I just can’t say enough about Jordan – it’s one of those dream destinations for anyone who enjoys travelling. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the place and it makes for a wonderful introduction to the Middle East. Everyone has passed through here so, as well as being littered with ancient cities and Biblical references, the Romans and Crusaders have also left their mark – history buffs will be in their element as they say. Then there are the stunning landscapes, seaside resorts, adventure activities……. Safe, friendly and easygoing, you’ll have a fabulous time here. Oh – and yes – this is a great place for a self-drive holiday.
We visited Jordan in 2010. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’ve lost photos for about 5/6 years of travel. I’ve no photos from Jordan either. That however, is for another reason – we spent our last few days at a Dead Sea resort. One afternoon, down at the shore, I ….. I don’t know what I did…. but I deleted all the photos from the trip. Bawled my eyes out!! So, yet again, I’m falling back on stock photos as well as a few from fellow blogger Barry over at The Adventures of Barry Brink
I know that I’ve many wonderful places still to visit but I’ve done ok and seen plenty – and NOWHERE has ever given me a thrill quite like that walk through Petra. Everything you’ve heard of this ancient rose city is true – it really lives up to all the hype…
Petra was the capital of the Nabataean empire between the 3rd century B.C. and 106A.D. Excellent carvers and stonemasons, the Nabataeans built a city, half manmade and half carved in to the rock. They were efficient water collectors and plumbers, constructing impressive water systems and lush gardens. Skilled at commercial dealings, they created a thriving trading centre.
Once Rome formally took possession of the city in 106A.D., its importance in international trade began to wane, compounded by the rise in importance of sea trade routes. A severe earthquake in 363 AD caused serious damage to the water system and many buildings. The city continued in its decline until the 12th century when it was abandoned altogether. Petra remained known only to locals until rediscovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. To date, a mere 15% of the site has been uncovered!!!
You couldn’t make up a more dramatic entrance – a 1.2km long canyon – the Siq – leads in to the city – no wonder it was lost for centuries!
And then that incredible moment when the Treasury appears in front of you..
You could actually die happy at this stage – but no – this is just the tip if the iceberg – and what an iceberg! On you go through the Street of Facades with dozens of caves and buildings carved into the rock, past the Royal Tombs and Amphitheatre, along the Colonnaded Street ……
…..and then start on the 800 step climb to the Monastery.
Incredible as it is by day, going in to Petra at night is just magical. Hundreds of candles line the Siq all the way to the Treasury. OK – then you have to sit through a rather mediocre Bedouin performance which won’t be the best time you’ve ever had – but WHAT a setting!
You’ll need at least two days to hit all the highlights – this will allow for a daytime visit or two, Petra by night, and a sunrise visit.
The longer you stay, the better the value. A one-day ticket costs JOD50 ($70) per person, a two-day ticket is JOD55 and a three-day ticket JOD60 (children are free). If visiting other sites in Jordan, you should get a Jordan Pass online. This pass costs JOD70 for one day entry to Petra, JOD75 for two days, JOD80 for three days, but includes the Jordanian Tourist Visa and 40 other sites and museums, including Jesash, Amman Citadel and Wadi Rum. Petra By Night tickets cost 17 JOD. You can buy tickets at the visitor’s centre by cash or credit card. You need your passport in order to purchase your ticket.
The site is MASSIVE – covering 60 sq kms and including more than 800 sites, over varying terrain and elevation. The 5.5km walk from the Visitor Centre all the way to the Monastery will take about 2 hours at a reasonable pace with over 800 steps at the final climb.
There are options other than walking:
–A horse ride from the entrance as far as the Siq is oddly enough included in your ticket but it’s considered a bit of a scam – The handlers are usually not the owners and are dependent on tips – you’ll definitely be expected to give something… If looking for a ride back out, make sure to agree the final fee before getting on the horse. Don’t flash big notes around – its harder to negotiate and they’ll argue that they’ve no change to give you….
-A horse and carriage costs about 20JOD return to the Treasury or 40JOD further in to the city.
-Horses and camels can’t manage the steep steps but you can hire a donkey to bring you up to the monastery.
As so often in these situations, there is much debate about animal welfare so maybe bear that in mind and avoid unless you have mobility issues.
If you are based in the area for a couple of days then you should allow a few hours for ‘Little Petra’. Just a 9km drive, it’s worth it for the landscapes alone. Once there, you can enjoy a smaller and quieter version of the main site – again accessed through a siq. It is believed to have been a suburb of the great city and the houses, again carved out of the sandstone rock, were used by rich citizens. At Painted House, you can admire the 2000 year old fresco – something you won’t see in Petra.
There is no public transport running between Petra and Little Petra. It is possible to organise a taxi driver if you don’t have your own car. There is no entrance fee.
2. Wadi Rum
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an incredible desert valley known for its red sand, narrow gorges, jagged arches and ancient petroglyphs. Your 4X4 tour will introduce you to a barren yet stunning landscape and give you a chance to enjoy the rock formations, climb some of the sand dunes and photograph the rock art. You might also fancy a ride on a camel – or even an Arabian horse.
Pertinently referred to as ‘The Valley of the Moon’, Wadi Rum has been the back drop for countless movies depicting Mars. Watch The Martian (2015) starring Matt Damon to get an idea of the landscape .
Spending a night in a Bedouin camp is supposedly a once in a lifetime experience. Tents range from basic to luxurious and camps include communal areas for seating and eating. You’re package will incorporate a Bedouin dinner, breakfast, probably some traditional music, and the opportunity for some serious star gazing.
3. Dead Sea
Swimming in the Dead Sea, the earth’s lowest elevation point, will be another bucket list experience on your itinerary. But swim you won’t! Devoid of visible life, the salt levels are 8.6 times higher than ocean water so it’s a case of floating rather than swimming! The water is mineral rich and, together with the rich mud on the shoreline, you have the makings of a healing spa treatment.
This makes for a great day out from Amman but, if the budget stretches to it, it worth spending a few nights at a resort hotel here. That’ll give you private access to the sea without the crowds and you just rinse yourself off with fresh water and retire to the pool area. After a few days of Dead Sea mud baths, you’ll come away with the softest skin you’ve ever had!
Avoid getting the water in your eyes at all costs – oh – and no shaving the legs that day- the water really, really stings!
4. Red Sea
From Dead to Red. Jordan mightn’t have much coastline, but we’re talking quality here – not quantity! You won’t get your swim at the Dead Sea but the beach town of Aqaba offers all the joys of a vacation resort.
In beautiful turquoise waters, you can swim, snorkel and dive to your heart’s content. With colourful coral reefs, a huge array of marine life and lovely clear waters, this is supposedly one of the best places for scuba diving in the Middle East.
For landlubbers, there are great beaches, spas, souks and lots of restaurants. No need to panic – the city has its own set of ruins and an Archaeology museum – so cultural pursuits need not be totally neglected!
If Roman ruins are your ‘thing’, then you’re in for a real treat here. Dating back 6500 years, Jerash was an important city on Rome’s trade route. The dry climate has stood it well down through the centuries and today the site is considered one of the greatest examples of Roman architecture outside of Italy.
It’s huge! It appears to be a whole city still intact. And, like Petra, so much has still to be explored – it’s reckoned that only 10% has been excavated!
Highlights include the Hippodrome which once hosted chariot races watched by thousands of spectators, Temple of Zeus and the Arch of Hadrian, built to commemorate a visit by Emperor Hadrian.
But the pièce de résistance has to be the Forum – an oval shaped plaza lined with 56 columns.
Jerash is very accessible from Amman. You don’t need a guide but make sure to allow at least a few hours to do justice to the place. And don’t forget the sunscreen – there’s very little shade here!
In 1884, workmen constructing a new church on the site of an older one, discovered significant treasure indeed – a 6th century mosaic map of the region. The Madaba Map depicts the area from Lebanon to the Nile, including the Dead Sea, the River Jordan, Bethlehem and other biblical sites. A detailed representation of Jerusalem shows the outline of the city, the Damascus Gate and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While many of the original 2 million tiles are missing, there’s enough left to appreciate the insight into the history of the region which has been afforded by this incredible discovery.
This is not the only mosaic in town. There are thought to be hundreds of examples scattered throughout the city, located in churches, villas and archaeological parks. They depict everything from the seasons, flora and fauna, mythological scenes and everyday activities such as hunting, fishing and farming.
Madaba is only 19 miles from the capital Amman, so makes for an easy day trip. Alternatively, it fits in well as a half day trip en route to the Dead Sea or Petra.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan is where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel, when the ancient riverbed was discovered during mine-clearing operations. . Already, more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods have been uncovered, making this one of the most important recent findings in biblical archaeology and history.
The site is open daily but visits are highly regulated as the river forms the border between the West Bank and Jordan. Only guided tours are permitted and you will need your passport. The entrance fee includes a shuttle bus and guide. Once off the shuttle, you are escorted along a 1km path to the river with various stops along the way. The entire visit takes about 90 minutes with 15 minutes allowed at the river.
Remember that you are only a few kms from the Dead Sea here so its seriously hot! Much of the walking route is without shade so come prepared!
Mount Nebo, according to ancient tradition, is the place from which Moses saw the Promised Land after leading the Israelites out of Egypt. At 700 metres above sea level, the views of the Holy Land, the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley are spectacular.
Mount Nebo houses an active monastery and Byzantium church with beautiful mosaics.
8.Dana Biosphere Reserve
Located halfway between Amman and Aqaba, the Dana Biosphere Reserve is the largest nature reserve in Jordan. Part of the Great Rift Valley which stretches from Lebanon to Mozambique, its 320 sq kms crosses not one but four bio-geographical zones. Up to 700 plant species, 190 bird species, 37 mammal species and 36 reptile species exist here – many endangered.
This is a great place to get off the beaten track for a few days and it is a hiker’s dream. You can spend a few nights in a campsite, ecolodge or guest house. Offering dramatic landscapes including gorges, valleys and mountains, it is possible to hike all day and not meet a soul. You can do as much or as little as you wish – trails vary in length from a couple of hours to multi-day treks. Or don’t walk at all!!! – just relax and enjoy the views!
9. Kings Highway
Looking at a map, you’ll notice three roads connecting Amman with the south of the country. King’s Highway is the middle one, and if you have time, its a wonderful way to see more of Jordan – it’s worth tackling the winding road for the views alone.
The original King’s Highway began in Heliopolis in Egypt, went up through Jordan and in to present day Syria – serving as a major route through the Middle East for 5000 years. The Nabataeans used it for trade. It was fortified by the Romans who used it for military purposes as well as trade – they named it Via Trajana Nova after The Roman Emperor Trajan. In the Byzantine era, the rise in Christianity found pilgrims walking the road on their way to Mount Nebo and the Jordan River. From the 7th century, Muslims took the road as far as Damascus where it merged with another ancient route to Mecca. The 12th century brought the Crusaders who built their fine castles along its path…
Starting in Northern Jordan, the highway runs south, closely bypassing Amman and on to the town of Wadi Musa (Petra). Most of you will start from Amman or Madaba. Some of the highlights have already been mentioned above – Madaba, Mount Nebo, Dana – but I’ll mention a few others here. Most visitors tackle it in a day – overnight options are limited really to Madaba or Dana.
Overlooking the Dead Sea, The Castle of Mukawir was the site of Herod’s Palace, where Salome danced in return for the head of John the Baptist.
The ‘Grand Canyon of Jordan’ – 4kms wide and 1 km deep – is one of the most popular sites on the highway. with a winding road snaking down to the Dam and up the other side.
Unlike many other river valleys in the region, Wadi Mujib has a year-round water flow and is home to many species of flora and fauna, including vultures, eagles and the rare Nubian ibex.
There’s great hiking through the gorge as well as some challenging trails in the Mujib Nature Reserve for serious hikers.
Perched on a hill and towering over a modern town, Karak Castle was one of the largest Crusader castles in the Middle East.
Built in the 12th century, its great location meant that whoever ruled the Castle controlled the trading routes from Damascus to Egypt and Mecca. It was in Crusader hands for a mere 40 years before falling to Arab rule.
Use your Jordan Pass here. From the higher points of the castle, you will enjoy wonderful views in all directions – on a clear day you can see as far as the Dead Sea. Bring a torch and explore the tunnels and underground passages.
Another 12th Century Crusader Castle perched on a hill, this is easily spotted from the distance. Not as big or important as Kerak, its nonetheless worthy of a visit. Again, you can explore the lower levels before climbing for sweeping uninterrupted views
Desert Highway 15 runs from Aqaba via Petra to Amman. It’s a straight route through the desert and is perfect for those with little time and want to get from Amman to Petra quickly. The regional buses from Amman to Petra follow this route as do many tour groups.
When drawing up your Jordan itinerary, try to plan it as a loop, using both highways.
Because of the twisting, winding nature of the route, exploring The King’s Highway is not viable via public transport. If you are not renting a car, you can join a group tour from Amman.
If you want to spread the trip over a few days, your best accommodation option is either Madaba or Dana – there isn’t a lot of choice in between.
With so much to squeeze in to your trip, Amman is probably the most likely spot to cut from the list if you’re short on time but its worth trying to jiggle at least a visit if you can’t manage a night or two. Dominated by the Citadel perched on the highest hill, don’t be fooled in to thinking that this city is stuck in the past. Yes you have ruins aplenty and souks galore in which to bargain but vibrant Amman also bustles with restaurants and cafes, shops and galleries. By the time you’ve explored the Citadel and the King Abdullah Mosque, visited the souks and sampled the street food, you’ll be smitten! Whether you’ve a few days or just a half day, it would be well worth your while to join a walking tour which will introduce you to the main attractions, bring you through back streets and markets and offer suggestions for dining and other activities.
Where actually is Jordan?
Jordan is a Middle Eastern country bordered by Israel, The West Bank, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Occupying less than 100,000 sq kms – including the Dead Sea – it is similar in size to Portugal and Austria.
Queen Alia International Airport in Amman is well served by international airlines. There are direct flights from Europe, US and the Middle East.
Passport should be valid for at least 6 months and have some empty pages.
Tourist Visa can be obtained upon arrival at Amman airport. The visa costs 40 Jordanian Dinars (about $60 USD). Note – visa fees must be paid with local currency – there is a bank next to the immigration desk in the airport for exchangeing money.
The Jordan Pass
The Tourist Visa costs 40JOD and one day entrance to Petra is 50JOD – and the Jordan Pass costs 70JOD…….see….. you’re ahead already!!! It can be purchased by anyone staying in Jordan for more than 3 nights. You purchase it online before your trip and the cost is based on how many days you want to visit Petra for. You’ll be emailed a code which you just show at up to 40 attractions throughout the country – a nobrainer!
Unless you’ve visited Jordan before, this should not be a one-centre holiday. With limited public transport on offer, the easiest option is self-drive. With a rented car, you have flexibility of route, stops and pace. The roads are of good quality and driving is relatively easy (outside of Amman!). There are really only a few main routes and signage is in Arabic and English so you’re unlikely to get lost!!
Our ONLY hairy moment on the whole trip happened on our first night. We arrived around 9.00pm into the airport and collected a car – heading straight to Petra – about a 3 hour drive. We hadn’t got very far before realising we’d need fuel. We’d already passed several petrol stations on the highway but you know how it goes – they seemed to suddenly vanish when you’re looking for them. The few settlements we drove through had literally shut up for the night. Slowing down to eke out the dregs in the tank, the gauge was dangerously low when we reached yet another hamlet, again almost totally in darkness. The 3 of us were resigning ourselves to a night in the car when we noticed lights outside a house next to a petrol station. And sure enough – there’s a few old-timers, sitting around and shooting the breeze or whatever – and selling petrol from plastic containers!!! Brilliant. We considered for about 30 seconds whether to risk their fuel or sleep in the car until the petrol station opened. No thank you. We filled the tank – sure it was all or nothing anyway – and off we went. I LOVE travel!!
Moral of the story – when renting a car that doesn’t include a full tank of petrol, don’t play chicken just because you reckon the fuel stations closer to the airport will be more expensive!!!
Self -drive is not for everyone – and there are all the usual choices available…. A private driver and guide will be the most expensive option. You can join a tour group which will take you to the main sites and landmarks. Your could also combine public transport between major sites with local taxis.
2 weeks would be great. That would allow for the following….
Amman 2/3 nights
Madaba for a half day and on to Dana
Dana 1/2 nights
Petra 3 nights
Wadi Rum 1 night
Aqaba 2/3 nights
Dead Sea 2/3 nights
Jerash, Bethany and Mount Nebo can be visited as day trips from Amman or the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea can be visited as a day trip from Amman (it’ll take less than an hour) – but even one night would be worth it. And of course, Amman can be visited from the Dead Sea.
3 nights might sound like a long time in Amman but in our own case, we didn’t arrive in to the airport until about 9.00pm. So 3 nights might be just 2 days … and if you go to Jerash, that will use up most of one day…
We didn’t overnight in Wadi Rum but visited as a day trip from Petra – its about 1.5 hours each way.
Less time? Then I’d suggest just 2 centres – Petra and the Dead Sea. Omit Aqaba and Dana altogether. Visit Jerash and Amman as a day trip from the Dead Sea. Visit Madaba and the castles in transit.
Jordanians speak Arabic, but English is widely spoken.
Key phrases like hello (mer-ha-ba) and thank you (shok-ran) will go a long way. Learn a few words before you travel.
Currency = the Jordanian Dinar.
ATMs are widely available in Amman, larger towns, and tourist destinations.
Carry enough cash, especially small denominations, for tips, taxis, food and souks.
Major cities and hotels will accept credit cards – check in advance whether your accommodation actually takes credit cards. Debit cards are not widely accepted.
Phones / WiFi
If travelling with an unlocked phone, you’ll find mobile phone shops in the arrivals hall at the airport.
Whilst internet coverage can be a bit patchy in rural areas, you are likely to find reliable WiFi in most restaurants, hotels, etc. in larger urban areas. Most smaller towns usually have an internet cafe.
What to Pack
This is a Muslim country and a certain level of decorum is appreciated. Cover shoulders, cleavage and knees… Pack loose, comfortable clothes.
At the Dead Sea and Aqaba resorts, western beach clothing is acceptable.
Scarf or shawl for visits to religious sites.
A shawl/wrap/jacket for chilly nights.
Regardless of the time of year, you’ll want:
Sunscreen / sunhat / sunglasses
Good walking shoes
Loo Paper – (only available in some restaurants and hotels – locals prefer to use a hose. The sewage system is not really designed for paper so baskets are provided beside the toilet bowl)
When to go
The best time to visit is March > May (peak season) or September >November (second busiest season). Temperatures are high during the day and evenings are cool.
It can be unbearably hot in summer (I can vouch for that – we went in August!!!) and freezing in winter. January is the coolest and wettest month.
Health and Safety
Tap water is not considered safe to drink.
Food – take the usual precautions – avoid anything that might have been washed in tap water / don’t eat chilled foods – cheese, cold meats, etc. – that may have been left lying around in the heat / eat in busy restaurants – especially those frequented by locals.
There are no specific vaccinations required but consult with your GP 6-8 weeks prior to traveling if you have ongoing medical issues. Most doctors speak English. Larger hotels usually have a doctor on call. Make sure to have updated travel insurance.
We all accept that bad things can happen anytime, anywhere. Jordan is considered one of the safest countries in the Middle East. Having said that, make sure to have updated news before you travel and avoid the areas bordering Iraq and Syria.
Final Bits and Bobs
Things are more expensive than you’d expect…..
People are very friendly and welcoming of tourists.
The country is not totally dry but many restaurants, hotels and camps don’t sell alcohol. You’ll find bars in Amman, in most larger international hotels, and at some tourist sites..
Photography – ask permission before taking someone’s photo – especially a woman. Don’t photo military installations and border posts etc.
You’ll have a wonderful time!