Jordan is a stunningly beautiful and highly underrated country. Home to one of the seven new world wonders, the Lost City of Petra, it has been a bucket list destination for ages. Adventure seekers and history buffs will rejoice with all Jordan has to offer, from ancient cities and expansive deserts, to waterfalls tucked into canyons and the lowest place on earth. Even those with little historic knowledge will be fascinated by country’s natural beauty and outdoor adventures.
We often get the question “is Jordan safe?” Due to its location in the Middle East and some of its hostile neighbors, it perhaps gets an unfair misrepresentation for being unsafe for tourists. Matt and I felt safe in Jordan and were impressed by the infrastructures in place to handle the mass amounts of tourism. We found Jordanians to be very friendly and welcoming, in fact, nearly everyone we met would greet us with the word “welcome” after we told them where we were from.
Arriving in Jordan
We flew into the airport in Jordan’s capital, Amman, where we purchased our Jordanian visas upon arrival (40 JOD, which is roughly $56 USD). Since we were flying from Dubai, the flight was only a few hours long and painless compared to our long travel days to get to Mauritius and Dubai from Seattle. We rented a car from Monte Carlo Rental Car, where an employee was waiting for us at the airport and then we were on our way to our hotel in Petra! When we researched the drive online beforehand, we thought it would only take 1-2 hours, but the rental car staff told us it would be 3-4 hours, especially with current construction. At first, we were a little uneasy since this would mean we would end up driving in the dark.
There were a lot of police checks along the highway where we witnessed many cars getting randomly pulled over but somehow kept avoiding being stopped ourselves. That is, until we nearly reached Petra. A police officer at a checkpoint waved us down so we pulled over to the side of the highway. Matt rolled down his window and the officer asked us where we were from. He replied with “the United States” and the officer gave us a friendly smile, said “Welcome” and waved us onward. Back at home, being pulled over by the police is typically only done when you’ve broken the law, but here we discovered it was a measure meant to keep us safe. The biggest threat we came across on our drive at night was a striped hyena that ran across the highway but luckily, we didn’t have to make any dangerous maneuvers to dodge it.
We checked into Petra Gate Hotel, which was only a few minutes outside the entrance to Petra in Wadi Musa, and enjoyed the buffet dinner of local Jordanian cuisine up on the roof. The red tented roof had a beautiful view overlooking the desert town Wadi Musa, with the town’s lights burning a soft orange glow. The main course of the meal was Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, which consists of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented yogurt. It was served over a thin flatbread with long-grain rice. We enjoyed our meal and retired to our room to prepare to wake up before dawn to visit Petra!
The Lost City of Petra
The Lost City of Petra was once a prosperous center of trade and the capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and 106 A.D. While most people are familiar with the iconic Treasury and Monastery of Petra, there is so much more than these two beautifully preserved buildings! Petra is an entire ancient city with many ruins to explore, from a theater to the Royal Tombs to the Great Temple. While you cannot enter inside the Treasury or Monastery, there are several other ancient structures you can enter. Petra is also referred to as the Rose City due to its gorgeous rosy color, attributed to the orange and red sandstone canyons and mountains it was carved into. Many scenes from popular Hollywood blockbusters have been filmed in Petra, most famously Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, along with other movies such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Mummy Returns.
For a truly magical experience, we decided to arrive early just before the entrance opens at 6 a.m. There were only a handful of other eager explorers there, waiting in the dark before sunrise for the gate to open. Once allowed in the visitor center, we waited at the ticket office inside where we bought two-day tickets. A one-day ticket to Petra is 50 JOD (~$70 USD), while a two-day ticket is or 55 JOD (~$77 USD), so if you have the time to visit a second day, it is definitely more economical to do so and there is plenty to see. Make sure to bring your passport, as you won’t be allowed in without it! We kept our passports safe in our SWISSGEAR RFID Protection Passport Covers. Once we purchased our tickets, we headed to the ticket control station, where our tickets and passports were checked again, and then we began our trek! This is where we first encountered Bedouins, the local nomads who live in the desert. Several asked us if we wanted to ride horses in, but we declined in favor of walking. They may try to tell you the horse ride is free and included in the price of your ticket (untrue) and then tell you there is a mandatory tip after you already ride the horse. Don’t fall for this trick! If you want to ride a horse, negotiate the price before you get on.
The Treasury – Petra
From the ticket control, it is a 2km walk to the most famous and popular attraction, the Treasury (Al Khazneh). We were surprised to find ancient tombs, caves, and ruins along the way in the desert even before we reached the Siq. The Siq is the name of the narrow passage through a long 1.2km canyon that you enter through to reach the Treasury and was how ancient trader caravans would enter the city.
The end of the Siq caught us by surprise, with the Treasury looming before us peaking between the tall Siq walls. I gasped when I realized we were about to arrive in front of somewhere I had always dreamed of being. I couldn’t help but tear up at my first glimpse of the Treasury – it is something I’ll never forget, no matter how many times I’ve seen this gorgeous location online, in movies, and on Instagram. With a camel sitting in front of the Treasury, perfectly framed between the Siq walls, we couldn’t have asked for a more magical entrance alone in the early morning light.
After marveling up at the Treasury, we planned to hike to view the Treasury from above, which is supposed to be an hour and a half hike. Local Bedouins kept asking if we wanted them to guide us on a ten-minute hike to overlook the Treasury. We finally decided to hear one out and he told us it would be 10 JOD (~$14) a person. After five minutes, we were able to negotiate him down to 10 JOD for the two of us, which we felt was worth the money due to the extra time we would have to explore more of Petra.
Our guide, Mohammed, wore headscarf wrapped around his head with modern clothing, jeans and a sweatshirt, and his eyes were rimmed with traditional kohl eyeliner, typical of Bedouins. He took us around a gate, which he left his sweatshirt on top of, and then up a steep rocky path, where we basically rock climbed in several places. Although we probably could have made it up on our own, we appreciated Mohammed’s knowledge of the route and I gratefully accepted his hand to help lift me up in several steep spots, as it made the climb easier. We reached the top with a little tent made out of woven blankets and where beverages and snacks were for sale. We admired the astonishing view of the Treasury from up top, enjoying our solitude while being cautious of the open edge. Slowly other people started to arrive at the top, and on our way down we came across several groups making the climb with locals.
Then we continued on to explore more of the rose city of Petra on our own. Since there is a lot of ground to cover in the desert, I wore lightweight athletic clothes ideal for trekking but packed along a flowy skirt and dress for photos in my SWISSGEAR 2703 Laptop Backpack. It was also perfect for carrying water, snacks, sunscreen, and a hat to keep us hydrated, fueled, and protected in the desert. Matt brought along the SWISSGEAR 6758 Scansmart TSA Laptop Backpack to carry our camera gear and tripod to capture our experience.
The Monastery – Petra
While the journey to the Treasury is mostly flat (and even a little downhill before you get to the Siq), you have to work much harder to reach the Monastery (Al-Weid), the second most famous site in Petra. The journey to the Monastery will take you up roughly 850 steps through desert mountains. We were originally planning to visit it on our second day but since we took the local shortcut up the top of the Treasury, we figured we would go for the Monastery too. We passed many other tombs and ruins along the way, ones we vowed to explore more thoroughly on our way back from the Monastery. Souvenir shops were set up all throughout the hike, we were surprised that credit cards were widely accepted in the middle of the desert. We figured prices would be higher since we were inside a world wonder, but realized later we should have bought our souvenirs here (especially the closer you get to the Monastery or even past the Monastery), as they were cheaper than we found anywhere else in Jordan.
The desert sun on our backs didn’t make the trek any easier. We were relieved to find that the steps up the Monastery end with the short flight of stairs leading down into the desert. We thought the Monastery would be somewhere further in out in front of us and were caught by surprise when we saw it was next to us on our right. At 45 meters (148 feet) tall, the Monastery is taller than the Treasury (which is 40 meters tall, 131 feet tall). It was certainly another breathtaking site. Half of the Monastery was covered in shade, so we used that as an excuse to sit at the café across from it to grab drinks, a hummus wrap, and some shade, while we waited for the sun to illuminate the full front of the Monastery. We were surprised that this café, among most others in Petra, offered WIFI hotspots. My favorite part was watching people as they came down the steps and seeing their reactions when they discovered the Monastery was right next to them. There are several different viewpoints to admire the Monastery from, so once the sun illuminated it, we went to check out the view from above the café, inside a cave, and from a higher peak. We went further to check out another viewpoint that overlooked several mountains across the desert.
We ended up spending eight hours exploring Petra. Heading back out past the Treasury in the late afternoon took us past crowds and crowds of people – we were very grateful to have taken the initiative to get up early so we could enjoy Petra in peace.
Petra at night
The Lost City of Petra closes at dusk, but on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, Petra reopens at night for a luminary and light show at the Treasury. We were lucky to be visiting on a Monday and decided to visit at night for the additional 17 JOD (~$24 USD) a person. The entirety of the trail from ticket control to the Treasury was lined with luminaries to guide the way in the dark. Once we reached the Treasury the open space in front of it was filled with them. There were rugs lined between the luminaries on the sand for visitors to sit on.
We grabbed a seat in the first row of rugs and a friendly dog took a seat beside us. The rugs filled quickly and mass amounts of people kept filing in from the Siq. It was clear there was no limit to how many people could enter, as the space and sand in front of the Treasury filled to what felt over capacity. A local Bedouin began to play the flute while tea was passed out among the crowd. We drank our tea and I laid down on the rug looking up at the stars, doing my best to soak in the sights and sounds of being in Petra under the stars. When the man stopped playing the flute, another shared a short story from the history of Petra before announcing the start of the light show. The Treasury was lit up in an assortment of colors, each rotating one at a time. The actual light show was pretty underwhelming but it was still a unique experience to be in Petra at night. We made our way back out through the Siq, as we had plans to head into Petra one final time early the next morning.
Exploring the Desert – Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, is a destination that truly feels out of this world! It’s no wonder that this desert has been the location of many movies set in Mars, including the award-winning The Martian with Matt Damon. You can’t help but feel like you are on another planet.
After paying for our Wadi Rum entry at the visitor’s center (5 JOD, ~$7 USD) and parking our car at the tourist police station, we were picked up by a 4WD truck to take us on a desert tour on the way to our campsite. The bed of the truck was outfitted with two parallel benches that we sat on under the desert sun. Our first stop was a hike up to Lawrence Springs. The journey up was more like rock climbing than hiking but we were rewarded with a beautiful view at the top looking over Wadi Rum. We had the option to ride camels for an additional fee to our next stop, but since Matt’s camel collapsed in the Sahara Desert last year while he was on it, he was not keen on taking another camel ride.
Our next stop was to a giant burnt orange sand dune overlooking the Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formation. I took off my shoes and enjoyed the fine sand below my toes while walking up the dune. Then we were taken to a canyon with ancient Petroglyphs on walls. We drank tea in the tent of a local Bedouin, who was friends with our guide/driver.
We drove further into the desert, enjoying the scenic views and crazy rock formations as we passed by. Our driver stopped in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere and told us to get out and walk. We thought he was joking as he got back in his car to leave, pretending to desert us in the desert, but then told us he would meet us on the other side of a short valley walk. He explained this part of the desert is where the red sand desert met the white sand desert and he would meet us on the other side. After a short ten-minute walk, we got to the other side and were relieved to see him waiting for us. We preferred the bright colors of the red sand desert over the white sand desert.
We continued to a visit a giant natural bridge named Jabal Umm Fruth Bridge, which is one of several arches in Wadi Rum. There were many tourists here and I climbed up the steep slope to the top of the rock to the bridge and waited in a short line, while Matt sat at the bottom to capture a photo when it was my turn to stand on top. The bridge was perfectly illuminated by the sunlight, which was lowering in the horizon.
With the sun sinking lower, we headed to our camp, which was situated right next to a small arch. Our campsite was more of a “glampsite” with a big bed in our “tent”. After dropping our Luggage sets and laptop backpack in our room, we made the short climb to the small arch, with the intent to watch the sunset. Unfortunately, the sunset was blocked by mountains and clouds on the horizon, so it came and went without an impressive display of colors. Matt went back down to our tent, while I stayed up at the top to enjoy the solitude of the desert and reflect on our journey in Jordan so far. I looked back behind me to see the moon shining brilliantly and it appeared to be gigantic, nearly full in the sky. Before it got too dark, I made my way back down to wait for dinner.
Matt and I sat out on the deck drinking tea, listening to the beat of the drums and songs sung by the local Bedouin hosts. When it was time for dinner, we gathered around and watched as our hosts dug into the sand to reveal where our traditional Bedouin barbeque meal been cooked underground all day. Two men pulled the metal cannister up out of the earth. Everyone then went inside the main tent where we began our meal with a yellow lentil soup. We helped ourselves to a big buffet spread, including the Bedouin barbeque of tender meats and vegetables. After dinner, an assortment of local pastries was brought out for desert. Guests gathered around a campfire outside and gazed up at the stars, but the moon was emitting so much light it outshined most of the stars.
The next morning, we woke up early to climb back to the top of the arc for sunrise. A couple other couples had the same idea and we all sat in the silence of the desert watching the soft colors change on the horizon. The valley slowly began to turn orange. It was clear the sun had risen but was not yet visible to us behind mountains in the distance, and the other couples headed down for breakfast, which was a shame for them as we believe they missed the best part of the sunrise. When the sun finally rose up over the mountain in front of us, it appeared to set the desert on fire, covering everything in bright, golden orange with red tones. We soaked up all of the golden hour glory before enjoying a big buffet breakfast and then took a 4×4 back into town to get our car to drive to Wadi Mujib.
Canyoneering upriver to a waterfall – Wadi Mujib
Adventure seekers cannot miss out on Wadi Mujib, the lowest nature reserve in the world. Canyoneering in Wadi Mujib was one of the highlights of our time in Jordan. At the entrance, we were told we would need to wear waterproof shoes and attire that could get wet and to only bring a waterproof camera with us. We left all of our valuables and backpack bags for travel locked in our car and our SWISSGEAR 6393 Scansmart Backpack with our camera gear behind the front desk (we didn’t want our laptop or camera gear overheating in the trunk). We were given mandatory life jackets with the price of admission at 21 JOD (roughly $30 USD).
The river, which runs into the Dead Sea, started out ankle deep but it didn’t take long for our legs to be fully submerged. The cool water felt amazing in the afternoon heat of the desert and thankfully the narrow canyon walls kept us shaded from direct sunlight. The views were incredible, with the teal green water cutting through the dark orange canyon. The river grew deeper, up to our necks and we began to climb up over waterfalls. We reached a point where we could not touch and had to swim upstream. Some areas in the canyon had ropes drilled into rocks to help get through strong currents. It was possible to hire a guide to help you through the canyon at an extra cost, but we did the trek on our own. In a few places, it would have been beneficial to have a guide, as it’s not always clear which way is the best way to move forward. Once we found ourselves at a spot with a waterfall to our right and a cave to our left, not knowing if we should go in the cave or up the waterfall, but luckily, we came across people coming back down through the cave who pointed us in the direction of a ladder through the cave. We were also thankful that a guide with a small group was not too far behind us so we ended up following his lead a few times to find the best ways to maneuver through tricky spots.
The most difficult point in the canyon was in a deep spot with a very strong current. There were three long ropes along the canyon walls and you had to use your upper body strength to climb past the current. Even stopping for a break required a ton of physical exertion just to hold on and not be washed back to the beginning of the ropes. This trek definitely required a moderate level of physical ability.
We passed under a big boulder, wedged up between the canyon walls and arrived at the main attraction, a gorgeous waterfall. We felt the spray of the waterfall as we ventured to rocks behind the waterfall for a unique view. While standing by the waterfall in shallow water, we felt something at our feet and realized we were surrounded by little fish. We quickly figured out they were the kind that likes to eat dead skin, so we took off our shoes and let them nibble at our skin for a free pedicure. The little bites tickled and we couldn’t stand it for too long before we decided to make the trek back down the river through the canyon, which was more of a float. On the way back down, we slid down natural rock slide with a large drop into the river, which was exhilarating! A guide in front of us showed us a spot above a smaller waterfall where we could jump from instead of climbing down the side, and we happily took the option to jump. We then floated on our backs down, gazing up at the blue sky through the beautiful canyon walls.
The Lowest Place on Earth – The Dead Sea
We drove along the Dead Sea, which at 400 meters (more than 1,300 feet) below sea level is the lowest place on earth. The Dead Sea borders Jordan on the east and Israel on the west. It is actually a salt lake that is famous for having such a high salt content that makes floating easy. Dead Sea mud is rich in minerals and is used for cosmetic and therapeutic treatments that are supposed to have healing and detoxifying properties.
Floating in the Dead Sea was also high on my bucket list. We checked into the Hilton Dead Sea just before sunset, catching the sunset over the Dead Sea from the balcony of our room. With plans to float in the Dead Sea the following morning, which would be the last of our trip, we headed to the hotel’s happy hour. After talking about our travel day the following day, we realized something didn’t add up with the time we would leave and the time we would arrive home. That’s when I realized I made a horrible travel mistake – our flight was not at 2 p.m. the following day like we thought, it was actually at 2 a.m. that night/early morning! We headed back to our room and I threw on my swimsuit with the hope to quickly float in the Dead Sea before we left, but unfortunately access to the Dead Sea was closed after dark. I was devastated I wouldn’t be able to float in the Dead Sea, but at least grateful we found out about our flight’s actual departure time with enough time to still make it to the airport. Although our time in Jordan came to an abrupt end, it wasn’t without an adventure! Now we have another great reason to return, to float in the Dead Sea.