How Jordan Ended Up Becoming A Most Unexpected Travel Heaven
Where else can you behold a centuries old structure that’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, spend a night in the dessert and float in the sea but never drown?
The choice for our bi-annual trip last year oscillated between Vietnam/Laos or Jordan. Jordan is a tiny middle eastern country bordered by Israel, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, making for a slightly odd, even risky choice for a leisure trip.
But being home to one of the New Wonders of The World – Petra, it’s not that off on the tourist trail, even if not as popular as Southeast Asia.
We knew there were a lot of things to do in Jordan, but we only had 10 days, and $1000 in hand. As always I’d break my Jordan itinerary into days for easier reading and processing.
Flying into Jordan and getting the on-arrival visa
Etihad offers a short 2 hour layover into UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi before landing into Amman, the Jordanian capital. Don’t forget to look out and down from your airplane window as you approach Jordan. The desserts are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands of what looks like large crop circles, making for a surreal vision. Once at the airport, Indians can get a visa on arrival at the Jordan Airport. At $40 Jordanian Dinars (JDs), it’s a bit on the expensive side, but largely hassle free and quick. Save for a consignment of labour workers from Bangladesh, the airport was largely empty assuring us that Jordan had yet get into the thick of the tourist trail.
Settling in Amman, the Jordanian capital
We got our visas, and proceeded to check into our backpackers’ hotel in downtown Amman. Our guesthouse, hotel was a humble 2 storied house tucked into the bylanes of the busy market. We were greeted and offered a sweet mint tea, which would come to be the most enduring sight in this part of the world, in days to come.
We headed out in the blaring sun to trek upto the Roman Amphitheatre, a sight of Roman ruins atop a steep hill overlooking the entire city of Amman. The trek is easy and hardly took 10 minutes, and the sight before us was rewarding. A Pantheon-like structure stands majestic atop the hill while other ruins lie scattered around the area.
The view from this hill is stunning, and it’s here you realise how monochromatic the city of Amman really is, with each building and house painted a natural beige colour.
A night with Hummus, Pita and Sheesha
We strolled around the busy market, taking in the heavy sweet perfumes, and sights. An evening in Amman is incomplete without a dinner at the famous Hashim’s, a street-style restaurant serving the most delicious platter of the Hummus-Pita, a middle eastern staple.
Onwards to Petra, one of the (new) wonders of the world
Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Arab Nabataeans, Petra has come to be the symbol of Jordan. The city is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Discovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer, it was crowned as one of the New Wonders Of The World in 2007, and is the primary tourist draw for the country.
While there are many tours from Amman available to take you to Petra, we decided to do it independently. We took a local bus to get to the central bus station in Amman, and from there another local bus to get to Petra town, the base for exploring the Petra site. The journey takes less than 3 hours, and is largely on a desert highway. Our driver was cheerful, played local Jordanian music on the stereo the entire time, as he drove and sipped on copious amounts of coffee and smoked.
Smoking, and black coffee or mint tea are the most enduring sight you’d see in Jordan. Men, teenagers, and even women can be seen enjoying a smoke or a cuppa at place, or time of the day, and they won’t hesitate to offer you a cup.
We’d booked a hostel beforehand, so upon reaching our stop, a rep from the hotel picked us up and took us to the hotel. Called “Valentine’s hotel”, the place to be sure gave more middle eastern hipster, than romantic vibes. But one look at the heart shaped room-number plates, and the views of the hills and gorges from our window, and we realised why Valentine was such an apt name for our hotel after all.
Wasting no time in lingering on in the hotel, we left to attend to the business we’d come for and got ourselves to the Petra site. The tickets to enter Petra are expensive at $50, but probably worth it for what you’ll witness inside. From the ticketing arena, a one hour walk through pebbled roads, and gorges would take you to the main attraction in Petra. However, notes must be made of this one hour walk itself. While the initial 30 minutes of this work were spent whining about the heat and the blasting sun, once you enter the long narrow gorge, also called the ‘Siq’, amazement replaces disgruntlement as metres and meters of brick red stone surrounds you on all sides, save for a small crack for the sky above. As you’re nearing the end of the Siq, the Treasury, or the most iconic representation of Petra looms suddenly coming into view, the edge of the gorge making a perfect curtain for this amazing site. And here you behold, as you stand and admire.
The 800 meters or the 8 storey-high Treasury stands large and majestic, in all its rose pink or brick red glory depending on the time of the day. Everything else – the sounds of the peddlars, the camels, the incessant camera clicks, and other amazed travelers like you is drowned out by this vision.
We spent a lot of time lingering around the Treasury, taking in the fact that we were looking at a Wonder Of The World, a palace that would’ve in another era been home to kings, and their kingdoms. Perhaps, right where we stood, someone had danced, sung, or displayed some other craft.
We proceed to walk further into the area, with the siq widening out, and more ruins springing into view. Everywhere you look, the rugged terrains, the sand, and the gorges are interspersed with a smorgasbord of ancient temples, tombs and palaces.
After spending hours trekking through these paths and visiting temples, we decided to save the rest for the next day and got back to the hotel.
Back in the hostel, we were offered the ubiquitous mint tea by the hotel management which we happily sipped in the patio, overlooking a glorious sunset behind the gorges.
The Great Monastery, Petra and that glorious dinner at the hostel
Having an idea of what lay ahead, we set out early to explore the rest of Petra on another hot and sunny day. We walked through the sik again, gazed at the Treasury for minutes again, and then made our way for a day of trekking. Perched high atop hills and peaks, are some hidden temples and chambers from the Petra times, and the only way to see them all is trek through to them. We did just that, and the trek itself was tiring but rewarding. The views from various points in the trek are stunning and surreal. It’s almost like you’re transported to another world, in another era.
After hours of trekking through the precarious, but well laid out steps through the vast area, and losing our way a couple of times, we got back down for another mission. Climbing up the 1000 odd stairs to see the Al Deir, or the Great Monastery, or the tallest temple in Petra, and at 810 meters, even slightly higher than the Monastery.
Though one can ride a donkey or a pony up to the top, we walked our way up, which is tiring, but throws some brilliant views. Once you’ve reach the top, you realise why it’s a big deal. The Grand Monastery, almost hidden from the view elsewhere in Petra, looms large atop this hill. At 810 meters, it’s tall, but also majestic and a stunning structure by itself. We spent some time marveling at yet another work of art and a centuries old structure in front of our eyes.
And to really get an idea of the size of this thing, here’s a closeup. That’s a local Jordanian man on one of the spires of the building.
We’d had a long, hard, but immensely satisfying day, and back at our hostel, the dinner made it even more worth it. A set menu buffet dinner lay waiting for us, as we freshened up and came down to the common area. Comprising of at least 20+ dishes, including a hearty vegetarian spread, the dinner was a hoot. We ate like there was no tomorrow, and went to sleep a tired, happy and full bunch.
Sand surfing and camping in the Wadi Rum, the middle eastern dessert in all its glory
Can a trip to the middle east not involve the dessert? After a Petra high, today was the day of the Jordanian dessert, the Wadi rum. We took a local bus to the entrance of the dessert, where our guide for the trip would meet us and initiate us into the Wadi. At this base, Ahmed, our strapping young Bedouin (The local Jordanian tribe) guide regaled us about his stories of his father’s 3 wives, and took us to witness some camel-milking, making for the perfect initiation into the ways of the Bedouins of the Middle East. We met a bunch of other travelers here, and soon were loaded onto an open jeep for the overnight dessert trip here on.
As you go further into the dessert in your trusty jeep, the beauty of the dessert nestled within expansive gorges, keeps on unraveling. You can even make a pitstop for some sand surfing! Which unfortunately thanks to my inappropriate shoes I couldn’t do, but my partner did.
Another amazing site within the dessert is these rock structures that seem to jut out of nowhere and look stunning against a clear blue sky.
After a few hours driving through the resilient sands of the dessert, Ahmed finally took us to our camp site, a most stunning rocky patchy lined by low hillocks with views of high mountains out in the front.
After a short hike to get on the top to catch the sunsets, we came back down for a dinner in the tent.
Ahmed had prepared tons of dishes, the most prominent amongst which which were the barbecued veggies barbecued under the hot sand! Apparently, a middle eastern delicacy. I can’t tell if it’s the dinner at Petra or this in the dessert that would count as one of the best food i’ve had on my travels till day. And for a vegetarian to find food abroad, that too tasty, cooked food, I could’ve cried.
Food wise, Jordan doesn’t disappoint in the least. After that heavenly dinner, we all sat around a bonfire, smoking hookah and generally soaking the surreal setting we were in the middle of. Miles of dessert, gorges, hills, a star-studded sky, and a sweet smell of sheeshah wafting around, life was good.
Some more Wadi Rum, and onwards to the beach
After a sunrise, and another glorious breakfast, we drove back out of the Wadi rum, and took a cab to get to Aqaba, the southernmost point of Jordan, on the gulf coast. While not known as a happening beach location by itself, Aqaba is interesting. It shows you a more local side of Jordan. While the days and evenings buzz with busy market activity during the day, at night, local people descend on the beach.
Jordan may not have bikini clad, bronzed bodies strutting about on the beach, but what it does have is a vibrant family outing culture, where the entire family gathers on the beach, makes a freshly barbecued dinner right on the beach, and both men and women smoke Sheeshah in turns.
We sat and chilled around the beach for some time, with our feet dipped in the water, and got some quick dinner at one of the many street stalls selling Shawarmas and the staple Hummus-Pita.
Glass bottomed boats, Kirak Castle And Back to Amman
With having some time to kill before our bus back to Amman, we bit and went for a short ferry ride in the many glass bottomed boats that let you see the undersea as you cross. At a point in the gulf, on the other side, you can see the Israel border.
We took a local bus back to Amman, breaking our journey to check out an old Kirak castle fort. The fort by itself isn’t much, but is a good break between your 8 hour journey from Aqaba to Amman.
We got back to Amman by late evening, and chilled over some dinner at Hashim’s, an Arabic coffee at one of the backpacker cafes in our area.
A quick getaway to Israel
Israel is located on the northern border of Jordan, and even though Indians cannot get a visa at the border, I had arranged myself a VISA beforehand, knowing that the trip could be a nice detour since we had come all the way to Jordan. While my partner decided to stay back and check out more of Jordan, at the crack of down, I left the hostel to get to the Israel-Jordan border. For the sake of length of this blogpost, here’s a separate post on the Israel leg of my trip.
Back to Jordan for a free dip in the Dead Sea
I left Tel Aviv early in the morning anticipating a ling wait at the border, but yet again, the exit process was smooth ( If frustrating because of a $30 exit tax), and I got back to Jordan by noon, in time to get to the Dead Sea coast.
If Jordan makes for a stunning travel destination, it’s because of Petra, Dead Sea, And Wadi Rum in that order. Now was the time to check off the third. Now in Jordan, getting a dip in the dead sea can be an expensive affair. Most of the dead sea coastline is claimed by hotels and resorts that charge a bomb for a day package, which includes access to the dead sea, some mud pack, and a lunch. However, as our luck would have it, (and thanks to a blogpost we’d read), we managed to find a loophole into the hostel, and landed at a small place for a free access to the dead sea.
Here’s how to swim (float) in the dead sea for free!
You can definitely avoid paying the high resort fees for floating in the dead sea for that perfect photo. All you need is a bit of patience to rough it out slightly, being prepared for slight discomfort and you are there. To get to the free dead sea spot, head towards the Amman highway on the way to the paid resorts. (They’re all next to each other.) You can take a local bus which will drop you to one of the govt run resorts which lets you use the dead sea for $12. However, instead of entering the resort, if you walk or ride backwards for around 2km, you’ll see a few stalls and camel riders on the side of the highway. Look around and downwards at the sea you’ll spot one or two trail paths going down to the sea. This is where you need to go down. So, without spending our precious dollars on a resort, we got down to the Dead Sea through a public access. To be honest, the free side is a bit dirty, and not as pleasant as the resort, since no option to change or shower, but given the savings, it’s worth it. Apprehensive at first to jump in, the stunning turquoise water of the lake were too much to resist and we jumped in, knowing fully well we will not drown however hard we tried! So there we are, floating human blobs! Spending too much time in the salty waters of the Dead Sea singes your body so we got out in spurts. We also managed to scoop up some dead sea mud directly off the sea bed and completely covered ourselves in it. After all, what’s a trip to the dead sea, without basking in the rumoured therapeutic black mud from the sea.
Sweaty, wet with shreds of the mud on our bodies, we hiked up to the highway, and hoped to get a ride back into downtown. There were none. And just as were contemplating walking back the distance, a kind-hearted soul offered us a lift in his car. At around evening, we were back in the hostel, and being our last night, we soaked in some more of Amman in its local markets and delicacies.
Amman city strolling, shopping, and al vida
We strolled along some unexplored lanes of Amman, soaking in a local holiday buzz. The best surprise was coming across a lovely staircase covered by an array of colourful umbrellas.
We also managed to sneak in some souvenirs from the local market, and came back to the hostel to wrap up and bid goodbye to our lovely Mr Louis.
Jordan was truly one of the most exhilarating trips of my life, spanning a sensory delight across sights, activities, and experiences.