Digesting Jordan: A Five Course Trip

Two years ago I was lucky enough to drain my savings account of almost every last penny on a six week trip that ended with three weeks in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is one of the places I will never forget. For such a small country, it is packed to the brim with things to do and see. The natural wonders it holds within its borders make it a must for anyone traveling around the region. Go. You won't regret it.

After three weeks which included a brief trip to the Netherlands and a whirlwind dash through Spain, I landed in Amman, Jordan and was greeted by a man holding a sign with my name on it. My friend I was staying with had arranged for a driver to take me to her place, and for good reason. The city of Amman is experiencing something of an identity crisis. The new parts of the city are all very western, but the old eastern heart still beats strong as well. In fact, the city only started the practice of naming their streets names a few years ago. However, very few cab drivers actually know the names! Once you're there, I recommend learning the major landmarks in the city; it will help you navigate far better than street names and numbers. Since there's not much public transit to speak of, taxis are the cheapest and easiest way to get around aside from renting your own vehicle. But if you're cabbing, find out approximately how much a trip will cost in advance. Drivers love to charge double or more if they think you're a tourist with cash to burn. Negotiate prices with drivers before you get in and hold firm on your price. Don't be afraid to close the door and wait for another taxi. Save some of those shillings for the good stuff.

And now, without further ado, here's my suggested way to see the Kingdom of Jordan.

How about an amuse bouche?

Amman is great base of operations. The city has some great sights; mostly located around the Citadel which has remains from Hellenistic, Later Roman, Arab, and Islamic ages including the Temple of Hercules, the Umayyad Palace, a Byzantine Church, and a monster 6,000 seat Roman theatre. The nightly prayers that echo out into the desert night sky are hauntingly beautiful, and I found are best taken in from a rooftop shisha bar with a coffee or tea. Get acquainted with the city, but I had the most fun away from Jordan's modern face. Rent a car, rent a driver, or just find some day trips to join, but it's time to get out of the city.

A cold appetizer to cleanse your pallet?

If you're like me and unacclimatized to 40°C+ heat (at least in the summer), then you'll soon find yourself dying to cool off and Wadi Mujib is the answer. Jordan has plenty of Wadis, which are something akin to national parks, and Wadi Mujib is one of the better ones that is also nearby Amman. There are plenty of different hikes you can do, but I recommend finding one that involves the waterfall. I went with a hike up the river itself. Spending the day sloshing through cold water was simply invigorating. The canyon walls provide a gorgeous mosaic of red rock to marvel at as you press upstream. Your reward is twofold. First, the waterfall! The trip ends right at the base and you can enjoy the feeling of the cool water raining down on you. Second, the trip back. On the way there the guides will stick close by since you'll have to climb a couple steep or slippery slopes, but on the way down you can forge ahead of the group and ride the current. You're never too old to body surf back down the river. Call it a day, and prepare for the next course.

Can I interest you in a walk through history?

A new day; a new journey to take. Flee the city again, but this time head north instead of west. Your destination: Umm Qays, Jerash, and Ajlun (or Ajloun). These three places will transport you back in time. Umm Qays is your first stop, the farthest in the north. The town boasts some great remnants of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman architecture and overlooks the Sea of Galilee. Next is Jerash, which contends for one of the top tourist spots in Jordan after Petra. Nestled within the city are the ruins of an ancient Roman provincial town, and is one of the best preserved Roman sites in the world. Wander through the theatres, plazas, and temples of the long dead empire as you picture its former splendor. Finally, on your way back, stop at Ajlun. This Islamic castle was built to defend against the western crusaders that invaded the holy lands in the 12th century. Once you've had your fill head back to Amman and prepare for the main course.

Would you like some desert sunset with your world wonder?

It's time for the main feast to begin. Pack for an extended leave of absence from Amman – just how extended is up to you – and head south on the King's Highway. Feel free to stop at Madaba, the City of Mosaics (home of the famous map of Jerusalem made entirely of mosaic tiles), but it's the facades of Petra that you'll really want to see. Once the capital of the Nabataeans, a truly overly industrious civilization the settled the gorge 2,000 years ago, the entrance to Petra starts by walking through a kilometer long Siq, or chasm. You'll know you've reached the ancient city because the view is unmistakable. Through a small gap in the Siq you'll spot the Treasury, the most recognizable monument in Petra made famous by “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." You could spend days wandering through the myriad of treasures here, but one full day should suffice to hit all the major spots. If you stick around, there's an evening candlelit walk down the Siq to the Treasury after which you'll be served tea as you listen to the music of Jordan.

Next is Wadi Rum, a desert jewel if there ever was one. The red sand is both alluring and majestic. You can go by camel, jeep, or even hang-glider, it's up to you. I opted for a sunset tour. Our driver took as across the desert, stopping occasionally to let us climb a sand dune or two, before we settled in on a nest of rocks and watched as the sun set, casting its crimson cape across the sands. I highly recommend that if you stayed for the picturesque sunset, you stay in a desert camp for the night. There are some truly authentic tribal experiences you can have, or some with a few more amenities. Either way it is well worth it for a taste of what desert life was like.

Finally, finish your main course in Aqaba, a small city on the Red Sea in the very south. There's a Mameluk Fortress, but the real gem here is the preserved coral reef. If you have the time, take some scuba lessons and get your certification. The Red Sea boasts some truly unique sea life and is one of the best dive spots in the world. I only had a day, and also didn't have a scuba license. However, you can pay for trips with a certified guide that will take you to around 6 to 9 meters deep. Or if going underwater isn't your thing, just rent some snorkel gear and take in the reef just off the beach. You can't really go wrong here. I went with one friend who had her license and as the licensed and non-licensed group converged half way through our underwater tour, I was struck with immense jealousy as I watched her glide past and all around me; free to explore the treasures of the deep. Meanwhile I was tucked in safely beside my dive partner, arms locked together, moving in a straight line beside the corals as my guide controlled our depth for us. When you've had your fill of the beach and the sea, head back to Amman, and I hope you left room for dessert!

No, not death by chocolate, death by salt please!

For your final expedition, head west to the Dead Sea. There are some interesting holy sites all along the way up and down the River Jordan, but the Dead Sea is a bit of a mind-blowing experience. When you arrive, pick your poison. There are public beaches, but the hotels along the coast line will give you access to their facilities for a price. How much depends on how nice of a hotel you choose. I went the public route, but wished I would have forked over a few dollars for some better quality facilities. Regardless, the Dead Sea is a one of a kind experience. Enter the saltiest body in the world and be amazed as you fail to sink deeper than your chest. The water feels slimy as it hits your skin. While it might not exactly be walking on water, you can run in it without fear of getting submerged. Bring a book with you if you want or just sit down and enjoy the view.

But whatever you do, DO NOT GET THE WATER IN YOUR EYES! I had the misfortune of having a wave go over my head, and although I made it back to the beach with my eyes closed, the instant I tried to open them I felt a burning sensation like never before. I was out of commission for 20 minutes while I waited for the pain to subside to the point where I could just barely open my eyes enough to find a public shower and flush them out. Out of the water, give yourself a rejuvenating mud bath. The mud of the Dead Sea is rich with minerals and great for your skin, so take advantage of it and lather up. Stay for the sunset and you're treated with a wonder final image of Jordan for your scrapbook.

Jordan is a marvelous place filled with immense natural beauty, historical artifacts, and rich cultural traditions. If you've never thought about it as a vacation spot, I recommend you think again. The Hashemite Kingdom has a way of sweeping you off your feet and making you fall deeply in love with it. So why resist its charms? Visit Jordan and you won't be disappointed.

This was a guest post by Marc Marion. You can find more of his travel tips and stories on the blog Life Out of a Suitcase.