Jordan Travel Guide
With the flight booked I checked the internet to see what else Jordan had to offer, and was I surprised! As well as Petra, Jordan has Biblical sites, snorkeling, Roman ruins, The Dead sea, deserts, green valleys, and Crusader castles. After reading all of that I couldn’t help but feel like I’m not given myself enough time.
I had actually given myself nine days to explore Jordan, which is to be a little more than the week most have. I had also recruited a friend from England to join me. Jordan is not the easiest to get around on public transport, nor is it cheap, so we rented a car.
We booked this from home for £230 which seems cheap given the freedom and ease we were able to travel around. In fact, most tourists do this or a pre-arranged tour, but if on a budget like me then a tour is out of the question.
Some people reading this may be concerned about driving in Jordan, but once you are out of Amman you’ll find yourself on sparse roads cutting through deserts or valleys.
We also purchased a Jordan pass here before traveling; it waives the Visa entry fee and includes entry to Petra and virtually every other attraction in the country. It’ll pay for itself just for the visa and two days in Petra. Because of this, I won’t include any entrance prices.
Things to Consider
Buy a Jordan pass before traveling. It waives your visa fee, gives you free entry into all government-run sights and free entry into Petra. You should really rent a car – It is safe and the roads are not busy. I had a minor accident and I still recommend it. Brown road signs point the way to tourist attractions.
If not renting consider public transport carefully as you’ll have to be organized. There is one bus a day from Amman to Petra.
Jordan is not a particularly cheap country to travel.
Amman and Day One
My friend and I met at some point after midnight at the airport and, after picking up our car, drove to our hotel; Jordan Tower Hotel. This claims to be the best hostel in Jordan, but on arrival, we were told the room wasn’t available and they hoped a lesser room would be OK.
It was 4am so of course, it was OK, I’d have slept in the car if I had to. The shared bathrooms were tiny and we were given dud information which meant we climbed to the Citadel to find it closed. I fear for the quality of hostels in Amman if this is the best.
Anyway, we slept and in the morning we headed toward the Roman ruins Jerash – about a one hour drive north of Amman. This place is epic, the scale of it is unlike any Roman ruin I’ve ever seen. So much of it is still intact that I felt as if I was walking around a Roman town.
The main street, complete with many of its pillars, still links the two spectacular theatres. Between these are Temples to Zeus whose crescent back still stands on its steps, and The Temple of Artemis which despite its missing roof still has the grandeur of old with its huge stone columns still standing.
That afternoon we planned to see the Citadel of Amman, but as I explained earlier we arrived too late. It wasn’t completely in vain, the view of Amman from there is unbelievable. It struck me there how interesting the landscape of the country would be. From here you can see how Amman rolls up and down hills all the way into the distance.
Every building is white which gives the city its brightness. From here you also have a magnificent view down upon the Roman theatre which rises along one of the city’s valley edge. These valleys were fantastic, but tomorrow they would end for us as on our way to Petra we would stop at the Dead Sea.
The lowest place on Earth and the journey to Petra
The Dead Sea is actually the lowest point on Earth and nothing survives in its water. At 31% salinity, it is no surprise. It feels like you’re wearing a life jacket when you enter the sea as it pushes you up by the stomach. I imagine no one has ever drowned here.
Not impossible though, as we later drove down there were a few collections of locals parked on the side of the road, scaling the salty edges to the water. We went to Amman Beach as we were told it was the cheapest at 20JOD per person. I recommend this, they provide mud for you to plaster on yourself, showers and also have two on-site pools so you can stay here and relax for a while.
The sea is more of a gimmick than somewhere you would stay long term; it isn’t a sea in a conventional sense, it is a salty lake fed by the Jordan River and the beaches are more like rocky shelves built with layers of white salt over thousands of years. Because of this is it is difficult to enter without paying to go into one of the complexes along the top end of the sea.
The showers after dipping in the sea are essential in my opinion, which is the reason we decided trying to find a freeway into the dead sea wasn’t a good idea. Once the water starts to evaporate it leaves the salt and you find yourself feeling like you are covered in syrup; unless you’ve had a bath in honey before I’m willing to bet this is a unique experience for you.
Being that it is the lowest place on earth and you’re covered in salt, the shockingly hot sun will cook you pretty fast. We spent about an hour at the sea, taking in the views of Israel across the water and then trying out various poses to float on.
We followed the Dead Sea highway until the sign for Karak Castle pointed us off up into the Jordan valley. Driving up the hills felt like emerging from a crater; the more we inclined, the more grass and Eucalyptus grew and then sheep and goats began to show munching in farms. The change in landscape with elevation was amazing and by the time the enormous castle came into view, we were already captivated by the views back down the Valley.
Karak has a great history and visiting is a fantastic way to understand the religious struggle in the region. The castle was built in 1142 by Crusaders and became so significant because of its location near to the Dead Sea and its position at the top of a hill, meaning it controlled trade routes and flourished because of the money it brought. Many attempts were made to take control of the castle and over the years it has been used by the Ottoman empire as well as Christian Crusaders and Egyptian Sultans.
It is one of the largest Crusader castles left, the only larger ones are in Syria so in my opinion you simply have to visit this place if you are in Jordan. Saying that without a car or your own personal driver it isn’t easy to reach. If you do have a car it isn’t much of a detour on the way to Petra whether you are coming from Amman or the Dead Sea. The castle does have some signs giving context about areas of the castle and its history, so you don’t have to Wikipedia it before you go.
If you happen to visit on a clear day you can see all the way down the Jordan Valley as far as the Dead see, one of the best views in Jordan. From here we had another two-hour drive back down the valley to the town of Wadi Musa – The gateway town to Petra.
A few quick tips about the Petra and Wadi Rum area. If you are entering Jordan with a Jordan Pass have a copy on your phone – they will let you into the Petra site at 6am with this if you have a paper version you have to queue up for a ticket first. I can’t explain why because it doesn’t make any sense but this is what they do.
Secondly, choose where to stay wisely. We stayed at Rocky Mountain Hotel and t was great, but the cheaper accommodation is at the far end of town about 20 minutes walk to the visitor center. The more expensive places are right by the entrance. So if you opt for a cheaper hotel you can expect a 45-minute walk from the hotel to the treasury.
I offer some good news though for those with a car – there is free parking behind the Movenpick hotel next to the visitor center! We drove down each morning and parked there. If you decide to head down a little later parking may be an issue as it gets very busy.
The City of Petra
Walking through the gorge, known as the Siq, to Petra we were anxious with every blind corner; would it reveal the Treasury – the entrance to the City that everyone is familiar with? I couldn’t help but try to understand how Johann Burckhardt, the Swiss explorer who rediscovered the city in 1812. I knew what was eventually coming, he didn’t.
The Siq was dark and the walk longer than we expected – at least 20 minutes from the visitor center. It was 6am when they let us in and we were the first; we shoot off down the Siq quickly because we wanted it to our-self at least for a little while. When I recognized the section of the Siq I’d seen in other peoples entrance videos I filmed it here.
Then as the gorge wound around, the corner of the treasury was revealed and with each forward step so was a little more was revealed until the entire peach carving was right there in front of me. Birds signing and my feet crunching on gravel were the only noises here. For a few minutes, I had it all to myself.
I absolutely recommend copying what I did here, once people gather a bit later it feels chaotic even if it isn’t so busy – men with horses try to sell you rides back to the visitor center, tour groups chatter among themselves and snap endless pictures and being in a gorge this noise is amplified. Being there in the morning, alone, not only gives you a great snap for Instagram but the ambiance adds to the beautiful piece of art that you stand in front of.
The treasury is the most astounding part of Petra, which is why I implore you to go early, but that doesn’t mean the rest of it is not worth seeing. On the hikes on offer and generally walking the old city paths, I felt constantly amazed by what had been built here. Once you pass the treasury the mountains open up wide, making it quite obvious why this city was lost for so long. Hundreds of holes have been dug out of the immense mountains which make a city wall; these are tombs.
Many even have grand entrances such like the treasury – they are inferior to it but nonetheless still some of the most amazing stone crafting you are likely to see. Everywhere you look there are ladder holes running up to ledges and other tomb holes which would otherwise look impossible to reach. I felt like an explorer myself here, almost like I could spend time climbing around the rocks, discovering tombs and secret paths.
I spent a day and a half in Petra and that was plenty. Day one was pretty full on, as we started early and walked 17 miles, taking up two of the more challenging hikes – one to the lookout point over the treasury, the other the 888 steps to the monastery. It is worth noting that if you have a Lonely Planet, their information on some hikes is out of date. The paid hike from the treasury to a lookout point has been re-routed, you’ll be offered a guide for this at the Treasury. But for the same view but from the opposite side of the Siq you can take the path around the far side of the Royal Tombs.
On the way up you get a fantastic aerial view of the enormous theatre which could accommodate 6000 people as well as the rest of the city. This hike is steep and hard for a while, but flattens and declines before reaching a shop with the view overlooking the treasury. The guys with the store are happy for you to enter and take some pictures without buying anything, but if you are going to sit there and relax then you should at least buy a drink from them.
The next hike was at the end of the city, to the monastery. This walk was more difficult; although it wasn’t ever as steep as the previous trial. 888 steps wound around the rocks up to a flat where a magnificent monastery had been chiseled into the mountain. You have to see these things to believe them, luckily I took photos. The monastery is truly hidden and finding it makes you feel like an explorer yourself.
Because of the difficulty, many tour groups don’t seem to take on the hike which means it doesn’t get overly busy. There is a cafe overlooking the monastery and further along, three more which all claim to have the best views in Petra. If you are looking for a longer hike, following on this path further takes you another 4 hours onto Little Petra.
By 1pm my day was done, I had seen the city illuminate in the sun and now, after 17 miles and 7 hours hiking, I was heading back to the hotel. The next day I’d return to hike one more trail which begins just after the treasury on the left. If locals tell you it is to the high place then you are going the right way. The maps say this is a tough hike, but it was the easiest of the three we took. The start is all climbing until you reach the palace of Sacrifice, whose grounds are still intact enough for you to see where the sacrifices would take place. The views are perfect and from here it is pretty much downhill. It is such a great hike, hardly anyone seemed to take it on.
I found myself exploring small tombs and old gardens, sometimes with the company of one of the dogs that call Petra home. It was peaceful and relatively easy and could be done in less time. But I was in no great rush so took it slow for 3 hours before leaving the seventh wonder of the world, Petra, for the beaches of Aqaba.
Aqaba – An Underwater Paradise
I’d heard a lot about Aqaba, mainly because of the ease of its epic diving and snorkeling sites. I didn’t intend to come here but after Petra, I wanted a bit of rest and recovery. I made mistakes here and missed most of the best diving sites, so use this section as a what not to do.
Firstly you need to think about where to stay. I stayed at Bedouin Moon Village which was pleasant enough and right on the dive sites, but there is absolutely nothing else here. It is 12km to town, which is actually very busy and lively. If you are staying here for longer than just doing a dive there are forts and ruins to see in the main town of Aqaba too.
You are really just picking between diving convenience and having a place to do something other than diving. If I were to do it again Id stay in Aqaba town and taxi or drive to the dive sites as the beaches on the south end are disappointing too. The Taxi from town to the south beach spots is anywhere between 5-7JOD.
To find the best dive sites use this map from the Arab Divers hotel. I wish I had found this before I went snorkeling. Japanese Garden is supposed to be the most beautiful but I only dived Gorgonian I and II. I was seriously disappointed with what I did dive. Some sections were good and full of interesting and colorful fish but most of the coral resembled a forest after a fire and was grey and crumbling like ash.
When the low corals ended usually deep cliffs fell onto a sandy ground. This is where things got interesting but mostly it was roped off for boats full of divers. I don’t feel like my opinion is fair seeing as I only dived a couple of the famous sections, but what I did dive was not worth journeying here for.
The Lawrence of Arabia Experience – Wadi Rum
Being disappointed in Aqaba wasn’t too bad because Wadi Rum is only an hour drive along the desert highway. All I knew about the desert here was the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here and the desert is the heart of the stories and myths of the man. For anyone who is my age and English, you may remember the film being shown on Christmas television every year. I had a pre-arranged tour booked for 60JOD per person, including a night at a camp in the desert.
My friend and I had our on 4×4 with a driver who gave us a little basic knowledge about each place we visited. We booked the 5 hours but they took us out for over 8 hours and showed us many more places that were listed in the itinerary. They even took us somewhere secluded to watch the sunset.
To reach Wadi Rum you have to first stop at the visitor center to pay entrance, which is also included in the Jordan Pass. Here you can book your own tour for 25JOD per day. You can probably save a bit of money by doing this and booking your accommodation separate, but we were happy to pay what would be about 5-10JOD extra for the convenience.
Other than the handful of Lawrence of Arabia sites, the desert doesn’t offer what you may usually expect from a desert; there are few dunes and the ones there are not the highlight of the desert. What set it apart for me was the landscape. Wadi Rum is quite a flat desert, with hundreds of mountains randomly scattered through thousands of years of earthquakes.
What is so great about these is that they are jagged and so scalable. After you are shown natural bridges and a few sources of water, everything else is just placed with views of such beauty which really showed the scale of the desert, and it was breathtaking.
In the evening we sat as a group and ate a meal. The food was typically Bedouin of what they call sun BBQ which is meats steamed under the sand for the entire day. If you are a vegetarian they are happy to oblige. The food was good and the tents were comfortable but the best reason to stay overnight here is the stars.
After 10pm the generator shuts the electricity off and once your eyes adjust the sky sparkles. It isn’t often I get the chance to spend time somewhere with such low light pollution and it felt like for every star I looked at ten more appeared around it.
Madaba And The Long Drive Back
We chose Madaba to spend our final nights as a chilled out alternative to Amman. It is famous for its mosaics and is surrounded by biblical sights. But before that, we stopped at what may have been the surprising highlight of the trip – Wadi Mujib. It is fondly called Petra with water and it is easy to see why. A deep gorge leading down and emptying into the dead sea, it is 20JOD to hike, wade and even swim to the waterfall at the end.
Madaba is a quiet city which can be fully explored in a day. Or you can get a nice hotel with a pool and spread it over the course of two, which is what I did. I was on holiday, after all. I do fully recommend being careful when pulling a u-turn here as sometimes people drive into the side of your car! We were unhurt and the car undamaged, but it was a good reminder to me that although the roads had caused us no problems whatsoever, they still don’t drive the way you expect someone to back home.
I don’t have any pictures of Wadi Mujid, because it wouldn’t have survived the gushing torrents of water. But you can see what I mean here if you have the ability to get here definitely come, it is great. The one slight negative was that it was a bit too busy and there were queues to pass the rapids.
t was on to Madaba, via Mt Nebo – where Moses was said to have been sent by God to view the Promised Land. From here you can see down over the Dead Sea and into Israel and the famous Biblical locations such as Bethlehem. There is also the ruins of a church which have been nicely rebuilt to preserve the mosaics underneath. It is worth stopping here if passing through, but the views were better from Karak and the mosaics were much better in Madaba.
If you have a Lonely Planet they have a really great walking tour mapped out to see the entire city, if not you can pick your own route easily from a hotel map. The first place I picked was St George’s Church which has the fascinating Mosaic map, which is near impossible to read. Luckily, they have a sign outside to explain what you are looking at.
Next, I went on to the visitor center, which is open but all they’ll do is give you a map and point you toward the two Archaeological Parks: Burnt Palace and Virgin Mary Church. The Virgin Mary Church had better mosaics to look at, but both were great representations of buildings that used to be found in Old Madaba. Although there isn’t much left of them, some vaulted ceilings are still on the show, and of course epic mosaics.
By far the best place to visit in Madaba is the Shrine of the beheading of John the Baptist. An incredibly friendly man let me in and showed me what the main mosaic represented; showing the major cities of the time during the rise of Christianity. On top of this, there are a fantastic collection of photographs from over 100 years ago depicting tribespeople from Jordan.
Here you can climb the bell tower, which is a bit eerie at points, passing the bells via ladders until you reach the top. The views over Madaba are worth it. And then you can descend into the vaults to find the shrine to John the Baptist as well as old parts of the church and even a medieval well which is still working.
I must admit, Jordan has absolutely blown me away. I got so much more here than I expected. Apart from the diving in Aqaba, everything surpassed my expectations. Watching the sunrise on Petra and set on the sands of Wadi Rum in the course of a few days is a great way to explain how fantastically varied this country is.
As I mentioned before, Jordan is a more expensive place than I usually visit. I spent roughly three times more here per day than in Egypt – but it was worth every penny. And despite the crash I mentioned, you should rent a car if at all possible. I met very few people traveling alone. Even at the main sights and in hostels we stayed, very few people seemed to be here alone. With the bad public transport a car can take you to every corner of this relativity small country in the order you want to do it.
I’m not being paid by the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism, I really mean it – visit Jordan! It is so much more than just Petra.