Updated: May 28, 2020
For the first time since I left six months ago and for the second time in my life, I decided to join a group tour. I was a little apprehensive to do so but since it seemed like the best way to cover so much ground so quickly, I thought I'd give it a go. I was also little unsure of being a solo traveler in that part of the world so it seemed like a perfect way to see what it is really all about. I packed my bag, crammed myself into the Bangkok BTS subway at rush hour and headed off the airport. 19 hours later, after one very long and surprisingly cold layover in Bahrain, I landed in Amman.
The half hour drive to the hotel offered up the first glimpse of the country. If I’m being honest, I didn’t do a ton of research this time so I wasn’t even sure what the rest of the country might look like outside of the common images of Petra. I was greeted by palm trees and unexpected grass, though that quickly disappeared after the airport grounds. Moving into the city, the flat desert gave way to a much more rolling landscape with the city growing out of the hills, giving off an impressive effect. I arrived at the hotel shortly after noon so I had lots of time to kill before the 6pm official group meeting. After checking out the hotel and its fantastic rooftop patio, complete with pets - rabbits and turtles, but not to be overshadowed by the rescue owl, squirrel and birds in the lobby - I decided to do a bit of wandering and check out the Roman amphitheatre across the street.
After a quick solo tour, I joined a walking tour with a local man name Mohamed. He was quick to point out that he was not a professional guide, just someone who had grown up in Amman and enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the city and his time with travellers. As it happens, that is exactly the type of person I think should lead a city tour. It’s the best way to get to know a place through local eyes and interact with new people on a personal level. While there were a few key historical points like the amphitheatre and museums pointed out, we spent more time wandering the souks, checking out local butcher shops, Bedouin supply shops, spice stores, trying local snacks and admiring street art. He told us stories of when he was a kid and how much the city had grown in a short period of time.
Mohamed didn't really want his photo taken but let me take it anyway, even though he wouldn't sit still for it.
Bedouin carpet shop.
Spices! This street smelled so good.
Mural to represent equality between men and women.
Eventually, the meeting time rolled around and we all got the first glimpse of the whole group. Just looking around the table, it seemed like a good group. We spent the rest of the evening creating a spectacle simply by being that large of a group of foreigners, starting by taking over a small restaurant then crowding the street outside a delicious dessert shop. A few drinks and shisha pipe on the roof later, it was clear that we did indeed have a good group. Over the course of the trip, that didn’t change. As far as tour groups go, this one pretty much turned out to be a best case scenario. Even when things got a little stressful, this group handled it well but more on that later.
Our first official day started early as we all piled into the mini bus and started off towards Petra with a few stops along the way. The first stop of the day was Mt Nebo, the final resting place of Moses according to the Christian Bible. The site is beautiful and overlooks the Holy Land as far as the eye can see. The modern church on the top of the hill is built over the original 4th century monastery, is an active worship space as well as protects well-preserved mosaic scenes of everyday and religious life. On the clearest day, Jerusalem should be visible from the summit, however we weren’t quite so lucky. The dead see and River Jordan were visible though.
Down from the mountain, the next stop was the Dead Sea at Amman Beach. I think everyone was looking forward to a bit of a cool off with a swim but the Dead Sea is deceptive in a lot of ways. It really is a strange and full sensory experience. Firstly, it certainly wasn’t the cool swim we were hoping for, more like a warm bath but floating around in it IS a cool as you’ve heard. It actually looks and feels like swimming in extra virgin olive oil. The water has a strange texture when it moves across your skin and it feels like you weigh nothing. It’s a lot of fun to just sit there and be. Zero effort required. It’s when you want to move that it gets a little tricky. Putting your feet back down on the sand is actually quite difficult when you are that buoyant and it requires a certain amount luck and co-ordination to right yourself again. The hardest part is accomplishing this while not splashing and keeping your head above water. Any splash runs the risk of getting the water in your mouth or eyes. The salinity makes it burn and I can confirm that the flavour is far from appealing.
No trip to the Dead see is complete without a proper mud bath. For just $6 you too can plaster yourself with the darkest mud I've ever seen. After we were all covered, it almost looked like we were wearing wet suits. My skin did feel pretty amazing afterwards though. Once the mud was washed off, that was all most people could take. While it is a really cool experience, it eventually does become a painful one. After awhile, you are quite literally being pickled alive. Since we’d all much prefer to eat pickles with our shawarma rather than become one, we headed off to lunch after a much needed freshwater shower.
Photo provided by Kirstin Ulrich
Photo provided by Kirstin Ulrich
One last stop on the way brought us to Kerak Castle. The castle was first built in 1142 CE and was a Crusader strong hold, then later added on by the Mamluk and for awhile, used by the Bedouin tribes of the area. Though terrorism is rare in Jordan, Kerak was unfortunately also part of a more recent incident in 2016. The tunnel in the image below became a standoff point between a small terrorist group trying to evade police. Civilian hostages were taken and eventually led to the killing 14 people including a Canadain tourist.
Our final destination for the day was Wadi Musa, the town surrounding the part of Jordan we all came to see - the ancient Nabatean city of Petra. We arrived as the sun was setting to ice cold hibiscus tea and eventually gathered on the roof, attempting to figure out just where exactly the treasury of Petra was hiding in the hills.
Luckily our hotel was less than 300 metres from the visitors centre and we started off the day early, just not early enough to escape the desert heat. Our tour started by walking through the Al Siq canyon and original entry point for all travellers to the city. The canyon is beautiful with its high walls and various layers of stone and iron. The Nabateans also cleverly built water systems through the entire canyon, supplying the city with water for drinking and agriculture needs. Most of the walls of the canyon are clear but there are a few spots where carvings are still visible.
After an hour or so of walking and explanations, Judeh, our tour leader, had us all line up single file again the wall. I didn’t clue into the narrowing walls, lowered light and why we might be doing this. After we all got in order, he let us go again and as our eyes adjusted to the light, it was clear why. At the end of the narrow path, the first bit of the famous treasury building came into view.
Carvings of a man leading a camel are still visible.
The canyon route into Petra can be walked or entered by horse-drawn carriage. We always chose to walk.
Some things don’t live up to their hype. The treasury is not one of those things. It truly is a sight to see. As soon as you walk into the open area, the building stretches out in front of you in all its pink, carved sandstone glory. It is two levels of beautifully carved and very well preserved stone. You can’t go in but once you get up close, it becomes clear that it is actually even more impressive because there is a third level to the building. At the time of its creation, it was actually three stories tall instead of two but the canyons have filled in bit over the last 3000 years.
While the Treasury is the most famous image of the site, there is so much more to see. The whole site covers 264 square kilometres. With 20,000 inhabitants at its largest, there are monuments, temples and homes carved into the stone everywhere you look. Unlike the treasury, you can actually enter most of the other buildings.
There are 3 main hiking trails within the site, the trail to the monastery, the trail to the lookout over the treasury and the Place of High Sacrifice trail. Lexi and I, my fellow Canadian, trip roommate and partner in crime for the rest of the trip, were feeling ambitious so we decided to tackle two of the three in the first afternoon.
The first trail we tried took us the monastery. From the beginning it looked a little daunting. The path led straight into a cliff and disappeared. Upon further inspection, the path was actually an uneven stairway crisscrossing up through the mountains. The stairs themselves were okay, though I say this retrospectively and am probably forgetting how bad my thighs were burning at the time. The real tough part was the heat. Hiking up the side of a mountain in direct sunlight on top of the 33 degree air was a challenge and turned us into our own personal water features. The site on the other side was completely worth it though. The monastery is every bit as beautiful as the treasury but that much more enjoyable because there was hardly anyone there the block the view or try to sell you a camel ride or scarf. Sitting and enjoying the view there was probably my favourite experience of the two days spent in Petra.
Feeling sufficiently rested, we walked back down the mountain and up another one to find the treasury viewpoint. About another hour of walking brought us to a small hut complete with pillows and cushions overlooking the treasury we’d been standing in front of at the beginning of the day. Strangely, out of the 7 people total in the hut while we were there, 6 of us turned out to be Canadian plus one Texan. We watched the sunset over the canyon for awhile then headed back for dinner, with enough time to make it back for Petra By Night.
Petra by Night is in theory a great idea. The canyon and treasury are lit up with candles and people gather around and listen to traditional Bedouin music and stories. It should be fantastic. In reality, I thought it was a waste of money. The first problem was the people in attendance. The walk down is lit by lanterns the whole way and it was also a full moon. There was more than enough light to make the easy walk down the canyon but still everyone felt like it was a good idea to use their flashlights. Purpose of the lanterns completely defeated. Once in the clearing and seated around the treasury, it only got worse. Hundreds of people sat there taking photos with the flash on and talking over the entire event. And no matter how crappy their overexposed, nighttime selfie turned out, they just kept trying. At the end, the treasury is briefly lit up with coloured lights. This again was beautiful, for about 30 seconds. Everyone wanted that photo so what you ended up with was 50 people standing infornt of the lights and their shadows cast onto the monument. It was disappointing to say the least. There is no accounting for bad behaviour but the organizers could also do so much to improve the flow of traffic and organization of photo opportunities. I hate to say it but I wouldn’t do it again and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Hopefully, more organization is put in place in the future.
Day two of Petra was just as exciting as the first. Since we only had the morning we decided to risk it and complete the set with third and final trail. The map listed it as a four hour hike and based one our pace the day before, we felt like we had the time. The first major part of the uphill section was shaded but we still weren’t immune to the heat. This trail was also considerably quieter than any other part of the site so for the first hour, our only company were some mountain goats, slightly confused to see us. The highlight of this trail is the sacrifice temple on the top of the mountain. The signage and trail markers here is not great so it took us a couple of tries to get to the altar on top but we did make it eventually. Looking out onto the expanse of mountains truly does make you feel small and completely isolated from the rest of the world. From that point, there is essentially no trace of modern human life.
The descent was equally as beautiful as we passed other sites just as impressive as the treasury, though neither one of us had heard of them before or even seen a photo. We were making great time and the walk seemed to be going well. Until it wasn’t. After awhile it had become pretty obvious that it had been quite a long time since we’d seen the last trail marker. Not that anything looks familiar to two Canadians in a Jordanian desert but we seemed pretty lost. Eventually a man on a donkey came over a ridge, and quickly recognizing that we weren’t we supposed to be, pointed towards the next ridge. Clearly in attempting to keep moving down the mountain, we’d missed the point where we were supposed to go up again. While both of us had kept pretty quiet about being worried about the situation, we couldn’t help but laugh when we walked in the direction the kind stranger had pointed and were exactly where we were supposed to be. And actually had made better time than expected. So we weren’t hopelessly lost in the desert and got to leave feeling like we conquered Petra, covering a ton of ground. Between the two days, we walked about 60 kilometres!
Safely back on the bus, we started the long drive to Wadi Rum where we planned to camp for the night. Once we hit the town of Rum, we switch from the bus to a couple of well worn jeeps for the rest of the journey. As usual, Judeh had a few good surprises for us and we stopped at some really cool spots along the way. The first was a a dune and rock formation, where we were met with spiced Bedouin tea from the camp there. After tea, the group waded through the sand and up to the top of the rock to take in a truly spectacular view of the desert. On the way down Judeh suggested a race down the dune. And guess who won? We’re all claiming unfair experience advantage but it did make for some really great photos and videos.
Mars? Nope, but they did film The Martian here as well as Lawrence of Arabia, Red Planet, Prometheus, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and about 7 other movies.
Photo by Lexi Hoy
Photo provided by Rob Sharp
The second stop took us into a Khazali Canyon, a thin canyon carved with ancient lettering and pictographs of people and scorpions to name a few. Unfortunately, this site has no protection an there are some obvious signs of wear from visitors.
The last stop before the camp was the coolest and the one I was the most apprehensive about. We pulled up to a huge rock formation with the highest point being a stone bridge, wedged between two other massive stones. We were free to climb it if we felt like it. I learned at the beginning of the trip to just go ahead and do things anyway, regardless of a little fear. If there is an opportunity to climb something, I climb it. That is the rule. So up we went like a little trail of ants on our giant rock. There were a few spots that had some unsure footing and my fear of medium heights came out to play, but as suspected, it was worth it. And it made for a really great group photo.
Photo provided by Kirstin Ulrich
After reaching camp and settling in, we climbed up one more pile of rocks for a pretty impressive sunset.
While it was beautiful, it wasn't entirely peaceful. Just as the sun was going down, a very loud truck passed our way!
Following dinner, we spread out on blankets to watch the stars. I have never seen the stars so bright and it was truly impressive and relaxing to just lay there and stare. Most people eventually filtered off to bed but a few stayed awhile to enjoy the stars and try and figure out what one of the guys from the camp was doing with his flashlight at the edge of camp. That mystery was solved quickly, when for the second time in seven months and completely out of the blue, a stranger has presented me with a wild hedgehog. They are cute but this little guy was not too happy with the situation. And to be fair, who would be happy about being nabbed and dropped on a bunch of strange beings? So after tolerating us for a few minutes, we let it waddle off to go back to whatever it was doing before it was plucked up by our new friend.
The next day was the last day in Jordan. We were heading to Egypt that evening on the ferry but not before enjoying a very relaxing afternoon of moving from one coffee shop to another in Aqaba. That also brings me back to the part where I mentioned how good of a group this was. We were warned that the ferry crossing is an experience. It often doesn’t leave on time and sometimes it doesn’t leave at all. The ferry caters to Egyptian workers so it also doesn’t leave until late. The scheduled departure time is 10:30-11:00pm. Once we got confirmation that the ferry was definitely going to go that evening, we headed to the port where we had to say goodbye to Judeh. We were officially on our own for this one so let the adventure begin. Boarding was easy enough. After a little security and stashing our bags on the vehicle level of the boat, we found our seats. They were comfortable at first but less so after departure was delayed a couple hours. The air conditioning was also on at an obscene level and it quickly started to feel like an arctic crossing instead of crossing the Red Sea. Since we were also crossing into a new country, immigration processes were also part of it and all of our passports were handed over. A three hour ferry turned into five and by the time we docked in Egypt it was 3am. But the fun didn’t stop there. Immigration in the ferry port could use a little upgrade. It seemed like they weren’t quite sure what to do with us and eventually decided to pull one of us aside for some questions based on having a passport they don’t see too often. That was when the wear on the group started to show. But to everyone’s credit, this was the point where a few exhausted personalities could have easily turned on each other but no one did. Finally, we all made it through and met our guide, Maged, for the Egypt section on the tour. 4am after a travel day is not a good time for first impressions and it could have gone better, but we survived and could finally get some sleep.
At some point, I've become a bit of an early bird so even after the short night, I woke up in time to see sunrise, have another short nap and then wandered the beach towards the smell or breakfast. The itinerary was not lying when they said ‘rustic’. The accommodations were grass huts with mattresses but I would have happily spent another night there.
Once everyone was ready, we started the drive to Dahab. Dahab was a place I knew nothing about right up until we arrived but it actually turned out to be one of my favourite places in Egypt. The first day, everyone broke off to wander or go diving so I took some much needed ‘me’ time to wander the market and grab a coffee in a cafe hanging over the Red Sea. Everything about the city had a good vibe. Rustic with the right amount of ‘hippy’ and dive culture. If it were up to me, I would have spent another few days here.
The day was capped off with one of the best meals of the entire trip, when we headed to another Bedouin camp in the hills outside of town. The bbq style food was so flavourful and the atmosphere made it perfect. I’m starting to think all meals should be eaten outside, under the stars on blankets and pillows by candlelight.
Another thing I didn’t know about Dahab is that it is world renowned for snorkelling and diving. The jeeps picked us up the next morning and drove us about a half hour up the coast to a spot called The Blue Hole. On land it doesn’t look like much, just rocky beach. After dropping into and equally unassuming hole in the coastline, everything changed. Under the water, that hole is actually an underwater canyon that leads you out the to coast and a massive wall of coral that goes down as far as you can see. I was completely shocked at how massive it was and the clarity of the water there. The waves were strong enough and the water salty enough that moving along the reef required little to no effort so you could spend time just floating and letting the fish come check you out. On the second pass, I even came across a curious octopus. Watching a brown octopus swim by, land in the coral, turn a few different shades of pink and blue and then disappear because it blended so well was an absolute highlight.
Overlooking the coast and the Blue Hole.
Emma trying out some free diving.
The next day was a bit of a more somber as everyone remembered that this was the point where we were winding down and the majority this particular group would be separating. But not before one last hurrah in Egypt. That will have to wait for the next post though! Overall, Jordan exceeded all my expectations. The sites were more beautiful than expected, the group of people I got to share this experience with was phenomenal, the food was delicious and the people of Jordan are so welcoming and friendly. When booking a trip the Middle East, its easy to fall into preconceived notions of what that means. As a 6ft, blond Caucasian woman, I get my fair share of attention. Everywhere. Jordan was no different but I never once felt unsafe or unwelcome there. The whole reason I chose a tour is because of safety concerns but everyone I met along the was lovely. Even the briefest encounters were pleasant from strangers stopping traffic for me to sharing local snacks or bringing out sheep’s heads for me to inspect, Jordan opened up to me in a way I did not expect.
The more I travel, the more I realize that people are inherently good and more alike than different. Maybe a few are not, a few let differences of opinion get in the way and governments make choices that don’t always reflect the opinions of their people. But people are good and should not be judged or discounted on the whole because of a few. If more people took time to visit or consider some of these countries and ignored the fear mongering of the western news cycle, the world would be a far better place.