Tag Archive | Jordan

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.

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: Full Day

Treasury from Above, Petra

A full day in Petra is ahead of us. We picked up a boxed lunch prepared by hotel at 7am, with the goal of arriving before the tour buses. We hiked along the Royal Tombs, and climbed the series of stone steps to the overlook of the Treasury and the main road through Petra in the morning light.

We returned back down, refreshed ourselves with orange juice at the Why Not shop, then headed up the steps on the opposite side of the canyon to the Place of High Sacrifice, where we stopped for lunch.

With goats as occasional companions, there are far fewer people off the “main street.” Many visitors don’t devote this much time to this place: it deserves even more time than we spent – everywhere you look, you see signs of human history written in the stone.

And, this is the marvel of Petra: much of the monumental architecture has been carved out of the canyon walls. Even the pyramid-style pillars above were created by carving away the surrounding stone, rather than building a pillar with stone. And modern day Jordanians still make use of these ancient carved places.

Some only hike up to the Place of High Sacrifice, but we found more amazing places by continuing down the trail to the other side, into the valley with the Lion Monument, Garden Tomb, Roman Soldier’s Tomb, and Garden Triclinium – well worth the hike, and very few people are here.

Once we hiked out to rejoin the main thoroughfare, we stopped for a cold beer at the restaurant at the far end of the road. We still had time to poke around the “newer” Byzantine church and marvel at the mosaics and the blue granite pillars imported from Egypt.

We worked our way back to the siq, again reaching the entry gate at twilight.

Yes, we covered a lot of ground. My fitness app says that we covered 14.6 miles and climbed 123 floors the first half day (from our hotel to the Monastery and back to the entrance gate), and 10 miles and 79 floors the second day, a slightly more leisurely pace. We are happy with our visit. We did not hire a guide, so I’m sure that we missed some really interesting points and perspectives. For example, modern technology is revealing the robust water infrastructure that made Petra bloom.

There is plenty to see without quite so much effort, and still have an incredible experience. Our advice: go early, stay late, and avoid the weekends. Purchase the Jordan Pass. Plan your visit: decide what are the “must see” sites, and map out your route. Say “No, thank you,” if you are not interested in the vendors’ wares – they are fairly ubiquitous. Most are friendly, only a few are insistent. Enjoy this magnificent place: in the right light, you can still see the camel caravans that traveled the trade routes through Petra.

Little Petra and the Dead Sea Highway

After a day and a half hiking Petra, we weren’t quite ready to say farewell to the Nabateans, making a brief stop at Little Petra. Some might say, “More of the same, but smaller.” Indeed, there are the tombs and rooms carved in the stone, and remnants of a water system. But, after spending two days imagining the interior decorations of monuments, we were delighted to see a well-preserved fresco with grapes and birds and putti playing flutes and shooting an arrow from a bow. Totally worth the stop to us.

No trip to Jordan is complete without a dip in the Dead Sea. The experience is startlingly buoyant. For the equivalent of about $7, a gentleman sitting on the beach with a bucket of mud under his chair will happily allow you to slather up for a photo op, er…spa treatment.

Dead Sea “spa” treatment

One more stop on the road back to Madaba and the St. John Hotel for the night. Umm ar-Rasas, another UNESCO World Heritage site layered with history, has extensive ruins dating back to Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim occupation of the area.

Protected by a large roofed structure, the church of St. Stephen has extensive, well-preserved mosaics dating to about AD 785.

Tomorrow, we head north to Umm Qais, overlooking the Jordan River Valley, near the Syrian border.