Road Trip: Jordan

Curious about the Middle East but worried about safety?

Choose Jordan as your destination, the jewel above the Nile, the calm in the storm.

by Elizabeth Willoughby
It’s five a.m. in Amman when the slumbering quiet is broken by a tinny call to prayer that leaks out of a loudspeaker atop a minaret. I love listening to it, this first one of the day, the one not interrupted by city noise. The muezzin pauses while his echo swirls around the rooftops and floats… down… to the dusty ground. Then he sings out the next line. It’s even more beautiful when the call from another mosque overlaps it, the two melodies delivering an exotic, a capella round.  

Such is the beginning of each day in Jordan. Now, pour yourself a hot, sweet, spice-rich Turkish coffee and get ready for the coming hours that will hold unique, historically significant and jaw-dropping sites.  This small country punches above its weight for what it can offer visitors. Lacking the turmoil of the surrounding regions, Jordan is safe to travel through and drive around.

I have visited Jordan four times, three of which were accidental (in 1996 and twice in 2008), and then in 2017 when, for part of my stay, I was hosted by Visit Jordan, the official Jordanian tourism organisation. The following seven-stop road trip itinerary is based on my experiences from all four visits, and provides not only Jordan’s most famous delights, but other locations worthy of a stop that visitors often miss due to time restraints. 

If you can, stretch your visit out over a couple of weeks; although it is not a large country, there is much to see. Impressions of Jordan, its long history and its gracious people will stay with you.

1st stop: Petra 

210 kilometres/ 130 miles (2.5 hours) from Queen Alia International Airport (AMM)

Petra is the famous ancient city that was carved out of cliffs around 2,000 years ago. Its most beautiful façade, the Treasury, is easily recognizable and is Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction for good reason. Petra came into being as a trade center where caravans trekking from China could find water and safety before moving their silks and spices on to Rome. Entering through the Siq’s narrow gorge would have been as impressive then as it remains today. Sunlight reflects off the red sandstone cliffs of the tunnel, bringing out the yellow, orange, black and purple of the minerals. Nabataean statues, images and a worn down, larger-than-life-size camel caravan are depicted in the walls above the Roman-built water channel, wowing visitors as they walk the thousand meters to the end of the fissure for their first peek at Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, in all its regal glory. It’s an imposing sight you won’t forget. It’s also possible to see it from above.

Just to the left before the Siq entrance, there’s a path where a (prearranged) local guide can lead you uphill, over boulders and down narrow passages. In 45 minutes you’ll be standing on a ledge looking down upon the Treasury. In October, the rains haven’t started yet in Jordan and the Treasury does not glow red from this angle. From here it looks white and dusty and in need of a shower, yet it’s still shake-your-head impressive.

Then slip carefully down steep, worn staircases blocked here and there by rock formations until you reach ground level. Beyond the Treasury are many more tombs, as well as Roman ruins, such as the theatre and street of colonnades, and a restaurant — you’ll be ready for the break. After lunch you can choose to climb the 800-plus sandstone steps up to Ad Deir, the Monastery, which has a more masculine façade than the Treasury’s fancy carvings, and is somewhat larger. Be kind to your knees and consider hiring a donkey for the uphill trek.

Petra at Night
On some nights the Siq is lined with hundreds of candles leading to the Treasury that serves as a beautiful backdrop for a live musical performance with hundreds more candles in the foreground. It’s visually impressive, though the music can be underwhelming. Also, be ready to throw your jacket on your neighbour if his shorts catch on fire, which happens from time to time.

Where to stay
Petra Marriott Hotel
A 3.5-km (2-mile) drive from the UNESCO World Heritage site that you’ve just visited, the Petra Marriott is a welcome retreat from the rocks, camels and donkeys, sun, heat and tired feet. Enjoy the panoramic views of the cliffs and desert valley from the hotel common area done up in Middle Eastern décor. Book an appointment at the spa for a loofah Turkish bath, or just lounge in the steam rooms to sweat all that sand out of your pores.

Where to eat
The Petra Kitchen
Stop by the Petra Kitchen in the early evening (best to reserve if visiting in high season) for a hands-on cooking lesson and dinner. Participants at each station prepare a traditional dish following the instructions of their table’s designated chef, who will show off his mastery and have you feeling completely inadequate in no time. Take it with a smile and he’ll take the time to offer you some personal tips and tricks as he supervises the table. When all is ready, the feast is shared amongst all participants seated at a long table. The chefs run Petra Kitchen like clockwork. A handout of the recipes is provided at the end of the meal.

Mövenpick Resort Petra
Just across the street from the Petra Visitor Center is another dinner option outside of Petra Marriott Hotel. Mövenpick Resort Petra has dining options for guests and non-guests of the hotel. Al Saraya offers a casual buffet; there’s live music and a barbecue at the Al Ghadeer rooftop (closed in wintertime); and award-winning Al Iwan offers fine Mediterranean cuisine. It’s worth the small detour for a peek at the lobby’s décor.

Recommended guide
Home grown and well-connected Ramzi Nawafleh
+962 79 643-6423

2nd stop: Wadi Rum desert

Wadi Rum desert
103 kilometres/ 64 miles (1.5 hours) from Petra

Hop onto a bench in the back of a pickup and drive around the dunes where scenes from Matt Damon’s 2015 movie The Martian were filmed, and around the rock formations named after T.E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia’s) book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Take off your shoes and climb a dune, then skate back down like you’re on a moving sidewalk. It’s fun – you’ll be grinning before you reach the bottom.

Soak up Wadi Rum’s contemplative atmosphere, especially under dawn and dusk lighting that is universally tranquilizing. Make it extra special by watching a sunrise by camel and a sunset by candles.

Re camels: Lean back when the camel begins to stand up or kneel down so you don’t tumble headfirst over its shoulders. Look like a pro by wrapping one leg around the saddle horn while en route.

Re candles: Fill paper sandwich bags to a quarter with sand, stick a candle into each, light the candles, set the bags on the desert floor around you. Come prepared with snacks, refreshments and a light jacket.

Where to stay
Sun City Camp
While you’re here in the desert, you may as well stay overnight. Sun City Camp provides all you’ll need. Choose between kinda-Bedouine tents or dome tents. All have ensuite bathrooms with shower. The dome tents have window frontage affording beautiful desert vistas and even the stars above (request front-row tents for best views).

3rd stop: Aqaba

67 kilometres/ 42 miles from Sun City Camp

The duty-free port city of Aqaba, the only coastal city in Jordan, sits at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea and attracts visitors looking for a luxury resort experience. Sunny and warm year round, Jordanians come on long weekends for the high end hotels, sandy beaches and water sports; tourists from Jordan and abroad come for world class Red Sea scuba diving and snorkelling sites off the coast. Boats such as the Sea Guard “Yasmena” can be chartered for a few hours for snorkeling and lunch, or for overnight dive excursions further out.  Aqaba’s mediaeval shopping district is popular in the afternoons.

Where to stay
Kempinski Hotel Aqaba Red Sea
Kempinski Aqaba’s  sizeable, uncluttered rooms with walls of windows overlook the Red Sea and beach giving the impression that you can practically reach out and touch the sand and water. Extending beyond the guestrooms, the windows, space and natural lighting are elements evident throughout the hotel. Service and facilities are top notch here, including several in-house dining options, as well as a spa and pool, all of which make the Kempinski one of the favourites in Aqaba. It’s also nicely situated amongst external restaurants, nightclubs, the souk and sea.

4th stop: Dana Biosphere Reserve 

Dana Biosphere Reserve
166 kilometres/ 103 miles (2.5 hours) from Aqaba

The Dana Biosphere Reserve is believed to have been settled as far back as the Neolithic Age (not unlike the rest of Jordan). Traces of an 11,000-year-old settlement, Bronze Age copper mines, Roman aqueduct and mill, and an early Christian monastery and cemetery can be observed, as can Bedouin culture and traditional lifestyle that is still practiced today. Nature, of course, can also be enjoyed while hiking the routes carved into the mountains, canyons  and sandstone formations from 1,500 metres down to below sea level. Flora and fauna include about 800 plant species, some of which are used by Bedouin for medicinal purposes, and animals such as the Nubian Ibex mountain goat, Sinai agama lizard, the male of which is a striking blue colour, and some 190 bird species.

Where to stay
Feynan Ecolodge
Built in 2005 in Wadi Feynan, Feynan Ecolodge’s design is modelled after the caravanserais of old with courtyards, patios and shaded areas, and blends into the surrounding environment. This award-winning ecolodge, voted as one of the top 25 by National Geographic Traveler Magazine (2013), was built to provide an exploration base into the Dana Biosphere Reserve, while having a minimal impact on the environment by employing such practices as efficient water use and energy conservation (solar panels provide electricity and heat water). Feynan also supports sustainability efforts for the Reserve, and the local community through lodge employment, guide hire, Bedouin cultural demonstrations, the purchase of local food supplies, and the purchase and use of local artisan products.

In walking distance from Feynan Ecolodge

  • Take one of several guided hikes within the Dana Biosphere Reserve, also possible by borrowed mountain bike, to see historical ruins, flora and fauna and/or Bedouin lifestyle excursions.
  • Select a ‘Bedouin experience’, such as:
    Coffee etiquette: There are many coffee rituals to deal with most any situation, but they all start with the grinding of the beans, and each step communicates a message. Find out who does what, when and why, as well as how to drink it properly. So, for example, if you ever find yourself asking for permission to court a Bedouin woman, you’ll know not take a sip from your cup until you’ve been given a ‘yes’ by her father, no matter how long it takes. If the answer is ‘no’, you’ll know it’s time to leave, thirsty.
    Kohl eyeliner: Learn how kohl eyeliner is made, how it’s used for beauty and health, and watch it being applied to your travel mate’s eyes but skip the personal application – the fine, black powder flutters about the face silently and no one will tell you. Hours later, when you enter a WC to clean off the black dust that keeps appearing on your hands and clothing, you’ll glance at the mirror. Raccoon eyes does not begin to describe.
  • Take a pre-dusk hike to watch the sun set from a hilltop followed by a sweet tea in the desert. Then go star-gazing on the Feynan rooftop terrace, where long, narrow cushions are provided for reclining comfort, and some instruction on the stars and astronomical formations is shared.

5th stop: Dead Sea

Dead Sea
164 kilometres/ 102 miles (2.5 hours) from Feynan Ecolodge

Some facts about the Dead Sea: It is the lowest place on Earth at over 400 metres below sea level. It has over 30% salt content, which makes it impossible to sink in and impossible to live in, thus its name. Its high salt concentration is caused by water evaporation, and is what has made the Dead Sea such a popular place to visit since 2,000 years ago when Herod the Great and his entourage partook, because the mud, salt and minerals are said to have health benefits and restorative qualities. As a consequence, several hotels and spas have popped up along the coast (in modern times – I don’t know about Herod-era facilities). The Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea, has been used heavily for irrigation over many decades; this water diversion has substantially reduced the water level of the Dead Sea, resulting in hotels that used to be shoreline now finding themselves ever further away from the salty water. (In response, Jordan plans on diverting water from the Red Sea to the shrinking Dead Sea, phase 1: 2018-2021.)

People come from all over the world to participate in Dead Sea therapies, of which there are many. You should too, what the heck. Bring a dark bathing suit (the mud will stain a white one), flip flops (the beach is not sandy), and a shawl if you’re female.

Side trips
Once you’re sufficiently rejuvenated and marinated, you might consider a pause from pampering to take advantage of the proximity to some historic biblical sites.

  • A short drive east-ish (28 kilometres/ 17 miles east from Dead Sea Marriott) is Mt Nebo, a windy place of pilgrimage overlooking the Jordan River Valley. From the summit is where Moses viewed the Holy Land of Canaan. Ignore the human hubbub, and look out over the valley for a sense of the journey that was to come. Mt Nebo is also where Moses is thought to have been buried, and there are several impressive Byzantine mosaics on display in the basilica.

  • A bit further on (10 kilometres/ 6 miles from Mt Nebo) is Madaba, a town mentioned more than once in the Old Testament and where the Greek Orthodox Church of St George is located. On the floor of the church is a 6th-century mosaic map, remarkable not only for its age and size (originally about 25 x 5 metres/ 80 x 15 feet), but also for its artistic quality. It is a detailed map of the Holy Land showing Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Jordan River, Jericho, Nablus, Hebron, the Nile Delta and southern Lebanon. In a word, wow!

  • Either as part of your day trip from spa-ing or as a pit stop en route to this road trip’s next stop, Bethany Beyond the Jordan might pique your interest (22 kilometres/ 14 miles north of the Marriott Dead Sea) – it is the place where Jesus Christ was baptized. Walk along the shaded pathway to the excavated site and observe the very staircase that Jesus is said to have descended into the waters and the arms of John the Baptist. Continue on down the visitors’ pathway to the Jordan Riverbank, where through the reeds you can watch real-time baptisms taking place only metres away in Israel.

Where to stay and eat
Dead Sea Marriott Resort & Spa
Spacious rooms with private balconies encircle the pool with surrounding green shrubbery and three-story tall trees; luxurious details abound throughout the rooms and the rest of the hotel. The hotel offers several restaurant and drinking facilities – important because there is no ‘downtown’ to go to for diversion – as well as the obligatory spa, steam room, gym and a private beach.

6th stop: Um Qais

Um Qais
120 kilometres/ 75 miles (2.5 hours) from the Dead Sea Marriott Resort & Spa

Gob smacking monuments, historic biblical sites, desert nature and sea adventure abound in this country, but did you ever wonder what life is like for a regular Jordanian? Me too. Head north to Um Qais (several spellings, but pronounced ‘oom keess’) at the northern tip of Jordan to find out. At Na Elah’s house, where she lives with her brother, sister and three nieces, learn how to make makdous (stuffed aubergines) and fresh bread baked on-site to accompany tea. If the season is right, visit local olive orchards to help and/or watch families handpick their olives, and then visit the local factory that extracts oil from the fruit. Visit Alia the basket weaver to learn how to turn banana leaves into a coaster, and admire her various intricate masterpieces (available for purchase, naturally). Visit Yousef’s apiary of 60 honeybee hives. He used to contemplate life amongst his uncle’s hives when he was a preteen — after retiring from the army he began his own honey business. You’ll find his products available for purchase all around town.

Don’t miss the important historical site, Gadara. It was one of the ten Decapolis cities established by the Romans to protect the far regions of the empire. It is also, however, the former digs of a local community. My guide, Ahmad, shows me around the ruins where he grew up kicking a ball around the Roman-built plaza with his brother, and the Roman-built house where he lived with his family. This guy (Ahmad) grew up here (Roman-built house renovated by Ahmad’s parents) playing around Roman-era edifices overlooking the Jordan Valley, Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights. All the families living on the site have since been relocated, but the wonderment of Ahmad’s childhood years still makes my head shake.

Where to stay
Beit Al Baraka
Currently (2017) the only lodging in town, this basic B&B is local everything, from philosophy to furnishings to food. It was developed by Baraka Destinations to provide a place for visitors to overnight instead of coming to town for just a couple of hours to see Gadara and then return to Amman. Beit Al Baraka also works with the locality to arrange community experiences for its visitors. Now guests can take advantage of all that Um Quais has to offer, some of which is described above. Beit al Baraka’s ample Middle Eastern breakfast is nearly all locally sourced and does not disappoint. Shared bathroom facilities.

Recommended guide
While in Rome — Ahmad Alomar, tourist guide, eco guide
+962 77 242 6768

7th stop: Amman

Click on the picture to read about my Tea Man encounter.

122 kilometres/ 76 miles (2 hours) from Um Qais

Amman is a modern capital city with amenities like any other, but the old town is where you really want to visit. Originally constructed on the slopes of seven hills (now encompassing over 19), Amman has been influenced by its Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic occupants over millennia, and remnants of these eras are still being discovered.

Take the time to visit the Citadel and Archaeological Museum, if not for the history and artifacts then at least for the vista. Then head downhill to the 6,000-seat Roman theatre, which continues to be used for cultural events to this day. If you’re into people watching, this social playground and meeting place, especially in the evenings, is a ton of fun. The theatre is also home to a couple of museums that might interest you (Folklore, Popular Traditions).

Daytime or evening, enjoy perusing Rainbow Street’s shops for souvenirs, sweets, meats and treats – it’s where the locals go, so you know you’re in the right place. Then slip into Sufra for dinner (more below).

Day trips from Amman
Due to the city’s location there are many day trips that can be easily made from Amman. Here are some sites that I recommend:

  • Mt Nebo and Medaba (see 5th stop: Dead Sea side trips)
  • Azraq has an honest-to-goodness natural wetland in the middle of a desert. Just head east 105 kilometres (65 miles) from Amman. Don’t turn left towards Iraq, and don’t turn right towards Saudi Arabia. Just go straight towards Jordan’s eastern border until you reach Azraq. According to my guidebook, the Azraq oasis used to cover 12,710 square kilometres (4,900 square miles), attracting elephants, cheetahs, lions and hippos, but that was around 200,000 BCE. Umayyad, Chechen, Druze and Bedouin settled here due to the existence of fresh water, fish and buffalo. It was also situated along a trade route between Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. In the 1960s, the practice of diverting water to nearby cities began, followed by a diminished rainfall and then private wells accessing the groundwater. By 1991, the wetlands had dried up. In 2011, however, fresh water was being pumped back into the wetlands and with it returned some of the former wildlife. Today, people come to watch migrating birds from Europe and Asia, and to stroll the wooden boardwalk that ambles around tall grasses, through clusters of overgrown bushes and above ponds; for natural shade and a cool breeze; for ducks and water buffalo, green frogs and red dragonflies — in the desert!
  • Qasr al-Azraq: Meet Lawrence of Arabia, in the form of his last stand. Just five kilometres (three miles) up the street from the oasis is the Qasr al-Azraq fort, “built by the Romans, rebuilt by Arabs under Izz Ed Din Aybak during the Crusades, and used by Lawrence” says the plaque. Here are the extensive ruins of the fort from where T.E. Lawrence and Sharif Hussein bin Ali were based for several months during the Arab revolt against the Turks. It’s stirring to enter through the great basalt door into the two-story fort (looks to me like it was once three-stories) and climb about the ruins: the stable, a well, the mosque, men’s quarters and Lawrence’s, and the courtyard where they spent cold evenings around a great fire. Real people, real place. The guide overflows with details about the ruins’ history of which he is clearly proud, and then accepts whatever payment is offered for his time (try $10) before he leaves you to explore on your own.
  • Qusayr Amra: On the way back to Amman from Azraq, make a pit stop at the 8th-century Umayyad UNESCO site, the Qusayr Amra caravanserai, one of Jordan’s many desert -castles. What’s left is undramatic from the outside except for the saqiya, a mechanical device powered by a donkey walking in circles to raise water from a well, perhaps the very origin of the carrot and stick metaphor. Inside, the bathhouse frescoes are even more fun and uniquely risqué for the time, depicting fruit, wine and naked women, hunts, zodiacs and kings. They’re currently (2017) under restoration but still visitable.
  • Jerash (Gerasa): Enter Jerash, the largest Roman city outside of Italy, through the triple-arched gateway built for Hadrian’s arrival in 129 CE, a city that prospered greatly under Alexander the Great over 200 years previously. In its heyday there was a population of over 20,000. Traipse around the administrative and commercial centre of the city, the columns and plazas, and be sure to take in a Scottish bagpipe performance by Arabian players in the Roman theatre. Much of the city remains underground below modern-built homes, which makes the greater remnants of ancient Jerash unexcavatable.
  • Ajlun Castle (alternatively, visit Ajun Castle as a pit stop en route from 6th stop: Um Qais): This Islamic military structure was built in the 12th century to protect the region from the Crusaders and control the iron mines of Ajlun. Over the following centuries it was expanded and conquered by Mongols, Mamluks and Ottomans. Very much intact, it provides an interesting window into this region’s history.

Where to stay
Amman Marriott Hotel
Accustomed to the needs of international guests, Marriott people seem to be on the ball and instantly available. Rooms are spacious, uncluttered and are designed with business travellers in mind. Due to time restraints I used the hotel only as a place to sleep (compliments of Visit Jordan), so cannot comment on its other facilities, such as restaurants, spa, pools, etc.

Where to eat
Enter Sufra, a green patch in a parched city. Make your way through flowering, fragrant, shading bushes and vines and enjoy a refreshing lemon-mint juice as you browse the menu. The cuisine “blends Bedouin folklore with Levantine heritage”. I don’t really know what that means, but I do know you’ll never be clear about which serving you’re dealing with. At Sufra there’s a constant flow of small dishes coming to the table as empty plates are removed. Just for kicks, though, here’s a tiny taste:

First, take a peek into the back balcony to see tannor bread being made. The dough is slapped onto the inner side of a round, steel drum, where it gets cooked simultaneously on both sides. You’ll be using this fresh bread throughout the meal to scoop up such things as:

  • lentils with aubergine, garlic, tahini and pomegranate molasses (dimseh)
  • fried balls of burghul and lamb paste stuffed with minced meat, onion and pine seeds (kubbeh)
  • chicken liver cooked with onion, garlic, coriander and lemon (kibdeh)
  • cooked and mashed chick peas with tahini sauce and lemon, pickled aubergine and walnuts (hummus sufra)
  • spinach stuffed pastry with sumac (fatayer sabanekh)
  • minced lamb, eggs and potato (mufarakeh billahmeh)

Full yet? Whoops. Those were just some appetizers. Remember to save room for the entrees. And dessert.

When you go to Jordan:

  • Visit Jordan‘s official tourism site
  • Check with your local Jordanian embassy about travel visa requirements.
  • Prearrange your car rental timed for your arrival at Queen Alia International airport (AMM)
  • Clothing: Be modest (keep shoulders and legs covered, nothing skin tight). Women must cover their heads only when visiting a mosque.
  • Pack hiking pants, a good pair of walking shoes and a pair of sandals, a hat with a brim, sunglasses and sunscreen lotion, flip-flops for the Dead Sea (the bottom is rocky), a swimsuit (white will be stained by the mud) and, for women, a cover-up.
  • Women: don’t be offended if a man refuses to shake your hand. Wait for a man to extend his hand first. If he doesn’t, then to express your thanks pat your chest over your heart with your right hand, a gesture understood as ‘thank you’.
  • Jordanians are extraordinarily friendly and many speak English.
  • Hotels have wifi but many still require that you pay for it, though it’s usually free in lobbies.
  • Each time when entering a hotel, guests must place their bags on a belt to be scanned and then walk through a security port. It’s like the security check at an airport but simpler and faster.
  • Although stray dogs are few in Jordan, feral cats are not, especially around meal time. Make your concern known before being seated if you don’t like furry things crawling around your ankles under the dinner table or jumping up to share your breakfast. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the remote desert or a five-star seaside resort. Close your door to the balcony overnight to avoid furry visitors.
  • Hello: Merhaba
    Thank you: Shukraan
    You’re welcome/excuse me/sorry: Afwan
  • Departing from AMM all bags are scanned and/or checked before checking in, then again after checking in. Take advantage of this to move unexpectedly forbidden things from your carry-on bag into your checked suitcase.
© Elizabeth Willoughby 2017
Creators Syndicate also published this piece June 2018 (errors edited into the piece are out of the control of the writer).
A good travel piece is fun, informative and factual,
not a place for hackneyed embellishments.
Do  contact me to discuss bringing improbable journeys into the realm of possibility for your readership.