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Jordan: A Hidden Gem

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Thinking about visiting Jordan? It can take a while to get there, but it is worth the trip. When I visited Jordan, it was only for a few days during a single, long vacation. I didn’t fly directly to Amman, Jordan from the States. Instead, I arrived via Cairo and the flight from Amman is a quick one. In 2018, it cost less than $200 and it took just over an hour to fly from Cairo to Amman. If you want to fly directly to Amman from the U.S., plan on having a couple layovers that make up a 19 to 25-hour trip, one way. But don’t let that discourage you! It is possible to see the major highlights of Jordan in just a few days, so you could fly to a more accessible city first, like London or Paris, and enjoy another city on your trip to break up the long journey to the Middle East. Make your layovers count!

Khazneh of Petra

Flying into Amman:

The Kingdom of Jordan issues single entry visas to American and British citizens upon arrival at Queen Alia International Airport. There is no need to request a tourist visa ahead of time. A visa can be obtained for a cost of JD 40, or a little over $50, and it is valid for one month.

Getting around Jordan:

Jordan’s road networks are well-maintained and easy to follow. If you want to rent a car, you should have no trouble getting around. All you need is a valid passport and a driver's license. Car rentals are affordable, averaging less than $200 for an economy car rental for a full week. If you do not want to do the navigating yourself, there are many tour services operating in Jordan that would gladly drive you around. I used a tour service when I traveled to Jordan called, and for 3 days I paid $600, just for scheduled transportation. The booking process was a breeze, and I didn’t have any surprises on my trip. But, looking back, I should have just rented a car and explored by myself. The reservation didn’t include any guided tours or admission tickets. The country is very easy to navigate and there was parking available at my hotel and my destinations. Had I rented a car, I could have saved some money!

Jordan has many highlights and beautiful sights, but the two most well known are the Dead Sea and Petra. I was fortunate to see both during my first visit.

The Dead Sea:

Predominantly fed by the Jordan River from the north, the Dead Sea is a lake bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel to the west. It is the lowest body of water on Earth measuring more than -1,400 feet below sea level today. During the 1960s, when the Dead Sea’s elevation measured about -1,300 feet, Israel and Jordan began diverting the flow of the Jordan River for commercial purposes. Conservation efforts have been made to slow the recession of the lake but the 2 bordering nations have yet to agree on a single, large-scale corrective action.

NASA Satellite Images of the Dead Sea: Left to Right: 1972, 1989, & 2011

The Dead Sea is situated within a desert where rainfall is rare and irregular, averaging about 2.5 inches of rain each year. Its secluded location calls for mild winter temperatures around 63 degrees Fahrenheit in January, but the summer temperatures can reach oppressive levels as high as 124 degrees.

At a rest area near the Dead Sea where a sign shows the sea level

Streamflow from the Jordan River deposits thick clay, sandstone, and chalk which adds to the gradual shrinking. Thermal sulfur springs also flow into the river and eventually mix into the lake. The salinity of the water inhibits all forms of life except bacteria. The fresh incoming Jordan River water concentrates on the surface while the denser saline water, saturated with sodium chloride, settles to the bottom and fossilizes. After many years of saline deposits and fossilization, columns of salt rise from the bottom of the lake and can be seen poking through the surface in some shallow areas.

Covered with Dead Sea mud

The mineral-rich mud found in the Dead Sea both purifies and hydrates your skin. It has been used for skin rejuvenation since the days of Cleopatra and is still marketed all over the world. You’re sure to see it in every souvenir shop that you visit in Jordan, but it can’t get any better than applying it on your skin directly from the source.

Floating in the Dead Sea

Now that I’ve gotten all the science out of the way, I can share the more novel aspects of the Dead Sea. While swimming in it, you float! It’s effortless. As long as you keep your body facing the sky, you can’t sink, even when you stop moving. I saw a bather “sitting” in the deeper water, reading a book! But don’t try to swim on your belly. The buoyancy of your body in the water will cause your legs to rise higher than your torso, and you can drown this way. After a few minutes in the water, your skin will start to feel tingly, and if you stay in it too long, it will eventually start to burn. If you have any small cuts on your skin, you’ll feel those immediately after getting into the water. Take frequent breaks to rinse off with fresh water before going back in or applying mud to your skin. And don’t let it get into your eyes or mouth!

Hilton Dead Sea Resort & Spa

About 1 hour west of the Amman airport, the Dead Sea is extremely accessible with a wide range of accommodations conveniently located on the east bank. When I visited, I stayed of course at the Hilton Dead Sea Resort & Spa. This place is incredible, and the service was amazing. I was treated like a VIP when I arrived with a private sitting area for check in and my luggage carried for me. The room rates are more than reasonable starting at about $125 per night for a double guest room.

Main lobby of the Hilton resort

On the property, there are multiple restaurants and lounges with live DJs and rooftop views of the Dead Sea. The pool area is enormous with 3 sections, complete with a swim-up pool bar. It was so much fun swimming there at night with all of the colorful lights and festive music. Getting down to the beach is quick and easy with an elevator from the pool level that goes right down to the sand. On the beach, there is a mud spa station where guests can apply the Dead Sea mud to their skin and then rinse off with the fresh-water showers.

Hilton Resort Dead Sea beach area

Hilton Resort pool area

While enjoying the pool, I met a few locals who were spending a relaxing weekend at the resort. It is common for people who live in Amman to take weekend getaways at the Dead Sea in one of the hotels or short-term apartment rentals available along the east bank.

New friends in Jordan

They were excited by my enthusiasm for their country, and they offered to host a night in the capital for me.

At the Roman ruins in Amman

The hospitality was excellent as I was shown around the colorful city of Amman. I’m so glad I took a chance and let them guide me around. They recommended some attractions that I had not considered when I booked my trip, and I would have missed out!

Roman Amphitheater of Amman

Thanks to them, I got to explore the city of Amman and learn about its rich history. I visited the Roman Amphitheater of Amman next to the Jordan Hotel Tower.

After watching how it was made in the street, my new hosts brought me to a small café that was open late to get a snack of hummus and taboon bread.

Late night snack of hummus in Amman

After dinner, I returned to the Dead Sea resort and rested up for my trek to Petra the following day.

The ancient city of Petra:

Petra is an ancient city in Jordan which gets its name from the Greek word Petra meaning rock. It was once the capital city of the Nabatean Kingdom, a powerful civilization that dominated the region of modern-day Jordan between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE and 100 CE. The Nabateans were Arabian nomads who were wealthy and political, properly defended by an army, and ruled by a monarchy that flourished until it was conquered by the Roman Empire at the end of the first century CE.

The street of facades in Petra

Although they were nomads, the Nabateans amassed their wealth as spice and incense traders who monopolized trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and far across the Middle East. Their superior knowledge of the region’s trade networks also gave them insight into the locations of natural resources in the area, such as water. They became skilled at finding, preserving, and transporting significant sources of water to support both traveling merchants and an entire army.

The court of Petra

The location of Petra was strategic for the Nabateans, tucked away in a remote canyon and surrounded by an unforgiving desert. Historians have hypothesized that the location was chosen for a combination of its seclusion and defensive characteristics, and its position in relation to important trade routes. This is due to the great distance between Petra and the nearest natural source of water and its lack of agricultural resources. The climate in Petra is harsh and the people who once lived there could not have survived without water. That’s why they irrigated the long canyon that led to their city.

The Siq of Petra

This winding, narrow canyon is called the Siq, which means “shaft” in Arabic, and it is about 1.2 km long. I found the Siq to be one of the more interesting sections of the park. The floor of the canyon is sloped down gradually toward the heart of the ancient city. The builders of Petra formed shelf-like aqueducts to carry spring water down into the canyon using gravity.

Relief carvings in the Siq, Source: American Museum of Natural History

Along the Siq walls, there are relief carvings of people and camels, the legs of which can still be seen today. This tells historians that camels were very important assets for the Nabatean people and were most likely used extensively along their trade routes.

Siq relief carvings

Other relief carvings of stairs and windows suggest that the Siq was at least moderately defended by soldiers and perhaps even decorated by figures.

The main entrance to the park is in Wadi Musa, a small village with lots to offer tourists. There are a number of hotels and hostels here where you can stay, and the Petra entrance and visitor center is all within walking distance.

Petra park entrance

Entrance fees to the park are known to change, so be sure to check the website before you arrive. When I visited in 2018, I paid about $20 for the full main trail distance of 4 km. A single day pass is now listed on the site for JD 50; approximately $70.

Petra park transportation for hire

The park has several attractions including hot air balloons, camel and horse riding, and horse-drawn carriages. When I was walking into the park, I was approached by multiple tour guides and camel and horse riders who offered their services to me. The constant solicitation gets annoying after a while because there are so many of these tour guides milling about the huge park. Looking back, I wish I had brought some headphones or at least walked near a large group so that I wouldn’t be bothered so much. I think it was because I was alone that I was approached by so many people.

Taking a break at Petra's theater

Like lots of other tourist destinations, there are souvenir vendors and other people who are grateful for a few coins if you are in need of directions or some help with taking a photo. Traveling alone most of the time, I can appreciate the help.

End of the Siq opening to the Treasury

The Siq canyon is the section you will pass through after you enter the park. It gets narrower the closer you get to the Khazneh, or treasury, at the center of the park. This is the infamous façade that is featured in the 3rd Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade. As I reached the end of the Siq, I could see, and I began to recognize the iconic pillars of the Khazneh and I got a chill. It was such an incredible experience to be there in person. I only wish I brought a better camera than my cell phone. Most of these pictures I’m sharing here I took with Snapchat!

Nabatean foot soldiers

The Siq canyon opens up to a large court area at the foot of the Khazneh where the entrance is clearly visible, but it is off limits to tourists. I didn’t take too many pictures of this court because it was full of people when I walked out of the Siq. However, I was able to snag an uninterrupted shot of two men dressed as ancient Nabatean foot soldiers at the foot of the steps.

Grabbed a camel ride on the way out

After I had walked the full 4 km to the end of the park and turned to head back, I finally gave in to one of the camel herders (I think that’s what they’re called) and accepted a camel ride to get me closer to the entrance.

Petra's street of facades

By the time I was ready to leave the park, I had walked more than 10 km! I was glad to have brought enough water with me and for wearing lightweight, cotton clothing. I recommend a few bottles of water, sunscreen, and something to cover your head while you’re in the park. The canyon walls offer some shade, but it is still in the middle of a desert!

If you’re interested in seeing an interactive map of Petra, click here!

"At its best, travel should challenge our preconceptions and most cherished views, cause us to rethink our assumptions, shake us a bit, make us broader minded and more understanding."

- Arthur Frommer

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