Jordan has become a popular destination following the launch of low-cost flights to Aqaba. My two visits in this country, however, were prior to this event and consequently at a higher flight cost and also visa obligation entering Amman Airport. On both visits, the journey was done with a rental car which added significantly to the experience and slightly to the adventure. On my most recent trip, in February 2018, we arrived in Amman after midnight, picked up the small car and set off to Wadi Rum Desert driving overnight. The shortest road, the Desert highway, requires 324 km of comfortable driving. But that night, contrary to the stereotypical image of the Middle East, a bad weather with light rain and thick fog greeted us and I admit that I had a hard time driving. There was no service station on the street to take a break, not even a café open… after all I don’t drink coffee and we had no local currency! Shortly before dawn, the fatigue was intense so we made a stop in the remote area to sleep for a while, but the severe cold made the effort hopeless. The sunrise reveals the magnificent landscape and the purple sky combined with the red palette of the arid desert mountains, gives you the feeling of driving on another planet. Earth’s warm star casts its first rays as we turn left on the freeway towards the entrance of Wadi Rum National Park. Few people of the small settlements in this area are starting to wake up and we stopped in a grocery store to buy some goods and exchange some currency. A little further down, an antique train of the early 20th century stands in the middle of the desert. Finally arriving at the entrance and after paying a small ticket, we call the owner of our desert accommodation. Saleem is a polite and hospitable Bedouin. After some rest enjoying tea at his home in the small village of Wadi Rum, we discussed about a 4×4 day tour and he was flexible with the price negotiation. So the rest of the day we had the opportunity to live the magic of the Red Desert, experience its eerie aura, admire the geological formations, rollover the dunes, chase wild camels, walk the canyons and climb the rocks. And although Wadi Rum is not quite desolate, as it’s a main attraction for visitors in the country, it is probably one of the most impressive in the world.
The property of Saleem is called Wadi Rum Quiet village and features large tents with comfortable beds and thick handmade blankets for the winter cold. All tents, as well as the shared bathrooms were extremely clean, like they were brand new. The sunset completed the magic of the day, by the wood fire of the Bedouins living in an adjoining hut.
By the evening, in a spacious long tent we enjoyed a rich buffet of delicious Middle Eastern dishes, with humus not to be missed.
Leaving Wadi Rum with unforgettable pictures, we arrive in our car with a little surprise. Being used to my own car back home that’s equipped with an automatic light system, I had forgotten the light switch on and the battery was dead. The few locals present were very helpful, but there was no infrastructure in that place to get help. After a while, luck showed and a vehicle with charging cables helped us to start the engine.
About 120km is the distance between Wadi Rum and the city of Wadi Musa adjacent to the Petra archaeological site. The enchanting ancient city of the kingdom of the Navateans is entirely carved in red sandstone, a marvel of architecture of its time, a landmark of many civilizations, a hub of commercial activity and a land of conquest for Arabs, Jews, Romans, Jews. As this was my second visit to this place, I tried to play it smart by avoiding the €65 entrance ticket, trying to enter from a mountain path. This is theoretically possible, but there are guards in many parts of the mountain, and my stupid illegal idea gave to me and my travel buddy a meaningless delay. Definitely the best choice budget-wise is the “Jordan Pass”, which at $99 covers the Jordan visa (not required if entering from Aqaba) and the ticket to all archaeological sites in the country. After a two-kilometer route through an imposing, narrow gorge, the masterpiece known as the “Treasury” (Al Khazneh) appears. An elaborate 40-meter-high architectural structure, carved into the vertical rock with prominent Hellenistic, Alexandrian and Roman influences, with Corinthian style columns and sculptures depicting Greek and Egyptian deities. Continuing along the route, there are many more monuments, including a Roman theater and many carved tombs that were inhabited until recent by Bedouins, who have now moved to an adjacent village and are entitled to engage in commercial tourism activities within the archaeological site. At the end of the valley, an uphill path begins, leading to a monument similar to the “treasury” and quite as remarkable. This is the so-called “Monastery”, located on a plateau that offers a magnificent view all the way to the route up there but also continuing to some nearby peaks where an open space café with a breathtaking view of the surrounding area and desert, is located. As soon as darkness falls, the archaeological site, now empty of tourists, acquires another magic. Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, by 8:30 pm there is a night event with candles and some traditional music instrument, but with a separate ticket (€20) that according to others who attended it and my own view of the set up, it is a poor tourist attraction. not worth the experience.
In the not significant city of Wadi Musa, there are plenty of hotels and restaurants. From here, following the mountainous path before it descends to the lowest point of earth in the Dead Sea, you will find impressive, arid landscapes and picturesque towns and villages. It’s an area full of crusader castles, such as the Montréal castle in Al Shoubak that overlooks the emptiness of the desert from the summit of the beige cliffs. The village of Dana is a popular stopover with a traditional cafe, mosque and spectacular views. Going down to the Dead Sea we are now at an altitude of up to -430m. A detour through the villages near this salty lake will give us an enthusiastic welcome and a special experience of traditional local hospitality. Despite the language gap, they will treat us with their few goods in a home feast… and they hardly let us leave. The women, more shy, kept a distance from men and did not want to be photographed at all.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is an experience not to be missed. The salinity levels cause a strong buoyancy, feeling like a balloon floating on the surface. Crystalline salt formations create strange effects on the coast. The water has a good temperature even in winter and it feels weirdly sticky. Coming out of the water, the salt accumulates so much on skin that it is impossible to wear clothes or get into the car without a fresh water shower first. This time we paid a small fee in a hotel under renovation to allow us access to its pier that had showers. On my previous visit we had some swimming at a public beach and a local man pointed us to the pipeline of a water treatment plant where we cleaned up! In the Mujib Canyon you can indulge in hiking and canyoning, but unfortunately the water scarcity has ceased operations.
Afterwards, instead of continuing the lakeside route to Amman, following a narrow, winding road in a deserted rural area, we got to Madaba. In addition to its picturesque scenery, the city is famous for its Byzantine history, with the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George and the famous mosaic depicting a map of the Holy Lands. The Temple of the Beheading of John the Baptist is also here. The local people were very friendly, someone stopped his car to help us with anything we were looking for. Some of the restaurants were amazing, one of them in a courtyard surrounded by old stone buildings.
Amman is a city of great interest that is often overlooked by many visitors. The mosques, markets, outdoor shops serving falafel, the trendy cafés with hookahs, the Roman theater and of course the Acropolis that overlooks the city, the views from the many surrounding hills, rank it as a destination worth seeing. Driving in Amman, however, is chaotic, making me wonder how such noble people can be transformed into rage, rude and dangerous drivers.
Jordan is a typical example of Middle East culture, maintaining maybe the most peaceful and hospitable vibe in the region and rewarding the visitor at maximum level.