Gap Year Days 188 – 201
Arriving in Jordan was exciting. This was one of those countries that I had always wanted to visit “one day”. I mean, who doesn’t want to see Petra? I spent quite a bit of time reading and researching Jordan, because it didn’t seem to be a country where it would be easy to just wing it. This assumption was both right and wrong. It is easy to organise on the go, but without a bit of planning, it will cost you!
Our arrival didn’t go quite as planned. We had made it to Amman with no difficulties, but I could not say the same for my backpack! For the first time in all our travels, luggage went missing. It had to happen sooner or later, and we were really testing our luck with connecting flights on an LCC! We went through the process of form-filling, which, surprisingly, was relatively painless. The person we dealt with spoke good English which really helped. Now all we could do was wait.
I wasn’t too stressed about the whole situation, it would be more of an inconvenience than a disaster. I had spare underwear in my carryon, and would just need to buy a toothbrush if my backpack didn’t turn up that night. I knew if it didn’t turn up in 24 hours my travel insurance would kick in.
Transport in Jordan can be challenging. There is not a whole lot of public transport around, so it’s mostly taxi’s, private drivers or hiring a car. There is one way to save a little though, and that’s to catch the airport shuttle bus to the city and then get a taxi from there. The bus costs 3JD per person, and our taxi to the old part of Amman cost 4JD (the return was only 2JD in lighter traffic). It is an estimated 25JD to do the whole trip by taxi.
Now if I can give just one recommendation about Jordan, it’s to buy the Jordan Pass! This will save you an absolute packet! The price of the pass depends on how many days are to be spent at Petra. We wanted to spend two days there, so our Jordan Pass was 75JD ($140AUD/$105USD). You need to buy the pass before you get to Jordan because it also covers the Visa on Arrival costs (with some exceptions, make sure you read the terms and conditions). For Australians, and many others, that cost is 40JD. The two days at Petra are 55JD, so just with these two we are already ahead by buying the Jordan Pass. I hadn’t researched it much beyond that, but knew it also gave entry into museums and other attractions, and we pulled it out multiple times in the days to come.
In Amman we stayed at the Amman Pasha Hotel. It had a fantastic hostel feel about the place, but with hotel rooms. We’re not talking five star here, but cheap and clean. The staff were absolutely fantastic. They could not have been more friendly or helpful. They all seemed to truely enjoy their jobs, hanging around to chat and socialise even when they were clearly not working. Each evening a group gets together with their guitars on the rooftop terrace for an impromptu jam session. Sitting up here in the warm evening, overlooking the Roman Amphitheatre, enjoying a drink, was a fantastic way to end a busy day. We also loved the plethora of pets the hotel has. There are rabbits, a guinea pig and birds on the terrace, and more birds, a duck and at least one cat downstairs. There was mention of a tortoise too, but I didn’t see it.
The cafe downstairs is open all day for not only hotel guests but anyone who wants to drop by. The food is basic but plentiful, and the prices are not too bad by Jordanian standards. It’s a social and chatty place, and we met a few people here and enjoyed picking up more hints and tips for our future travels.
(No, I am not being paid to write good things about Amman Pasha, we just really enjoyed our time there. To balance it out, the showers were terrible, and they allowed smoking in the cafe, but we were happy regardless)
There is also an Amman free walking tour that starts from the Amman Pasha each day. You do not need to be staying there to take advantage of it. It winds it’s way through Old Amman taking in the sites but also allowing a lot of discussion about the way of life in Jordan. We were lucky to have not only the main guide, but a young Jordanian learning the ropes too. We had a great discussion about gender roles when I told him I don’t cook, my husband does it. I said he should learn because his future wife would be impressed, but he laughed at the thought. Women don’t let men anywhere near the kitchen in his culture.
As the 24 hour time frame came for my backpack, I had still not heard from the airport. I had to decide if I should go shopping (not something I was looking forward to) as there were only so many days I could wear my jeans and hiking boots! I emailed and happily discovered my bag was on the flight it should have been on the day before, so I awaited the phone call to arrange delivery. And waited…and waited! Eventually we called them. Lucky we did, because they were going to send it to the wrong hotel. Then we waited some more for delivery. In the end we gave up and went out for dinner.
Everything I read about visiting Amman recommended eating at Hashem. The restaurant was also pointed out to us on the walking tour. I am now going to add my voice to all the others – in Amman, go and eat at Hashem! It is a fabulous local restaurant. There is no menu, it’s falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, bread and salad. We also ordered a soft drink each. There was more food than we could possibly eat for 4.5JD (about $8.50AUD/$6.25USD). Without a doubt the best hummus I have ever eaten. We were so full we could not stop and get knafeh, the local dessert. It’s cheese, cooked with a sweet topping. The best place to get it had also been pointed out on the walking tour.
We arrived back at our hotel at the same time my backpack did! Yay! I was so happy to see it since my window for shopping was now closed. I might be sick of wearing the same few things for the last six months, but it’s better than having to replace it all!
The next day we had a day trip planned to the north of Amman. We were chatting to another couple who had already booked the same tour, so we joined them and halved the cost! Our first stop was at Umm Qays where we visited the ancient ruins of Gadara. While the ruins are good for a stroll, all of the signs had faded to the point of not being able to read them. The best thing is the view from the terrace. From here it is possible to see Israel and Syria, and on a clear day, Lebanon. The views take in the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights. It was hazy the day we visited, but it was still pretty amazing thinking about what we were looking at.
Stop two was at Ajloun Castle, built to defend the area against the Knights of the Crusades. The castle has been extensively restored and contains a few small museum displays. I was particularly surprised at the size of the rocks used in the catapult. The would have been two feet (60cm) across.
Our final stop for the day was at Jerash. These Roman ruins are some of the most complete anywhere and are quite impressive, but I think a lot of it has been restored. Still, the site is huge, and it’s definitely worth a day trip to have a look. We have seen so many Roman ruins over the last few months and are almost “ruined-out” but enjoyed an hour or two looking around here.
It was time to move on from Amman, and our first stop was going to be the Dead Sea. When I first started to plan, I was going to do a day trip to the Dead Sea. It’s definitely possible, and accomodation on the Dead Sea is almost exclusively limited to high end resorts. We are Hilton Gold members, so when we found there is now a Hilton Resort there, we started watching the price. As it got closer, the price kept dropping, and a couple of days before our visit we booked for a reasonable price. Still above our budget, but we knew we would not have to pay for dinner or breakfast.
We arranged a driver to take us, and our friends from the previous day joined us. They were returning to Amman at the end of the day. We stopped along the way at Madaba to see an Orthodox church that has the oldest known mosaic map of the Middle East. We also stopped at Mt Nebo. This is the place where God showed Moses the promised land. The church that now stands here is modern, but it has been built over the ruins of an old church that had some fantastic mosaics. There is also a small museum talking about the history of the area. This was the only place we came across that was not on the Jordan Pass, but entry was only 1JD.
Then we arrived at the Dead Sea! I think swimming in the Dead Sea has been on my wishlist longer even than visiting Petra. I wanted nothing more than to dump our bags, get changed and start swimming right away. All was going to plan, until Simon couldn’t find his shorts. A minute of thinking back, and he realised he had left them drying on the balcony in Antalya. Whoops! Where, in the middle of nowhere by the Dead Sea, were we going to find more shorts? Not too far away were half a dozen shops and restaurants. They didn’t look like the type of shops that would have swimwear, but tucked in the back of a store that mostly sold high end Jordanian craft pieces was a small selection. Clearly we were not the first people in this predicament.
So an hour or so later, we made our way down to the beach. No rocky shoreline here, Hilton have trucked in a whole pile of sand to created a luxurious place to relax. They have also built a pontoon out into the Dead Sea for lazing on, creating a protected pool if guests prefer to swim there. Once in the water it really is a strange sensation. Floating just happens. It’s easiest just to recline back into a relaxed sitting position and bob around. Pointing your feet down to the bottom is harder than floating, and when done, the water only comes up to the armpits. Everything above that is out of the water. I felt like a cork.
The water itself was lovely and warm. It had a bit of a slimy feel to it. I half imagined it to have the oily sunscreen from thousands of visitors floating on top, but it is probably from the minerals in the water. The water is so salty that it can be really dangerous, deadly in fact, to swallow or inhale it. Getting it in your eyes or any open wounds will sting like crazy. Shaving should be done after swimming, not before!
The other must do thing at the Dead Sea is to cover yourself in the mud. Many people claim it has medicinal properties, but we just did it for fun. Or should I say for the experience. I wasn’t real keen to start with, and can’t say I enjoyed smothering mud all over myself then waiting for it to dry. I was surprised to see lots of people filling containers to take with them when they left.
So that’s how we spent the rest of the afternoon and the next morning. When we got sick of the salty water, we rinsed off and retreated poolside to enjoy one of the many Hilton pools. Too soon it was time to say goodbye. I couldn’t be sad though, we were on our way to Petra!
We’d booked another cheap hotel in Wadi Musa, the town where Petra is, that proudly stated it was a ten minute walk to the gates. We retired early, since we had a very early morning planned.
Petra opens its gates at 6am, but when it was still pitch black at 5:45, I decided there was no point heading off yet, so we waited another half an hour when we were starting to see the first streaks of daylight. We made the trek down the hill to the gates. Not in ten minutes though, it was closer to twenty, and that was downhill. We were to do that walk six times in the next thirty hours on top of all the walking we did inside the park.
I’m not going to go into all the details of our two days at Petra in this post. Mostly because this post is going to be long enough without it, but also because Petra deserves its own post! (you can find it here) Suffice to say Petra is stunning. The Treasury, you know, that carved rock face made famous by Indiana Jones, is amazing, but it really is just like you see in the movie. The rest of the park is just as good, and if you head out onto some of the harder hikes, the scenery is even better. The local Bedouin people are friendly and hospitable, and sitting down for a tea and a chat after a hard hike is perfect.
Our next stop was Wadi Rum, and to get there we decided to take the bus. It leaves Wadi Musa at around 6am, and you need to let your accommodation know in advance. They will contact the bus driver, and he will pick you up at your hotel. The driver does loops of the town picking up anyone he has been told about, so don’t panic if he is running late. This is a local bus, so it won’t run on Fridays, and sometimes the bus doesn’t run due to being used by the local families instead (for example for a wedding) but your accomodation will be able to confirm that it is running when you speak with them. The cost starts at 7JD per person, but if the bus is not full, it will likely be higher. We had ten tourists and two locals on our bus and were charged 10JD. I believe it has to be fifteen or more people to be 7JD.
We had booked a two day tour at Wadi Rum with Bedouin Roads. I didn’t do a whole pile of research before hand, choosing them on the recommendation of some other travellers we met in Amman who said they researched quite a bit.
The bus dropped us off at their reception (read: House!) in the town of Rum. We were met by our driver, and jumped into the back of his jeep and headed straight for the desert.
During the day we made at least a half a dozen stops to see various landmarks, from sand hills to rock land bridges, Lawrence of Arabia’s house to a sandy canyon. Above all we were blown away by the huge landscapes. The sand varied from cream colours to red. The erosion on some of the rocks making them look like multi-layered birthday cakes with the icing dripping down the side.
For lunch we met up with another couple who were staying in the same camp as us and the two guides cooked up a huge meal of traditional middle eastern food. Stuffed full we got to rest in the shade for an hour, before heading off again.
Our final stop was a ridge to watch the sunset over the desert, and we arrived to our camp in the dark. There was only time for a shower to rinse the dust off before another huge meal with glass after glass of delicious mint tea. We were becoming quite partial to this drink, or it’s cousin, sage tea. Both were offered continuously by the Bedouin people and there always seemed to be a pot on.
The 5am morning caught up with us, and it was early to bed. Lucky really, because breakfast was at 7am, and by 8am we were getting ready for our camel ride back into town. This was going to be about two hours on the camels. We had planned on doing a longer ride, but discussion the night before around the fire made us cut it down a little. Even then everyone said we were very brave (meaning crazy!).
We had ridden camels before, but only short distances, but let’s just say we have well and truely got it out of our system. There is no need for us to ride a camel again. Ever. Sure, it wasn’t completely unbearable, but it also was not the most comfortable two hours of my life either!
We had asked Bedouin Roads to organise a transfer to Aqaba, and when we arrived back into town, a taxi was waiting. It’s about an hour by car, and for the first time, it ended up being cheaper than we expected, at 20JD.
We had only one full day in Aqaba, and we planned to spend it snorkeling. Aqaba is right down the south of Jordan, and is situated on the Gulf of Aqaba, part of the Red Sea. It is a popular holiday location for locals, and has some of the best coral reefs in the world located just off shore. This means it’s also a popuar snorkeling and scuba diving location.
When we woke though, we could hardly move! That camel ride had really made us feel muscles we had forgotten existed. I hadn’t been that sore in a long time. We kept saying “soon” we would venture out to the beach. In the end we stayed in our room for most of the day, only going out for some food. We are going to have to go snorkeling next time we are in the area.
Our next stop was Feynan Ecolodge at Dana Nature Reserve, but as they say, getting there is half the fun. We had chosen to take another local bus, to save us a whole pile of cash. We knew the one bus each day arrived at the bus station at 9am, but didn’t leave until the bus was full, usually around noon. It also doesn’t run on Friday or at any other time the owner randomly chooses not to run it. (Note, if that does happen to you in Jordan, drivers are easy to find, so don’t panic. It’s just that they cost a lot more. In fact you will likely have a few people approach you while you are waiting and try to convince you to let them drive you instead.)
We were the only non-locals on the bus, and it was interesting to watch the goings on. A couple “hid” a huge flat screen tv behind some of the seats to avoid paying taxes on it at a customs stop on the highway. We were offered food by one young woman who spoke a few words of English, and two young boys thought it was hilarious to try to talk English to the blonde, unveiled woman (all the other women were completely covered with only their eyes showing).
The bus dropped us off at the reception centre for the Feynan Ecolodge. From there we were driven about thirty minutes by 4WD to the lodge itself. This place is located in the nature reserve and is staffed by the local Bedouin people. It has a small amount of electricity from solar panels, but at night it is lit with candles. All food is vegetarian as they do not have refrigeration for meat. It’s not a cheap place to stay, but it is (with a few exceptions) all-incusive.
We spent our days here hiking in the surrounding Wadi’s. Our first hike was a guided hike offered by the lodge as part of the package, but we were the only ones doing it so it felt like a private tour. We had a fantastic young Bedouin guide. His passion for his job shined through so clearly. He loved talking to tourists and especially loved showing off his amazing part of the world. He talked about the people and their traditions, pointed out plants that are used in their culture (Did you know that the common oleander – my least favourite plant which as kids we were always warned was poisonous – is used to create a dip for the sheep and goats to get rid of lice?) and answered all the weird and wonderful questions we came up with.
In the late afternoon we did another hike to a nearly ridge to watch the sunset. There is not much better that seeing the sun disappear while drinking Bedouin mint tea in the Jordanian desert.
After dinner we ascended to the rooftop. Here we could recline on cushions and gaze at the stars. One of the local guides gave us a great lesson on navigating by the stars. He pointed out many of the different constellations telling us the Arabic as well as Western names and stories behind them.
More hiking was in store for the next day, with us venturing into Wadi Ghuwayr. We got a lift to the beginning of the wadi, then hiked most of it’s length along a small stream. It is recommended when doing this hike to wear shoes that can get wet. Simon only had hiking boots or thongs (flip flops) with him, so we tried to keep as dry as possible. Didn’t really work, and we both ended up with wet hiking boots. Luckily the sun was quite warm, and an hour or two out in it on our return and they were mostly dry.
As we got back to the lodge, I received a phone call from the driver who was picking us up for the return to Amman. He would not be there at 3pm as planned, but rather not until 7pm. This was not ideal, but hey! It meant that in the meantime we found two more people returning to Amman that day, so they came with us and split the cost!
It did mean though that our planned visit to the Citadel, and knafeh dessert was no longer possible. By the time we got back to the Amman Pasha Hotel, it was 10pm, and we grabbed a quick dinner and fell into bed. All that was left to do the next morning was get to the airport for out flight out.
We really enjoyed Jordan. It would easily be up there in my favourite three countries. The nature and history is pretty amazing, but the people are even more so. I am always super suspicious of taxis or other drivers quoting ridiculous prices and will often speak with two or three people beforehand, but in Jordan we were always treated fairly. I did not feel like anyone was trying to rip us off or take advantage of us. Oh sure, there were people trying to sell us stuff, like donkey rides every three steps at Petra, but as soon as we said no they left us alone.
Wifi was, well, bad at best. We often didn’t have access to wifi at all or it was really slow. Some of the accomodation only had it available in public areas. In hindsite I would probably recommend getting a local sim if you can. I have not looked into the availability or pricing of the sims to see if it is worth it though.
Transport is the one big ticket item we couldn’t get around. Private cars were expensive, but there were not a lot of other options. Local buses were infrequent and unreliable, but if you can get one, they are much cheaper. If I did it again, I would hire a car from the airport as we left Amman and drive ourselves. I would not drive in Amman itself as traffic is a bit chaotic at best.
In general Amman was not the cheapest place we have visited by a long way. But having said that, we did not want to skimp on the big ticket items either, and I am glad we splashed out on the resort at the Dead Sea and Feynan Ecolodge. The experiences were worth it.
To see our exact itinerary and some further options, click through to my post here.
Amman Pasha Hotel
4 Al Shabsough Street – Downtown, 11110 Amman, Jordan
35JD ($66AUD/$49USD) including breakfast
Hilton Dead Sea Resort & Spa
Dead Sea Road, Hotels Area , 11953 Sowayma, Jordan
Petra Gate Hotel
Down Town ,Tourist Street, Petra, 71810 Wadi Musa, Jordan
15JD ($28AUD/$21USD) including breakfast
Golden Rose Hotel
Al Reem Street , 77110 Aqaba, Jordan
Dana Nature Reserve, Jordan
175JD ($328AUD/$247USD) including all meals and activities