Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

“Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, A rose red city half as old as time” -Dean Burgon

Southern Jordan is a place that deserves to be described in haiku or serenaded with custom-composed symphonies.  Movie directors have discovered its magic and chose its otherworldly landscape to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because who needs a movie set when nature created something infinitely more epic than Disney could ever design?  At the same time, sun rays shining through wildflowers created dancing shadows terracotta rock walls and set rust red sand on fire.  Throughout the years, rain and wind cut incredibly intricate carvings in the walls, creating abstract shapes infinitely more amazing than the man-made hieroglyphs left by ancient inhabitants.

The gleaming treasury, partially made famous by the Indiana Jones movie.

The gleaming treasury, partially made famous by the Indiana Jones movie.

To add another layer of mystery and excitement, one of my favorite parts of walking around Petra was imagining what it was like in its hey day.  What is now an abandoned city hidden at the edge of the Arabian desert was once a lively hub for trade caravans. The canyon walls created a naturally fortified rest station for traders and became the crossroads for the people moving spices, swords and precious metals from 100 BE to 200 CE.  The intricate Greek column cravings, massive theaters, Egyptian ornamentation testify to how profitable owning this land was to the Nabataeans.  Even today, archeologists and scientists puzzle over the construction of these enormous city structures carved into rock The well-preserved opulent facades make difficult to imagine having to abandon such a magnificent structure.  During Roman rule, sea-based routes re-routed trade away from Petra.  Multiple earthquakes in 363 and 551 disrupted the water management system which caused many of the last remaining inhabitants to abandoned the area before the Arabs conquered it.

The Monastery... required an 800+ step hike to see it but totally worth it.

Gorgeously carved Monastery… required an 800+ step hike to see it but totally worth it.

Lucky for us (but not people who work here), Petra was relatively deserted so we were free to roam the 250 acre park alone with our imaginations.  We crawled into caves, wandered off the beaten paths to an abandoned temple where a dog was guarding her pups, climbed a lot of stairs to the monasteries and a few more to test out both sites which claim to be, in screaming black letters, “the best viewpoint in Petra”.  Both the nature and the architecture in this park were so mindblowingly beautiful, it was hard to tell what I liked more…. when the two combine, it culminates in creating one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  Then, to add to the natural splendor, you have an exotic parade bedouins wandering around with camels, donkeys decked out in Rastafarian blankets and other trinkets to make them attractive to tourists… I loved every minute of it!  Just a word of warning to the wise: people offer blitz tours of Petra from Israel or day trips which combine Petra and Wadi Rum from Amman, but having just a couple hours for this place is not enough!  We stayed close to Petra and were able to hike all the major trails in the park between 8 AM-5 PM but with more time, I heard it’s possible to hike to Little Petra and further explore the outskirts.  I highly encourage you not to rush your time here!

Horses outside some of the cave homes in Petra, Jordan

Camels outside cave homes in Petra, Jordan

The other must-do is Wadi Rum, a natural protected site and amazing desert.  We explored it through a 4×4 desert exploration and camping tour.  Around every corner, the desert had different epic landscapes.  I’ll let my pictures do the talking since words can not describe how amazing it was.

Welcome to the desert!  Wadi Rum, Jordan

Welcome to the desert! Wadi Rum, Jordan

My friends hiking up one of the tallest sand dunes in Wadi Rum desert, Jordan

My friends hiking up one of the tallest sand dunes…the color of the sand hides how tall it is! (Wadi Rum desert, Jordan)

The Arch, Wadi Rum, Jordan... I climbed to the top and it gave me butterflies!

The Arch, Wadi Rum, Jordan… I climbed  up, stood on the bridge and it gave me butterflies!

What an epic place to wake up in the morning!  The view from the hill at our campsite.

What an beautiful place to wake up in the morning! The view from the hill at our campsite.

Since the Arab Spring, tourism has decreased significantly in Petra and Wadi Rum, an UNESCO site that many consider one of the 7 New World Wonders.  Our desert tour guide explained that despite it being the high season for tourism in Jordan, the maximum number of people staying in the Bedouin camps are around 70 when a decade or so ago, the camps would have reached a maximum capacity of 200.  While we didn’t mind having the magnificence of the Treasury to ourselves, it was kind of sad realizing how significantly media’s footage of violence in the Middle East can impact the livelihoods of people working in an industry in a place where things are completely safe, the vast majority of the time.

Sure, it’s not the best country to hang out in booty shorts.  Amman, the capital city, isn’t the best place to get drunk and dance.  But who needs nightlife when you can take selfies with camels? If you avoid the Middle East based on the media distorting reality or based on the advice from ignorant people, you will be the one missing out.

Best part of camping in the desert: selfies with camels!

Best part of camping in the desert: selfies with camels!

Song of the Moment: Indiana Jones Theme Song (nothing else is epic enough!)

If YOU go to Jordan: It’s not the cheapest country I’ve ever been but I had high expectations for Wadi Rum and Petra but visiting these places blew me out of the water!

Safety: Of course, these days, everyone’s first concern about going anywhere in the Middle East is safety and I had absolutely no problems in Jordan.  Our bus from Amman to Aqaba was stopped every hour or so for passport checks but that was the only indication that I was in a country with potential security concerns.  After the street harassment traveling as a single female in Egypt, I was wary whether I would stick out and be bothered in Jordan.  I had no problems with that either… I ended up traveling the country with two guys which probably helped but even when I went on solo trips to the ATM, no one said anything or looked at me inappropriately.  The only disadvantage I felt I had in this country was that I didn’t speak Arabic so cab drivers would inevitably charge at least double the local price.  But that happens everywhere.

Transportation: Even though many tourists visit Petra (or at least they did before the Arab Spring), the tourist destinations are not  well connected by public transportation.  JETT bus has one direct bus from Amman to Petra once daily around 6 AM but if you miss that, you will need to take a bus to Aqaba (far South) then get a cab back North to Petra, which adds several extra hours in transit.  Supposedly, minibuses are sometimes, maybe a possibility but we went on a friday (Muslim day of prayer so most things are closed) and if they existed, we couldn’t find them.  Other options include booking a tour package, renting a car or hiring a driver from Amman.  Similarly, our hostel (Valentine Inn, which I would highly recommend) helped arrange a minibus from Petra to Wadi Rum.  They also helped us book a one night camping trip in Wadi Rum which included an extensive jeep tour, an incredible barbecue dinner, a continental breakfast and a wonderful night camping in some nice accommodations at Bedouin Meditation Camp. A couch surfer helped me get around Amman but I’m pretty sure within the city, cabs and confusing buses are your only option!

Traditional Arab breakfast at Hashim Restaurant- the oldest in Amman, Jordan

Traditional Arab breakfast at Hashim Restaurant- the oldest in Amman, Jordan

Culture: If you travel Jordan, you will find Arab hospitality at its finest.  You will probably enjoy dozens of cups of super sweet mint tea.  Supposedly, the Bedouins in the desert did not eat many desserts and made up for it with adding generous spoonfuls of sugar into herbal teas.  Often, if you eat in the city, it is served with fresh mint.  Other staples are pita bread (flatter than you’ll get in Israel), felafel, tomato and cucumber salad, hummus and pickles.  Try the fresh juice if you get a chance!

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