• Hike Travel Repeat

The Ancient Cities, Vast Deserts, and Salty Seas of Jordan

Updated: Apr 17

In March 2020 I was minding my own business, leading a tour in Chile, when I was summoned back to Canada by a strong warning from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and in turn, my boss. Since then I had been counting the days until I could travel again. While I managed to travel around within Western Canada, nothing quite compares to the experience of getting on a plane and being crammed in a seat for 12+ hours while you wait in anxious anticipation for what your next adventure holds. Luckily, that was in the cards for me in October 2021.


Over a period of FOUR days, I planned, packed for, and departed on my trip to Jordan (and threw in some time in Turkey, because why not). I have always wanted to take a spontaneous trip abroad, but I didn't think I would be able to pull this one off given all the additional things required for travelling abroad during that time (PCR tests and lots more paperwork). I certainly would have had a hard time doing it had I not been joining group tours for my two week stay in Jordan.


The first week and a bit I would be joining Adventures Abroad's 8-day Jordan tour. This was my first time on an Adventures Abroad tour just as a guest and not there in any work capacity. The second part of the trip I would spend hiking from Dana Biosphere Reserve to Petra with Experience Jordan Adventures. For the last part of my trip I would take a short flight over to Turkey (the flights worked out so that it was in my best interest to spend a few days there) and my good friends at 5A Tours helped me get the most out of my time there and fulfilled my bucket list dream of visiting Cappadocia. This post will describe the Adventures Abroad portion of the trip, and subsequent posts will detail the remainder of my trip.




Trip Preparation

As I mentioned, I had four days to prepare for this trip (it's a long and not super exciting story why it was so last minute). From the time I got the go ahead for the trip, we had 4 staff members involved in getting me there who I am very grateful for - what a luxury to not have to do it all myself! We worked on booking the hotels, flights, and then all the extra things that I had to take care of like booking my Jordan Pass (not required for regular guests on the trip but something I needed for my Experience Jordan tour with the added benefit of getting me in many attractions for "free" and also included the cost of the visa on arrival), buying travel insurance, getting my COVID test, and filling out the health screening forms to enter Jordan. Oh, and I almost forgot, PACKING the smallest bag possible for a three week trip including part of it camping and the other part in 4-5 star hotels. I failed at the small bag part of it but you win some you lose some.


Dress Code

Four travellers sit in the back of a pickup truck in Wadi Rum, Jordan
It's the bucket hat for me!

Jordan is a relatively liberal Muslim country but it is still important to be respectful of the local culture and expectations. Typically, that means women (and to a lesser extent, men) need to cover up a bit. You do not need to cover your head, except with a hat for the sun, but covering your arms and legs is preferred. I had planned to stay largely covered up but after seeing the majority of tourists wearing shorts and t-shirts, I followed suit in tourist areas. It seemed that covering your upper legs (to the knee) and shoulders was ok from what I read and saw. I did have a few pairs of long pants and long sleeve shirts, but also wore knee length shorts and short sleeve shirts on occasion. What I wouldn't recommend is wearing low cut tops, tight dresses, tank top or spaghetti strap tops and dresses, or short clothing that doesn't come to the knee. Use your judgement and if you are in a smaller town that sees less tourists then I would recommend you dress a little more conservatively than while in somewhere like Petra.


Itinerary

I wanted to make the days of the tour itinerary line up with my days below, so Day 0 is my arrival day so that Day 1 is the same as on the itinerary found here.


Day 0

I landed in Amman fairly late at night after a connection in Istanbul. I conveniently met a Jordanian business traveller on the plane who was very familiar with the lineups and navigating the Amman airport and he whisked me past everyone through the shortest lineups and we were out of the airport in what must have been record time, despite a very slow process of getting my "visa" (aka Jordan Pass) checked, since many travellers had to pay for the visa at that point and they took much longer getting through. Then I made my way to the taxi kiosk where I paid for my fare and got my receipt and was shown to the correct taxi. Finding the AlQasr Metropole hotel could have been a bit difficult but my new friend on the plane told me what to tell the taxi driver (the name of a traffic circle - Shmeisani - it seems Amman navigation depends on traffic circles) and maps.me got me the rest of the way. You would think that taxi drivers would have a good knowledge of the big hotels in the city but alas, no luck.


Day 1

Awoken by my jet lag, the sweet sound of the call to prayer, and the pre-5am sunrise, I got an early start to the day - doing nothing in particular. After a lovely buffet breakfast I headed out by Uber to the Jordan Museum to meet my colleague and tour leader James, and his lovely mom, Diane. While the Jordan Museum isn't on the tour itinerary, it makes a great destination for anyone arriving to the city early enough for some sightseeing before meeting the group for dinner. It also was not included with my Jordan Pass, but cost just a few JD (Jordanian Dinar).

The museum contains a lot of interesting information presented in a chronological order from oldest to newest. For someone from Canada, where our human history reaches tens of thousands of years back, but we have little to fill an entire a museum exhibit until perhaps a few centuries ago, the amount of preserved, tangible objects and recorded information from millennia ago was consistently impossible for me to comprehend. The highlights of the museum include one of the oldest humanoid statues ever found (from around 6500 BCE) as well as some of the "Dead Sea Scrolls": a series of well preserved papyrus and copper manuscripts and documents dating back as far as the 3rd century BCE, found in clay jars in a cave near the Dead Sea in what is currently Palestine.

After a great visit, we headed further downtown and through a market area selling everything from leather purses to chickens. We also stumbled upon an old Roman fountain on our way to the Roman Theatre. After that we headed to "Hashem" a famous local restaurant in the heart of Amman. It is the kind of restaurant with no menu, filled to the brim with locals (and photographs of past visits by celebrities adorning the walls), but luckily there always seems to be someone there who speaks a little English, so we just asked for whatever he decided to bring us! It was a fantastic lunch with hummus, baba ganoush, and other delights.

Once we were done James needed to meet the group arriving from Egypt at the airport so I headed up the hill to "Rainbow Street". In the heat of the day there was not a lot going on except a traffic jam, but they have nice street decor and plenty of options for restaurants and "bars" for those wanting a little bit of Amman's nightlife. Due to the Muslim faith of the nation many places do not serve alcohol but you can usually find it at tourist-centred restaurants.

It was time to return to the hotel - but what would a taxi ride be without an impromptu proposal and the taxi driver asking for my phone number! Back at the hotel I had a quick rest and time to refresh before meeting the group for dinner. Our five additional group members had all come from the Adventures Abroad Egypt tour. They were a lively and fun group and we all became fast friends. We had a huge seafood feast downtown and a great story when one guest accidentally ordered some "Hubbly Bubbly" (aka shisha), since none of us at the table knew what it was - it sounded like a lovely fruity drink! After a quick walk to see the city at night, it was back to the hotel and off to bed for our first busy day of touring.



Roman columns, in ruins, sit on a hill above the city of Amman
Temple of Hercules, Amman Citadel, Amman

Day 2 - Amman & Jerash

A relatively early start today got us to the top of Amman Citadel before most of the crowds. It was lovely to see it in the morning light and without too many people. The Citadel sits atop the city, and you can see the surrounding hills and neighbourhoods. This site dates back to at least 1800 BCE in the Bronze age and was capital of the Kingdom of Ammon in 1200 BCE. Many other civilizations have come and go and made their own additions and changes to the site. As you can see from the photo, the Romans also made their mark during the time when the city was under Roman occupation and was called "Philadelphia". The Temple of Hercules (pictured above) is one of the most iconic structures of the site and can be seen from many places around the city. The site also contains a church, a palace, a cistern, and many walls and arches, with much more still being uncovered in ongoing archeological digs. The small Jordan Archeological Museum also occupies the site and has several notable artifacts, including more of the earliest known humanoid statues and other interesting tools and art pieces.

Roman Theatre. The Temple of Hercules is visible up on the hillside

As the crowds really started to arrive we were on our way out and back down the hill to the Roman Theatre. The theatre sits on the opposite side of the small valley from the citadel. It is built into the hillside and would fit about 6000 people in the days it was used for its intended purpose. You don't need to spend long to visit it but there are a couple museums on either side so it is worth having a look around for 30 minutes or so.

After that, we were treated to one of my favourite Jordanian snacks as we boarded the bus to head to Jerash. Manaqish is a Jordanian flatbread covered in thyme (called za'atar in this part of the world, though za'atar can also have other things mixed in). While we munched, we passed through the suburbs and outer limits of Amman, and before long we arrived in Jerash. Quite a sizeable town has been built surrounding the old Roman city (the

focal point of our time there). While signs of major earthquakes had been apparent in other sites we had already seen, the biggest earthquake in 749 CE absolutely decimated Jerash. Much of the site has been restored, but much more of it has been covered with "modern" buildings and has been consumed by the city.


There is a lot to explore in Jerash, but we were able to see most of it over the few hours that we visited. The colonnaded street and nymphaeum were two of my favourite parts. There is also some very well preserved tile work, and all the other things that make a Roman city like temples, a hippodrome, a marketplace, two theatres, and more. We were also treated to some traditional... Jordanian... bagpipes? It was a pretty cool experience to hear the bagpipes echoing all around in the theatre (if you ignore that they were harassing everyone who tried to leave without paying them). Thanks, Britain, for bring those with you when you came to Jordan.

After a walk around all of the old city, we returned to Amman and stopped for a lovely early dinner. We were treated like royalty by the staff and we had a very nice time in the shady inner courtyard, it was a welcome break from spending most of the day in the sun. After that it was back to the hotel and preparing to move to our next stop the following day.





Day 3 - Madaba, Mount Nebo, Shobak & Petra

We had another relatively early start to beat the crowds and fit in everything we needed to see on our way to Petra. Our first stop after not quite an hour was Madaba and the incredible tile mosaic floor of St. George's Church. The mosaic is a map of the region from the sixth century CE. You can see the depictions of the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Mt Sinai, and the Mediterranean, along with other religiously significant sites. Interestingly, the map was altered as power shifted in the region, and some figures had their tiles rearranged so that the figures of humans and animals could not be distinguished (this is visible in the above photo, especially on the right hand side). It was also largely affected by an earthquake and other things like fires, moisture, and general wear and tear. Today the map is protected so people are not walking on it and hopefully it can be seen for many more centuries.

This tile art is fairly common in Jordan but it is still amazing every time you see it. Tourist shops in Madaba have some nice looking tile mosaic pieces for sale and it is a good place to get something that is more natural to display in your home or for a gift, as it isn't just the facade of Petra's treasury or a camel like you will often find elsewhere. It may take some time to find the right piece but there are some gems in there with all the cheap, tacky ones if you take the time to look.

After we could all be torn away from the shopping street, we were on our way to Mount Nebo, where it is said that Moses first looked down on the Promised Land. Views of Israel/Palestine, the River Jordan, and the Dead Sea are possible from here. While the views are nice, the tile floors are probably the biggest draw (and in my opinion, the coolest ones that we saw in Jordan). These floors, inside a long since destroyed Byzantine church, hid layers of incredible tile mosaics. The most interesting and notable mosaics depicted hunting scenes with many animals that you certainly would not find in modern-day Jordan, like lions, zebras, and bears.

After a couple hours of rolling down the Desert Highway, we turned on to some small mountain roads towards Shobak Castle. I would certainly not want to be the one driving the bus on these narrow roads along a cliffside! We had a short uphill walk to the castle entrance and then were greeted with panoramic views. Of course, that was the reason behind having a castle built on a hill like this, because you could see your enemy coming from a long way away. This castle, built initially by the Crusaders, was of great strategic importance as it was built on a main trade route. It has many interesting features, but I won't spoil it all for you!

After an already fulfilling day, we arrived in Petra! Our hotel, Petra Boutique Hotel, was in an incredible location, just a couple minutes from the entrance gates of Petra Archeological Park. The hotel felt very new and high tech. They provided complimentary fruit, water, and soft drinks in the room. They also had extremely helpful and kind staff who made great connections with their guests.

The day did not end here for us. We had an early dinner at Cave Bar (yes, it is a bar in a cave!) and made our way to the "Petra by Night" experience. While none of us really knew what to expect, we followed a candlelit walk through the Siq (canyon) and to the foot of the Treasury which had also been lit by lanterns (Note: a flashlight is not really ideal, because it ruins the atmosphere they are attempting to create, but the walk in has many uneven steps so it is good to have one on hand). While this event was something I only need to experience once (it was very crowded and people really ruined the atmosphere we were hoping for), I am glad I went, because it was a unique perspective to see Petra in the candlelight. I was glad we went on the first night because it kept the surprise of most of Petra's wonders, while giving us just a quick taste of what was to come.



Day 4 - Petra

This is it! The day we had all been waiting for. The bucket list item. While all of Jordan is wonderful and highly worth seeing, I think all of us would be lying to say that seeing Petra wasn't the main motivator of our trip there.

I was once again up before the sun, still jet lagged, and had a leisurely, delicious buffet breakfast on the top floor while watching the goings-on of the local horsemen on the other side of the hill. Before long we were heading to Petra (DO NOT forget your original passport for buying tickets, good thing the hotel was a block away, whoops).

Seeing everything in the light was so different, we had missed so much! Petra is an entire ancient city, unlike what every photo of the Treasury may have you believe. There are more than just these carved facades - there are temples, a theatre, a church, a sacrificial altar, and so, so much more. The site is huge! Yes, there are A LOT of tombs, but each one is unique and interesting, so it doesn't really get repetitive. The mix of natural features like the Siq, and manmade buildings is very enticing.

The cisterns and water channels are especially fascinating - these ancient civilizations were far beyond what we could ever imagine. They had to get creative very quickly in order to survive in a place so dry (though it has become drier over the centuries). There is way too much history and incredible engineering here for me to start getting into, so please, just go there and see it and learn about it for yourself! I promise, you will not regret it.

Our guided tour ended in the early afternoon. A few intrepid group members decided to make the climb up 850 steps to the famous Ad Deir Monastery. Since I would be seeing the Monastery while hiking into Petra on the second week of my trip, I decided to visit the Royal Tombs instead. The natural colouring of the rocks and the immensity of the rooms carved into the cliff was jaw dropping.

The spectacular day ended at the famous Cave Bar which is at the Petra Guest House at the entrance of Petra. A cold beer was really the only way to cap this day off properly. After a refreshing beverage we joined the last few group members and made our way for a delicious, traditional dinner at "My Mom's Recipe". It is definitely a must-visit restaurant when you are staying in Petra/Wadi Musa. We were treated to "Maquluba" also known as "upside down" - a meal of chicken, rice, and vegetables. It is called upside down because it is cooked in a pot, but then flipped over onto a platter before it is served, which they did for us at the table with great flourish. This is only done for a whole group and is difficult to get when you are dining as an individual/couple, because it is too much food to give to just a couple people.

A few warnings about Petra: You will be exhausted by the number of people asking you if you want to ride a horse/donkey/camel, buy a rock/coin/bracelet/scarf, take a picture from a sketchy Instagram overlook, and so on and so forth. There are an insane number of people trying to sell things in Petra (including plenty of children), and I honestly don't know the best way to avoid them all. Ignoring them is sometimes an option, but also rarely works. Engaging with them is also a bad idea unless you want to spend your entire day doing this. A smile, head shake, and continuing walking was usually my best course of action. Never tell them you will come back later, because they will see you again later! Also - this really should go without saying, but nothing is ever "free" - tipping is always expected.



Tea time at the High Place of Sacrifice. Bedouins that used to live in the tombs of Petra have been relocated to the small town visible on the top of the hill to the right.

Day 5 - Little Petra and Petra (again)

While there is no comparison between Petra and Little Petra, they are both very worthwhile. Little Petra is a short car ride from Petra. You will find some similar looking facades, but Little Petra had a more functional purpose: as a conference centre! It is thought that business people would come here meet with merchants and discuss things like trade deals.

The rock formations are very cool, shaped by millennia of erosion. Similar to Petra, there is a narrow, easily protected entrance in the form of a canyon, but much smaller and likely widened by tools to make it an appropriate entrance way. You can also find the same water systems here and even get a better look at cisterns that are more visible and accessible than in Petra.

Just around the corner from Little Petra (once you exit, turn right and walk along the road around the outside of Little Petra) you will find the extremely old neolithic village of Beidha, one of the oldest known settlements in human history. It dates back to around 7200 BCE. You can see walls of buildings as well as reconstructions of what they would have looked like. While there isn't much there, it is definitely worth checking out to see what life may have been like over 9000 years ago.

After returning to the hotel we grabbed a quick bite to eat, refilled our water, and then James, Chuck and I headed back into Petra. We quickly navigated through the throngs of tourists at the Treasury and found a small staircase just beyond. We started upwards on the stairs which, while not as long as the Monastery, were still tiring! We made it to a viewpoint facing away from Petra. It was very cool to get a new perspective that not many people get to see. Up just a little bit more we reached the High Place of Sacrifice. Here is where people long ago would have made blood offerings to their gods (probably just animal offerings!) for many different reasons, like favourable weather, health, and all the usual suspects.

Just beyond the High Place of Sacrifice there is a bedouin family selling tea. I highly recommend this, they were very welcoming and they do not overcharge you. They had some rugs set up on the edge of the cliff, and we sipped our tea while contemplating this spectacular area.

In my opinion, the best part of the day is still to come. While you could just return the way you came, there is a fascinating trail that heads down the other side of the rocks - to Wadi Farasa. This trail is mainly stairs but levels out near the end. You will pass the Lion Monument, the Garden Triclinium, the Roman Soldiers Tomb, beautiful rock formations and colourings, and several other tombs and points of interest. This hike is just AMAZING and you do not want to miss out. There is quite a network of trails to choose from when you leave the cliffs, but my maps.me app had most of them mapped out and we easily found the quickest route back to the main road out of Petra.

James and Chuck decided to stay longer and explore the Royal Tombs, so I just slowly made my way out of Petra, taking my time and enjoying little details I had missed the previous day.

Dinner tonight was another famous Jordanian traditional meal: Mansaf. Once again, a feast sized portion of rice and meat (I think we had lamb, chicken, and beef) but this time served with yogurt sauce. We had all kinds of side dishes, bread, vegetables, and more. Yum yum yum! This restaurant was just up the hill from Petra Boutique Hotel and is called Alqantarah.




Day 6 - Wadi Rum and Aqaba

It was a luxury to stay in Petra for three nights, but all good things must come to an end. We headed out of town to the south, along a scenic, high mountain road. We stopped for a final wave goodbye (and photo op) of Petra and Wadi Musa and enjoyed the scenery until we descended slightly and arrived at Wadi Rum. You will likely have seen Wadi Rum in some of your favourite movies: Star Wars, Dune, Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, Transformers, and so many more (especially space-themed movies). It is certainly a place where you feel like you are on another planet.

We climbed into the back of some 4x4 trucks (with cushioned bench seats) and headed into the desert. The scenery was stunning - we whizzed past huge sandstone and granite cliffs, sand dunes, and canyons. Our first stop was climbing to the top of a sand dune. We definitely got some side-eye from a truck of tourists as we took our shoes off to climb up the sandy hill. There was a great view from the top and feeling the warm sand between our toes was a freeing feeling! Running down the dune was a rush of pure joy.

Back in the truck we flew through the desert to our next stop. There we found some old petroglyphs and rock carvings. Unfortunately, some people in more recent times had taken upon themselves to add to the art (leave no trace, please!). Next we visited a canyon and had some bedouin tea, and finally raced our opposing truck to the final stop - lunch. There are some very cool looking tented camps in Wadi Rum, but due to poor past reviews from our travellers, Adventures Abroad removed this overnight stay from their itinerary several years ago.

After lunch we headed to the Red Sea and the the city of Aqaba. We checked in to the Double Tree by Hilton, munched on cookies, and freshened up for the glass bottom boat trip that we decided to organize (not included on the tour). We got picked up and dropped off at a beach resort where we lounged, waiting for our boat to arrive, and tested the waters with our toes - not that warm! The Red Sea is known for its sea life and coral. Snorkelers and divers are treated to amazing scenes, but you can still see these same sights without setting foot in the water. The glass bottom boat motored to an area where several sunken treasures were found and were covered with tropical fish, coral, and other marine creatures. Above the water, you could see Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, just by turning your head. We hung out on the upper deck while some people went snorkelling and we were treated to a sunset from the boat - luxurious! Then, we headed back to the hotel and had dinner on our own - unfortunately I was feeling a little under the weather so didn't get to explore the vibrant city (Thursday night is the start of the weekend so people were all out in the streets, strolling, shopping, and having a great time).




Day 7 - Dead Sea

While the Red Sea is known to be very salty, the Dead Sea is almost 10 times saltier. The Dead Sea used to be connected to the ocean but it is now cut off and has very little water flowing into it so it is evaporating at a huge rate. Of course, this means that you will float very easily (too easily!) and much fun will be had, as long as you don't get any salt in your mouth or eyes! The Dead Sea is also known for its mineral rich mud, harvested from the bottom of the sea and brought to resorts for their guests to smear on their bodies and also manufactured into beauty products like face masks, soap, scrubs, and more.

Our day was very leisurely, with the Israeli border to our left and the mountains near Petra, to our right. While we left sea level in Aqaba, we still managed to descend further, making a stop at the "Museum at the Lowest Place on Earth", over 400m below sea level. We also made a quick trip up to Lot's Cave, which doesn't have much to look at other than the small remains of an old Byzantine church. Lot was a biblical figure - the nephew of Abraham, and there are some crazy stories about him in the Book of Genesis.

Finally the Dead Sea was in our sights. There are not a lot of easily accessible beaches, so the one resort area where we stayed was one of the best options to find a place to swim. There are a few areas that locals use to access the Dead Sea but they were down some steep embankments and there wasn't much in the way of a beach. As soon as we checked in at the Dead Sea Marriott, a beautiful 5-star resort, we changed into bathing suits and headed down to the sea. We had a lot of fun playing around with our new buoyancy and covering ourselves in the mineral rich mud.

Once the sun had set, the beach closed and we headed up to get ready for our farewell dinner. The hotel had several restaurants to choose from but we opted for Italian, mainly to avoid the buffet option, even though the buffet had traditional food (people were not great at wearing masks at this hotel and it was very busy, which made the buffet a bit unappetizing). Over our charcuterie, pasta, and other delights, we recounted the best parts of our trip and had plenty of laughs. It was such a great group of people and we would all leave Jordan as great friends.



Day 8 - End of Tour

A few group members had decided to stay an extra night and pamper themselves at the hotel, but Chuck and I departed at a respectable morning hour for Amman. I was heading back to meet my group for the hiking trip the following morning, and Chuck wanted to explore the Jordan Museum and a few other places before his early morning flight. Chuck found a really cool place called Wild Jordan (near Rainbow Street) which has a shop, restaurant, and hotel. They support local communities and are a great cause to support. They have a hipster twist on local food and drinks which was fun to check out. I also stocked up on some great gifts from the shop.

I spent most of the rest of the day repacking and then of course we had a final dinner at Hashem, which was just across from where I was staying.



Our group (minus James) in Jerash

Final Thoughts

It was fantastic trip! I learned so much, met great people, and of course tried some delicious food. I got to visit and experience some truly incredible sights that I hope to one day visit again.

Other than the immensely long and varied history that is present in the region, the other thing I had a really hard time grasping was the amount of history in Jordan (and the surrounding countries) that is intertwined with religion. Admittedly, the main reason I had a hard time with that is because of my own lack of religious education. I am always trying to educate myself on various religions, but it can be very difficult to distinguish a verifiable historical event from a bible story. I don't want to offend anyone by my lack of religious upbringing or differing beliefs and I am not going to discredit anything anyone believes to be true, but I am still trying to learn and understand the vast amount of religious and historical information that exists. I don't think anyone will ever be able to ever agree on what happened in the lifetimes of Jesus, Muhammad, or Abraham, so trying to learn everyone's perspective on what happened is a massive feat which I am nowhere near scratching the surface of. Anyone who has any reading or movie recommendations to help with this quest, send them my way! If not, I will just have to go and explore more of the region and continue my global education.

I hope you learned something from this post and that you will be able to experience this trip in real life one day soon! Please call or send an email to Adventures Abroad if you are interested in joining the next trip, or you can use what I have provided and create an adventure all your own. That being said, this post is in no way sponsored or endorsed by Adventures Abroad, and all opinions are my own.

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