebanon has to offer.
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.