On the first week of January, we went to Abha with our friends. And that was that. Apart from our updates in our Facebook page, there was nothing written about our trip in our blog. There was a reason for that, and there’s a reason why I’m only writing about our trip now. We were underwhelmed and disappointed with our trip to Abha, and maybe with Abha itself. We’re not sure who’s fault it is. Us who were idiots enough to go to Abha during the prime of winter (malamig na nga sa Riyadh, pupunta pa sa mas malamig na lugar!) or Abha because it didn’t notify visitors that there was nothing to do in the place during that time? We were probably lost in communication.
You see, Abha has been our dream destination in Saudi Arabia since forever. We would always quip, “let’s go to Abha!” but we won’t follow through because domestic flights were a bit expensive (we’d rather go to the UAE or Bahrain if time and budget permits). In 2013, we had an attempt to go to Abha because I purchased flight tickets for my friends and I on promo at Nas Air (when Fly Nas was still called Nas Air) for SR 198 each only (roundtrip)! I bought the tickets in November 2013 for a flight on April 2014 and then we forgot about it so we weren’t able to plan and push through with it. Last December, Saudi Airlines had a promo that will take us to Abha and back to for around SR 400 only. We grabbed the chance, bought our tickets for January 3-5 flights, and planned our itinerary. (In hindsight, the Saudia promo should have sent us warning signs already.)
So you might be asking, why go to Abha when it’s already so cold in Riyadh and much colder still in Abha? Okay, we must admit that just going to Abha is reason enough. Basta makarating don! (As long as we go!) Also, I researched extensively. If you’ve been reading The Pink Tarha travel entries for a while now, you know that I’m the OC planner of our group. I prepare an itinerary that will maximize our time (I hate wasting time during trips). For this Abha trip, I read on lightly. I mean, it’s still Saudi Arabia so rules and regulations still apply. I came across an article published a few years back on how Abha was gearing for their winter tourism. WINTER TOURISM. I hope that explains the reason why we were in Abha during the dead of winter. We were excited to see the winter tourism projected in that newspaper article. We figured since that was written quite a while back, the winter tourism would already be up, about, and booming!
We were wrong. This post is looking like a rant but don’t fret. Even though we did not experience Abha as some people have told us (wrong season, guys), we were still glad to see the city that we’ve always dreamed of seeing. We were not disappointed with the weather. It was cold; the fog was all around us: it was almost heaven in the streets (except for the presence of our Careem drivers… more on that later) and we could almost kiss the skies.
Abha is the capital of the Asir province in Saudi Arabia. It lies on the western edge of Mount al-Hijaz near Jabal Sawda, claimed by some to be the highest peak in Saudi Arabia. It’s situated 2,200 meters above sea level making its climate mild all throughout the year. A lot of people considers Abha as a great mountain retreat and vacation destination. Abha is also known for its historic places such as forts and other locations thanks to the region’s cultural heritage. Abha has a lot of tourist places but we only saw one during our visit. We’ll mention them below anyways because you can go during the summer season. It’s the best, and probably the only time, tourists should visit if you want to see their tourist attractions.
How To Go To Abha
Private Car: If you have a car with a driver (hi husband!) who can and wants to drive you to Abha, then go for it. Consider it as a road trip in the deserts of Arabia! It takes 13 to 14 hours on the road, or longer since you can pace your trip according to your wants and needs. A stop in the gas stations? A picnic in the side roads? A stopover in Khamis Mushayt? Since it’s your car, you have the time in the world to go whenever you want. The negative side though is it will be tiring! More than 10 hours on the road is not an easy feat. It will take too much of your time and you might need more days for the trip instead of just a weekend.
Bus: SAPTCO buses ply the Riyadh-Abha route starting at 10:15 AM with hours interval to the next trip. The one-way fare is SR 189. The trip takes 14-17 hours with a 1-hour stop-over in Khamis Mushayt. Tickets are usually refundable and transferable. We haven’t tried this route because again, we feel like we’re too old to go such long trips on the road. We cannot stay still for that long. Haha! But it’s a good option especially if the SAPTCO bus is like the one we rode from Jeddah to Riyadh for 13 hours (in 2013, we were still young then) and from Bahrain to Riyadh just last November.
Plane: This is the option we took. Apart from Saudi Airlines, other airlines that fly to Abha are Fly Nas, Saudi Gulf, and Flyadeal. Fares are below SR 1000; it’s also good to wait on promo fares. Our fare was SR 406 per person, roundtrip. (Can you blame us if we grabbed the chance?) Domestic flights are now in the new Terminal 5 of the King Khaled International Airport. It was our first time to see this airport during our flight to Abha and I can say that Saudi Arabia finally has an airport that feels like a true airport! Haha! It’s well-designed, well-lit, and wide! It also has restaurants and cafes but we wish there will be more options opening soon. There are also designated stops for Careem and Uber.
Our flight to Abha was at 7:25 in the morning. It took an hour and a half to reach the Abha International Airport. Some airlines fly to international destinations from this airport like Air Arabia to Sharjah, Egypt Air to Cairo, Gulf Air to Bahrain and Fly Dubai to Dubai. The airport was small but it was ok; it serves its purpose efficiently. When we got out of the airport, we felt the colder air envelope us. Ooohhh this is KSA winter! We requested for Careem and off we go to our hotel. I booked our hotel through Booking.com.
There were four of us with backpacks and small luggage and we piled into a regular car. We greeted our Careem driver and we’re truly giddy with excitement. Only, our our Careem driver didn’t know where to go. Even though we pinned it in the map of Careem, he was asking us how to go there. Uhmnnn… we told him we’re first timers in the city and he must know the way to our destination. It’s there in the map! By the way, we also found out our hotel was new so it was not yet pinned in the map (one of our readers quipped that we just put them in the map with our posts, haha). So he followed the map and we finally reached our hotel.
Where To Stay In Abha
It would have been nice to just stay in an acquaintance’s house and save money. Haha! But we don’t know anyone in Abha. Our stay was for 3 days and 2 nights and so I went to Booking.com to find a hotel. Rates are quite affordable. From SR 400 above for 4 persons. We chose Al Muhaidb Residence because it looks elegant and it’s near the places we want to visit. We paid SR 840 (tax inclusive) for a 2-bedroom apartment. Not bad considering we’re going to stay in one flat with the basic amenities that we need. We also get free breakfast! If you want higher stars hotel, there’s always the Abha Palace Hotel, Abha Airport Hotel or Boudl Abha.
When we got to Al Muhaidb Hotel, we found out that it’s a fairly new hotel. They just opened last November. That’s why we couldn’t find it on the map when we were pinning our destination in Google Map. They didn’t accept credit card when we stayed there but they allowed us to pay for one night first and then pay the second night before we checked out. We asked the concierge about the cable car information and other Abha tourist attractions but they eyed us like we were not making sense. We told them we came from Riyadh and imagine our surprise when they said, “us too!” WHAT?! Lols. That was the reason they couldn’t tell us where to go and what time these attractions open.
When we went up, we discovered that their floor and room numbering were weird. Imagine room 408 in the 3rd floor?! Haha. We kept on pressing the wrong floor. Anyway, we managed to memorize our room number and floor number on the second day. We were pleasantly surprised with the apartment. It was new and clean. There were two rooms: one is the master’s bedroom with a queen size bed and the other room has twin beds. There was a small living room and there was a huge television with cable (which proved to be very crucial during our stay). The hotel wasn’t extravagant but since it was new, we enjoyed it. The lobby was decked with gold and the coffee shop there has the usual drinks. Our friend Jou enjoyed their Turkish coffee.
Where To Go In Abha
This is where it got a bit of a bummer. Turned out we couldn’t go to tourist places in Abha during the winter because they were CLOSED. WHAT?!?!?! Yup! Whatever happened to “winter tourism”? Precisely. Anyway, we tried our best to make sense of the rough itinerary I made. So here are the tourist places we were supposed to visit and see.
1. Cable Cars
So the primary attraction of Abha is its cable cars. I’ve read reviews and experiences on the cable cars of Abha but one thing didn’t make sense to me. Where does the cable car start and end? Where is the station? You see, when you read about the cable cars in Abha online, you’d think there is just one long cable line that services the whole city. Wrong. There are actually 3 cable car stations and 4 routes:
a. City Cable Car Station —> The Green Mountain
This is the most prominent cable car in the city because it’s the nearest. From the cable car station in Abu Khayal, 11 cars are used to transport people to Mount Al-Akhdar (the Green Mountain). It is said that this is the only cable car in the world that is suspended between two pillars one kilometer apart. It’s 300 meters high.
b. City Cable Car Station —> New Abha
This is the first cable car station established. It has 22 cars at a height of 400 meters and four kilometers long.
c. Al Soudah Cable Car Station —> Rijal Almaa (Heritage Village)
This is the most famous and most worthy cable car to go to. However, you need to travel 45 minutes away from the city center to go to the Soudah peak (it might be spelled as Sawdah, Soodah, Soudah… they’re all the same). It has the longest and highest cable car with a length of 3,061 meters to the lower station and descends 1, 183 meters. This is where you get to feel like you’re in heaven; with the fog and clouds all around. Beautiful, breathtaking views abound.
d. Cable Car Station —> Habala Village
This cable car crosses 650 meters at a height of 200 meters. It goes down to the ancient village of Al -Habalah, once only accessible by rope and inhabited by villagers who fled the Ottomans. It’s called the “hanging village” because it’s built on the side of a very steep cliff face.
So here’s the kicker: we didn’t get to experience any of the cable car. Three of those are closed during the winter and open only during the summer months (from June to November). Only the cable car to the Green Mountain is open during the winter. However, if you’re unlucky like us, it is probably closed too because of maintenance. No kidding. It was ridiculous; the one thing that we wanted to try in Abha, we couldn’t. Hahaha. So yup, there goes my entry about Abha. Haha! But wait, let me tell you how we found out.
So we went to the Cable Car Station near Abu Khayal Park. We were so excited; like giddy little girls expecting to ride cable cars. We’re not afraid of heights (only for Jou, a little) and we were so looking forward to riding it! When we were approaching the station, we couldn’t see a cable car running. It was a bad omen but we pushed through because what if it’s just closed for prayer you know? We saw a few people in the station taking photos. Our fear turned to reality when we could clearly see the cable cars suspended in the other line (the one going to New Abha) and no cable car was moving in the line going to Green Mountain.
We were still hopeful until the guys running the cable cars said the Green Mountain line was closed because of maintenance and ALL the other three cable car lines were closed for the winter. Our jaws dropped. I asked them, “but what about Abha’s winter tourism?!” I wanted to tear the newspaper that wrote about it (but I couldn’t because it’s digital; I read it online, haha). Napa-*facepalm” na lang kami guys!
They told us that the cable cars worked only during the summer time. We know they were silently laughing at us but they were kind enough to let us go into one of the cars and take our photos. Maybe they pitied our situation haha. Anyway, the view was filled with fog and well, the view was missing. So yeah, it does make sense to close the cable cars when you can’t see anything! But at least open the Green Mountain cable car! It would be nice to have a Facebook page for these cable cars and their schedules you know?
Anyway, we were heartbroken not to ride the cable car. All is not lost though because we can still go to the Green Mountain by Careem. It’s one of the most popular attractions of the city. From afar, the Green Mountain is really green, not because of trees or verdant plants, but of green lights that lit up at night making this hill one of the most prominent things you’ll see in the city scape. There’s a cafe and restaurant on top of it. An entrance fee was collected from our car at the guard house which gives us entry and a discount in their coffee shop. The city view is breathtaking in this part of Abha. We watched the sun set and the fog envelope the city. It was such a chill place! It’s the perfect venue to have coffee and tea but bundle up because it really gets so cold!
We also tried the following day to travel to Soudah Park just to see if we can catch the great views everyone is talking about. We Careem’ed our way to it traveling for 45 minutes. The winding roads were a treat (Baguio feels!) and some bends in the road provided good views. When we reached the Al Soudah Park, it looked like an abandoned place. We kid you not; we thought we were in a horror movie. We felt abandoned in the middle of a closed theme park in the middle of nowhere. Everything is covered in thick fog! Thankfully, our Careem driver waited and so more heartbroken than ever, we just went back to the city.
The parks in and around Abha are worth visiting though. This are the “normal” parks filled with greens and benches. From a breakfast place, we walked to Abu Kheyal Park and took some pictures. Looking at our photos in Abha, you wouldn’t think we were in Saudi Arabia. The weather was nice and it’s most conducive for having a walk. The thing is, we were probably the only persons who were walking during that time. Is it not a thing? Haha.
Apart from nature’s best, Abha also boasts of heritage and cultural places that are worth visiting… with a tour guide. Because we DIY’ed this trip, we thought we can just go to the Shada Archaeological Palace and see what’s in it. Nearby is the Muftaha Complex where the Civilizations Museum and Muftaha Theater are so we thought we can just hit two birds with one stone. So we saw the complex alright. We started taking pictures because we thought Saudi Arabia is opening up their tourism right? I mean we can take photos of a tourist place right? I was taking a picture of a tourism marker where it shows where we are and the location of other tourist places in Abha when a police officer who was in his car all the time we were walking in the complex suddenly told us it was prohibited to take pictures.
He asked me to give my phone to him and he proceeded to scroll through my camera roll checking for “prohibited” photos that I took. He was speaking in Arabic but we get the jist: he’s forbidding us to take photos. It was not allowed. I was so exasperated because first and foremost, everything in the complex was closed; even the museum! We were taking photos of the outside and if he was so incensed in us taking photos, he could have shouted at us or prohibited us from taking photos when we started taking them and not towards the end of the complex already! If he wanted me to erase the photos, I would happily oblige but he didn’t. And when he handed back my phone, I found out he was scrolling on the part of my camera roll where I had personal photos (selfies) already. We hurriedly left the complex. Again, seeing nothing of what Abha is all about.
Abha is also known for different festivals. The city is a pioneer in establishing the concept of festivals and hosting events , including musical performances, shows, and sporting events that are still ongoing. But there was nothing happening during our visit. Not that we took the time to check so that was our fault. Maybe that’s why they need tour guides for tourists in Saudi Arabia! Do not DIY any thing in this place. Or again, do not go during winter guys! What’s funnier was we were seeing signages along the way proclaiming Abha as the “Capital of Arab Tourism 2017.” It was so ironic for our experience. However, maybe because we went on the first week of 2018 and Abha stopped becoming the capital of tourism when 2017 ended??? Haha. Okay, we kid. We believe that Abha has a lot to offer. We just didn’t experience it but it doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
Where To Eat in Abha
Okay, so disappointed in the tourist attractions, what do we do? Turn to food instead and hope that Abha has good restaurants because we’ll just go on a foodie expedition! The minimal results we got from researching was not that great. Uh-oh but we forged on. First, we scouted the surroundings of our hotel first. We saw some food trucks on the lot in front of our hotel and we were happy. Only, they didn’t open during the night we stayed in Abha. We then went to the nearby bakala and found a small food shop that offers burgers and sandwiches… and a chocolate souffle that’s reminiscent of Sada Al Tahliya’s. Yum! The milk chocolate was amazing. The cake and filling proportion was not equal but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
The nearest restaurant in our hotel was Durrat China. Chinese food? Of course! You know our motto: if nothing seems delicious, go for Chinese food! We ordered a lot on our first visit because we were
hungry famished! The waiter who was taking our orders wasn’t snappy though. He was like in a trance! I asked him what the “Mixed Juice” meant and he replied, “Mixed po sya na mga juice.” Ano kuyaaaa?! Yung totoo? He proceeded to tell us what the bestsellers are but he seemed unsure. Ano ba, Abha?!?! Hahah! Anyway, we got shrimp balls (at least this is a staple, no one can butcher this food to make it not delicious), chicken and corn soup, dumplings, fried rice, and some viands that involve spicy red sauces. They were good; or are we just too hungry to care? Haha! Did you know that there’s Durrat China in Riyadh? My friends were shookt. They didn’t know! Haha.
We also had dinner in our room courtesy of a nearby Saudi restaurant. The concierge ordered some kebabs, broasted chicken, bread and rice for us and they delivered it right in our doorstep.
Of course the Green Mountain Cafe (it has a different name but I forgot) is worth visiting because of its views. I enjoyed their iced latte and their coffee bun. They’re a perfect pair. Prices are affordable.
Another one worth the view is Jorry in Abu Khayal Park. We had brunch there. We ordered omelets and toasts. It came with coffee and juice. They were pretty filling. Nothing too extraordinary but just okay. Again, the waiters weren’t too attentive. We asked them a couple of times for a warmer. We were seated in the terrace because we wanted to see the views and have sunshine on our skin but it was freezing cold. The other tables had warmers beside them so we also asked for our own. I think we caught cold already when they rolled it out. Anyway, the restaurant is in a nice pink building so ano pa nga ba? Photo op!
All the time we were there, we were checking Foursquare for dining jaunts. We couldn’t find anything that pops up from the choices that were given to us. Until we came upon their “best burger” called Origin Burger. So by this time, we were just chilling in our hotel rooms and watching movies. We wanted some good grub to tide our disappointments away so off we go in another Careem. The driver was friendly and so we asked him, “Brother, what’s there to do in Abha?” You know what he said? And this actually made sense to us. He replied, “SLEEP.” #mindblown Oo nga naman! When you’re in a place that has cold weather, it’s so gooood to catch up on sleep. #bedweather remember? It also made sense why there are so few people on the roads. We are the only stupid ones to walk in this cold weather! #anggaleng! We told him our misadventures and he kept on laughing! We also told him about out experiences with Careem in Abha. Every time we go inside the car, the driver will always ask us where we want to go. We already pinned the location! Why can’t they follow the map?!?! Some even ask us how to go there, what street to take, left or right? We’re new in the place! Kaya nga po kami nag-Careem! OMG. Hahaha. He wasn’t taking our dilemmas seriously.
Anyway, back to Origin Burger. So we told him to follow the map and he said, “yeah I know the place!” So we let him drive us around. I noticed the road we were going to wasn’t near where Origin Burger was located but since he knew, eh di go! When he said, “we’re here!!!” we looked around and didnt’t see Origin Burger. He took us to “Fresh Burger”! WHAT?!?! When he realized his mistake, he said he thought they were the same. Origin=Fresh. Sure.
Finally, we ordered, waited and went back to the hotel to eat our burgers and they didn’t disappoint! Hooray! Their burger buns are soft, the patties are beefy and juicy, and their sauce rounds up the burger nicely. We also had their fries and they were good. The guys at Origin Burger gave us more fries than we can eat, lol. All in all, it’s good food.
Add-On: When you’re going about Abha, you’ll see an airplane parked in one of the mountains surrounding the area. Yes, it’s an airplane! I thought I was dreaming when I pointed it out to Reina. She said she sees it too! Haha! So we asked around what it was for. Was it a plane that landed on emergency and then forgotten? Apparently it was supposed to be a restaurant! They describe it as “jumbo meal in a jumbo jet”. It’s a grounded Boeing 747 in Umm Al-Rakb that was ferried by a fleet of 95 trucks that traveled no more than 100 km a day because of the parts’ sheer weight. Imagine how difficult that journey from Madinah to Abha was! And how expensive (SR 2.5 million was spent)! And yet, like the “winter tourism” that Abha planned in a 2013 article, this project of a magnificent restaurant inside a plane wasn’t fulfilled. The grounded Boeing 747 remained empty and grounded. Hopefully not forgottten!
After a weekend in Abha, we were ready to throw in the towel and go back to Riyadh.
Again, our trip was a but underwhelming but we’re not saying we didn’t like the place. We love Abha’s weather and if we can borrow it all-year-round in Riyadh, we’ll pray for it. Haha! We went during the wrong season but we were looking forward to the “winter tourism” which apparently didn’t exist as much as we envisioned it to be. We will be back one summer though because honestly, Abha’s cable cars are so iconic we still want to go on that ride! Soon. See you soon, Abha!