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It all started with an innocent comment that Iraq has a lot of sites I'd like to visit. Oops.
“I don’t care if you guys have traveled to every country on the planet!” our son exclaimed. He shook his head. “You aren’t going into Iraq without me going as your bodyguard. I’ve been there and I know. Those hajis are dangerous. They’ll kill you.”
“I thought you said you never want to go back,” Dan countered.
Jimmy shrugged. “I’m not going to let you guys go into Iraq without someone to protect you. You don’t know what you’re getting into. I do. Sh*t. I don’t even know why you would want to set foot on that God-forsaken land.”
I couldn't resist. “Are you kidding? When have we ever turned down a chance to eat Middle Eastern food?”
“No, seriously, we're talking about the Cradle of Civilization, here. Iraq is even older than Egypt and Israel. You know how much we like history. Iraq has so many historical sites, it's ridiculous. Tower of Babel, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires – it's all from there.
“And you know how much we enjoy Biblical archaeology and stuff. Think about it: Abraham was from Ur and the ten tribes were exiled to Assyria …. Come on, why wouldn't we want to visit?”
“Besides, you know us. We are the last ones to care about politics. We’re old enough and smart enough to avoid any place even remotely dangerous, and we would only visit places that have been secured.”
He shook his head. “I’m serious. You need a bodyguard.”
“Okay, Jimmy. You win. You can be my bodyguard and I will be your long lost pal.” I grinned at him, trying to lighten the mood. “We’ll go together and keep out of harm’s way. But you didn’t need to get so upset, it's not on our travel radar. I only said I'd like to travel to Iraq SOME DAY. We don’t have any plans to visit Iraq in the near future.”
Fast-forward three years.
With plans to take an organized tour of Israel, we decide to make the most of our long flights. Why not create a ‘Grand Exodus Tour’ and see Egypt and Jordan as well? Dan’s in the midst of making all the arrangements and we get a call: Our Israel tour has been cancelled. Suddenly, we find ourselves holding nonrefundable tickets to the Middle East and there's a gaping hole in our itinerary.
There’s also a gaping hole in our hearts. Our bodyguard is gone, another vet lost to suicide. He couldn’t live with his memories and left us with our own memories to live with.
We need some closure. It’s time to go to Iraq.
Touring Iraq? Seriously?
Believe it or not, even with all the turmoil and bad press, Iraq still has a tourism industry. There are tour companies and guides with organized tours to safe areas, but they are expensive, and wouldn't fit into our schedule anyway, Too bad; it would have been surreal to see where the prophet Jonah was buried and walk through the ruins of Babylon.
Organized tours aside, Iraq is not the place to do a self-drive tour around the country, even if you are fluent in Arabic (which we are not). In deference to Jimmy, we didn’t even consider that option. I mean, we might be adventurous, but we’re not crazy.
We are, however, fond of research. There is a part of Iraq that has a constant stream of foreign tourists, so we set our sights on the “other Iraq,” Kurdistan. We knew we’d be safe there. Even if Jimmy might have disagreed.
How much does it cost to visit Kurdistan?
Considering the economic devastation of the region, I was horrified to discover that a 9-day/8-night private tour of Kurdistan would run around US$6,000.
Un-freaking-believable. They wanted us to pay $750/day to tour an area where 3- and 4-star hotels can be found for $50-$75/night? This is highway robbery! For that kind of money, I told Dan, we could find our own private guide and create a customized itinerary ourselves.
As it turns out, I was wrong: A private guide around Kurdistan is far cheaper. After doing a lot of research, I found someone who would be our guide, driver and interpreter for a fraction of what those other guys were charging. He spoke fluent English and had been a tour guide for years.
Another plus: Karwan was born and bred in Erbil. As a Kurd, he could share his culture with us.
I asked Karwan how much we should expect to pay for our trip:
“Your budget depends on where you stay and where you eat. These are your two biggest expenses, apart from the tour fee, which you already know. And because it's a set fee, it basically gives you an idea of how much you would spend.
If you won't stay in a hotel that's more than 50 USD per night, you won't spend much. Hotels should also have free breakfast so you won't have to pay for 3 meals every day. Food is around 7-10 USD per person per meal if it's heavy meal. Sandwiches are only 1-1.50 USD. Aside from accommodation, hotel and tour fee, I don't think you have other things to spend on. Almost all of the sites in Kurdistan have no entrance fee (1 or 2 sites ask for 50 cents to 1 USD only).”
Iraq, here we come!
Now we just have to figure out how to tell our family….
NOTE: While we had no problems visiting Iraqi Kurdistan (and had one of the best travel experiences to date), we made the decision only after much thought, prayer and research. Every traveler should do his own due diligence. Neither we nor this website will be responsible for any injuries or financial loss that result from visiting ANY destination mentioned in our articles. Political and economic situations can change, so before you travel anywhere, it is always wise to do your own research. Ask people who live there, read papers from the area, check your government's travel warnings. (The U.S. Department of State's warnings can be found here.)