As I sat in my friends house after nearly 2 weeks in Jordan I heard the third of five call to prayers playing from the mosque across the main road. The temperatures are starting to finally feel cold here (48F/9C) at the end of November as I cuddle on the couch. Jordan does get snow although one would not think that since it is in the middle of the Middle East. As I sit there and journal I look up and see one of the many street cats stride past the window. I am sure my friend´s dog laying on her mat is dreaming of chasing it right now.
Jordan is full of wonderfully hospitable people. My lunch that day was from the street vendor who prepares a great sandwich and refuses to charge me. It only costs 1 JOD Dinar (approx. 1.5 USD) but still it is his business and he will soon run out of bread to sell for the day. The sandwich is big, has a hard boiled egg, cucumber, tomato, pieces of lime, some green herbs, the ever popular za´atar (herbs – thyme-, sesame salt, and sumac) spice and of course salt. I for one avoid the tomato, still pay the 1 JOD and get on my way. This isn´t the only time this day sellers refuses to charge me. While buying a postcard I am also told I cannot pay for it. In fact, other sellers nearby see this and come give me a few more from the pile of this owners postcards saying “and this one I choose for you, take it”. Incredible!
Back on the couch I reminisce of all that has taken place in those nearly two weeks in the lovely, stunning and amazing country of Jordan. It was a whirlwind tour of all the best Jordan has to offer in a tiny country with no water access. A country that 10 years ago only had a population of 1.5 million to a now over 10 million. All due to the fact that Jordan took under their wing refugees from so many nations. The majority are from Israel (mainly Palestine since that is what Jordanians call Israel as a whole – or simply “those across the border”), Syria, Iraq, and now Afghanistan and Lebanon too. All bordering nations with Jordan, except Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia also shares a border and actually helps Jordan get some of their water (via underground source). For this tiny nation to support so many people without asking for anything in return is absolutely amazing. In fact, not all live in camps here, instead many are invited to create a space on the land of Jordanians and just help out a bit. The water problem I mentioned happens to be one of the top issues in the world at the moment and the reason my friends have moved to Jordan…to help get funding and build a complete desalination pipeline from the Red Sea to Amman.
My tour, besides several days in Amman area, consisted of visiting the Dead Sea to float unaided at the lowest point on earth in the deepest salt lake in the world; Wadi Rum Desert with one of the darkest skies on the planet with its beautiful landscapes full of history; Petra to see some spectacular rock cut architecture (somewhat similar to what I saw in Ethiopia) of an old Nabataean kingdom´s capital; and finally tons of Roman and even some Greek ruins full of wonderfully intact mosaics and huge columns galore!
The salinity at the Dead Sea is 9.6 times as salty as the ocean…so dense you literally float and no plants or animals can survive here. I always thought I would experience this in Israel which splits the Dead Sea with Jordan but I guess one never knows where life takes you. By far one of the coolest experiences I have ever had. Not only is it fun to float but the mud at the bottom of the lake is very, very good for your skin. We left here feeling super soft, glowing and happy. They say, it makes you 10 years younger! Plus, you can easily come here on a day trip from Amman. There are public beaches or hotels that offer Swim + Lunch for a decent price. We did the latter for 35 JOD at the Crown Plaza Hotel (supposedly the cheapest option) and we were very happy. There was more food than we could eat, tons of pools to swim in and the experience at the sea was simply awesome! Jesus´s baptism site and the border with Israel is near here if that interest you too.
At Wadi Rum we spent two nights and 3 days. It was the number one thing on the list for my boyfriend who pretty much planned this whole trip therefore we spent the most time here. We booked a tour through Rum Stars with one of the Bedouin (nomadic tribe people) guides that included stops via 4×4, hiking, a camel ride, food, lodging and the best sunset spot every evening. We went because it has one of the best dark skies in the world to view the galaxy, it´s peaceful and a unique desert that has petroglyphs, red sand and a Martian style landscape. It has been the staging ground for several movies including the one with Matt Damon everyone knows and Lawrence of Arabia back in the day. You can also do this unguided if you have a 4×4 vehicle. You can reserve a place to stay online or just stop at a camp and pay. There are tons of camps but the quality varies significantly. Some very luxurious while others are absolutely basic. Rum Stars was probably in the higher end of middle ground.
By the way sunsets in Jordan were amazing no matter where you are and should not be missed but the best one we saw was actually in Dana Reserve. A place we only stayed a night but it deserved more. Cute little mountain towns overlooking a valley which is a nature biosphere offering so much hiking at your disposal it´s worth it. Given we went in November and this is usually the rainy season it might not always have all trails open at that time (same goes for the many canyoning areas in the wadi´s around the country).
Our guide through Rum Stars was great. He spoke plenty of English and every day he would stop somewhere and make us lunch and take a tea break. Days were busy and long. I started each day with a run exploring on my own. I was surprised how easy it was to run on the sand…as long as you were away from vehicle tracks and dunes. I never saw animals but looked hard and enjoyed finding tracks everywhere. Then it was shower, breakfast and off to the day´s planned activities. Day one was all in the truck stopping at the sights; rock bridges, odd shaped rocks, petroglyphs, etc. Day two was hiking. Day three was camel ride for 4 hours. My first time riding one in the desert! It was cool until everything ached (took a few days to feel less sore). Three hours is probably the max I´ll ever do again and the sunrise version looked amazing. Stopping often definitely helped rest the bum and legs. It was worse then riding a horse because your legs are so far spread out. Watching how the camel folds down to sit with it´s limbs folded upon themselves was entertainment every time. They are big, loved eating bushes even while walking, were kind of cute and I am glad we never ran on them. Days ended in the hut, around a fire, usually with an enthralling discussion of Bedouin life or travel…with some tea of course.
The hike in the desert was wonderful too. Tea at the top was a lovely treat. Can you tell that tea (coffee too) is important in Jordan? The guide gathered some dried branches and collected a local sage, carried it up to the top of the second highest peak in Jordan (Jabal Al-Hash) and made us tea from his kettle. It was great to be so high up as it put before us a different perspective of the desert and the vastness of its mountains. We could actually see Saudi Arabia from where we were and Jordan´s highest peak right before the invisible but highly guarded Saudi border line. It was very enjoyable at the top with some desert flowers between the rocks, a light breeze, great visibility and just five people in total. There were plenty of tourists traveling in Jordan no worries but you could definitely find peaceful spots throughout. In truth it is no where near like it used to be as we sat daily, max 10 people, in a huge dining hall meant for 60 tourists. According to the Bedouins, November marked the return of tourism, before that there were even fewer visitors due to covid. Most visitors were Europeans on holiday and it was incredibly rare to find someone from America…in fact everyone was surprised when we mentioned we were from there. The Bedouins, typically nomadic camel and goat herders, have created a town at the entrance to the desert to live and make it easy for tourists to find them. It is sort of their adaptation to modern society. About 20% of the community still lives deep in the desert full time but a good chunk are now found in town making money through tourism or camel raising and camel racing.
When you travel to Jordan I highly recommend purchasing before arrival the Jordan Pass online. It is perfect for entry to the main tourist sights all around the country and it includes the entry visa too! The visa alone is 56 JOD (approx. 60 USD) and to enter Jordan´s top attraction, Petra, it is another 50 JOD…so to put it into perspective I paid 70 JOD and did both those and more…I did pay extra (at a discount) for Jesus´ baptism site entry and never went so that was wasted. Even having paid extra, the Jordan Pass was worth every penny! Keep in mind that it is a single entry visa that comes with the Pass! Not realizing this, I left the country and came back, having to pay for a second visa…so Don´t do what I did!! Also, it is only valid for trips where you stay at least three nights and up to 2 weeks since first attraction usage. It is also available on arrival but the deal is not quite the same so purchase it online. It is nice to know that it is available to so many countries! Be sure to see if you are on the list. Overall, I used it for entry into at least 10 or more of the 40 locations it covers, including Wadi Rum and Jerash (#2 top attraction). Plan your trip accordingly!
Petra was directly after Wadi Rum and I think putting these two together over a few days is very tiring. Petra is big! From the entrance it is 3.5 miles to the Monastery (Ad Deir) which was worth the trek but besides those 3.5 miles you also covered more distance exploring everything along the way in the direct sun. By far the best recommendation I can give is to try to plan your trip around seeing Petra by night. It is only offered a few times a week and costs an additional 17 JOD but it was spectacular and more personal. It was crowded but no where near how it is during the day time! I would also suggest staying at least 2 full days in town (Wadi Musa) whether you are like us and do everything in one day or space it out. A bit of rest is highly recommended when seeing these spectacular rock cut buildings! Especially if paired with Wadi Rum, as both are in the South and about an hour away from each other. The closest city with airport is Aqaba on the Red Sea at two hours away v. Amman at over three hours.
A bit of history: The Nabataeans are another nomadic tribe of the Bedouins that decided to make Petra it´s capital where it became a major trading hub as far back as the 4th Century B.C. It was overthrown at some point (106 A.D.) by the Romans (also attacked by Greeks without success) and was in detriment after a large earthquake in 693 A.D. where many fled. Between those times it was the lost city (except to the Bedouins of course) until finally being rediscovered by a Swiss explorer in the 1800s. In addition, to the amazing structures that were built here, it is important to note the system of harvesting water that the Nabataeans created and is visible even today. From damns, water ways, storage and more all incorporated into the area for year round water usage. There is even a spot where a natural fountain had been incorporated into the system. At the height, Petra had about 20,000 inhabitants living among the rock caves. By the way the names of Treasury (Al-Khazneh) aka the most photographed of the whole site and the Monastery (Ad-Deir) do not necessarily convey their true usage. Most seemed be be tombs or temples to the Nabataean gods. The Treasury for instance got it´s name because a huge urn on top was thought to be filled with gold or treasures but is really all sandstone like everything else.
Areas like this are not just found in Jordan but can also be found in Saudi Arabia in larger form and with far fewer tourists. Petra seemed over ran with tourists. Petra became a Unesco site in 1985 and was named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World”. We probably shared the whole place with maybe 1000 visitors (this for us did include locals who enter for 2 JOD on Fridays after prayer) but prior to Covid we heard around 10,000 visitors came daily. Absurd! A few friends had been 10 years ago and were shocked to hear about the amount of people who visit now since in their experience there were only a handful (maybe 100) and disgusted to know that there are restaurants and vendors inside and throughout the whole site. This was also quite bothersome to us. It was literally over run by them, all were kids persistently trying to sell something, even some within ruins. The worst was the kids unabating offers as you walked into the site for us to visit the famed lookout above the Treasury for 5 JOD which we declined. Adding to the mix is the poor treatment of the animals, an option to ride them up or down some hills/stairs within the site….have you ever seen a chain as a whip? So wrong! Petra seems to have fallen into the traps of over tourism I have seen around the world. Or maybe that over tourism of the past was all just an artificial cover and when covid took it away poverty ensued and they are trying to get their lives back? It is a shame to see it like this but yet again it is an incredible site so worthy of a visit. I hope things changes in the near future but go prepared for some annoyances, sad images and no rules (including tourists lack of respect for the Islamic nations rules).
Topping it all off in Jordan was the fantastically preserved Roman and Greek ruins (oh and Medieval castles/forts/palaces too) dotting every inch of the 96% Muslim country. I personally did not expect these ruins here. I guess I knew the Roman Empire was vast and nearly everywhere but I somehow forgot how extensive it was or what could possibly have been left over from their empire. From the City and Capital of Amman you have the Citadel (with Hercules Temple) and Roman Theater right in the center prominently placed and not to be missed especially if you can go at sun down…Very cool! An hour away you have Jerash which will blow your mind with the sheer size, detail and magnitude of preservation found here in the largest Roman city outside of Italy! Another hour or so North of there you reach Umm Qais or Gadara, an ancient city from the 7th Century B.C.. It is similar to Jerash but smaller in scale with different columns, a long old Roman road and although not as big, it´s very intriguing especially with the view of Lake Tiberias in the near distance. Lake Tiberias, as you might know, in Israel is called the Sea of Galilee (a biblical reference)! Plus, the restaurant in the site is a real treat with this view. Then an hour South of Amman in Madaba you can see both Greek and Roman ruins or churches with wonderful mosaics and painted walls. Although, if you have time, we thought the best mosaic was located just outside of Madaba at Mt. Nebo…aka where Moses passed away after seeing the promised land. Along with the Roman and Greek ruins obviously come many stories pertinent to the Christians, Jews and Muslims who each have a lot of history in this region of the world. If you know of or have interest in any of these religions, this history and these sights are an added bonus found in visiting Jordan.
A quick note regarding how we traveled. Besides going with our friends we also rented a car. Driving was pretty easy here, they are generally slow drivers and kind of just go with the flow, someone enters your lane, just move over a bit and life goes on…it was more of a jostling for space in a non aggressive way type of driving. As our friend explained it as “elbowing your way around”. You do need to be decisive about making a move instead of waiting around for a car to pass. For rentals there are several agencies to go with: Enterprise (we used this because we had a corporate discount though our friends), Avis, Rama, U-save, Arabesque, Al Salehin and Rent + Ride. If you decide not to rent a car, know that quite a few locations can be reached via public transit. Then there is always a local tour agency. If renting a car, know that it might smell of smoke (Jordanians smoke a lot and everywhere, taxis drivers too) and be sure to check that the car registration (license) is in the car. We did not have ours and were pulled over at a checkpoint figuring it out in Arabic for over 20 minutes with a translator app. In the end, the rental car agency got a ticket and all future checkpoints were a breeze once we showed the blue paper to them. lol Know that there were not a ton of checkpoints, but every now and then they would wave you over so have the passport, drivers license and car registration within reach at all times. Roads were in good condition but lanes were not usually well defined and you should consider the shoulder part of your lane in most instances. For example, when cars needed to pass. Everything is all just ebb and flow and slamming on breaks seemed rare. Lastly, as far as lodging when not with our friends or on tour in Wadi Rum we used Airbnb.
Travel during Covid times is much more complicated now. It seems the Vaccine Card is more important than the Passport these days and there are just so many more steps to do before even boarding a plane it is ridiculous. Not to mention where to get the covid test (PCR or antigen?) which thankfully any laboratory or hospital usually offers, as well as at most airports. Travel though is still possible and can still be safe. In fact, in Jordan masks were present in most places, especially in Amman and all indoor situations. Several times we even had our vaccine cards (digital or physical) checked, so keep those handy.
There were a few more stops made on this trip which I will cover in a separate blog about day trips from Amman very soon. Please leave any comments below and feel free to share or subscribe to this blog and be the first to receive future posts.
Visiting Jordan was truly an amazing experience.
Covid Testing in Jordan (PCR 25-30 JOD, Antigen 7+ JOD)