Jordan wasn’t originally on our itinerary, but when we decided to extend our travels by a couple of months Petra quickly rose to the top of our must-see list (after some persistent prodding by Scott!). I (John) was a little nervous about visiting this country, not sure how Westerners would be welcomed – especially gay ones. As has often been the case, I need not have worried. We found Jordanians to be extremely welcoming, and while we kept our sexual orientation to ourselves we never felt unsafe.
Because I was nervous about this part of the trip – and because we only had three nights to spend in Jordan due to flight / mileage award schedules – we decided to hire a guide from Jordan Private Tour to take us to both Petra and Wadi Rum. In retrospect, we could have done it all ourselves – and we made friends with a Danish woman who did – but it was kind of nice to have someone else handling the details for us.
Our one big tip for traveling around Jordan, with or without a guide, is to get the Jordan Pass. It covers the entry fee to the country, access to Petra, and entry to Wadi Rum – and it’s cheaper than paying for all of those things separately. You’re eligible for the pass if you spend at least three consecutive nights in Jordan.
We started our Jordanian adventure in Amman, a bustling capital city that’s filled with markets and all sorts of great food. While we didn’t have much time there, we did find a couple of hours to explore King Talal St. at night – a slightly chaotic yet wonderfully vibrant experience. The street hosts tons of shops selling household goods and fabrics as well as a couple of storefronts with handmade Jordanian sweets (SO GOOD!).
We stayed in the Jabal Amman Hotel on Rainbow Street, an upscale and international street with a number of good restaurants, a famous falafel stand named Al Quds (get two – they’re small), and even a few bars catering mainly to tourists (most Jordanians don’t drink). While the hotel was nothing special, the rooms were large, clean, and had good wi-fi.
Our driver and guide, Nadal, picked us up at our Amman hotel at 7am so that we could make the three hour drive south to Petra. The drive was interesting for a couple of reasons: first, there’s SO MUCH sand; second, Jordanian drivers are crazy – lanes are a vaguely followed idea, with most people driving wherever they can (think Mario Kart). While we could have driven ourselves, I was happy to have someone else taking on that stress.
We arrived in Petra by 10:30am and had until 2:30 to explore it on our own. For those that aren’t familiar with this ancient city, it was built into the cliffs of the desert, in a hidden valley, between 300 and 100 BC. It acted as the capital city of the Nabataean Empire and was an important trading spot for spices and other goods. The city began to decline in importance as trading routes changed, and it was largely abandoned by the 7th century AD. It then became a protected, secret place of the local people, the Bedouin, and it remained a modern legend until 1812 when a Swiss explorer tricked a Bedouin man into showing him the city. That discovery led to further exploration, eventual restoration, and of course tourism.
The city is unlike anything Scott or I have ever seen, and ranks with the Taj Mahal and The Great Wall of China as the most impressive man-made structures in the world. The rock here is so red, and the detail of the buildings so impressive, that it really boggles the mind to think of how it was created. The walk from the entrance through the valley and into the city is breathtaking, and it’s easy to see how the place was kept a secret for centuries.
A few tips for those planning to visit:
- You’ll be offered a “free” chariot ride upon entering Petra. We’d recommend skipping it and just walking instead (if you don’t skip it, a tip is expected).
- Take the time to climb up above the Treasury (which isn’t an actual treasury – it was a burial site) so you can view it from above. The hike takes about 15 minutes and local Bedouin kids will offer to show you the route, for a fee. Haggle with them as their initial prices are ridiculously high, but having a guide is helpful. A warning that you’ll need to be in pretty good physical shape as you scramble vertically up a lot of rocks and get pretty close to some scary edges.
- The Monastery is on the other end of the city, a good hour-plus walk from the Treasury, and getting there requires climbing up 850 steps. We almost missed it due to time constraints and ended up pretty much running up and back, but it was worth it!
- You can visit Petra at night every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, when they light the city up with candles. We were there on a Sunday so sadly missed this – go and take pictures for us!
After visiting Petra, our driver Nadal took us two hours south to the Wadi Rum Desert so that we could have a traditional dinner and spend the night in a Bedouin camp. The drive was beautiful, and the entry to the desert was stunning. Nadal took us as far as paved roads existed and we were then met by a 12 year old (ish) Bedouin boy with a 4×4 who drove us the rest of the way to the camp. It was a little wild :).
Along our journey we learned that the Bedouin are a nomadic people that have inhabited this desert area – and other desert areas of the Middle East – for centuries. Most of them herd goats and camels for a living and their social structure is organized in clans. The majority are very religious (Islamic), and it was interesting to hear them talk about their faith and their strong belief in peace and kindness. While all of that sounds really different, we found every person we came in contact with to be extremely friendly, and it was a great reminder that although we may have different traditions and live in vastly different environments, we’re all basically the same.
The dinner that night was a traditional Bedouin BBQ, called Zarb, and it was prepared underground. Our hosts dug a hole in the sand, filled it with coals, and then put racks of meat and vegetables on top of it. They then covered the whole thing with sand and let it cook for a couple of hours, eventually digging it up to serve us. Although it sounds a bit strange, the food was AMAZING, and as I write this I really wish I could have it again.
We spent that night in the desert, in large tent-like structure with two beds. As there is almost no light pollution in this part of the desert, the stars were amazing and we could see part of the Milky Way. Not a bad way to spend a night!
The next morning we woke early for breakfast and then spent a few hours exploring the desert in 4×4’s. We saw ancient hieroglyphics, a water source in the middle of the desert, lots of camels, and climbed a bunch of rocks. It was fantastically beautiful – more beautiful than I thought a desert could be – and is among my favorite experiences on this trip.
The Red Sea
After leaving Wadi Rum, Nadal drove us east to the city of Aqaba so that we could see the Red Sea, and put our feet in it (and so that I could get a “parting the Red Sea” photo). If we’d had more time, it would have been fun to spend a night or two here enjoying the gorgeous, clear water, but alas we had to head back to Amman so we could fly to Egypt the next morning. If you plan a trip out here, but sure to put it – or neighboring Eilat, Israel – on your list and do it better than we did!
Next up, Cairo, en-route to Namibia. Exciting stuff!