Choosing Jordan

Steps in Petra

Every once in awhile, you’ve got to step out of the usual. Our “usual” travel routine is to research, order books from Amazon, research, build spreadsheets, query, plan, repeat. For many weeks.

On our last trip, we used the Explore function on Kayak to identify bargain airfares. Nine months later, we found ourselves landing in Beijing.

In late December, we did a similar search with no destination in mind. Less than three months later, we’re off to Jordan.

The Middle East has always held a certain fascination, but the media tells us that it’s not safe. The State Department Travel Advisories are chocked with cautionary language. Yet, everything we read about Jordan, reported first-hand by travelers, says that Jordan is amazing. And safe.

We hope that this blog adds to the chorus of supporters of travel to Jordan. Although surrounded by oil powerhouse countries, Jordan has relatively little oil resources of their own, and have worked to support an economic base for tourism. There’s a little of something for everyone: bioreserves for hiking and camping and adventure sports, several UNESCO World Heritage sites with layers of history in Nabatean, Roman and Byzantine ruins, sweeping desert vistas, Crusader and desert castles, hot springs and baths, diving, shopping, native crafts – all within driving distances from Amman.

While we used our favorite online tools (Kayak, TripAdvisor) and the Jordan Tourism Board site to sort out flights, accommodations, and itinerary, some of the best parts of the trip were the engaging encounters we had with the people. Welcome to Jordan!

Welcome to Jordan

We were not prepared for the Middle East. Our western education taught us to look at history as linear. But, Jordan taught us otherwise. We were not prepared for the continuous layers of human stories, with some places feeling very modern, while others feeling that they had not changed for centuries. Camels saddled and harnessed with handwoven blankets and reins parked next to a brand new Land Rover. Lunch prepared over an impromptu wood fire. Remarkable feats of engineering and dazzling works of art from past millennia.

Above all, Jordan is a crossroads – an intersection of peoples and ideas and religions and time. It’s evident in the art, the architecture, the culture, the ever-present welcoming cup of tea. Rather than building walls to keep others out, they have built roads and oasis’s and places to shelter for the night.

Originally, we had planned to drive ourselves, and had a rental car reserved. We had asked our hotel in Madaba to arrange for a driver for a day in Amman, and then we would take it from there. Our hotel manager reviewed our travel plans, and encouraged us to consider hiring a driver for our entire trip. We weren’t sure about this idea, as we spending several nights in each location, and had local plans already arranged at each location. After considering time and cost, hiring a driver was the best idea. Our driver was able to give us more of the local flavor for Jordan. He dropped us off and picked us up as arranged all along the way. He introduced us to the little Bedouin coffee stops along the way, and he helped interpret small conversations with locals who spoke no English. We highly encourage a driver.

Locally, we did not hire guides, except where required, or when traveling near the Syria/Jordan border. At the time of our trip (March 2018), Damascus was under heavy bombing attacks – our connecting flight from Istanbul to Amman took a wide arc to avoid the Syrian airspace. Despite the conflict just to the north, Jordan seemed to be a safe haven.

The best investment is the Jordan Pass. If you are staying at least three nights, and there are several options, depending on how many days you plan to visit Petra. Even if you only visit a Petra, it’s a worthwhile investment.

We met few Americans along the way. That’s fine. We prefer the company of fellow travelers instead of vacationers skipping across the continents to collect passport stamps and add another notch in their travel belt.

We skipped the Marriott’s and the packaged tours. We found the friendly and welcoming people and the incomparable landscape, as have millennia of visitors. Welcome to Jordan!

Dead of Night to Madaba

Sculpture at Citadel in Amman

Bargain airfares can sometimes mean inconvenient arrivals. After a layover in Istanbul, our flight took the long away around Syrian airspace to land at midnight at the Queen Alia International Airport. We chose a hotel in Madaba for our travel hub, as Madaba is closer to the airport and way less congested than Amman. Jetlagged, we grabbed the first taxi outside Amman airport.

If your driver takes the most direct way to Madaba from the airport, and it is the middle of the night, it may creep into your mind that you are being kidnapped upon arrival in Jordan. The route is very dark at night, with no development or lights. But no, this not an abduction, but our introduction to Jordanian hospitality – the driver was getting us to our destination as quickly as possible by taking the back roads. Welcome to Jordan!

Our cab driver delivered us to the St. John Hotel, we woke the night desk clerk, and were quickly checked into our room. As we closed our eyes, I wondered about the mosque outside our hotel window, and the time of first call to prayer.

We found it easier to book directly with the hotel manager: Omar was prompt and responsive in making reservations, and most helpful in other travel arrangements. Rooms are comfortable and clean. The rooftop restaurant has a good selection of food, and a bar, with a grand view of Madaba, with church and mosque in the same neighborhood.


Just for the record, in early March, the first call to prayer of the day (Salat al-fajr) happens about 4:30 a.m. While we did not heed the call, but drifted back to sleep as this ancient ritual echoed over the city.

After breakfast on the rooftop on the hotel, we met our driver, who was to take us to Amman. We spent some time in discussions/negotiations and expanded our driver’s engagement to cover our entire trip. We canceled our rental car, as Jad, our driver and companion on the road, took us on a quick tour of his town before heading to the capital.

Madaba is home to many sites of historical interest, and religious significance. The floor of St. George’s church contains the oldest surviving map of Palestine, all done in mosiac. Crafted in AD 560, the map depicts major biblical sites in the Middle East.

A quick climb up the bell tower clearly tempted more than a few visitors.

We then ventured out to Mt. Nebo on the western edge of town, providing a commanding view of the Dead Sea and Jordan River valley below. The memorial built to honor Moses featured some of the most exquisite and complete mosaics, truly defining Madaba as a City of Mosaics.


As promised, the traffic into Amman was epic. Driving in this city is not for the faint of heart, but it is fairly easy to walk to places once in the city center. We started at the top of one of the seven hills at the ancient Citadel. Occupied at least since the Bronze Age (2300-1200 BC), the area is still used by the locals as a meeting and picnic spot.

We then threaded our way through neighborhoods down the hill to the Roman theater, which remains a lively plaza.

The streets were lively and crowded, with many small shops, and many small arcades providing shade and diversion from the streets. We stopped for a quick dinner at a local restaurant that also served beer – not always easy to find – before heading back to Madaba for the night.

The Road to Dana Bioreserve

Today is our first real day on the road. There are several main highways that run north/south, and we start south on the Dead Sea Highway to make a stop at Wadi Mujib – touted as the Grand Canyon of Jordan. The lower parts of the wadi are open for wading/hiking, but today the water is too high, and the access is closed. This is the first of several bioreserves we visit on this trip, overseen by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature.

Wadi Mujib

We also make stops along the way for snacks and coffee, encountering sheep, goats, art, coffee, and olives by the bucket, as we make our way inland.

Hiking Dana Biosphere Reserve

Al-Nawatef Camp is perched on the edge of Wadi Dana Biosphere Reserve, with spectacular views of the canyon below. With our first (of many) cups of tea, we had arrived in one of the more beautifully rugged parts of Jordan. We had a bit of time to take a walk on our own. Heading down along the ridge of the wadi, we could just make out the town of Dana on the opposite side. Goat herders passing by invited us to tea – we graciously (we hope) declined.

The camp arranged a full day hike across Wadi Dana with a guide. Our delightful guide took us through the hidden crevices, valleys and overlooks among the rocks, while giving us the history of residents, including old Nabataean sites to existing sheep herder sites. Again and again, we are reminded that this landscape has been occupied by people for millennia.

The hike was strenuous: my fitness app says we walked 7.9 miles and climbed 144 floors. It was an excellent way to get acquainted with the Jordanian landscape.

At lunchtime, our guide became our trailside chef, roasting fresh eggplant to make fresh mutabal – a delicious smoky eggplant dip to accompany the fresh loaf of bread our guide’s wife had baked that morning, and sauteed mushrooms. In this kitchen with a view, the meal was perfect: it was one of our favorite meals on the entire trip!

At the camp, we chose the Bedouin tent accommodations, which were clean, with a concrete floor, futon-style beds, windows and a lockable door. Although the nights were windy and chilly, we had plenty of blankets to stay warm. There is a shared bathroom, which includes a shower with plentiful hot water. Breakfast and dinner were served in the communal building behind the tents, with power and plenty of comfortable seating on cushioned benches and a warming stove. Dinners are deliciously home cooked, with plenty of dishes to load up your plate, and go back for seconds. Breakfasts are more the standard Jordanian fare: tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, hummus, bread, and plenty of tea.

This recipe from Saffron Trail is the best I can find that approximates the delicious mutabal we enjoyed for lunch. Roasting the eggplant over a wood fire adds a nice smoky flavor. Unfortunately, a hearty hike and breathtaking scenery can’t be cooked up in the kitchen.

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum
Camel Crossing, Jordan

Wadi Rum is the stuff of dreams: sweeping landscapes of sand and rock and sky. We are looking forward to exploring this space and spending time with a local guide. We headed further south from Dana, for a Bedouin experience.

Our trusty driver Jad got us from Wadi Dana to Wadi Rum, stopping at the visitor check-in for appropriate desert head gear. The village parking lot was occupied by suitable desert transportation.

We booked our day tour and overnight accommodations with Wadi Rum Bedouin Way Camp. Once connected with our local host, we set out across the desert on padded seats in the back of an open truck. To minimize the impacts of visitors and protect this unique desert biome, tours are routed to specific locations on alternating days. Inhabited for millennia, some Bedouin families still make their homes in Wadi Rum. Amid the vast expanse, there are small slot canyons and niches providing cool shade, water, and evidence of previous inhabitants.

By midday, we were miles from anywhere. Our guide built a fire, providing a personal pop-up lunch stop, complete with tea.

After lunch, we explored a small canyon amid the rocks on foot for a more intimate look at the desert microclimates.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the camp in time for sunset. The camp provided Bedouin tent accommodations, with shared bathrooms, and family style dining.

As the stars emerged, we were entertained by local musicians while reclining on rugs laid down in the sand around a fire. The highlight of the evening was our dinner: a multi-tiered affair of meats and vegetables unearthed from the pit where it had been roasting all day.

Music, a fire, and the ubiquitous pots of tea – a perfect end to the day.

It’s not surprising that this singular place is favored for dramatic movie settings: Lawrence of Arabia, two Star Wars movies, and The Martian.

Shobak Castle

Peeling through the layers of human history, the Middle East is littered with the ruins of Crusader castles. Following our sleepover with the Bedouin, we met our driver at Rum village for our transport to Wadi Musa and Petra. Since it was Saturday, and we wanted to arrive later in the day to avoid the crowds, we took a 40-minute detour north of Wadi Musa to the remains of Shobak Castle.

The castle is in various stages of excavation and reconstruction, but visitors can wander various parts of the castle to study the construction of this fortress. Among the ruins, there are stone carvings in Arabic script, possibly from the time when Saladin captured this fortress.

If you are feeling adventurous, and have a headlamp or flashlight (not your cell phone), you can follow the tunnel route all the way down to town.

From the photos, you can see that this castle accommodated a village, and was built for defense. Built in 1115, it withstood many attacks, falling 1189 to Saladin after an 18-month siege.

Petra: Half Day

There is a reason that nearly all travelers to Jordan go to Petra: the scale and setting are beyond anything pictures can convey. Descending down the siq to the opening at the Treasury (Al-Khazneh) is only the beginning. Beyond the main road running through Wadi Musa are many other sites in the surrounding area.

The best advice we received (and followed) is to plan your trip to Petra: because there is so much to see, and the area is somewhat spread out, a little time with a guidebook goes a long way. We were prepared for lots of hiking: we wore trail shoes and prepared for lots of stairs. Most of the people don’t wander much beyond the central area, so it is easy to get out of the crowds by exploring other spots. And, avoid the weekends (Friday and Saturday), when it is most busy.

We arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday, and seemed to be the only people going in, while the majority of the traffic was headed back towards the entrance. Our goal was to head straight for the Monastery (Al-Deir) to catch monument in the late afternoon light. There were very few people here – even many of the trailside vendors had closed up for the night. We carried headlamps just in case night fell before we got back to the gate. When we returned, the central area was all but empty, reaching the entrance at twilight.

The Monastery
(Note 5’4″ person standing below the main doorway)

We stayed at My Home Petra, far enough from Petra’s entrance to avoid crowds, but easily accessible by walking or a 5 dinar cab ride. We walked to the Petra entrance (downhill), but took a cab ride back (uphill). The manager provided good trip planning assistance, and arranged a boxed lunch, ready for an early departure.