As I followed the news of missile strikes and chemical weapons in Syria’s horrific civil war, I recalled the moment when I stood with my family near the Syria-Jordan border, looking out over the beauty of these Biblical lands. There were occasional reminders of the distant conflict, when we passed a few UN refugee tents or stopped for a Jordanian military checkpoint. Travel is always risky, but it is possible to travel safely in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Here’s why it should still be on your bucket list:
1. A first class international airport
The sparkling Queen Alia terminal near Amman was a huge contrast to the chaotic scene we left behind in Cairo, where people were pushing and shoving to get through security with no semblance of a line. Upon arrival in Jordan, it was instantly obvious we had made it to a more orderly country that is often called the Switzerland of the Middle East.
A representative of our tour company met us with our visas in hand and led us through a terminal that looked brand new and felt safe. Outside, we met Robby, the driver who would be with us for the entire week. Home base was the Hotel Toledo, recently renovated in a charming Moorish style and located in a quiet residential neighborhood on a hill above the center of Amman. Robby pointed out the popular Restaurant Ghieth nearby, and the English-speaking manager helped us order more fresh local food than we could eat — at a stunning bargain price. The hotel gave us multiple passwords for the wifi and cheerfully changed our Jordanian money into smaller bills. Our rooms had views of both a mosque and a church — and a huge police station. Another security plus.
2. A welcoming capital city
The highlights of Amman are easily seen in one day if you have a guide and driver who know their way around the city’s perpetual traffic. The logical starting point is The Citadel, where layers of antiquity include ruins of Roman temples, a Byzantine Church and the Umayyad Palace. This open-air history lesson was populated with groups of school kids eager to try out their English on us. Our guide, Suhaib, also filled us in on more contemporary issues facing the many Palestinians who have settled in Jordan. Our loop around the city included the Roman Amphitheater, busy market streets and a snack at the famous Al Quds falafel stand on tourist-friendly Rainbow Street. We also drove through hilltop neighborhoods of sprawling mansions, where wealthy Saudi Arabians and other Middle Easterners spend their leisure time and money.
On our free time, we got hopelessly lost wandering the streets, but enjoyed drinks on the roof of the Amman Pasha, a hip hotel with some very cute pet rabbits and a splendid view of the amphitheater. Our tour included a traditional Jordanian dinner at the Reem Albawadi restaurant, a fancy place filled with families and local groups celebrating special occasions.
3. Day Trips from Amman
Having a dedicated guide and driver allowed our family to take several day trips. At Umm Qais, we walked the ruins of the ancient cultural center of Gadara. This is where Jesus was said to have performed a miracle by casting out demons from two men into a herd of swine. We marveled at the view. Just across a peaceful-looking valley we could see the Golan Heights, the border of Syria and the distant mountains of Lebanon. Our guide referred to the Israeli territory on the other side of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) as Palestine, revealing the tension that persists throughout the region. Definitely bring your passports. We had to show them at one of the checkpoints maintained by Jordanian troops.
We also saw UN refugee tents in some agricultural settlements along the route, but came nowhere near the camps for those fleeing Syria and Iraq. Proceeding along the Jordan River, we stopped at the ruins of Pella en route to a resort area on the Dead Sea. Floating in the salty water is a must-do experience. We declined to join the Russian tourists covering themselves with mud, despite the proclaimed health benefits.
Another day trip took us to Jerash, the ruins of a vast Roman city that rivals Pompeii but is nearly empty of tourists except during its famed annual music festival. Suhaib had taken a special course for expert guides to the site and his in-depth knowledge added to our appreciation of what it must have been like to live in one of the great cities of the Roman empire.
Our 25-year-old son was greeted like a rockstar by groups of high school girls seeking selfies. We encountered more curious school groups at our next stop: the 12th century castle of Ajlun, built by Saladin during the Crusades.
The road to Petra winds though Mount Nebo, the place where Moses was permitted to look upon the Holy Land before he died. The nearby town of Madaba is a model of peaceful co-existence; Muslim neighbors have helped to decorate St. George’s Church, famous for a floor mosaic that is the oldest known map of the Holy Land. We also stopped at Kerak Castle, an imposing fort built by Crusaders and captured by Saladin’s armies.
Sadly, the gateway to the wonders of Petra is something of a tourist trap. We didn’t spend much time in our rundown hotel with torn sheets, fraying towels, mismatched carpet and moldy bathrooms. The Movenpick at the gates of the UNESCO attraction is a much better choice for those who can afford it. We had a tasty meal in the splendid bar on the ground floor, evoking the spirit of the Swiss adventurer who discovered the site in 1812.
Another worthwhile watering hole is the Cave Bar, part of the Petra Guest House Hotel. Sitting in a 2,000 year-old cave, perhaps the oldest bar in the world, you won’t even mind paying the equivalent of $9 USD for a cold beer.
Our afternoon arrival allowed us to experience Petra By Night. At about $25 USD per person, it’s a priceless opportunity to walk along a candlelit path (with 1500 real candles!) through the canyon leading to the Treasury, made famous by Indiana Jones. Yes, the tourists jostling for selfies are annoying and the Bedouin music goes on for a while, but don’t miss it if you are physically able to walk over a mile each way in the dark. Bring a flashlight.
We were up at the crack of dawn for a full day in the UNESCO world heritage site. Suhaib guided us through the canyon known as the Siq to the Treasury and past the major sites, then set us on the trail to the Monastery and the Top of the World on our own. Much has been written about Petra, so I’ll concentrate on what the tour books may not tell you.
- Respect the locals: People lived in the caves as recently as the 1980s and have been relocated to a nearby village built for them. But they have the exclusive right to all of the concessions inside the park. All of the footpaths are lined with people imploring you to buy souvenirs or a cold drink. The downturn in tourism in recent years has left them desperate to make a sale.
- Be kind to animals: UNESCO posters in the ticket center urge visitors to walk if they can, showing a picture of an extremely fat guy on a tiny donkey. Unfortunately, you will see this throughout your day in the park. While most of the horses, camels and donkeys seem well cared-for, don’t be part of the problem.
- Wear sturdy hiking shoes: My fitbit showed 30,000 steps and 100 flights of stairs during a full day of hiking in Petra, most of it up and down hills on rocky, dusty paths strewn with donkey and camel droppings. We were nearly pushed off a trail by a couple of wild dogs who decided to get into a fight on the footpath.
- It’s hot and dusty. Wear a hat and sunscreen. Stay hydrated but be aware that restrooms are few and far between.
- The hike to the Monastery and the footpath to the Royal Tombs are worth the effort on a one-day visit. There are many other hiking options if you have more time.
- Security: The bad guys know that most tourists will spend the entire day in the park, which leaves your hotel room vulnerable to theft. We put our valuables in the safe, but our son forgot a money pouch in a pocket of his briefcase. The cash was taken and it was obvious someone had rifled through our other belongings as well.
At the end of the day, you’ll stumble back to the Cave Bar for a much deserved cold drink and a new appreciation of the wonders of the lost Nabatean civilization. Despite the few minor annoyances, it’s an experience not to be missed, as you’ll see in my Top Travel Tips on this video, courtesy of The Voyage Report.
5. The Wadi Rum Desert
I can now say I’ve been to Mars, because I have taken a bone-rattling truck ride across the sands of the landscape that was the location for many scenes in the Matt Damon movie “The Martian.” The ghost of Lawrence of Arabia looms large here, in the shadow of a mountain called “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
You might wish to clamber up a sand dune for the best view, or simply admire the vistas from the comfort of a Bedouin tent. After visiting the desert we pushed on to the shores of the Red Sea in Aqaba. The falafel was great, but otherwise, not much to see in this bustling town before the long ride back to Amman. We passed camels and donkeys along the modern highway, stopping at a gas station prayer room so our driver could say his afternoon prayers.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Jordan is a country that works, despite all of the regional chaos around it.
Getting there: This may be the most challenging part of your trip. We arrived on Royal Jordanian Airlines from Cairo and departed on Turkish Airlines through Istanbul to Los Angeles.
Staying safe: Once you arrive in Jordan, you’ll draw curious stares if you look like a foreigner. Most people are friendly and just want to take a picture. Many people have strong opinions about US presidents and Americans in general, so best to stay clear of political discussions. Jordan has welcomed US troops based in the country, or visiting on R and R. The US Embassy in Amman is a gigantic fortified complex that allows the United States to engage with the entire region.
Be polite: The King runs a pretty tight ship. Criticizing the Royal Family can get you in trouble.
Dress appropriately: This is a Muslim country where showing too much skin is frowned upon. You’ll see trendy fashion in Amman, but it’s pretty traditional elsewhere. Women need not cover their hair unless visiting a mosque.
Money: Most of our trip was prepaid, but you’ll need plenty of cash to cover incidental expenses and tips. We felt our driver and guide went the extra mile for us and we tipped accordingly.
Food and drink: We enjoyed Jordan’s take on typical middle eastern fare, from falafel to hummus. Stick to bottled water and be aware that alcohol is generally not served.
A visit to Jordan is a walk through history from the ancient Nabateans through the Greek and Roman Empires, the Byzantines and the Crusades to the modern Muslim world. In a week we covered the entire country from north to south. Whether you go now or later, it definitely belongs on your travel wish list.
Author’s Note: This post was updated in April 2017. We will continue to monitor the security situation.