Jordan: A pile of sand in the Middle East, you say?
This country has a lot more to offer than you can imagine.
Where to stay:
As a base to explore Jordan, it’s advisable to book a hotel in either Amman or Aqaba. Touristic hotspots such as Petra or the Dead Sea also offer accommodation possibilities, but you must bear in mind that you will pay more and stay in a less authentic environment.
Amman is the capital city of Jordan, located in the North of the country. It has a lot to offer in terms of culture and culinary experiences.
We were looking forward to forget about the rainy Belgian weather and take a swim in the Red Sea, however, which is why we decided to stay in Aqaba. Located in the South of the country, Jordan’s only harbour offers breathtaking views on the Gulf of Aqaba.
Aqaba is a relatively new city where tourism is flourishing. With must see places such as Petra and Wadi Rum at a stone’s throw away, the city is the perfect base for a holiday in Jordan. Palm trees and oriental flowers make walking along the streets a real pleasure.
Because of the heat during the day, locals tend to take a siesta between 1pm and 5pm. It’s only after 5pm that the city starts to fully live again, which makes the evening the best time to walk through the city. While strolling the streets, do yourself a favour and grab some tasty falafel, humus or shawarma. The local food is delicious, so stay away from the western fast food joints and find yourself a free table at one of the smaller local restaurants. Flush your food down with some tea and a shisha in one of the local bars.
Make sure to visit the Sharif Hussein Bin Ali Mosque in the middle of the city. It bathes in light from strategically placed spots, making it a true eye catcher during the night. You can take a look inside, but keep in mind that you need to respect the religious rules when you do. We met some helpful locals, offering us a head scarf and showing us around.
We particularly enjoyed the kindness of the Jordanian people we met. Despite the cultural differences, everyone was genuinely friendly and helpful, so get out of your comfy hotel and see what the interesting Arabic culture is all about. Be aware, though, that women might want to avoid overly revealing clothes. A T-shirt with an over-the-knee skirt is perfectly fine, but a low-necked top with a mini skirt could appear provocative.
Most hotels are close to the beach, which makes Aqaba the perfect place to enjoy a lazy day at the sea shore. The crystal blue water of the Red Sea and the many beautiful fish are also a great setting for a snorkelling trip, or, if you don’t like the idea of swimming near fish, take a tour on one of the many glass bottom boats to be found in the harbour and at the different beaches. There are also plenty of diving schools that can take you out to see the finest corals and sea life.
Renting a car is by far the cheapest way to get around. It’s advisable to take a walk through the city and compare the prices and conditions between the different rental companies.
Driving in Jordan is a piece of cake. After getting out of the city and on to the bigger streets, road signs in English will guide you to any city or landmark. This makes renting a GPS or buying maps completely unnecessary, leaving you with some extra budget for your trip. Jordanian highways are surprisingly modern and there isn’t a lot of traffic once you’re out of the city.
Take note that there is a big military and police presence in Jordan. Even though this might appear intimidating, they are there for your safety and help to keep Jordan the most peaceful country of the Middle East. When driving, you will encounter some checkpoints, where police officers ask you to park the car and to show your passport. No need to worry, they are very friendly and it only takes a minute.
During the whole trip we drove around 900km, and every single bit of the trip was beautiful. As the landscapes change continuously, driving in Jordan takes your breath away, no matter where you’re heading. We couldn’t help but stop the car every once in a while to take some pictures and watch the mountains, valleys or the occasional camel that's grazing next to the road.
The Desert Highway (Highway 15) stretches from North to South, connecting Amman, Aqaba, Wadi Rum and the Kings Road, which takes you to Petra. Another must drive highway is the Wadi Araba or Dead Sea Highway (Highway 65), paralleling the Jordan-Israeli [LD1] border. Passing over mountainous areas as well as deserts and crossing small towns as well as kilometres of raw natural landscapes, this road takes you from the South all the way up to the Dead Sea.
Do yourself a favour and stay away from expensive and crowded tourist buses filled with smelly sweaty people. Renting a car is the perfect way to get around in Jordan.
Floating around in the salty Dead Sea is one of the weirdest experiences we have ever had.
You absolutely cannot sink. Believe us, we tried it. This sea is also perfect for those who are afraid of scary sea creatures, because the water contains 27% of salt and that's much more than a fish can handle.
After you enjoyed this crazy experience, follow the tradition and rub some mud from the sea bottom onto your skin. There are plenty of stories about the health boosting abilities and skin softening effects.
When you decide to go to the Dead Sea, don’t forget to take your camera and make some funny pictures. Floating on the water surface and hanging out at the beach while covered in mud aren’t really your typical everyday activities. Instagram-worthy? We sure think so!
Almost every Lonely Planet, Trotter or Rough Guide in the universe has Petra on the cover of their issue about Jordan. Petra might not exactly be off the beaten track, but skipping Petra while in Jordan is simply not an option. The ancient Nabataean city was the true highlight of our journey in the country.
Every guide in Petra will be telling you that there is one scene from Indiana Jones that was filmed in one of the canyons (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Now that you know this, there is no need for you to get an expensive local guide. If you’re not particularly interested in very specific historic details, you’re much better off picking up a free folder and a map at the information office. The people working there are very helpful, pointing out the must see places, explaining specific walking trails and giving some historical background.
Before heading into the park, make sure to buy a large bottle of water per person, as you will easily spend over 6 hours and once out of the Siiq gorge, it can get particularly hot with little to no shade.
After a short 2km walk through the Siiq, you will see the emblematic Petra Treasury, the number one image when googling ‘Petra’. It's truly stunning to see the first glimpse of it when you are walking through the canyon. Hang around for a bit, but do yourself a favour and don't turn back at this point (unlike some other tourists). There is much more to see further down the road.
We took the long hike towards the Monastery, which is the outermost publicly accessible monument of the ancient city. Climbing the 800 stairs to the top in the midday sun was exhausting, but totally worth it. The many monuments, sculptures, ruins and stunning far sights on the way make you easily forget about your sore muscles and when the Monastery itself pops up out of nothing, it makes up for all your efforts.
Plenty of local people will try to persuade you to take the easy way and ride through the park on the back of a donkey or a camel. Don’t give in to the “Mister, mister, Ferrari with air conditioning?” and go for the real experience (honestly, even if we would’ve been totally exhausted from walking, riding a donkey near the steep cliffside wouldn’t have seemed too appealing anyway).
Wadi Rum Desert is a large valley cut into sandstone and granite rock. The desert is unlike any other; the one that comes closest to it is the Great Basin Desert in Nevada, US.
The desert is huge and you can easily get lost, so for this trip you definitely need to book a 4x4 vehicle with a driver. He will be able to tell stories on the Bedouin lifestyle and drive you to the nicest spots in Wadi Rum. We arranged our trip to Wadi Rum at a local traveling agency in Aqaba (make sure to compare prices!), but it’s also possible to drive all the way up to the visitors centre of Wadi Rum where you will find some Bedouin guides waiting for you.
When you enter the national park, you will see the typical rocky mountains of Wadi Rum. Because of the huge distances in between rock formations and the fact that there is nothing else limiting your visibility, it’s pretty difficult to estimate distances and heights. Only when you’re right in front of one of the rock formations, their immense proportions are truly revealed.
Our driver took us towards two natural springs on different locations, we climbed one of the rock formations and also got to the top of a sand hill (which was more of a struggle than we want to admit!). Another highlight of Wadi Rum is the huge canyon with ancient inscriptions and drawings carved into the rocks. It's one of the few places where you can find some shade.
The desert is home to the Bedouin population, so if the sun is burning too intensely or if you want to take a rest, there are some Bedouin tents where locals will kindly offer you some tea.
Keep in mind, though, that you also need to bring your own fresh water. The muddy greenish water from the natural springs mentioned isn’t an option, even when extremely dehydrated..
The Wadi Rum sunset is much written about, and it’s totally worthwhile. After the sun disappears behind the rocks, wait for it to get completely dark and enjoy the wonderful night sky. With no light pollution at all, watching the stars is an experience you will not easily forget.
After sunset it can get pretty cold, however, so don't forget to bring a sweater.
Our trip to Jordan was truly unforgettable. We've seen colourful fish in the sea, floated on salty water, turned ourselves into mud monsters, drove around through otherworldly landscapes, wandered through in a gorge with stunning monuments and watched the sunset and starry night at Wadi Rum.
To be able to experience the true beauty of this country, however, you need to get away from the touristic scene. The must see locations will inevitably attract tourists, but by travelling on your own and not blindly following one-size-fits-all travel deals, you can really make your Jordan holiday memorable.
So now that you know all of this: Book your ticket and dive into the interesting cultural oasis called "Jordan".