I knew I’d enjoy Jordan, but I had no idea that it would immediately become one of my favorite countries in the world. We spent the first half of our time in Jordan with a tour company that brought us to Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and the Dead Sea. If you only have a short time like we did, our two-day tour package is the way to go.
We were exhausted when we landed in Amman after undergoing two red-eye flights in a row — we took one red-eye from New York to Frankfurt, spent the day exploring Heidelberg, then returned to the airport for another red-eye from Frankfurt to Amman. However, between sporadic naps on our three-hour drive to Petra, we couldn’t help but find ourselves intrigued by our guide Hassan, who was born in Amman to two Palestinian refugees. His father came to Jordan during the 1948 war, while his mother came during the 1967 war. He described the Palestine-Israel conflict as a “long, sad story” that he doesn’t think he’ll “see the end of.” Nevertheless, he is a proud citizen of Jordan and was eager to share with us how welcoming the country is to all groups of people.
The Smallest Hotel in the World
On our way to Petra, we stopped at “the smallest hotel in the world” — a converted Volkswagen Beetle owned by a charming old man who didn’t speak much English but who did introduce us to the generosity of Jordanians. His goal was to bring tourism to his hometown of Al Jaya because this overlooked desert village has some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. The hotel has been open since he retired in 2011 and was furnished by his daughter, who adorned it with handmade embroidered sheets and pillows. Even though we weren’t staying there, he let us take photos in the hotel, served us Turkish coffee in the lobby (located in a small cave across the street, where he also sells fossils and coins that he found in the area), excitedly showed us a photo of Eliot Spitzer visiting his hotel when he found out we were from New York, and then gave us some fossils to take with us.
After that heartfelt stop, we continued on to Petra, the main reason I wanted to visit Jordan. Hassan found us a fantastic guide named Shuayb, who was funny and incredibly knowledgeable about the site since he was born and raised in Petra. He helped us appreciate many things that we wouldn’t have even noticed and knew all the best angles for photos with the Treasury.
Obviously we came for the Treasury, but we hadn’t realized how impressive the rest of Petra was until we started exploring. Petra was once the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century B.C. and was an important trading hub. Shuayb led us through the Siq, a narrow gorge leading to Petra’s famous buildings carved out of the cliffs. The Siq made the ancient city one of the most protected in its time. Petra is also called the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved. Some of the stone patterns were so stunning that they look like paintings. Every so often, Shuayb would point up at a rock and exclaim “Monet!” or “Van Gogh!” or “That’s definitely a Picasso”, and the natural patterns on the rocks really did look like an artist painted them.
To top off our trip to Petra, Hassan took us to a picturesque restaurant called My Mom’s Recipe, where I had mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. Made of lamb cooked in a sauce of dried fermented yogurt and served with rice over a layer of flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, mansaf is one of my new favorite dishes. It’s comforting but refreshing, something only a place like Jordan could master. Anthony had maqluba, another traditional dish, consisting of meat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, and eggplant placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served.
We drove an hour and a half to Wadi Rum, which is what Anthony was looking forward to the most, since Wadi Rum has served as the setting for Mars in pretty much every Mars-related movie and TV show. Hassan said good-bye to us as we joined two women in the back of a pickup truck. Two years ago we rode camels through the calm Sahara Desert, so it was a nice change to ride in the back of a pickup truck without a seatbelt through the rugged Wadi Rum. We quickly made friends with our truckmates, Loes from the Netherlands and Anna from Belarus, who ended up joining us in Aqaba, the Dead Sea, and Amman!
Wadi Rum is stunning. I was skeptical because I didn’t think Wadi Rum could compete with the smooth orange dunes of the Sahara, but the two are incomparable. Wadi Rum means “valley of the moon” and is red due to iron oxide. Exploring it is a voyage through the geological evolution of Earth.
The truck dropped us off at a bedouin camp with about twenty private tents, a large dining tent, and separate bathroom tents. Our first bed in three days! We joined the rest of the campers, most of whom were European, for a buffet dinner cooked by bedouins. It was April, so by nighttime the temperatures dropped to almost freezing, but the plush blankets in our tent kept us toasty.
The next morning we had a buffet breakfast (which included my favorite, za’atar!) before the four of us left the camp and took a guided tour of Wadi Rum. We drove past massive plateaus that had popped straight up from the sand due to tectonic movement. We climbed natural rock bridges that were shaped by blowing sand and winter floods. We took photos of hieroglyphs, which trace human existence back 12,000 years.
After being surrounded by desert for the past 24 hours, Hassan drove us about an hour to Aqaba, the only coastal city in Jordan, located on the tip of the biblical Red Sea between the continents of Asia and Africa. Aqaba is the only seaport of Jordan so pretty much all of Jordan’s exports depart from here. From the beach, you can see Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (if you really crane your neck). Hassan knew thow much I love food so he led us through a market to watch goat meat being chopped for mansaf, into a crowded bakery where he bought us some fresh shrak (flatbread), and to a lovely lunch spot for our only seafood on the entire trip. We tried sayadiyah, a dish consisting of grouper fish, rice, onions, turmeric, cumin, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, garlic powder, and pine nuts.
From the Red Sea, we drove three hours to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth (1,410.8 feet below sea level!) and nine times as salty as the ocean, which means anyone can easily float in it owing to natural buoyancy. Due to the saltiness, plants and animals cannot flourish here, hence its name. The mineral content of the water, low content of allergens, and higher atmospheric pressure have positive health benefits especially for people with cystic fibrosis, psoriasis, and osteoarthritis. Though it’s constantly sunny, UVB rays are weaker in the region, so it takes longer to sunburn. The Dead Sea is receding at an alarming rate, and experts worry that it may be completely gone by 2050. Considering we had just left Mars, and now we were floating, Jordan has to be one of the most extraordinary places on Earth.
After a long day, Hassan finally dropped us off in Amman, where our time in Jordan was about to get even more extraordinary.
Tips for future travelers:
- Buy a Jordan Pass in advance. It will waive the expensive visa fee and will allow you entry to all the sites you want to see, like Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Amman Citadel. You can buy it online, print it out before you leave, and show it to customs before receiving your visa.
- Our tour was through Jordan Private Tours and Travel and I couldn’t recommend it more. It was organized, efficient, and led us to Hassan, whom we loved so much that we hired him again in Amman to take us to the airport.
- If you want to wear a keffiyeh (it looks great in photos!), don’t pay more than 5 JOD and get the salesman to teach you how to tie it on your head so you can wear it the next day, too.
- Aim for Petra in the morning or late afternoon. If you go midday, you’re going to experience rush hour in the Siq. We arrived at 10am, and by the time we were leaving around 1pm, it was noticeably more crowded.
- Always have some spare JODs for tips! While Jordanians aren’t obnoxious about tipping like Egyptians, you’ll want some extra cash to tip people because everyone here is so darn helpful.