“Bring me to your holy mountain in the place where you dwell. Across the desert and through the mountain to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon” reads the famous quote from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And to the holy mountains, across the desert, to the canyon you will go in ancient Jordan. A safe haven, surrounded by several failed states in turmoil, Jordan is a beautiful country with amazingly friendly people and marvelous sights such as the dead sea, barren desert wadis, beautiful reefs of the red sea, and of course one of the new world wonders: The ancient stone city of Petra.
1 minute trip teaser video:
Soundtrack: “Hilltop Hoods – Cosby Sweater” (Australian Hip-Hop, love their lyrics)
Trip Date: 2018
Trip duration: 7 days
Vacation required: 5 days
Trip cost: 157€ / p.P. / day (moderate) (all in, all tips, drinks, taxis etc. included)
Day 0: Arrival (Saturday)
Day 1: Petra
Day 2: Petra
Day 3: Dead Sea
Day 4: Aqaba
Day 5: Aqaba
Day 6: Wadi Rum
Day 7: Wadi Rum / Return Flight
Day 0: Arrival into Aqaba
Since November 2018, Ryanair has a new flight connection into Aqaba, which is the southernmost city of Jordan and the only port into the red sea. This makes shorter budget trips a possibility, before the flights only went to Amman and cost was several hundred Euros. I had booked us a rental car at the airport, which is not common for Jordan. Most people do their travels either with a guided tour, book pre-arranged drivers/taxis or, as backpackers, take the bus connections. Rental cars are quite expensive in Jordan, I paid ~ 280€ for a week rental. You can find only the big international companies at the airport, probably that is why it is more pricy. Guided tours are expensive as well. Jordan is 100% safe in every sense of the way and everyone speaks English. So there is no need for a pre-arranged tour. The pre-booked drivers / taxi are another option, and similar in price to the rental car, considering gas prices are high (Jordan has no oil). The busses are cheaper, but are limited in the times they go. Too rigid for flexible travel, so I can recommend the rental car. Driving is easy and roads are good. Just watch out for the road bumps. We had a simple overnight hotel in Aqaba as the flight arrived late on Saturday evening and we wanted to head North to Petra early in the morning.
Day 1: Towards Petra
I overslept so it didn’t really work with the early departure and we got to Petra around noon. This meant we arrived together with the tours from the cruise ship that had docked in Aqaba the day before. Not a big issue as visitor numbers are still down due to the security situation in the surrounding Arab states. I cannot stress this enough: This does not impact Jordan travels at all, the country is totally safe and great for travels. There is a free parking area near the site and even late morning I found a spot.
Petra is the ancient and abandoned capital of the Nabatean Kingdom, an empire of traders that flourished around the time of 300BC till 100 AD. It was of major importance throughout that period due to its location on many trade routes. Petra was later conquered by the Romans and then gradually abandoned after being destroyed in several earthquakes. Knowledge of the city was lost expect for some local Nomads and rediscovered only in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt. You enter into the city through a gorge called the “Siq”, which is beautiful with its colored rock layers and provided a perfect natural defense as it was the only way that all caravans had to take into the city.
You can ride the donkeys or horse carriages if you like, as most are included in the entrance ticket. But you a) still have to pay a tip b) annoy most of the other travelers and c) cannot stop to take photos. Since it is an easy walk, I would advise against it. We had taken a local guide who explained about all the stone reliefs and different gods of the Nabateans. This is a must-do to get the most out of the visit. However, it is quite expensive (50JOD for the guide) and – since group size does not matter – I [recommend] to talk to some of the other visitors if they want to share a guide. At the end of the Siq, you reach the official city entrance and its most famous sitem, not just since Indiana Jones, the Treasury. The treasury is actually the tomb of the Nabatean emperor and has its name due to famed riches hidden within it. You can see bullet holes where the Bedouins shot at the structure to access the supposed treasures.
The main path leads right from the treasury past the facade street, which is a lining of several Nabatean tombs cut into the rocks.
Further down the street, at the foot of the mountain, you reach what used to be the main square of the city and a massive stone theater (actually the only one in the world cut entirely from stone.
If you head up into the hills just opposite of the theatre, you can find caves (in reality ancient houses of the people living here) which have fascinating colors with the different metals and oxides layered in the soft sand stone.
At the crossroads of the central square our tour ended and the guide left. It had taken us approximately 3 hours to get to here, with several detours to explore and many explanation stops. You have two options from here, head on further towards the grand temple, and up to the monastery, or towards the kings tombs. Since it was already past 3pm and we had a second visit planned the next day, we headed quickly to the grand temple and then circled back to the Kings Tombs for sunset. Four buildings form the kings tombs: The Urn Tomb, the Silk tomb, the Corinthian tomb, and the Palace tomb. The silk tomb is named after the coloring of the stone with the different sediments I mentioned earlier, but all tombs are impressive in their own way. The sun sets early r and the tombs are covered in a golden light towards the late afternoon. Just sit at the Urn Tomb and enjoy the setting sun. Although the entrance officially closes at 4pm, you are in no hurry to leave the city and noone will kick you out.
Day 2: Early Morning Petra
This time we managed to get up early and went back into Petra. The gates open at 6am for sunrise, we did not make it *that* early, but still got into the Siq around 7. This is a perfect time as travelers are few and no horse carriages spoil your videos or pictures. We met a really cool group of travelers, two Spaniards and a girl from California, and joined forces to explore the rest of the city. The Treasury is covered in full sunlight at approximately 9am, so that was our deadline to climb the mountain. There are two options: A steep climb to the left, which requires a guide and is neither that easy nor that good a view, and the longer path which leads up behind the Kings Tombs, called “Al-Khubtha” path. That is the one you should take. Here is why:
We stayed together in our larger group and headed for another spot often missed by the one-day-rush visitors. The Ad-Deir monastery. It is a 45mins climb from the grand temple, but overall not that tough and I really [recommend] to do the climb. You will see a lot of shops (but the peddlers are not too aggressive) but also dozens of really cute puppies and kittens living among them.
The climb is well worth it – Ad-Deir is the largest building in Petra and an impressive sight:
I was told some beautiful hiking routes depart from here, but since we had to drive North in the afternoon to get to the Dead Sea, this was the end for us and we headed back down and left Petra. We did a joint lunch with some of our new friends, and then it was time to hit the road again and drive up to the dead sea. It is ~3hrs drive from Petra to the dead sea and you cross mountain ranges with some beautiful scenery. At the dead sea you have to choose one of the resorts, there are no other accomodations nearby. Since there is also not much else to do, I [recommend] to pick a good one. We were quite happy with the Holiday Inn. When we got to the hotel, dusty from all the exploration and the long drive, we dropped our luggage and went straight for the infinity pool and afterwards the Jacuzzi. Perfect ending to a long day of exploring.
Day 3: Dead Sea and Back to Aqaba
Don’t be disappointed by the shores of the Dead Sea near your resort. They all look the same and not pretty. The hotels don’t have much choice, as the sea level is sinking 1m every year, and having direct beach access is already an achievement. By this rate, the “sea” will be little more than a puddle by 2050. Still, it is the lowest point of the earth and the salt water is great for skin treatment. We did the “standard” program, which is a 10mins dip into the dead sea, then mud treatment, wash it off, and repeat. And, of course, the mandatory book / newspaper shot while floating. 😉 After that we went for another long swim in the beautiful hotel pools, freshened up, and checked-out.
Wadi Mujib is another main tourist site nearby, but due to flash flood risk and the cold weather it is closed in winter. Instead, we scouted the shores of the dead sea for some better picture motifs and were not disappointed. We found two good spots: The first one 3kms south of the Wadi Mujib visitor center and another one here.
We then headed back South, picked up our friend from California along the way, and returned to Aqaba. The restaurant Alibaba, directly at the city center, is a decent (although not cheap) place, with excellent service, and was our dinner & drinks location for an evening in good company.
Day 4 + 5 : Wreck Diving and Snorkeling
Day four and five were the diving/snorkeling days. We had booked with Ahlan Divers, and they were excellent, but I was told Arab Divers and some of the other companies are also very good. There are several beautiful dive locations in the Red Sea near Aqaba, most importantly the wreck of the Cedar Pride – a freighter sunk in the 80s just off the coast. The Jordanian King is also an avid diver :-). There is also an old tank as well as an intentionally sunk airplane and those two are in snorkeling depth, as are several reefs.
The dive tour with a boat takes almost all day and is really enjoyable as you do barbeque on the boat. The next day, we spent snorkeling at the public beach. You should bring solid shoes as there are many sea urchins and sharp stones, but the snorkeling, in particular at the Japanese Garden, where the tank is located, is quite nice. The beach is otherwise not so good and I would [not recommend] it for sunbathing or regular swimming. We met some really cool German travelers who borrowed us their fins and also joined us for dinner and drinks in the (quite nice) rooftop bar of the Hilton Doubletree hotel in the city center. I got us some local Arabian Ice cream (incense flavor!) from Bakdash Ice Cream and I can really [recommend] to try that!
Day 6: Wadi Rum
Wadi rum is the biggest wadi in all of Jordan and famous backdrop of many movies, for example The Martian and Lawrence of Arabia. Wadi means “Valley” and the landscape of this place really looks like another world. You can do Camel and Jeep tours through the Wadi. Self-driving is possible if you have a 4×4, but I do [not recommend] it. Just stick with a guided tour. It’s 80JOD for a full day. Popular spots are the Red Sand Dune and several Stone Arches, but what impressed me mostly are the vast, barren landscapes.
You can stay overnight in one of the Bedouin camps, which is what we did, and hope for perfect sunset as well as night sky pictures. Sadly, the weather did not play along and we had clouds plus a full moon. Still, I got a few good shots and the stay in the tented camp was an interesting experience.
Day 7: Wadi Rum
We had planned two days for Wadi Rum, but as the weather was not good, trekking was not an option so we cut the second day short and returned to Aqaba where it was much warmer and dry. Aqaba is a nice city, although it does not have any major tourist attractions but the coastline is enjoyable and you have good views of Eilat in Israel on the other side of the bay. Just before we had to depart to the airport for our evening flight home, the sun came out for one last sunset shot:
Shoot & Drone
- Drone photography requires two permits in Jordan. One by the Jordan Civil Aviation Regulatory Commission (CARC at carc.gov.jo) and from the Ministry of Interior (www.moiv.gov.jo, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The CARC people are very friendly and supportive and answers were fast. They regulate the flying of the drone itself and that was no problem. The Ministry of Interior is the exact opposite. They never responded to calls, emails or any other inquiry. Without their approval, the drone is at risk to be confiscated at the border so I do [not recommend] to bring a drone if you do not have this. Also for Petra Drone use is forbitten for safety reasons.
- Most resorts do not have nice beaches, for great photo spots the Wadi Mujib visitor center and this one here are good.
- Treasury – Climb up the path behind the King Tombs for the best shot and aim to get here at 9am to get the treasury in full sunlight.
- On Monday, Wednesday and Friday there is a night tour of Petra for 17JOB. I could not do it and reviews are mixed, but for sure this will offer some great night shots with candlelight if you have a decent camera and tripod.
- The Kings Tombs are great in the afternoon – when the setting sun hits them fully
- Ad-Deir is great in the afternoon as well, same reason.
- Don’t miss out on some of the sand stone colorings in the “houses” opposite of the stone theatre.
- Red Sand Dune – but come early otherwise it is crowded
- Ask the driver to take you to some more remote spots, the arches are not that great as a foto sight.
Diving & Snorkeling Red Sea
- Cedar Pride Wreck
- The Tank and the Airplane (the latter will be difficult with Snorkeling gear due to the depth)
- Japanese Garden Reef Area
- Get a Jordan PASS. This includes the visa fee as well as entrance to Petra, Wadi Rum and other locations. Saves you quite a bit of time and money.
- If travelling during the rainy off-season, make sure to check the weather and plan for some buffer. Petra suffers from flash floods and might be evacuated short notice. Also Wadi Mujib will be closed in Winter months.
- Border crossing to/from Israel can be complicated, check and plan in advance
- Petra gets crowded after 10 am, so come early.
- Night visits in Petra are only possible on specific days of the week – plan your visit accordingly
- Find a larger group, as the guide fees in Petra (50 JOD) and the jeep fees in Wadi Rum (80 JOD full day) are fixed, no matter the group size.
- Wadi Rum Jeep tours start usually at 9am
- For the Wadi Rum Jeep tours, a lot depends on the quality of your guide. Many speak almost no English and this will make the tour very boring as you will just see rock and sand, but not get the historic bit. The tour guides all wait at the visitor center and Wadi Rum village, so it is a bit of a hit & miss situation. Check online in advance.
- For the Dead Sea, ensure that your hotel has direct beach access, this makes the swimming much more comfortable.
- Plan for strong weather differences. We had 20° in Petra, 10° in Wadi Rum, 30° at the Dead Sea and 25° in Aqaba. Bring both warm and light clothing.
- The border region to Iraq and Syria should be avoided, but all other areas are perfectly safe.
- Don’t leave the passport in the hotel, you must present it at the police checkpoints in original
- Jordan is a Muslim country, so dress code for women is strict. No big problem at the tourist beaches or resorts, but in other places (e.g. Petra) better dress modestly. Even as a guy, shorts are sometimes frowned upon.
- Careful when diving and snorkeling. Damaging the reefs is fined and there are several poisonous corals and sea urchins.
- Driving in Jordan is no problem, but be aware of many road bumps, often without warning signs. This is especially important when driving at night.