A Serene Sliver of the Middle East: 6 Spots to Visit in Jordan

by  Karen Loftus | Aug 21, 2013
Petra, Jordan
Petra, Jordan / chemistkane/iStock

"Jordan is a quiet place surrounded by a lot of noise." On a recent trip to Jordan, my guide, Kamel, was referring to Jordan’s neighboring countries: Bordering Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Israel have affected Jordan's tourism lately. I was last in Jordan in February, 2009, and things became pretty loud in Syria shortly thereafter. Sadly, that volume seems to be deafening at the moment. It's a noise that few travelers have been able to ignore.

I went back to Jordan recently. I was shocked that friends and colleagues alike were worried for my safety – I had never given it a second thought. Having been before, I knew how serene Jordan is and how genuinely friendly and peaceful the people and the country is. Personal experience aside, it's important to note that Jordan is not at war and there are no riots on the street.

Regardless, the surrounding noise has caused a huge dip in Jordan's tourism, which is actually a huge asset for those looking to make the trip: It means you'll get an authentic taste of the culture, but with fewer crowds. Here's what you should see if you're making the trip over.

1. Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum is Laurence of Arabia’s land. This vast desert area, also known as the Valley of the Moon, features steep sand dunes, mountainous sandstone, and granite formations. Be sure to hit the visitor's center where you can arrange for transportation in the park and overnight stays with Bedouins. For those looking for a fast-paced ride, opt for an open-air jeep tour. Get out and go rock climbing, hiking, or just stop to take some photos. Or, do as the local Bedouin tribes do and ride in on an Arabian horse or a camel.

You should pack an extra layer of clothes if you're staying there for the night; temperatures in the desert drop considerably in the evenings, even in summer months. Something else to keep in mind: The more remote you get, the less you'll hear English. However, many Bedouins speak English, especially the younger ones.

2. Amman
A big draw to Amman, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is Citadel Hill with the Temple of Hercules, which towers above the city, and the Roman Theater. Excavations near the ancient Citadel have revealed remains from Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic eras. An enormous hand and elbow believed to be from a statue of Hercules is a part of the remains on-site. Dating back to the 2nd century, the Roman amphitheater below can accommodate 6,000 and on occasion still does for cultural and sporting events.

Make your way through the city to Habiba Sweets for a Kunafa, a cheesy local desert; it must be at least three or four thousand calories, but it’s well worth it. Hit the local kebab stalls, cafés, and food and craft souks (markets) that are scattered around town – Souk Jara or Jara Market is one of the best in Amman filled with reasonably priced local crafts, scarves, and jewelry.

For a taste of the unexpected, head to Zumot's The Winemaker – Zumot Winery's Saint George wines are Jordan's first fine wines. Due to limited land and incessant water issues, Jordan's wine industry will remain small, but they do produce some amazing French-style reds; if you want to try them, they can only be found in Jordan.

3. Feynan Eco Lodge in the Dana Reserve
Treks and all adventure activities throughout the Dana Reserve can be arranged by Feynan Eco Lodge, which is within the Reserve. A guided hike through the scenic Wadi Ghwayr's canyons, which includes slot canyons and walking through water at various points, can be done on foot (five to seven hours), or you can opt for a driver to drop you at the lodge. Both options are arranged by Feynan's proprietor Nabil Tarzai and his meticulous crew, to take you to their property (prices vary).

Our driver knew exactly where to stop for photos: We drove along Wadi Namalah, which means the Valley of the Ants, as the road is windy like an ant's trail. He also stopped at the Shqayret Msayid lookout and Um Nakhla, which overlooked Wadi Araba and the road below. But, the opportunities for exploring don't stop when you get to Feynan for your stay: Go hiking, biking, or simply enjoy tea with some local Bedouin families (three cups is traditional). Finish your evening with a sunset walk around the property, a vegetarian meal on-site, and stargazing (or sleeping!) on the roof.

4. Petra
You can see Petra in one day, but you'll only scratch the surface – you should really leave a few days to fully explore it. Walk through the red rock Siq, a very narrow gorge over one kilometer in length, until you reach the Treasury, Petra’s crown jewel. We bypassed the Siq on the way in to our visit and opted instead to climb our way up and into the old city from the entrance. It was an arduous, 90-minute hike that eventually took us above the Treasury. A typical visit done on your own or with a guide is usually finished with another committed climb up 800 steps to the Monastery; while it's not as ornate as the Treasury, it is truly amazing in size.

At the Visitor's Center, near the entrance of Petra, where you pay an entrance fee (admission is about $70), you can also hire a horse or a horse-drawn carriage to take you through the one kilometer Siq for an additional price. Once inside, you can hire a donkey or camel – both come with handlers that take designated routes throughout Petra (you can negotiate with the guides to get the best price).

5. Aqaba
Serious divers are as keen to cross the Red Sea off their bucket list as they are Belize's Great Blue Hole and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Whether you snorkel or dive, it's equally enticing for sightings of sea life and reefs. Sea Guard can arrange everything for you, from guides to dives, your equipment, and your ride out to sea. They finish your trip off with a buffet on the boat (prices vary, depending upon snorkels, dives, and rentals).

Once you've had your fill at sea, consider splurging on an overnight stay at the oceanfront Kempinski Hotel in Aqaba. In town you'll find great shopping, spice shops, cafés, locals serving coffee on their lawns, and groups of men gathered telling stories.

6. Dead Sea
The Dead Sea may be more commonly associated with Israel, but it borders Jordan and the West Bank, too. Set at the lowest point on earth – 1,388 feet below sea level – the Salt Sea, as it's commonly known, has long been a draw to travelers and locals alike. The sea's high salt concentration (averages at 31.5 percent) creates a natural buoyancy enabling anyone to float with ease.

After you've taken a dip in the sea, add on a short detour to nearby Wadi Mujib, Jordan’s Grand Canyon, where you can hike and rappel down rock faces. At night, top your trip off with an authentic meal at the Dead Sea Panorama Complex restaurant which provides stunning views of the Dead Sea.

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