Markus Muhs - Jun 24, 2019
To change it up a little, I thought I’d depart from my usual personal finance and investing blogging, and share some of my recent experiences traveling in Jordan.
Not that I’m going to be branching out into travel blogging in the future, but clients have been asking about my trip anyway, plus I thought I’d advertise for Jordan a little; it’s a great little country that depends a lot on tourism and more people gotta see it!
The Jordan I saw was as presented to us via a travel agency’s one week prepared tour, so if I’m missing anything here, it’s just because the travel agency omitted it. Below are the highlights, plus some tips from my experience that might make things more enjoyable for you (I guess I am becoming a travel-writer after all).
A little context: this was a father-son trip to a country that we’ve always wanted to visit, as history buffs and fans of the Indiana Jones series. It was also a detour on our way to a Rotary International convention we were attending in Europe.
When you think about it, Jordan factored into much of history in some way, from the early Paleolithic humans who crossed the Sinai peninsula out of Africa through Jordan and into the rest of the world, to the Neolithic nomads, like the Nabathaeans who settled and eventually built a flourishing trading empire in the area, to Biblical times, Alexander’s conquests, Roman annexation, the Byzantines, the Umayyads, and the Ottomans. A lot of history awaits to be discovered!
I thought I’d get this one out of the way first. So, you’re planning a vacation to a middle eastern country bordered by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine? With the West Bank pretty much on the doorstep of most of Jordan’s tourist attractions, and the home of the world’s most brutal terrorist group (ISIS/ISIL/Desh, whatever they’re called these days) not much farther away, is Jordan a safe country to visit?
Nowhere and nothing is 100% safe; same goes for your investment portfolio. You take a risk the moment you step outside your home; heck even inside of your home can be unsafe if things like carbon monoxide or radon worry you. Parts of Edmonton can be very unsafe to walk around in after a certain hour, so you’re always playing some kind of odds.
Amman's "Blue Mosque" with some of their skyline in the background
Jordan is a country made up of mostly of devout Muslims; it is fairly devoid of drugs and alcohol and the petty crime that often go along with substance abuse, and while some neighboring countries feature religious extremist groups, Jordan is more or less the sanctuary people go to to escape the surrounding extremists and despots. In short, it is far less crime-ridden than a lot of other tourist destinations and you’re far more likely to be pickpocketed in major European cities, or more likely to be mugged at gunpoint in American cities.
Amman & Jerash
The first things to see after arriving in Jordan (or the last before you leave) are right in the neighborhood of greater Amman. In our case, we visited Jerash at the beginning of our trip and then looked at some of the archeological stuff at the center of Amman at the end of the trip. It might have been better to do things the other way around because the ruins of Jerash are so impressive, that the stuff in Amman might be kind of “meh”.
Jerash, roughly halfway between Amman and the Syrian border, is the must see attraction that probably isn’t the first to come to mind when you think about Jordan. If it weren’t for Petra, I think this is what Jordan would be best known for: one of the most complete Roman cities you’ll find anywhere. Much of the Roman city of Gerasa was destroyed and buried after successive earthquakes in the 8th and 9th centuries and remained mostly undiscovered until the 19th century, with excavations continuing until this day.
Featured in the middle of the city is an impressive perfectly straight colonnaded street that stretches from a big round colonnaded forum and passes through a few archways. Much of the roman cobblestone is intact and you can even see the makings of a drainage system below.
The way Jerash grew around and on top of the former Roman city provides a neat juxtaposition of the old and new. There is in fact quite a bit more to the city, yet to be discovered, underneath homes and shopping centers built in the past century.
With Jerash being a half day trip, the other half of the day can easily be spent visiting the Citadel area at the center of Amman. Here you’ll find a little bit of history ranging all the way from an actual cave used in the Neolithic era to Greek artifacts (when the city was known as Philadelphia) to the Roman temple of Hercules and nearby amphitheatre, to Byzantine fortifications and an Umayyad palace.
Amman has a neat looking cityscape full of apartment blocks covering rolling hills. With a booming population that has doubled in the past decade (much of it due to an influx of refugees from neighboring countries), Amman's sprawling suburbs seem to keep the "look" with 4 story white rectangular apartment blocks, though with a bit less density.
Mount Nebo, Madaba, and the Dead Sea
According to the Bible, Moses first glimpsed the Promised Land from atop Mount Nebo, a ridge on the “east bank” of the Jordan River/Dead Sea depression. Prophecy told that he would never enter the Promised Land, and thus he died there and is believed to have been buried nearby. Wikipedia tells me also that some believe the Ark of the Covenant to be hidden in a nearby cave! (queue Indiana Jones theme sound effect)
I’m not a religious man myself, but Mount Nebo sports an incredible view of the valley and the Dead Sea below, Jericho across on the West Bank, and supposedly on a very clear day you can see the outskirts of Jerusalem spilling over the mountains on the opposite side. There’s also a rebuilt Byzantine church, housing some partially restored floor and wall mosaics, and surrounding the church are the ruins of a monastery.
The area surrounding Madaba, including Mount Nebo, seems to be very well known for its mosaics (where in most middle eastern or north African places they’ll try to sell you rugs, here they’ll try to sell you mosaic art). Within the town of Madaba, which is a unique town in Jordan in that its population is around half Christian (and it’s one of few places where restaurants serve beer), you’ll find a number of Byzantine and Umayyad ruins featuring intricate mosaics. A highlight, within the Basilica of Saint George, is a map mosaic on the floor from the 6th century detailing the entire holy land. Unfortunately, parts of it went missing over the centuries.
Moving on, no trip to the region is complete without a dip into the Dead Sea. From Mount Nebo, at an altitude of 800m, you drive down a fairly steep and winding road to the lowest natural point on Earth, 400m below sea level at the shores of the Dead Sea.
Visiting the lowest natural land on Earth is so much easier and convenient than scaling Mt. Everest
The northern Jordan shore of the Dead Sea is lined with luxury resorts of all the major brands and more, and if you ever have the chance to take a dip into the Dead Sea, it’s an absolute must. To describe the feeling: it’s only once you’re past knee-level in the water when you realize this water is a lot heavier than usual and you’re feeling more buoyant. Once you’re in a little deeper, you’ll naturally fall backward and feel like you’re on a giant waterbed. Stick your legs and arms straight up into the air and you cannot submerge yourself. When you paddle over into some deeper water and try to “stand”, you basically bob there in the water, with the water roughly up to your chest, until you eventually tip over. It was neat!
On the left (top): modern Dead Sea resort, West Bank in background. On the right (bottom): remains of ancient Roman resort
If you’ve watched the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” you’ll remember a drunken overly zealous Templar Knight played by Brendan Gleeson (that same guy who played Braveheart’s best bud) who had a castle/fortress outside of Jerusalem called Kerak. While the movie was filmed mostly in Morocco, this is the actual medieval fortress of Kerak.
We ended up being involuntarily guided by an old Bedouin man (who of course was paid a bit of a tip afterward) through the various hallways and rooms of the fortress. Unlike many of the other guides I encountered in Jordan and elsewhere, the old man was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the place.
Kerak, on its own, can also be any other country’s prime tourist attraction and a reason to visit.
Petra, or “Raqmu” as the Nabataeans called it before it was given its Greek name meaning “rock”, of course remains the main draw to Jordan; something my dad and I have wanted to see ever since its iconic Treasury (Al Kazneh) was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (decades later it also showed up in a Transformers movie). No, there is no way for tourists to go inside it, and historically it is unlikely to hold either the Holy Grail or alien machinery.
Petra is also the first place we saw throngs of tourists; everywhere else seemed to be less crowded, more easy going. It seems Petra is an easy 2hr side trip for people visiting Israel, bringing in a lot of tour buses of what seemed like mostly American tourists. Of course real archeological adventurers take the King’s Highway south from Kerak; a modern highway paved overtop the same route once used by the Nabataean trade caravans and Roman armies.
The entrance to the site is a short walk from most hotels in neighboring Wadi Musa (“the valley of Moses”) and one mistake I think we made was heading right in before spending a bit of time in the free (and air conditioned!) museum at the park gate. The museum gives a very detailed history of the Nabataeans, from their nomadic times, to their settlement of Raqmu and expansion across most of modern Jordan, to their interactions with the Greeks and then the Romans and eventual annexation to Provincia Arabia. We ended up taking in the museum the next day, while waiting for our further transport to Wadi Rum, but I think it would have really been nice to have known more of the history and what it once looked like before actually visiting the site.
One thing I’ll caution prospective visitors on: Petra involves a lot of walking, and a ton of hiking too if you really want to see most of the site, such as the Monastery (above). On my smartwatch I think I registered somewhere north of 12km walked and over 35 floors climbed, all in 35 degree heat. What makes things tougher is that the whole walk through the Siq (the narrow canyon from Wadi Musa to the Treasury), and then through the rest of the city, is all on a gentle downhill slope. This means the walk back is UPHILL. If I had to do it again, I might choose to do the walk down to Petra around noon (after an hour or so in the museum), so that the walk back can be late afternoon or evening, when it’s a bit cooler.
While the Treasury is what always comes to mind when one thinks of Petra, there’s far more to the city. From the Treasury you walk through a canyon with homes and crypts carved into the rocks on both sides and will eventually get to a Roman amphitheatre carved into a wall.. Following that you’ll see a network of tombs carved into the cliff face, and a bit farther down you’ll find a Roman colonnade not unlike what we saw in Jerash.
No shortage of souvenir shops
There’s no need to bring water with you, as there are plenty of kiosks all around selling drinks, among many other things (trinkets and such). We had a guide provided by our travel company, but could have very well done without if we went to the museum first. If you really want a guide there are of course plenty hanging around the entrance offering to take you on a tour, but I’d advise negotiating a price beforehand and at maximum offering 10 dinars ($20CAD), even though they’ll ask for more. I suggest some time in the museum instead though, because the guides will just go off of a memorized script anyway and are barely conversant in English, if you ask them any questions.
As an aside, whether hiring a guide or buying trinkets, it’s always good to negotiate. What I found worked well was to take whatever number they ask for in Dinars, slash it in half, and then offer that much in $USD ($1US = 0.70JD).
One of the two major negatives I have to say about Petra is the constant and unabated hustling that you’re subjected to from the locals. “Buy my souvenirs, best prices,” “Would you like a camel ride?” “Donkey ride up to the Monastery?” Same guy will ask you multiple times if you pass by him twice. I try not to be rude, especially in a foreign country, so usually I meet hustling with a polite decline and move on, but when it’s so repetitive, my only response to each one was an emphatic “Nooooope!” without stopping or making eye contact. Rude, I know, but they pushed me.
"Sir! Do you want a mule ride to the Monastery?"
The other major negative is the animal excrement EVERYWHERE. I’ve written to the Jordanian tourism ministry about this, as well as mentioning this in my TripAdvisor review of Petra: all those animals have got to go. The locals of course bring in all their camels, donkeys, mules, and horse drawn chariots to make a buck off the tourists. I admire their entrepreneurialism too, as Petra is a big site with lot’s of walking and climbing, and the less mobile tourist has a need for some way of getting around, but the animals and the stuff they leave behind are just too much! The hike up to the Monastery would have been so much less unpleasant (in 35 degree heat) if I didn’t have to swat flies away the whole way up, or if there were simply more shady places where I could stop to get my breath without having to inhale dung smell. On top of that, the animals are not very well treated. Maybe someday Jordan will put the tourist first, get a fleet of golf carts to rent out, and ban the animals.
Hotels in the area were pushing a “Petra at Night” thing which seems to be just them trying to further monetize the site at later hours. After reading reviews, we didn’t bother. Reviews mostly state that the crowds are too big and loud to really enjoy it, and with the crowds I saw during the day I don’t doubt it.
Another highlight of the trip, Wadi Rum (which translates as either “Valley of Sand” or “Valley of the Romans”) is a preserve in southern Jordan full of (as the name implies) sand, cool rock formations, and ancient Nabataean petroglyphs.
Typical area tours, on the back of early-1990s era Toyota Tacomas (the same old indestructible pickups you see all over the middle east) usually start in the afternoon and can go for anywhere from 2hrs to 5hrs, ending in a cliffside Bedouin camp where you enjoy an authentic meal and after dinner entertainment. This area's so popular that there literally are Toyota's criss-crossing the desert all day, and I counted upwards of a dozen cliff-side camps ranging from authentic Bedouin carpet-tents to super-modern luxury pods that looked like they belonged on Mars.
The views in the area are quite literally other-worldly, which explains why so many movies were filmed there. Just a few of note:
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Just about every movie taking place on Mars, including the one with Matt Damon
- Star Wars: Rogue One (the planet Jedha)
- The newest Star Wars movie (location for quite a few of the shots in the trailer)
- The new Aladdin movie
- The upcoming Dune remake
While I kept my eyes peeled, I sadly didn’t spot any movie production sets on our drive. Many free-range camels though.
Anyway, lot’s of climbing and hiking involved driving around Wadi Rum. I even tried out “sand boarding”.
Conclusion and travel tips
We finished off the trip in Aqaba, on the Red Sea, which is a very modern town within a “special economic zone”. Everything that you don’t see in the rest of Jordan, that you do see in modern cities, you’ll find here. McDonald’s, Burger King, Popeye’s; I spotted just about every fast food chain I know of. We had good Chinese food with real beers (I had to make do with non-alcoholic in Petra) for supper.
Though there’s plenty to do around Aqaba, including excellent diving/snorkelling in the Red Sea, I can’t report much on that, as it was a scorching 45 degrees the day we were there. So hot that the beach was deserted and even at night time it was too hot to even eat on the restaurant patios. I don’t know how people survived there before air conditioning.
A couple of general travel tips for anyone planning a trip to Jordan:
We booked our trip through a German travel agency, which contracted through Atlas Tours if you’re looking for a starting point. The weeklong tour included a private driver, Sameer, in a nice air conditioned and WiFi enabled van. Sameer took care of us all the way from airport pick up to eventual drop off.
As a former British mandate, English is spoken pretty widely. I say that again with the caveat that most Jordanians' English isn't at a fully conversant level, though you won't have any problem speaking English at shops, restaurants, etc. It does also help to remember two words, “salam” (howdy) and “shukraan” (thanks).
The timing of our trip was adjacent to a convention we were attending in Germany, but if I otherwise had to pick a time of year to travel there it would be earlier or much later in the year, when the temperatures are more comfortable, as well not coinciding with Ramadan. Traveling to a Muslim country during Ramadan isn’t that big of a deal; restaurants will still serve you and no one will be envious of your ability to eat and drink during the day or anything. It’s just I think all the locals, including our tour guides, would be in better spirits if they weren’t all starved/dehydrated throughout the day.
Jordan is unusually expensive, for a relatively not-so-rich country. Sameer explained to us that they saw quite a bit of inflation after wealthy Iraqi refugees came to the country during the U.S.-Iraq war, driving up prices of everything. 1 Jordanian Dinar is worth just under $2CAD and you’ll find that most of the prices, nominally, are just a little lower than what you’ll otherwise normally pay for them. Looking at my credit card statement after the trip, the restaurant meals in $CAD came out to between $40 and $100 (for 2 people, no alcoholic beverages).
I thought I’d get by with US dollars, but most places will only want to deal with local currency. Also, even if a restaurant has a Visa/Mastercard/etc sticker on their front door, it’s no guarantee they’ll accept credit card (and everyone who does, does so reluctantly). You'll want to carry a good amount of cash wherever you go.
As mentioned, everyone's a hustlin'. This gets annoying fast. On our final day we wanted to get a taxi from the Citadel to the Jordan Museum, to see among other things the Dead Sea Scrolls. Man, did I miss Uber! Even on approach to the taxi stand two cab drivers called us over, sat us down, and described the half day tour of Amman they had planned for us for 20 JD. There was no "sure, we'll drive you where you want to go"; that trip from the Citadel to the Museum (5 JD) was not worth it for them, so they needed to figure out a way to upsell. Frustrated, we said we'd just walk back to the hotel, and one of the cabbies relented and drove us, while still pitching us on the drive. Didn't end up seeing the museum, but I hear it's good.
I noticed quite a few Thrifty rental cars on the main highway and in the southern parts of the country. If you’re planning a trip, renting I think is feasible so long as you’re not planning to drive through the middle of Amman. Those streets seemed hectic and quite chaotic. Otherwise, the roads are excellent and seem safe through most of the country, just don’t ever assume you have the right of way, even when all street signs indicate you do. I think what many do is a "mini-Jordan trip" from Aqaba or Eilat (Israel) in the south, north to Wadi Rum and Petra, and that's it.
Electrical plugs: this was an interesting one. I don’t think Jordan has any one standard for what type of electrical plug they use. In Amman, our hotel had 2-prong plugins that accepted both Euro-style (o o) and North American style (| |). A bit south of there, in Madaba, the plug-ins were Euro-only. Further south, in Petra, the hotel had weird 3-prong UK-style plugs that had extra slits and holes to also accept both EU and NA style plugs. Further south, in Aqaba, there were only UK-style plug-ins. This is a country where you’ll really make full use of one of these.
Lastly, try the hummus. I don’t think I’ve ever had better hummus anywhere than in Jordan, and it’s consistently good from restaurant to restaurant. The food otherwise tends to be grilled meats and pitas for the most part.
I tried to cram as many pics as I could into here, but any clients who'd like to see more, or any other random questions about Jordan, just flip me an e-mail!