One week in Jordan turned out to be one of the most amazing weeks of my life. One that sends shivers up my spine every time I think about it – it was so surreal!
I had no idea what to expect visiting Jordan for the first time. All I knew was that it was somewhere in the Middle East and was considered the safest of the Arab States, being politically neutral.
Was it safe? We felt perfectly safe the entire time we were there. Take it from us, we just road tripped right through the country!
I’d also heard that the country wasn’t easy to travel around due to a lack of public transport, so organising a reliable driver before you get there is absolutely vital. We struck it lucky with our driver – scroll down for more on him.
Referred to as the crossroads of the Holy Land by Muslims, Jews and Christians, Jordan is surrounded by Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Israel. It’s also the pinpoint of where Europe, Africa and Asia meet.
Jordan will surprise you with incredibly spectacular landscapes, intriguing history and it will win you over with the warm, welcoming nature of its people and comforting food.
Here is what I learned about this magnificent country and seven reasons why you should add Jordan to your bucket list.
If you’re an Indiana Jones geek too, you might recognise this as the temple of the ‘Holy Grail’ in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s been nicknamed the “Treasury Building” and is one of the main attractions in this ancient rose-hued city.
Petra was carved and built up into the rocks among dusty mountains, winding passages and deep gorges, by Arabic Nomads called Nabataens around 300BC. Often referred to as the ‘lost city’, it was rediscovered 2000 years later in 1812 by a Swiss explorer.
Because of its strategic location close to key regional trade routes, Petra was a wealthy trading hub and is full of beautiful and mysterious tombs and monuments.
No wonder why in 2007, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was added to the new Seven Wonders of the World by Swiss-based New 7 Wonders Foundation.
It does pay to request an early brekky from your accommodation and get to Petra as early as you can – by 8am if possible. Not only will you beat the tour groups who arrive around 10am, without the harsh sunlight, the striking red colour of the rocks shows up much better.
After the Treasury, make sure you head straight up the 800 steps, 50 metres up the mountainside to the Monastery – as hard as it is, try not to stop at the sites on the way.
It’s a punishing climb and the earlier you get up to the top, the better the rest of your time in Petra will be, because the later you leave it, the harder it will get. Even without the unrelenting sun, you’ll be utterly drenched in sweat. The views from the top are totally worth it!
Once you have the Monastery out of the way, you can ‘relax’ a bit and wander around the rest of Petra’s elaborate tombs and temples. There is one called ‘The High Place’ which although doesn’t look like much, but is thought to be where human sacrifices took place during the Nabataean era.
If the climb gets too much, there are plenty of donkeys around if you need to hitch a ride. It will cost anywhere between 15 and 30JD depending on who’s approaching you, excluding tip (which has been suggested to be 5JD, although you may be hustled into handing over more – stand your ground!).
If you do decide to ride a donkey, it’s much safer to ride it up rather than down the mountain because the steps are irregular and sometimes crumbly.
If you don’t have a Jordan Pass (highly recommend you get one if you plan on seeing all the top sights), it will cost 50JD for a day pass or 55 for two days.
There are several guides that suggest spending three days or even more exploring Petra. Although it is absolutely spectacular, it’s not too spread out, so if you don’t have trouble walking, it’s likely you’ll see everything in one full day.
Finally, if there’s one thing you do – make sure you keep hydrated! Bring a few bottles with you and a lot snacks as you’ll be walking up a storm and food options are limited. Don’t worry, there are toilets there that are surprisingly pretty clean.
We stayed at Al Rashid Hotel which was excellent, although about a 20-minute walk from the entrance of Petra. After a day in Petra, your legs are like jelly and you deserve to cab home!
Cabs swarm outside the entrance of Petra. For the best deal, rather than hopping in straight away, wave them away and start walking toward the hotel. After a couple of minutes, offer them half or a third of what they first offered and you’re set.
2) Dead Sea
You simply can’t visit Jordan and not swim in the Dead Sea! It’s a bizarre feeling – being so incredibly ‘floaty’ that it’s almost impossible to swim since your limbs are constantly pushed upwards by the water.
At 400m (1270 ft) below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. As such, it’s stinking hot! We watched the temperature gauge in the car rise from 27°C (81°F) in Jordan to 39°C (102°F) as we got closer and closer to the earth’s core.
The ridiculously high salt content is a result of the high rate of evaporation from the constant extreme heat. Our driver Richard told us (and showed us) that the Dead Sea was in fact shrinking due to climate change.
There are several places to stay in the Dead Sea area. All of them are upmarket compared to accommodation in the rest of Jordan so you’ll have to splash out a bit to stay the night.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn which was in the middle of the range in terms of price but had one of the best set of pools – four in total! Richard confirmed that this hotel definitely had the best pools in the area. On weekends there’s a DJ at the last pool before the beach which is a lot of fun.
There’s a private beach area where you can enjoy the Dead Sea and its precious, beautifying mud in comfort. Because of the high mineral content, the mud from here is renowned for its healing and therapeutic qualities. The lifeguard will throw you a cool bottle of water when needed and there’s an area to slather yourself and bake yourself silly in mud.
We couldn’t wait to jump in. Matt went in head first – BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER!!! You see, there’s a giant sign that we ran right passed, saying “DO NOT PUT YOUR HEAD UNDER THE WATER”.
Needless to say he couldn’t see for about ten minutes and was yelping like a seal in mind-boggling pain. I was too but for different reasons. I’d just shaved my legs (sorry TMI) but this is another MASSIVE MISTAKE. My legs felt like they were on fire! And anywhere I’d had a bit of sun was also pinging in pain.
So there we were, two very sore weirdos bobbing up and down in the water, half laughing half crying.
Most people feel a bit sore when they get in due to the ridiculously high salt content but after a while, your body adjusts and you enjoy the amazing buoyancy like nowhere else in the world.
On a clear evening, you can actually see the night lights of Jerusalem across the water from any of the resorts along the Dead Sea.
3) Mujib Reserve
We almost missed out on Mujib. The sound of a water trail didn’t really interest me…
What exactly is a water trail? Well, you walk through the water, Richard explained.
After the excitement of the Dead Sea, this sounded kind of boring and Matt practically had to drag me to Mujib.
What disinterest I had turned into fear as I overheard others talking about how long it took them because they didn’t have the upper body strength to haul themselves up and over the rocks… Wait, what?! Richard chuckled, patting me on the shoulder as he said, good luck!
After being fitted with a life vest, we set off on the water trail. There are four trails, each at different levels of difficulty. We took the Siq trail which was the easiest and most popular choice. Let me assure you, it is not easy.
We started off in an ankle deep stream, sun shining and birds chirping. The further you go, the more beautiful the landscape. Traipsing through the canyons, gazing up at the grand cliff faces while the bath-warm water rushed by our legs was surreal.
Slowly, the water gets faster and rises… Up to your waist and sometimes up to your chest. Cautiously you make your way through the natural obstacle course, over rocks and down waterfalls, occasionally meeting others on the way that help you across or vice versa. This is the ultimate team-building experience!
Some of the obstacles are extremely challenging and some people (like me) will find it impossible to get through without the help of one of the official helpers dotted throughout the reserve.
You’ll be really proud of yourself at the end of this experience. I was thankful to make it back in one piece, save for a few cuts and bruises. Note: don’t go to Mujib Reserve before you head to the Dead Sea unless you want to be in a world of pain!
Also, watch out for the little fish that nip at your bare skin. Tickly and funny at first but it really hurts after a while, so don’t stand still for too long.
4) Wadi Rum
Watching the sun set and rise across the rose-tinted Jordanian desert was one of the most magical moments of my travels so far. Spending a night in this majestic landscape is not to be missed.
Known as the ‘Valley of the Moon’, Wadi Rum resembles a lunar-like panorama with its dramatic rocky cliffs, rolling sand dunes and vast wilderness. Stars shine like nothing you’ve seen before without interruption from other light sources. Unbelievably romantic! Anyone thinking of proposing to their beloved in Jordan should seriously consider Wadi Rum.
Some Bedouin families live in the area but otherwise you’re out there pretty much on your own (as well as the others in your camp of course), so the only sounds you’ll hear during the night are the screeches and howls of desert foxes.
Rahayeb Desert Camp is the most renowned in the area with the best location (some of the others are quite close to the edge of the desert towards civilisation which defeats the purpose), beautiful camp grounds and amazing food.
They also offer VIP tents (versus standard dorm-style tents) for those who are camping averse like myself, complete with a generously sized personal bathroom with a hot shower. Does this still count as camping?
Aim to arrive mid-afternoon to avoid the midday heat. That way, you’ll have enough time to get settled in before getting a good spot to watch the sunset. It’s recommended you leave in the morning the next day for the same reason.
We asked Richard why it wasn’t a good idea to stick around during the day. He simply replied, “It is hell!” And we certainly felt the temperature rising at a scary rate the next morning.
We arrived at around 3.30pm, quickly checked in and then were whisked off on a tour of the desert on a makeshift sofa on the back of a pickup truck.
Our Bedouin driver took us to a bunch of different sites, including areas with rock inscriptions or petroglyphs dating as far back as the 4-5th centuries BC.
We also stopped off to refresh with some traditional Bedouin tea before ending at the perfect sunset gazing spot.
After feasting like kings on maqluba (meat, rice and vegetables cooked in a pot and flipped upside down to serve) and a luxurious array of salads and sides, we sat gazing up at the stars and puffing on shisha well into the night.
You’ll probably be flying into the international airport in Jordan’s capital.
Stay in the Old City to get a real feel of traditional Jordanian life. It’s also where all the major tourist attractions are and you’ll be able to find very affordable accommodation right in the heart of it.
Being quite compact, you can see all the sites in Amman easily in a day. Make sure you sit at the Roman Amphitheater one afternoon and admire the view.
It’s a lot higher than it looks and if you’re scared of heights, you might get a fright at the top. It’s also a great place to meet Jordanians because everyone seems to congregate there on the weekends, especially the teens.
Amman’s Citadel is another must-see. After about a 20 minute walk up hill, you’ll be rewarded with the most amazing panoramic views across the city, not to mention being surrounded by incredible ancient architecture.
There’s also a fascinating archaeological museum crammed with Palaeolithic artefacts and remains. It’s a great place to start with, as you can learn a lot about the country and culture.
On our way up to the Citadel, every hundred metres or so, we’d meet a group of young kids that were eager to practice their English.
On the way down, Matt stopped off for a hair cut – there’s only one barber on the road leading to the Citadel so you can’t miss it. Without asking, the barber went ahead and gave Matt the full combo – hair cut, wash, blow-dry, style, beard grooming, facial, face-mask, shoulder massage, under eye-cream… you name it! It took us both by surprise and was hilarious!
At the end, he was very kind and gestured (he spoke no English whatsoever) for us to give him whatever payment we thought was appropriate. If you’re looking for some grooming, look out for this guy.
In the evening, head to Rainbow Street, the most happening street in the city. Indulge in some retail therapy, snack on falafel and then smoke some shisha at one of the many little bars.
We stayed at Rafi Hotel Amman which mid-range price-wise and we felt it was OK (not great). but try to get a room away from the main street. It was extremely handy however having in-house laundry service for just 5JD per washing basket.
Favourite restaurant in Amman: Al Quds Restaurant:
[Al Quds: 11am – 11pm daily | Complex No 8, King Al Hussein St 8, Amman 11118 | Ph: +962 6 463 0168]
6) The Red Sea
Jordan’s only coastal city, Aqaba boasts one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world – the Red Sea Coral Reef. People flock to this city to have one of the best diving experiences of their lives and Jordanians head to the beautiful resorts in Aqaba during their holidays.
Sitting between two of the driest and hottest deserts on earth, the Arabian and Sahara, the Red Sea Coral Reef is one of the oldest, being over 5,000 years old. It’s home to about 1,200 fish, many of which can only be found in these waters, as well as 300 or so coral species.
7) Ancient City of Jerash
A gripping site for historians, Jerash has been occupied by people for more than 6,500 years and shows an interesting mix of Eastern and Western ancient architectures – Greco-Roman and well as Arabian.
In 63 BC it was conquered by General Pompey and eventually became on the ten great Roman cities of the Decapolis League.
After being excavated and restored over 70 years, it’s now known as one of the most well preserved provincial Roman towns in the world.
Highly recommended driver for your trip to Jordan:
We found Richard on the net through a third party website. Contact him on +962 795 823 994 (WhatsApp’s best as he’s usually driving) and you won’t regret it.
We can’t recommend him enough – he knows the roads like the back of his hand. If there’s a shortcut in any way shape or form, he’ll take it. He worked as a tour guide for decades so is like a walking encyclopaedia.
Richard also knows EVERYONE in Jordan. You can count on him to help you get ‘local’ prices rather than ‘tourist’ prices you’d be charged by shopkeepers otherwise. He’s very entertaining on the long drives and, he’ll even help you smuggle alcohol into your hotel if they have a strict policy! Only thing is, he smokes like a chimney… but if you’re heading to Jordan, you better get used to it. Jordanian men smoke anywhere and everywhere. Anyway, if you’re planning to go to Jordan, make sure you contact him.
Have you been to Jordan or the Middle East? What were your experiences in this part of the world?